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What a new BYU study says about porn and how it affects couples

National survey shows that viewing it causes conflict in 1 in 5 romantic relationships.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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People overall are more accepting of pornography, but viewing it still causes conflict for some couples, according to a poll commissioned by Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution and the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.

The National Couples and Pornography Survey 2021, which was released earlier this month, consisted of two national datasets collected by Qualtrics during 2020.

The first was made up of 3,750 individuals who are in a committed heterosexual relationship. The sample was recruited from across the United States based on quotas for age, race, education level and other factors.

The second had 713 heterosexual couples (1,426 individuals). Qualtrics asked panel participants if their partner would also be available to participate in the study.

The data shows that while more than 70% of people are somewhat accepting of pornography viewing, 1 in 5 couples report conflict in their relationship over the controversial form of entertainment. In addition, about 25% of men report actively hiding their viewing from their partner.

Brian Willoughby, one of the authors of the report and a fellow at the Wheatley Institution, said in a news release that while pornography viewing is a common behavior, researchers know “very little” about its potential impact on romantic couples.

“We wanted our study to shed light on this topic,” he said in the release. “while helping to provide a clear understanding on how pornography is being used or not used, as well as how it is discussed and negotiated in relationships.”

Important findings

Other key findings of the poll include:

• A third of dating men report frequent pornography use compared to nearly 1 in 8 dating women. Some 33% of married men report weekly or daily porn viewing, but only 1 in 16 married women report similar levels.

• About half of all nonmarried couples report using porn together at least sometimes. Among married couples, about half of men report watching pornography with their spouses while a third of married women say the same.

• Married women are slightly less accepting or porn than married men.

• One in 5 men (both dating and married) report feeling unable to stop their pornography use. Only 4% of dating women and slightly less than 3% of married women report the same.

• Couples where both partners said they don’t use pornography at all report the highest levels of relationship stability, commitment and relationship satisfaction, with 90% or more of these couples reporting that their relationship is stable, committed and satisfying.

“Given the lack of communication about pornography we see among couples, it is important for partners to begin to discuss pornography and how it may be impacting their relationship” said Galena Rhoades, one of the authors of the report and a research professor at the University of Denver.

The addiction model

In September, The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the harmful effects that labelling pornography consumption an “addiction” can have on people trying to kick the habit.

Nate Bagley, founder of the relationship coaching website Growth Marriage and host of a podcast called “Rethinking Porn Addiction,” said the problem with the addiction model is that it puts all the focus on getting a person who’s viewing pornography to stop.

This can harm a marriage, he said, because it puts pressure on the other spouse to monitor a partner’s behavior. It also makes the spouse with the problem afraid that a slip-up risks losing everything — marriage, kids, job.

That’s why Bagley, who clarified that he is not a licensed therapist but rather is certified to help couples take preventive steps, addresses the issues causing someone to view pornography in the first place.

Pornography is a self-soothing tool for problems like depression, stress, anxiety, loneliness or feeling overwhelmed, he said. When those issues are dealt with, pornography use goes away.

“You can’t put out a fire by treating smoke. You can’t get rid of pneumonia by just treating the cough,” Bagley said. “And you can’t get rid of pornography by just focusing on the consumption of sexual imagery.”

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