Study suggests perceived pornography addiction can harm relationships even if pornography itself does not

People who perceive themselves to be addicted to pornography can face problems with pursuing and maintaining romantic relationships, a new study in the Journal of Sex Research has found, regardless of how often they actually view pornography.

The study of 350 men and 336 women found that heightened relationship anxiety regarding pornography use was linked to higher pornography use, a greater perception of pornography addiction, and religiosity. The researchers found that pornography use alone was unlikely to result in relationship anxiety, except among those who believed themselves to have a compulsive, unhealthy pattern of use.

Participants who believed they had an addiction to pornography were more likely to agree with statements such as “I feel unworthy to go on dates because of my pornography use,” “I stop dating when I am using pornography,” and “I have withheld details about my pornography use because I am afraid my partner will react negatively.”

The study also found religious participants were more likely to believe their pornography use was addictive, regardless of how often they actually used it.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Nathan D. Leonhardt of Brigham Young University. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Leonhardt: A lot of the research on pornography is still in its infancy. Several studies provide evidence that pornography is not harmless. However, there’s also growing evidence that certain factors can amplify the negative influence of pornography.

Religiosity and whether the pornography users believe themselves to be addicted are two factors that seem to work together in amplifying problems from pornography. Some research has shown how these factors are related to individual outcomes with depression and anxiety. We wanted to look more closely at how religiosity and believing yourself to be addicted to pornography might influence how pornography affects early relationship formation stages.

What should the average person take away from your study?

One of our biggest findings was replicating previous research showing that religious individuals are more likely to believe themselves to be addicted to pornography, regardless of how often they are actually using it. One reason we think this is happening is because religious individuals, who are often told pornography is morally wrong, are more likely to experience negative emotions like depression and shame from pornography use. The combination of unwanted sexual feelings and poor coping with negative emotions may eventually lead religious individuals to believing that their pornography use is uncontrollable.

Another major finding was that believing yourself to be addicted to pornography, far more than using pornography, was connected to being hesitant to pursue romantic relationships and more likely to be uncomfortable disclosing pornography use. Basically, those that believe themselves to have a problem with pornography start to believe they are undesirable as a romantic partner, or “damaged goods” in the dating market. Ironically, if they actually have a problem controlling pornography use and are trying to stop, this isolation and secrecy are some of the most counterproductive ways to stop uncontrollable use. This is especially noteworthy for religious individuals, as our study showed that they are more likely to report difficulties in stopping their pornography use.

This study doesn’t necessarily suggest anything positive about pornography, but it does support the idea that a shaming culture surrounding pornography can be problematic.

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

There are definitely caveats, and a lot of work that still needs to be done. We still are not completely sure about all the reasons religious individuals are more likely to consider themselves to be addicted to pornography. We didn’t have enough details for how often the participants were using pornography and the way in which they were using it to be confident in our explanation. More research should look at whether religious individuals really are struggling with uncontrollable pornography use due to a greater likelihood of use being tied to emotional regulation, or if they’re simply more likely to believe themselves to be addicted due to cultural pressures condemning their use.

We also need to better understand why people who believe themselves to be addicted are less comfortable pursuing relationships and disclosing their pornography use. One possibility is that pornography users who believe themselves to be addicted may fear that their romantic partner will reject them because of their use. Future research should look at the extent that they believe their partners will react with support if they were to disclose their pornography viewing patterns.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

A wide spectrum of pornography use exists. We need to consider not only how often pornography is used, but also the way it’s used, as we are just barely starting to understand how these various levels of use may influence people differently. Some may view it casually a few times a year for recreation. Others may use it several times a week to cope with negative emotions. The most likely result of the infrequent recreational user is subtle shifts in expectations surrounding sexuality. Those that feel heavy levels of shame from using pornography and/or get stuck using it in an uncontrollable pattern are those that seem to suffer the most adverse effects individually and relationally.

We hope our research helps couples to consider some of the nuances of pornography use and more carefully navigate the controversial topic in their relationships. We also hope that increased understanding of this topic can reduce some of the shame and secrecy in religious cultures that can compound the negative influence of pornography.

The study, “Damaged Goods: Perception of Pornography Addiction as a Mediator Between Religiosity and Relationship Anxiety Surrounding Pornography Use“, was also co-authored by Brian J. Willoughby and Bonnie Young-Petersen.