Does porn kill love? According to a new study published in Journal of Sex Research entitled “Till Porn Do Us Part?”, that would certainly appear to be the case. The results suggest that when married people start using porn, their odds of divorce double.

On the surface, the study sounds compelling: researchers looked at data from a nationally representative U.S. sample of more than 2,000 married adults who were surveyed about their relationships three times over a four-year period. The sheer size and scope of these data are impressive; however, they don’t necessarily mean that the conclusions are sound. In fact, when I dug deeper into the methods of the study, I grew skeptical.

For one, to measure whether Americans started or stopped using porn during the course of the study, they were asked just one question: “Have you seen an X-rated movie in the last year?” That’s a poor way to measure porn use. What counts as an “X-rated movie” anyway? To me, “X-rated movie” implies watching a professionally-produced porno with a plot—something along the lines of Deep Throat—and not an amateur porn clip on Pornhub, which not only doesn’t count as a movie, but doesn’t have an official letter rating. In other words, I’m not confident that this question captures all or even most porn consumers, which means the researchers might be drawing conclusions based on a small subgroup that doesn’t reflect porn users broadly.

The happiest couples communicate and find mutually agreeable ways of adding novelty to their sex lives.

Also, consider that less than 30 percent of participants said they’d watched an X-rated movie over the entire four years of the study. That’s a pretty low number compared to other research. For example, a different nationally representative survey published this year in PLoS ONE found that more than half of men and more than a quarter of women said they’d watched porn in the last year alone, with the vast majority of both sexes saying they’d done it in their lifetime. With numbers like that, you’d think that across a four-year period, more than one-third of Americans would have seen porn at some point.

However, the larger problem here is that the design of this study doesn’t allow us to conclude whether porn truly causes divorce, or whether porn viewing is a symptom of something else, like an unsatisfying sex life. It’s not just plausible but highly likely that sexual satisfaction and sexual frequency declined over the course of the study and that this prompted a number of people to not only begin watching porn, but to also end their relationships.

We know this thanks to a longitudinal study published last year in Archives of Sexual Behavior, which found that, while sexual satisfaction increases during the first year of a relationship, both satisfaction and the frequency with which couples have sex begins to decline after that.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s called the Coolidge Effect, a concept previously explained on Playboy here. The short version is that we tend to grow bored with sexual routines. We need novelty, whether it’s new partners, new positions, or new toys and activities to keep us interested in sex.

Put another way, when you and your partner have a sex life that ceases to be new and exciting, your interest in sex is likely to decline. While that might sound bleak and depressing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that maintaining an active and satisfying sex life in the long run in hopeless—far from it. However, it takes work.

The happiest couples are the ones who communicate with each other and find mutually agreeable ways of adding novelty to their sex lives, whether it’s taking up role-playing, scheduling date nights, having a threesome or bringing food into the bedroom. The research is clear: continued novelty translates to long-term passion.

Not everyone does these things, however, because far too many people lack sexual communication skills or are afraid that asking for something different in bed will hurt their partner’s feelings. So, instead of working on their relationships, these folks often turn to behaviors like solo porn watching. Eventually, many of these couples will break up, not because of the porn per se, but because they failed to address their novelty problem.

Put another way, when married people start using porn, odds are that it’s because their sex life is in trouble and they don’t know how else to deal with it.

It’s also worth mentioning that if porn really were a major cause of divorce like this study suggests, we’d expect to see divorce rates climbing in the era where internet porn has become ubiquitous. However, we actually see precisely the opposite: as availability and usage of online porn has increased, divorces have decreased. In fact, the divorce rate is currently near a 40-year low.

In short, the evidence that online porn causes divorce is at best flimsy. It’s time we stop making porn the go-to scapegoat for our relationship problems because porn isn’t really the problem here. We are.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.