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Pornography: An Aphrodisiac or Cold Shower?

A new study questions whether or not consensual use of pornography among partners can improve intimacy or the quality of the couple’s sex life.

As my husband and I passed through a crowd of giddy guests to leave our wedding reception venue to begin our honeymoon, we received some lighthearted, amusing advice: “Make sure to eat lots of chocolate together! It’s an aphrodisiac.” 

When we got into the car, I humorously and humbly googled the definition of aphrodisiac. The internet offered that certain foods and substances have the potential to stimulate sexual desire and increase sexual pleasure, from chocolate-covered strawberries to coffee and raw oysters. While there is little to no scientific confirmation supporting the veracity of these claims, people nonetheless continue to try their luck in searching for the perfect catalyst for love. 

Effective aphrodisiacs have long been pursued by both men and women seeking to enhance attraction and improve their sexual relationship. The internet is overflowing with click-bait articles containing thousands of ways to “boost your sex life” and advertising “The best tips to spice up the bedroom.” As WebMD asserts, “Aphrodisiacs may well be the one thing that crosses all barriers—race, culture, ethnicity, age—making it unanimous: We all want to have better sex.”

This desire serves a relationally good reason. Sexuality is a significant and strengthening aspect of romantic, marital relationships, and sexual satisfaction is closely associated with relationship stability and satisfaction. As relationships mature, it is not uncommon for couples to experience a decline in sexual intimacy due to stress, fatigue, conflict, children, or various other reasons, and perhaps you and your partner likewise find yourselves longing for the honeymoon passion you once experienced. 

Pornography Use and Relationship Quality

In our contemporary, technology-saturated world, many couples turn to pornography to “heat things up” and assist their love life. Relational therapists have historically recommended pornography use to couples seeking to enhance their sexual relationship, and many romantic couples now utilize pornography not only as an isolated individual behavior but as a regular part of their couple intimacy. In fact, about 1 in 5 men in relationships report viewing pornography with their partner at least weekly.

Sexuality is a significant and strengthening aspect of romantic, marital relationships.

However, despite its popularity, recent research is revealing that rather than the appealing aphrodisiac couples are looking for, pornography use is proving to be more of a cold shower—an inhibitor—on many couples’ love lives.

A national research report published this month by Dr. Jason Carroll and colleagues from the Wheatley Institution and the Austin Institute provides insight into how the rise in pornography use is really impacting the sexual relationship of romantic couples today. The National Couples and Pornography Survey, analyzing two nationally diverse samples of 3,750 individuals in committed relationships and 713 heterosexual couples, found that while half of all individuals reported that they believed that pornography could potentially help with foreplay in their sexual relationship, pornography use among couples was negatively associated with a range of indicators of relationship health.   

The study indicated that pornography use among couples was associated with significantly lower relationship quality, that is, lower levels of stability, commitment, and satisfaction. In comparison with couples who avoid pornography, couples where men use pornography regularly and women use pornography occasionally were 18% less likely to report that their relationship is stable, 20% less likely to be strongly committed, and 18% less likely to report that they have high relationship satisfaction. Even more striking, couples where both partners view pornography on a daily basis report a 45% decrease in stability and a 30% decrease in commitment levels compared to couples where both partners do not view pornography at all. Relationship stability, commitment, and relationship satisfaction were consistently reduced as the relative frequency of pornography use increased within couples.

These results may seem unwarranted when couples intend only to ease arousal or amplify sexual enjoyment. When pornography appears to be aiding couple sexual behavior, it can seem paradoxical that relationship and sexual quality would be diminished. However, these findings align with previous research in which the erotic factors presented in sexual media were more congruent with short-term personal sexual arousal but were incongruent with long-term sexual quality. Awareness of the more gradual, distal outcomes of pornography use can prove valuable in weighing long-term sexual and relational implications with temporary, stimulating appeal. 

Though counter to couples’ intentions, the ongoing, unadvertised effects of pornography use may be as inconspicuous as they are impactful in decreasing sexual satisfaction. Researchers found that regularly consuming pornography can condition individuals’ sexual arousal template to be amplified and responsive to pornographic depictions over relational sexuality, leading individuals to become less satisfied with real-life partner sex in comparison with pornographic representations. Over time, both men and women who view pornography show a preference for masturbation to pornography over partnered sex and weakened perceptions of how satisfying one’s relationship and sex is with one’s own partner. In this way and others, pornography can erode relationship and sexual quality by reinforcing scripts for personal sexual appeasement over relational intimacy and giving.  

The report additionally suggests that pornography use could be impacting relationship and sexual quality by becoming a source of conflict for many couples. Relational conflicts often interfere with sexual desire and satisfaction. The number of couples experiencing conflict regarding pornography doubled when one or both spouses reported using pornography. One in 5 of both women and men report pornography conflict in relationships where both partners view pornography.

This conflict could in part be due to the high levels of concealment and secrecy surrounding pornography use, but for couples who use pornography mostly together, it may have more to do with experiencing relational and sexual anxieties. Almost 1 in 3 dating women reported that they worry that their partner is more attracted to pornography than to them (a prevalent occurrence), and about a third of dating women reported worrying that their partner was thinking about pornography during sex. For married women and men, more than 1 in 5 report the same anxieties. It’s possible that many partners have mixed feelings about pornography, seeing potential benefits for physical pleasure but also worrying about how pornography may be shaping their partner’s perceptions of themselves, their relationship, and their intimacy. 

Considering current and potential implications of pornography use in romantic relationships, what can couples do to enhance sexual passion and satisfaction in a way that maintains and even increases the quality of their relationship?

What Creates Sexual Satisfaction?

Optimal relational sexuality involves much more than physicality, and relationship quality plays a significant role in sexual satisfaction. As renowned sex and marital therapist David Schnarch observed, “[The] characteristic which most sets human sexuality apart from that of other species [is] the human capacity for intimacy and attaching profound emotional meaning to sexual experience.”

Research on the major components involved in optimal sexuality shows that “great sex” results from being embedded in a connected, quality relationship, a foundation of trust allowing partners to be vulnerable and take risks, high emotional authenticity and transparency, being present and mindful, and extraordinary communication and empathy. Remarkably, given their emphasis in mainstream media, physical sensation, attraction, and even orgasm are notably only minor factors contributing to optimal sex.

A quality relationship leads to quality sexual experience, and relationship quality is a result of developing trust.

Though undoubtedly couples can engage in sex that is physically enjoyable but devoid of emotional bonding, the benefits of good sex are profoundly multiplied when emotional intimacy is also present.

Indeed, a quality relationship leads to quality sexual experience, and relationship quality is a result of developing trust and secure attachment with each other. Sex typically conveys personal, partner, and relationship meaning for each partner and is an indicator of the depth of intimacy and attachment in a relationship. When couples can express care and love for one another through sexuality, it infuses sexuality with power to strengthen and enhance their relationship, and simultaneously improve the physical experience as well. View this as a cycle: Emotional security fosters satisfying sexuality and satisfying sexuality can, in turn, build emotional security. 

Behaviors that are interpreted as disrupting or eroding this trust and security through an orientation toward objectification, promiscuity, selfishness, or a singular focus on the physical aspect of sexuality can have a significant negative impact on couple intimacy. As noted couple therapists John and Julie Gottman observed from their clinical experience: 

“Intimacy for couples is a source of connection and communication between two people. But when one person becomes accustomed… to porn, they are actually turning away from intimate interaction… the negative consequences of excessive porn use, such as becoming conditioned to require porn to become sexually aroused or achieve orgasm, are readily apparent.”

If using pornography turns a partner’s attraction toward others or is an indicator that he or she approaches sex from a self-centered, rather than an other-centered orientation, the partner’s sense of security will likely diminish in the relationship. When sex and attachment are disconnected, they often interfere with and undermine each other. On the other hand, the Couples and Pornography report revealed that couples where both partners do not use pornography reported the highest levels of relationship stability, commitment, and relationship satisfaction, with 90% or above of these couples reporting that their relationship is stable, committed, and satisfying to them as a couple.

When sexuality fosters a sense of emotional connection and appreciation between spouses, it can reduce anxiety and increase emotional security within the relationship. This security provides a foundation from which sexual passion and eroticism can rise and be revitalized through communication, proactivity, and cultivating spontaneity. The most satisfying physical and sexual intimacy then stems from the most fulfilling emotional intimacy—the intentional investment to make one another feel cherished, valued, and loved.

Pornography use is not the effective aphrodisiac most couples are looking for, due to its consequences for relational quality and secure attachment through lower commitment, satisfaction, and stability. Perhaps eating chocolate together is a better suggestion, after all. The reality is that pornography runs in an opposite direction from relational sexual well-being through fragmented isolation of the physical dimension of sexuality. The best research-based “aphrodisiac” to kickstart sexual satisfaction and enhance your love life may in fact be to invest daily in your relationship and shape the meaning of your sexuality to enrich emotional connection, devotion, and caring. With renewed passion, take your spouse by the hand and build a relationship that excites you both inside and outside of the bedroom.

About the author

Misha Crawford

Misha D. Crawford is a family life educator with a master's degree in Marriage, Family, and Human Development from Brigham Young University.
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