Pornography: how it shapes our relationships

29 July 2016

Internet pornography is a wide-reaching technology, growing at a breathtaking rate.

It is a USD 13 billion-a-year industry in the US. Nine out of 10 boys in America are exposed to it before the age of 18. Men are 543% more likely to be users than women. By 2017, over a quarter of a billion people will use mobile porn sites worldwide.

Some research has linked pornography consumption to what some may see as ‘positive effects’, such as increased sexual knowledge and more liberal sexual attitudes.

But how does it really shape our intimate relationships?

Scientific evidence supports the view that internet pornography could be warping ideas about sex and relationships, says Sam Carr, Lecturer in Education, University of Bath.

Links between pornography consumption and intimate relationship problems (although data typically refers to heterosexual, monogamous relationships) are well established.

Pornography consumption has been associated with increased marital distress, risk of separation, decreased romantic intimacy and sexual satisfaction, a higher chance of infidelity, and compulsive or addictive sexual behaviour.

However, say researchers, this evidence does not automatically imply that internet pornography causes relational difficulties. Pornography consumption may equally be caused by them.

But if consumption does dampen romantic intimacy then it’s important to understand how. Harvard Psychology Professor Deirdre Barrett has suggested that internet pornography is a version of what scientists call a ‘supernormal stimulus’: that is, an artificial exaggeration of the environmental factors from which we have naturally evolved to become sexually aroused.

Instinctive behaviour across a range of species can be hijacked when researchers create supernormal versions of normal stimuli. For example, while a female bird’s natural instinct is to nurture her small, speckled eggs, she will abandon them when presented with the option of larger, more heavily patterned artificial exaggerations of her eggs. Over time, she will lose interest completely in the normal eggs, as though her instinct towards them has been overridden by the supernormal ones.

In a similar (but more complex) way, internet pornography offers users a supernormal sexual experience. On one level, they become aroused by watching supernormal bodies having supernormal sex. On another level, they become accustomed to selecting these supernormal, virtual experiences from seemingly infinite options and have the possibility to refine, replay, pause and rewind these virtual sexual experiences at will.

A major concern for sex and relationship therapists and researchers is that real people’s responses to real sex can indeed be dampened by overexposure to virtual sex.

In his paper The Great Porn Experiment, Gary Wilson discusses arguments and evidence in support of porn-induced erectile dysfunction. He highlights issues such as a numbed pleasure response and addictive craving for ’hits’ of pornographic material in heavy users.

Studies have also documented a deep-rooted breakdown in trust and attachment, connected to the fact that partners frequently experience pornography consumption as a deceptive form of betrayal and infidelity. In one study, a wife describes her husband’s use of pornography as indiscriminate, virtual philandering and says she feels like ‘he’s had a million affairs’.

If you’d like to talk over issues raised in this article with one of our counsellors give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.


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