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A new study titled "Til Porn Do Us Part" suggests that adding pornography to a marriage doubles the likelihood of divorce.

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Divorce rates double when people start watching porn

There’s an oft-quoted rule on the internet: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” Even if that’s an exaggeration, there’s no question that men and women have been consuming more sexually explicit content since the world went online. Now, a new study looks at how this consumption might affect marriage in the United States. The study, a working paper presented this week at the 2016 American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, suggests that men and women who begin to consume pornography partway through their marriages are more likely to get a divorce than their non–porn-consuming peers.

The study has not been peer reviewed, but it raises “no major methodological flags” and does a good job of considering alternative explanations for the findings, says pornography expert Ana Bridges, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who was not involved in the work.

Previous studies on porn and marriage have suggested that consuming sexually explicit material isn’t good for marital health. But many of these studies have been based on cross-sectional data that give only a snapshot of porn use and marital happiness. Now, researchers have been able to analyze how pornography impacts marriage over multiple years.

The new paper uses data from the 2006–2014 General Social Survey, a regular poll that asks thousands of Americans for their opinions on everything from national spending priorities to morality. Because the same people are polled several years in a row, researchers can track how attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles change over time. To measure pornography use, the survey asked respondents—who also reported their relationship status—whether they had watched an X-rated movie in the past year. “There’s no perfect pornography question, but this one comes closest to the kind of question you ask that carries over time,” says study author and sociologist Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman. Out of 5698 respondents, 1681 said they had watched an X-rated movie and 373 reported viewing one for the first time during the survey period.

Analyzing the data, Perry and his OU colleague Cyrus Schleifer found that people who started watching porn were more likely to split with their partners during the course of the survey. For men, the chance of divorce went from 5% to 10%. For women, that number jumped from 6% to 18%.

But is pornography use actually causing the problems, or is it merely a symptom of an already unhappy marriage? Perry believes the data show causation. “We’re pretty confident, based on the statistical analysis that we did,” Perry says. “We are nearing where we can say there’s a directional effect.”

They note that when women stop watching porn, their divorce rates drop from 18% back down to 6%. The effect was less apparent in men, however. Most of the men surveyed—between 55% and 70%—watched porn to begin with, and very few stopped once they started. Despite these weaknesses, Bridges says that Perry’s explanation is still the most likely.

In addition to gender differences, the study revealed differences in porn use and divorce in different demographic groups. The younger the respondent, the more likely they were to get a divorce after starting to view porn. In contrast, porn and divorce showed a weaker link in people who attended an organized worship service at least once a week and said they were religious. The latter finding surprised the researchers, who initially thought that that adding pornography into more religious marriages would lead to higher rates of divorce.

Despite the new findings, Perry says he’s not advocating a ban on pornography. “My colleague and I are trying to report what we think are interesting and relevant results, and [we] are not trying to … contribute to a moral crusade against porn use,” he says. “Information is a positive thing, and [we] hope we can contribute in that way.”