There's a vast amount of research on the harmful effects of pornography, and it's important that this information is accessible to the public. Weekly, we highlight a research study that sheds light on the expanding field of academic resources that showcase porn's harms. These studies cover a wide range of topics, from the sociological implications of pornography to the neurological effects of porn-consumption.

The full study can be accessed here.

Does Pornography Consumption Increase Participation in Friends with Benefits Relationships?

Authors: Scott R. Braithwaite, Sean C. Aaron, Krista K. Dowdle, Kersti Spjut, Frank D. Fincham
Published: December 2017

Peer-Reviewed Journal: Sexuality & Culture (2015), 19, 513–532

Background

Friends with Benefits (FWB) relationships have recently caught the attention of relationship researchers. FWB relationships attempt to integrate two types of relationships—friendship and a relationship that includes sexual involvement, but without an expectation of commitment (VanderDrift et al. 2012; Furman and Shaffer 2011). Unlike hookups, which typically involve two people who recently met engaging in sexual behavior without expecting a future relationship (Olmstead et al. 2013), those in FWB relationships agree to maintain their already existing friendship while adding the element of sexual activity but without the expectation of dates, public displays of affection, emotional attachment, or exclusivity to each other. As an FWB relationship takes place, the two people in the relationship attempt to keep their friendship and sexual activity largely exclusive of one another, but maintain both throughout the duration of the FWB relationship (Olmstead et al. 2013).

However, it is often difficult for people to keep the two types of relationships exclusive from one another. Complications may arise when one person becomes emotionally attached to the other while his or her partner feels no such attachment (Owen and Fincham 2012; VanderDrift et al. 2012). According to previous research studies, about 25% of men reported the desire for the FWB relationship to turn into something more serious, while 40% of women hope for more commitment, as early as the beginning of the arrangement (Owen and Fincham 2011), even though this desire is not always communicated (Owen and Fincham 2012). While people may enter an FWB relationship with the desire for it to progress into a romantic relationship, the opposite outcome is often the case. Approximately only 15% of FWB relationships progress into romantic relationships (Bisson and Levine 2009; Eisenberg et al. 2009) with the majority of FWB relationships ending with participants staying friends while quitting the sexual relationship. However, many people, both men and women, have reported feeling awkwardness around their friend after having had a sexual encounter with them (Weaver et al. 2011). Perhaps the lack of romance and the complications and awkwardness associated with the multi-faceted relationship of friendship and sexual partner may help account for why FWB relationships have been found to be less satisfying, both emotionally and sexually, than more traditional committed romantic relationships (Lehmiller et al. 2014; Owen and Fincham 2012).

FWB relationships have also been found to be linked to increased patterns of risky sexual behavior. In one sample, 24% of young adults had multiple FWB partners, which poses a significant risk for contracting and spreading STIs (VanderDrift et al. 2012). The risk of contracting an STI is particularly problematic in these circumstances because men in multiple casual sexual relationships report less frequent use of contraceptives when compared to men who do not have sex with multiple partners (Olmstead et al. 2013). In one study, a third of participants reported a lack of consistent condom use when engaging in sexual acts with a friend (Weaver et al. 2011). Evidence suggests that this inconsistent use of protection may be affected by the trust that sexual partners have for their partner (Gerrard et al. 1996), an increase in comfort with their partner, and feeling that there is little or no risk involved in engaging in sex with an established friend (Weaver et al. 2011).

Because past research has found a strong association between frequency of pornography use and frequency and riskiness of hookups (Braithwaite et al. 2015), this study was designed to see if a similar correlation exists in FWB relationships. Hookups and FWB relationships are both casual sex relationships and thus share a certain level of riskiness; however, that FWB relationships take place with a partner who is familiar may change the influence of pornography on sexual behaviors during these encounters. Knowing their partner well before a sexual encounter may lead people to do more risky things in the context of the relationship because of a greater level of trust (Cooper and Orcutt 2000; VanderDrift et al. 2012). We examined whether pornography use is associated with higher levels of certain risky sexual behaviors, including having a larger number of unique FWB partners and the degree of risk associated with each intimate behavior ranging from kissing to intercourse.

Methods

In two studies (Study 1 N = 850; Study 2 N = 992), we examined the hypothesis that pornography use influences FWB behaviors, specifically through the mechanism of sexual scripts. Participants for this cross-sectional study were recruited from an undergraduate family science course that fulfilled a university-wide general education requirement at a large, public university in the Southeastern United States. Participation in this study was one of multiple options for students to receive course credit. Data comes from a larger data collection effort examining the course of emerging adulthood in the context of college. Participants provided data via an online survey that they completed at home or wherever they chose to access the internet. Prior to collecting data, we obtained institutional review board approval for all procedures and content.

Results

In two large samples of emerging adults in college, we found that pornography use was associated with a higher incidence of entering an FWB relationship, a variety of sexual behaviors (including penetrative FWB encounters) and a higher number of unique FWB partners. These effects were observed cross-sectionally and longitudinally. Study 2 provided a direct replication of Study 1 and each of the parameter estimates from Study 2 fell within the 95 % confidence intervals of the parameter estimates from Study 1, providing strong evidence for the reliability of this relationship across samples and time points, as well as increasing confidence in the accuracy of the observed point-estimates.

Because FWB relationship research is only beginning, our findings are valuable from a basic research perspective, but our findings also have implications for intervention. Our studies provide evidence for pornography consumption as a marker for risk of engaging in FWB relationships, of having a higher number of unique FWB partners, and of engaging in penetrative sex during FWB encounters.

More research is needed to determine whether pornography is simply a marker of risk for FWB encounters or whether it plays a causal role, but even before this is fully established, our knowledge of this association can help to identify individuals who are at higher risk for these risky behaviors among college student populations. For example, the most effective use of our findings would be to target those who seek pornography on the internet with public health messages that counterbalance the portrayals of sexuality in pornography with social science data.

These messages might focus on findings that people in committed relationships enjoy more sexual satisfaction, have a higher frequency of sexual interactions, and can communicate about sex with their partner more readily than those in casual sexual relationships (Lehmiller et al. 2014). Messages targeting women searching for pornography might highlight that women are twice as likely to experience orgasm during sex within a committed relationship compared to casual sex encounters (Garcia et al. 2013), that FWBs are often not sexually exclusive (Lehmiller et al. 2014; VanderDrift et al. 2012) and that sensitivity to sexual risks might be weakened due to their friendship with a potential FWB partner.

The full study can be accessed here.

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