By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 06/01/2012 10:16 AM EDT on LiveScience

Young women who report that their romantic partners look at porn frequently are less happy in their relationships than women partnered with guys who more often abstain, new research finds.

The study bolsters some anecdotal evidence that men's porn use can shake the self-esteem of their girlfriends or wives, though certainly not all couples have conflicts over pornography, said study researcher Destin Stewart, a clinical psychology intern at the University of Florida. Stewart decided to investigate the effect of porn on relationships after some of her clients revealed that they were struggling with the issue.

Discovering explicit material on a partner's computer "made them feel like they were not good enough, like they could not measure up," Stewart told LiveScience.

What women think of porn

A number of studies that have interviewed women about pornography find a range of feelings on the topic, from "scathing to mildly positive," Stewart and University of Tennessee psychologist Dawn Szymanski wrote online May 6 in the journal Sex Roles. Nevertheless, concerns about measuring up to the images found in pornography were a common theme. In one 1999 study, for example, a participant told researchers, "These men look at these pictures and say, 'Look at her. She's just beautiful. Why can't you be like that?'" [Is Porn Bad For You?]

Few of these studies had hard numbers to back up the interviews, however. Stewart wanted to understand how widespread these feelings might be. She recruited 308 college women, ages 18 to 29 years old, to fill out online questionnaires about their current partner's porn use as well as their relationship quality, sexual satisfaction and self-esteem. All of the women were heterosexual and most were white.

The results showed that women who reported that their boyfriends or husbands looked at more pornography were less likely to be happy in their relationships than women who said their partners didn't look at pornography very often. When women were bothered by their partner's porn use, saying, for example, that they believed he was a porn addict or that he used porn more than a "normal" amount, they were also more likely to have low self-esteem and to be less satisfied with both their relationship and their sex life.

Sex and self-esteem

The findings showed that the statistical link between frequency of porn use and relationship dissatisfaction was partially explained by low self-esteem among the women in these relationships. But that doesn't prove that porn necessarily caused the women's self-esteem to drop. It's a chicken-and-egg problem, Stewart said: Women whose partners watch a lot of porn might begin to feel more insecure. Or women who feel bad about themselves might seek out or stay with porn-loving guys more often than secure women. [6 Tips for a Happy Relationship]

The study is limited to a youthful demographic, and most of the relationships were short-term, Stewart said. Because most of the couples weren't co-habitating, the women might not know how much porn their partners actually watched, she said.

"You might be more dissatisfied knowing that your husband of 10 years is looking at pornography versus your 18-year-old boyfriend where you have no idea what he looks at on his computer," Stewart said.

When pornography does become a problem in relationships, Stewart said she counsels women not to compare themselves with porn starlets. In couples counseling, she encourages communication and compromise.

"It's just about trying to do some education about what is realistic and unrealistic and trying to get couples to be honest about what their wants and needs and desires are," Stewart said.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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