Study: Exposure to pornography doesn’t reduce attraction and love for romantic partners

A new research has cast doubt on findings from a 1989 study that had found that pornographic images could be damaging to romantic relationships.

The original study exposed men and women in committed relationships to erotic images of the opposite sex. It found that men who were exposed to the nude centerfolds rated their partners as less attractive and reported less love for their partner.

But three high-powered replications, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, failed to back up those initial results. The replications found no evidence that being exposed to the centerfolds had these effects for either men or women.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Rhonda N. Balzarini of University of Western Ontario, London. Read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Kiersten Dobson, Kristi Chin, and I were in a graduate methods seminar taught by Dr. Lorne Campbell. In this course, we learned a lot about reproducibility and the debates surrounding the replication crisis in psychology. One of the big themes in this class was that appropriately powered replication studies could increase the confidence that can be placed on the associations between abstract theoretical constructs. So, the primary assignment for this course was a group project that involved conducting a replication of a published study, of high impact, and of interest to us, the researchers. We chose Kenrick, Gutierres, and Goldberg’s research because it met these criteria, and more specifically:

1. This research has been hugely influential in the fields of social and evolutionary psychology.
2. The finding that men exposed to female centerfolds reported lower attraction to and love for their partner suggests a specific harm of exposure to erotica for males and their romantic commitments to females.
3. And it is worth mentioning that the effects reported by Kenrick and colleagues were fairly large, and the sample size was rather small, thus it is possible that the small sample size artificially inflated the effect sizes.

Since the findings reported by Kenrick and colleagues had not been replicated, the main goal of the current research was to execute an independent (close) replication of Kenrick and colleagues (1989), study 2 findings to provide more clarity regarding how strongly exposure to erotica affects male’s ratings of sexual attractiveness and love for their partner. For this purpose, three high-powered independent replications were conducted, using approximately the same manipulations and measures as the original study.

What should the average person take away from your study?

There has been a long-running debate about pornography’s impact on relationships, and one of the seminal findings to support claims about the harms of porn on relationships has stemmed from Kenrick and colleagues findings that exposure to centerfolds causes heterosexual men to be less attracted to, and less in love with, their romantic partners. However, based on our replication efforts and reviews of the meta-analyzed effects of the original and replication studies, we were unable to find support for these findings. Put more simply, men did not report being less attracted to or in love with their partner after looking at nude centerfolds.

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

As the results of these three close replications are not consistent with the original results, there are various explanations that are worth mentioning.

(1) First, it is important to point out that the original study was published in 1989. At the time, exposure to sexual content may not have been as available, whereas today, exposure to nude images is relatively more pervasive, and thus being exposed to a nude centerfold may not be enough to elicit the contrast effect originally reported. Therefore, the results for the current replication studies may differ from the original study due to differences in exposure, access, and even acceptance of erotica then versus now.

(2) Although it seems unlikely, it is possible that methodological differences between the original and replication studies influenced our inability to replicate the findings of the original study. If such were the case, then the original results either depend crucially on the: sample (e.g., college vs. community sample), the modality of taking the survey (e.g., in lab vs. online; with others vs. alone), or changes in imagery over time. If any of these alternatives are true, then it is unclear whether the effect is robust enough to have an impact outside of the laboratory, for example, in people’s actual relationships.

(3) Finally, as the original study utilized a small sample, it is possible that the sample size of the original study led to an artificial inflation of the effect size. Thus, one possible explanation for our inability to replicate the effects found in the original study is because the effects are either very small, or may not exist.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes. Importantly, the materials and procedure of these studies were conducted in accordance with the advice of the first author of the original article, Dr. Doug Kenrick. I would like to thank him for his willingness to assist us along the way. I would also like to mention that this research was conducted in collaboration with Kiersten Dobson, Kristi Chin, and Dr. Lorne Campbell.

The study was titled: “Does exposure to erotica reduce attraction and love for romantic partners in men? Independent replications of Kenrick, Gutierres, and Goldberg (1989) study 2“.