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Here's one measure of how much time people are spending viewing online porn. Just one leading pornography website says people spend 4.5 billion hours there. New social science research explores how pornography affects long-term romantic relationships. Our co-host Rachel Martin talked with NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What is in this new study?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, the new study is building on an existing body of work, Rachel, which has found that pornography has a negative effect on personal relationships. I was speaking with Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma. And he told me that a lot of this earlier work has suffered from a problem, which is it's difficult to disentangle causation from correlation.
SAMUEL PERRY: The issue is not whether there's a correlation there. I mean, it's - study after study shows that there's a negative correlation between, say, pornography use and relationship quality. But is it people in unhappy relationships turn to pornography? Or is it pornography itself contributed to the relationship decline?
VEDANTAM: So to disentangle correlation from causation, Rachel, you usually have to conduct an experiment. In this case, that would be very hard. I mean, you can't say, I'm going to take 2,000 couples, force half of them to watch porn, while half of them don't and then measure which couples stay together. That would be unethical.
MARTIN: So how have researchers addressed this problem, then?
VEDANTAM: Well, Perry and his colleague Cyrus Schleifer used high-quality survey research that asked about 2,000 couples about their satisfaction with their relationships and also about their use of sexually explicit media. By surveying the same couples repeatedly over time, you can see which couples start to use porn, which couples stop and what happens to their relationships.
PERRY: We found that married Americans who began pornography were roughly twice as likely to be divorced. It's a difference of, say, 6 percent likelihood of divorce for people who never begin pornography use to about 11 percent to people who did begin pornography use between waves.
MARTIN: So what happens? I mean, what does porn do in a relationship that leads people to grow distant?
VEDANTAM: Well, it's not exactly clear what's happening, Rachel, because this study is only measuring what's happening in the aggregate. There's been a number of other studies that basically have suggested that porn can have a number of different effects. For example, it can create unrealistic portraits in people's minds about how sexual relationships are supposed to function. And that kind of scripting can affect relationships. It's also the case that porn can have a vicious cycle effect on relationships. In other words, when a relationship is going poorly, people might turn to porn. But turning to porn can now make the relationship go even worse. And you have a vicious cycle.
MARTIN: Did researchers look into what happens when couples who have used pornography within the context of their relationship stopped doing that?
VEDANTAM: That's right. So the study actually allows you to do that because it's measuring the same couples over time. And what it finds is that men and women seem to fare differently. This was a surprising part of the study. Women who stop using porn seem to have happier relationships. But we don't know exactly why. Stopping porn use didn't seem to make much of a difference for the men in the study.
MARTIN: Are there any big implications to be drawn from this research?
VEDANTAM: Well, Perry, thinks that we would do very well to think carefully about the effects that porn has on our romantic relationships. Two of the sad things that he finds is that younger couples and happier couples seem to be more affected by porn use than older couples and less happy couples. The study also can distinguish between people who use porn occasionally and those who use it regularly. It's possible the effects are actually much larger for people for whom pornography is a daily part of their lives.
MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a podcast exploring the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Shankar, thanks so much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE MAN'S "ONCE UPON A TIME (INSTRUMENTAL)")
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