Researcher: Pornography is not necessarily harmful for couples — and could have positive impacts

A new article published online in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology argues that the current state of research on pornography suffers from several shortcomings, which makes it difficult to draw firm conclusion about pornography’s true effects on relationships.

The article, authored by Taylor Kohut and Lorne Campbell of the University of Western Ontario, says researchers need to develop a standard definition of pornography along with more reliable ways to measure pornography consumption. Researchers should also avoid employing a “harm focused” approach in which neutral and positive outcomes are ignored.

Kohut and Campbell, along with William A. Fisher, previously conducted an exploratory study of 430 people in relationships that found “no negative effects” was the most commonly reported impact of pornography use. Many men and women also reported positive impacts, while others reported negative impacts.

PsyPost interviewed Kohut about the research. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Kohut: Dr. W. Fisher and I both have a long history in pornography research. I blame my mother, I’m not sure what his excuse is. In the mid to late 2000’s there was a notable increase in public concern as well as scientific research about the effects of pornography on romantic relationships. When we eventually turned our attention to this emerging facet of pornography research, we decided that our scholarship would benefit if we worked alongside an expert in research concerning romantic relationships. Luckily for us, Dr. L. Campbell, who was in the same department, was quite amenable to this arrangement, and the three of us have been working together since 2013.

In our initial meetings, we spent some time discussing contemporary headlines (e.g. “Porn widows decry smut as relationship killer!) and how they related to academic research that we were aware of. A spin-off of these meetings was a qualitative analysis of contemporary mass-media messages about pornography coupled with a corresponding thematic review of the research literature lead by a graduate student, Stephanie Montgomery-Graham, with the rest of us playing advisory roles (paper here). This project really sensitized me to the harm-focus that pervades mass media discourse as well academic research involving pornography.

After reading the academic literature carefully, it was clear to all of us that a lot more was going on with pornography use in relationships than most people believed; although the primary message appeared to be that pornography “consumption threatens the economic, emotional, and relational stability of marriages and families” many aberrant findings contracted this message, but tended to be either minimized or rarely cited. To help to bring attention to these issues, and to gather new observations to help inform new lines of research, we went to the experts, people who are in relationships in which pornography is used, and simply asked them, “how is pornography impacting your relationship?”

What should the average person take away from your study?

The use and impact of pornography within romantic relationships is quite complex. Some people are convinced that pornography has irreparably harmed them, and their relationships, while others feel quite benefited by pornography. As psychologists, we are trained to investigate causal relationships, and I think it was for this reason that we were all quite surprised that the predominant category of responses involved no negative impacts of pornography within relationships. Several people made it very clear to us that pornography use is simply another form of entertainment, like watching televised sports or a romantic comedy, and while these sorts of activities elevate your mood for a short period of time, using them may not have all that many relationship implications.

I guess there are really two things that I hope people take away from this project. The first, is that many researchers aren’t particularly sensitive to most of the perceived harms and benefits of pornography use in relationships. From my perspective, the research community really needs to start paying attention to what participants are actually telling them. The second, is that right now, there really is no “normal” when it comes to how pornography use should play out in relationships. If your own pornography use or partner’s use seems to be causing problems in your relationship then it should be addressed. On the other hand, if pornography use does not appear to be causing problems, there may not a reason to worry about it. In fact, your relationship might even be benefiting in some ways.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

This study was designed as a simple exploration among a relatively large sample of men and women within heterosexual relationships. While this approach generated a diverse range of perceived impacts, the prevalence of each type of response probably does not generalize to all types of relationships. We were also interested in “perceived” impacts in this study, and it is certainly the case that the perceived impacts and perceived lack of impacts that we identified may not be firmly grounded in objective reality. That is, people might be wrong or they might outright lie when they are asked about how pornography is affecting them and their relationships. Taken together, the themes that we identified should be thought of as promising lines of future inquiry that have yet to confirmed or rejected by more rigorous methodologies.

Tons of stuff. We’re currently in process of identifying factors (e.g. content and patterns of pornography use) that may differentiate the likelihood that pornography use will result in particular positive outcomes or particular negative outcomes. For example, we recently recruited 200 intact heterosexual dyads and found that correspondence in solitary pornography (both members use it alone or neither partner uses it) use as well as joint simultaneous pornography use are both associated with higher intimacy and sexual communication. I’ll be presenting these findings at SPSP in January and a manuscript is in the works. If you, or your readers, are interested in other factors that may differentiate positive from negative outcomes, I encourage you to check out our recent review paper that introduces an Antecedents-Context-Effects (ACE) model to help organize research in this area (paper here).

Is there anything else you would like to add?

About the only other thing that I would like to add is that we’re also involved with improving the conceptual understanding of “pornography” as well as the operationalization of pornography use for research purposes. If you spend enough time reading literature, you’ll find that somewhere between 10%-98% of men use pornography while between 2-88% of women use pornography. We really have no idea how many people use these materials or how often.

Added to this, our field by-and-large ignores content differences in pornography, perhaps because social scientist lack an established taxonomy for categorizing and organizing pornography along psychologically relevant features. For these reasons, we and others are currently involved in various projects to help improve our understanding of what pornography is, and how best to measure it.

One of my associates and I recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to help raise money for this kind of research. We’re new to crowdfunding so the pitch comes across a bit tongue-and-cheek, but the research goal is a very serious endeavor. In an effort to be taken more seriously, we’ll be launching a further explanatory video later to help clarify what we’re really after. (Link to the Porn Genome Project.)

The article, “The use and effects of pornography in romantic relationships“, will be published in the February 2017 issue of Current Opinion in Psychology.

The study, “Perceived Effects of Pornography on the Couple Relationship: Initial Findings of Open-Ended, Participant-Informed, ‘Bottom-Up’ Research,” was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in July 2016.