Illustration by Dave van Patten

If You Start Watching Porn When You’re Married, You’re Probably Going to Get Divorced

At least according to a new study from the University of Oklahoma

How many moderately virile adult American males actually begin watching porn after they get married?

Way more than you’d ever think. More interestingly, those who do are much more likely to get divorced. So says Samuel Perry, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, who recently published a study entitled “Till Porn Do Us Part? Longitudinal Effects of Pornography Use on Divorce.”

According to his research, “beginning pornography use after marriage nearly doubled one’s likelihood of being divorced by the next survey period, from 6 percent to 11 percent, and nearly tripled it for women, from 6 percent to 16 percent.” (That’s not to say everyone had virgin eyes; all they meant by “beginning” to watch porn is that they hadn’t seen an X-rated movie in the two years prior to taking the first survey and by the second or third survey, they had.)

Perry stops short of blaming RedTube for the death of marital bliss, but he does think the relationship between porn use and relationship trouble is cyclical. “Whether someone uses porn first or turns to it because of intimacy troubles in their marriage, I think they feed on each other and can contribute to negative marital outcomes over time.”

Which came first, though? Could it be that people who are already unhappy in their marriages start turning to porn, and it’s not so much the spank bank that’s leading to divorce, but a lousy marriage to begin with? To control for precisely this question, Perry and his team asked respondents how happy they were in their marriage in the first survey. Interestingly, for folks initially claiming to be “very happily married,” porn increased the probability of divorce. “We took this to mean that pornography use — perhaps if it’s discovered by one’s spouse unexpectedly — could rock an otherwise happy marriage to the point of divorce, but it doesn’t seem to make an unhappy marriage any worse than it already is.”

According to Perry, one thing that’s almost certainly making matters worse is a concept called “scripting,” when pornography provides certain sexual “scripts” or messages about sexual relationships and body images that are internalized over time. Perry’s paper notes that “research explicitly connects pornography use with men expressing greater sexual boredom or disappointment with one’s partner or spouse.” The idea is that porn instills unrealistic expectations about how sexual relationships work — e.g., women are always down for sex and just love it when men cum on their faces. (A quick Google search for “feminist porn facials” suggests otherwise.)

Don’t, however, confuse “scripting” with “escalation,” a related but different phenomenon requiring increasingly graphic material in order to get off; some Christian conservatives consider it to be porn’s most sinister stain on marriage. “I have had a number of couple-clients where the wife tearfully reported that her husband preferred to masturbate to pornography than to make love to her,” Christian psychologist Juli Slattery shared in a Focus on the Family article entitled “The Impact of Pornography on Marital Sex.” “After viewing material filled with perfectly shaped women doing wild and perverse acts, a man naturally may have difficulty becoming stimulated by his 40-year-old average looking, reserved wife.” Perry didn’t find this in his study, though. “Most men who have regularly used pornography found what they liked when they were teenagers and stuck with it.”

What he did find about the relationship between godliness and pornliness surprised him.

Previous research (including Perry’s) had found that due to shame and isolation, religious people tended to be more negatively affected by porn use in their marriage. The new study suggested something else: People who attended weekly church services were actually less likely to get a divorce following their porn use. “We think this means that religion provides a buffer against divorce, even though it may indeed make marital quality worse for porn users,” Perry says.

But back to that first statistic. It’s worth revisiting the fact that female porn-watchers are far more likely to get divorced than men. Seems counterintuitive, no?

“This was a big surprise for us, too,” Perry says. “Research has typically found that porn use tends to be more strongly related to men’s relationship outcomes, not women’s. The thought being that men are more likely to use porn more often and in isolation, which could more detrimentally affect the relationship. Whereas women are more likely to use porn as a part of [the sex they’re having with their partners]. Thus, it was thought that men’s porn use didn’t help relationships, while women’s porn use could either contribute to couple solidarity or at least their own sexual knowledge and functioning.”

Bottom line: It seems wives getting off to porn is worse for a marriage than dudes doing so. “It could be that porn use for women is a greater sign of trouble in a marriage whereas married men don’t tend to equate their own porn use with marital problems.”