Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 08, 2020

Viewing Pornography to Deal with Affection Deprivation

by Colin Hesse
Young man on his laptop in bed next to his partner who is sleeping.

In the past year, the beloved children’s television show host, Fred Rogers, inspired a documentary and feature film. Both have been incredibly well-received, with the film standing at about 90% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and the documentary becoming the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time.

As someone who grew up watching Mr. Rogers, I understand why he is still revered by so many in the world today. His motto, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” speaks to a deep, fundamental human need to love and be loved.

That need to belong, as Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary have called it, is incredibly important to the human experience. They argue that we will expend a great deal of emotional and physical energy to meet that need. That might mean starting and maintaining close relationships and attempting to keep relationships in good order. It also means that, if people don’t think they are meeting that need, they will try new strategies to accomplish that goal – even by substituting other people, pets, or even celebrities like Mr. Rogers for the real relationships that they lack. (This is called forming a parasocial relationship.)

My colleague, Kory Floyd, and I recently published a study examining this idea of substitution, with a focus on affection. In general, we found that showing love and care to others is very healthy, with benefits ranging from lower stress and depression to physical markers like lower blood pressure and cortisol, a hormone commonly linked to stress. We wondered whether people who felt deprived of affection – who receive less affection than they desire -- would seek substitutes for the affection they lack.  For this particular study, we focused on the viewing pornography as a possible substitute for affection.

Viewing pornography might seem like a surprising substitute for a deficit in affection. But we began to wonder why people might be drawn to pornography, especially in light of how many people report viewing pornography to some degree. We started by examining previous research to come up with possible reasons that people view pornography, including forming a parasocial relationship with pornography actors, finding escape from unhappy life situations, trying to feel more satisfied with life, dealing with loneliness, and sexual gratification.

In our research, we examined how both affectionate communication with a partner (actions such as hugging, kissing, and telling someone they loved them) and pornography related to psychological well-being (loneliness and depression) and the quality of people’s romantic relationships (satisfaction and closeness).  We found that more affection was related to better psychological well-being and relational quality and that both affection deprivation and pornography consumption were related to poorer levels of both. In addition, people who reported communicating more affection reported that they viewed pornography less often. However, we didn’t find that people who experienced greater affection deprivation used pornography more.

We also tested whether affection deprivation (the degree to which people perceived that they wanted more affection than they were receiving from their romantic partner) was related to any of the reasons people gave for using pornography. We found that higher affection deprivation was related to higher ratings of all of the possible reasons for viewing pornography except for life satisfaction. That finding was especially interesting. Even though feeling deprived of affection might not be specifically related to the overall usage of pornography, people who perceive themselves to be deprived of affection are more likely to use pornography to meet other goals such as to reduce loneliness or escape from life situations. These findings strongly supported the idea that people use pornography as a substitute for close relational communication such as affection that fulfills the need to belong.

Finally, we found that the relationship between affection deprivation and depression actually became stronger as people viewed more pornography. This finding means that, while people might view pornography to manage affection deprivation, that strategy might not actually be helpful.

We walked away from the study with a few conclusions. First, affectionate communication is very healthy, whereas perceiving yourself as being deprived of affection is less healthy. Second, although pornography consumption in general appears to be negatively related to psychological and relational well-being, our study turned up several key reasons why people consume pornography. Third, we found some evidence that people use pornography to substitute for not having enough affection in their lives. Finally, we can’t tell whether pornography consumption is actually a good substitution strategy. In our study, the only relevant finding suggested that pornography consumption might actually decrease well-being.

So, although we can’t be sure that pornography consumption is an effective substitution strategy, continue attending to your need to belong and promote the mission that Fred Rogers pioneered decades ago. Finally, continue communicating love and affirmation to people around you. Those hugs, kisses, and words of encouragement can clearly improve the quality of people’s lives.

For Further Reading

Hesse, C., & Floyd, K. (2019). Affection substitution: The effect of pornography consumption on close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(11-12), 3887-3907.

Hesse, C., & Mikkelson, A. C. (2017). Affection deprivation in romantic relationships. Communication Quarterly, 65(1), 20-38.

Colin Hesse is an associate professor in communication at Oregon State University and the author of over a dozen articles and book chapters on affectionate communication.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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