Imagine that you are in your bedroom watching porn on your smartphone or laptop. You look up to see that your partner has just entered the room. What would you do? Would you try to hide the porn and pretend like you were on Facebook instead? Or would you be open about what you were looking at? Although many people's immediate reaction is to hide their porn use, research suggests that this kind of deception may not necessarily be in the best interest of your relationship.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, a sample of 340 heterosexual women aged 18 to 41 were recruited to complete an online survey. Each of these women was in a relationship of at least six months duration with a man who uses pornography at least occasionally. These women were asked about their own and their partner’s use of pornography, as well as whether they thought their male partners were being honest with them about their porn use. In addition, participants were asked how satisfied they are with their relationship and whether they were distressed over their male partner’s porn use (e.g., do they perceive their partner’s porn use as a form of cheating?).
Most of the women in this sample (84.4 percent) believed that, for the most part, their partners had been honest about their porn use. In contrast, 10.6 percent believed their partners were not being honest, while the remaining 5 percent were undecided. Those women who felt that their partners were dishonest tended to be the least satisfied with their relationships and felt the most distressed regarding their partner’s porn use. Those who thought their partners were honest were the most satisfied and least distressed, while the undecided folks were somewhere in the middle.
The researchers also looked at whether women engaged in mutual porn use with their partners. Most of the women (70 percent) said that they never used porn with their partners, 5 percent said they did it rarely, and 25 percent said they did it with some regularity. Mutual porn use was not associated with relationship satisfaction (i.e., women were about equally satisfied regardless of whether they used porn with their partners); however, mutual porn use was linked to feelings of pornography distress such that those women who rarely or never used porn with their partners felt more distressed than those who often engaged in mutual porn use.
These results suggest that when it comes to porn use, honesty appears to be the best policy. That said, these findings do not rule out the possibility that women who thought their partners were dishonest about porn also thought their partners were dishonest about other things in their relationship. So, it could be that these findings have more to do with women’s broader perceptions of their partners’ honesty, as opposed to honesty specifically about porn use.
Also, this study only looked at women's perceptions of their partners' honesty about porn, not whether their partners were actually being honest. We know that in relationships, people sometimes see what they want to see, and that may not represent the whole truth. For example, sometimes we hold positive illusions, or unrealistically favorable attitudes about a partner's traits and characteristics. Positive illusions can actually be adaptive in a relationship to some degree. It is also worth noting that this study did not consider whether there may be some cases in which over-disclosing about one's porn use could potentially hurt a partner's feelings. For example, if one's partner is high in attachment anxiety, learning about the other's porn use could potentially be distressing because it may be viewed as a sign of cheating.
Despite these limitations, these findings are consistent with the idea that open and honest communication about porn and other sexual matters is usually a sign of a healthy relationship.