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How Porn Can Hurt a Consumer’s Partner

For people whose partners consume porn, feelings of rejection, mistrust, anger, and shame are unfortunately common.

By May 14, 2021June 10th, 2021No Comments

No one ever woke up and said, “Today, I want to get out there and damage my current and future relationships. Guess I’ll go cut myself off emotionally, undermine trust, and leave my partner feeling confused, rejected, angry, and betrayed.”

No one says that, yet a growing number of studies show that may be exactly what can happen as a result of consuming porn, especially while in a committed exclusive relationship.

When porn is kept secret

Perhaps the most consistent finding of pornography studies to date is that there is a sizable gap that exists between men and women when it comes to their personal consumption and acceptance of pornography. Dozens of studies shown that while it’s not uncommon for women to consume porn, men are more likely than women to view pornography, and this is particularly true of viewing pornography regularly on a daily or weekly basis.Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Brown, C. C. (2017). The porn gap: Differences in men's and women's pornography patterns in couple relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16(2), 146-163. doi:10.1080/15332691.2016.1238796COPY  And, studies also show that many women in heterosexual relationships are frequently not aware of the amount of porn that their partners view.Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Brown, C. C. (2017). The porn gap: Differences in men's and women's pornography patterns in couple relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16(2), 146-163. doi:10.1080/15332691.2016.1238796COPY 

Given this gap between men and women, it’s probably no surprise that women tend to view porn and its effects very differently from men.Olmstead, S. B., Negash, S., Pasley, K., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). Emerging Adults’ Expectations for Pornography Use in the Context of Future Committed Romantic Relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 625-635. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-9986-7COPY  While anyone of any gender can develop a pornography habit, studies indicate that many women—even if they believe that pornography consumption is okay for other people—see no acceptable role for porn within their own committed relationship.Olmstead, S. B., Negash, S., Pasley, K., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). Emerging Adults’ Expectations for Pornography Use in the Context of Future Committed Romantic Relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 625-635. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-9986-7COPY 

It’s also common for people to find out that their partner has been consuming porn when they were not aware, or that their partner is consuming types of porn that they are not comfortable with. When this happens, partners can feel a whole range of negative emotions including rejection, loneliness, anger, and shame.Tylka, T. L., & Kroon Van Diest, A. M. (2015). You Looking at Her “Hot” Body May Not be “Cool” for Me: Integrating Male Partners’ Pornography Use into Objectification Theory for Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(1), 67–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY  Even if they don’t believe that porn is the same as cheating, they can often feel a deep sense of betrayal and mistrust.Szymanski, D. M., Feltman, C. E., & Dunn, T. L. (2015). Male partners’ perceived pornography use and Women’s relational and psychological health: The roles of trust, attitudes, and investment. Sex Roles, 73(5), 187-199. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0518-5COPY Tylka, T. L., & Kroon Van Diest, A. M. (2015). You Looking at Her “Hot” Body May Not be “Cool” for Me: Integrating Male Partners’ Pornography Use into Objectification Theory for Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(1), 67–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY  The secrecy, shame, isolation, and mistrust that can be introduced into a relationship by porn consumption can then snowball into all kinds of problems.Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing Sexually-Explicit Materials Alone or Together: Associations with Relationship Quality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(2), 441-448. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9585-4COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Negatively Impact Love and Intimacy

You can’t have it both ways 

Even if porn isn’t kept a secret—even if partners are open and honest about their consumption—it can still do real harm.

Much of the harm comes from porn fostering unrealistic expectations that partners feel they can never live up to in a real relationship. In porn, the performers always look their best. They are forever young, surgically enhanced, airbrushed, and Photoshopped to perfection.Hilton, D. L., (2013). Pornography addiction—a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 3:20767. doi:10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767COPY  So it’s not difficult to see why, according to a national poll, six out of seven women believe that porn has changed men’s expectations of how women should look.Paul, P. (2010). From Pornography to Porno to Porn: How Porn Became the Norm. In Stoner, J. Stoner & Hughes, D. (Eds.), The Social Cost of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 3-20). Princeton, N.J.: Witherspoon Institute.COPY 

But it’s not only physical looks that get distorted in porn. Women are also generally portrayed as anxious for sex anywhere, at any time, with anyone, and they are delighted to go as long and as aggressively as one or multiple partners want. They always climax, usually loudly and ecstatically, and then are immediately ready for more. They never get tired or sore. They never need a break. And even when they say “no,” it’s insinuated that they don’t really mean it. In fact, they never seem to need anything at all except endless sex. They are depicted as happy with whatever a man wants to do, even if it’s risky, painful, or humiliating.Layden, M. A. (2010) Pornography and Violence: A New Look at the Research. In Stoner, J. & Hughes, D. (Eds.), The Social Cost of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57-68). Princeton, N.J.: Witherspoon InstituteCOPY 

If you think those unrealistic depictions don’t work their way into consumers’ beliefs, expectations and actions, think again.Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P. M., (2016) Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research. Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441COPY 

For example, a recent poll found that the more porn a man consumes, the more likely he is to be dissatisfied with his penis size. And the same goes for women with male partners—the more porn they consume, the less satisfied they are with their partner’s penis size.International Andrology London. (2017). The porn hypothesis – findings prove porn consumption fuels the desire for penis enlargement surgery in the UK. Retrieved from https://london-andrology.co.uk/news/the-porn-hypothesis-findings-prove-porn-consumption-fuels-the-desire-for-penis-enlargement-surgery-in-the-uk/COPY  And in one survey of 16 to 18-year-old Americans, nearly every participant reported learning about sex by watching porn, and many of the young women said they felt pressured to play out the “scripts” their male partners had learned from porn.Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). “Without Porn…I Wouldn’t Know Half the Things I Know Now”: A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of Sex Research, 52(7), 736-746. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.960908COPY  They felt badgered into having sex in uncomfortable positions, faking sexual responses, and consenting to unpleasant or painful acts.

Related: How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding Of Healthy Sex

Of course, the pain caused by porn can go far beyond a bad experience in the bedroom. Individuals who learn of their partner’s porn habit often internalize their shame and confusion, asking themselves why they aren’t “enough.”Szymanski, D. M., Feltman, C. E., & Dunn, T. L. (2015). Male partners’ perceived pornography use and Women’s relational and psychological health: The roles of trust, attitudes, and investment. Sex Roles, 73(5), 187-199. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0518-5COPY 

There are several studies that have shown that this experience is quite common in relationships where one partner consumes porn.Stewart, D. N., & Szymanski, D. M. (2012). Young Adult Women’s Reports of Their Male Romantic Partner’s Pornography Use as a Correlate of Their Self-Esteem, Relationship Quality, and Sexual Satisfaction. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, Vol. 67(5-6), pp. 257-271.COPY  For example, a study of young adult college women in heterosexual relationships with men who consume porn found that the frequency of the man’s porn consumption was negatively correlated with the woman’s sense of self-esteem, her level of relationship quality, and her amount of sexual satisfaction—and these negative patterns were found to become worse the longer the relationship lasted.Tylka, T. L., & Kroon Van Diest, A. M. (2015). You Looking at Her “Hot” Body May Not be “Cool” for Me: Integrating Male Partners’ Pornography Use into Objectification Theory for Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(1), 67–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY 

Another team of researchers interviewed women who were in couple’s therapy for their partner’s pornography consumption. They found that pornography consumption is linked to feelings of betrayal and the erosion of the attachment bond in couple relationships. The researchers concluded that an analysis of the wives’ comments revealed a sense of “distance or disconnection from their husband” and “a general sense of being betrayed and harmed by their husband and subsequently feeling unsafe, emotionally and psychologically speaking, and insecure in their relationship.”Zitzman, S. T., & Butler, M. H. (2009). Wives’ experience of husbands’ pornography use and concomitant deception as an attachment threat in the adult pair-bond relationship. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 16, 210–240.COPY 

Put it all together, and there is growing evidence that pornography consumption can negatively impact the depth of attachment and trust in romantic relationships.

Related: How Porn Can Harm Consumers’ Sex Lives

A new way to harm 

In recent years, the ubiquity of the smartphone has also marked the rise of image-based abuse, often referred to as “revenge porn”. Image-based abuse refers to sharing—or threatening to share—nude or intimate images of someone without their consent. Studies have shown that victims of image-based abuse experience a general loss of trust in relationships, and many victims experience severe and disruptive mental health effects; including, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Bates, S. (2017). Revenge Porn and Mental Health: A Qualitative Analysis of the Mental Health Effects of Revenge Porn on Female Survivors. Feminist Criminology, 12(1), 22–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085116654565COPY 

Related: 7 Things You Can Do If You’re a Victim of Deepfakes or Revenge Porn

The researchers of one study on image-based abuse concluded:

“The negative mental health consequences of revenge porn for female survivors are similar in nature to the negative mental health outcomes that rape survivors experience. Rape survivors frequently experience PTSD, anxiety, and depression, all of which participants in this study experienced.” Bates, S. (2017). Revenge Porn and Mental Health: A Qualitative Analysis of the Mental Health Effects of Revenge Porn on Female Survivors. Feminist Criminology, 12(1), 22–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085116654565COPY 

This study also found that victims of image-based abuse tend to develop negative coping mechanisms, like engaging in avoidance, denial, and self-medication in an attempt to avoid feelings of despair and distress regarding their victimization. This and other studies reveal the seriousness of revenge porn, the devastating impacts it has on survivors’ mental health, and similarities between revenge porn and sexual assault. Bates, S. (2017). Revenge Porn and Mental Health: A Qualitative Analysis of the Mental Health Effects of Revenge Porn on Female Survivors. Feminist Criminology, 12(1), 22–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085116654565COPY 

Disturbingly, an estimated 1 in 12 U.S. adults report that they have been victims of image-based abuse, and even more disturbingly, 1 in 20 report that they have been perpetrators of image-based abuse.Ruvalcaba, Y., & Eaton, A. A. (2020). Nonconsensual pornography among U.S. adults: A sexual scripts framework on victimization, perpetration, and health correlates for women and men. Psychology of Violence, 10(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037/vio0000233COPY  Interestingly enough, research also suggests that because regular porn consumers tend to develop sexually objectifying attitudes, they are more willing to share intimate images of someone else without their consent.van Oosten, J., & Vandenbosch, L. (2020). Predicting the Willingness to Engage in Non-Consensual Forwarding of Sexts: The Role of Pornography and Instrumental Notions of Sex. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(4), 1121–1132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01580-2COPY Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? Media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536-545. doi:10.1037/vio0000198COPY 

Related: How the Porn Industry Profits From Nonconsensual Content and Abuse

Conclusion

To love someone is to focus—to see the good and the bad and love them anyway. Focusing your time, your energy, and your love on someone who focuses back on you is one of the best feelings in the world. Too often, however, porn breaks that focus. Let’s refocus on love.

Need help?

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