The replication of sensational porn research fails.
In 1989, researchers Kenrick, Gutierres, and Goldberg published a powerful study examining the impact of pornography on relationships and attraction. In the study, subjects were exposed to photos from Playboy and other types of erotica. Subjects who had viewed these nude images then found other women—especially their wives—to be less attractive. The subjects also reported that they were actually less in love with their wives after viewing the pornographic images.
This research has been heavily cited in academic literature, but also in general media discussions of the effects of pornography. The fact that porn could make men feel less attraction and less love for their wives is commonly used as a foundation for arguments against it. But while the idea that porn leads men to compare their wives to unrealistic ideals is a concern cited by activists and spouses, new research reveals that porn no longer appears to have this effect—if it ever did.
David J Ley Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He earned his Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from Ole Miss, and his Master's and Doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the University of New Mexico. Dr. Ley is licensed in New Mexico and North Carolina, and has provided clinical and consultative services in numerous other states.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
You may be aware of the ongoing “replication crisis” in social-science research. In essence, recent research has attempted to replicate some of the hallmark findings of some heavily-cited, influential research in psychology and the social sciences. Surprisingly, attempts to replicate many of these research findings have failed, suggesting that in many cases, the original studies were limited by statistical strategies, methodological flaws, or just over-interpretation by enthusiastic researchers eager to publish sensational findings in an academic market that feeds on hype.
Balzarini, Dobson, Chin, and Campbell recently undertook research to recreate the findings from the 1989 study, particularly the impact of porn on feelings of attraction and love for ones’ romantic partner.
The authors first “pre-registered” their research, announcing their intent to test the study, and then constructed three different attempts to replicate the findings, over three distinct experimental tests. In each trial, the researchers were unable to replicate the original findings. It appears that there is no evidence to support the belief that exposure to pornography, or nude images of idealized women, leads men to feel less attraction toward, or less love for their partners.
Addendum – an important point to consider in this, is that the original 1989 study involved only 63 subjects. The current replication study involved a total sample (across the 3 studies) of 630 subjects. The researchers suggest that the original study's sample size was simply too small to either detect a real effect, or to generalize from to the general population. This raises again, the very important issue of not drawing sweeping meaning from studies with small, non-representative samples.
It may be that the culture, men, and sexuality have substantially changed since 1989. Few adult men these days haven’t seen pornography or nude women—nudity and graphic sexuality are common in popular media, from Game of Thrones to perfume advertisements, and in many states, women are permitted to go topless. So it's possible that men in the more recent study have learned to integrate the nudity and sexuality they see in porn and everyday media in a manner which doesn’t affect their attraction or love for their partners. Perhaps the men in the 1989 study had been less exposed to sexuality, nudity, and pornography.
In any case, we can, for now, put to bed the belief that porn kills love, or that exposure to it reduces the love or attraction that men feel for their partners. There are men who feel diminishing love or attraction for their partners, and these men often turn to pornography to find solace, excitement, arousal, and soothing. But we shouldn't necessarily blame porn for these relationship struggles—that’s a cheap, deceptive, and untruthful answer.