Partner's Pornography Habits May Worsen Women's Eating Disorders

George W. Citroner

February 26, 2019

Eating disorders (EDs) in women may worsen if their significant other regularly watches pornography, new research shows.

A study led by investigators from Ohio State University is the first to look at how a partner's porn viewing habits may be associated with the likelihood that a woman will experience guilt about eating, as well as her preoccupation with body fat, binging, or purging.

There was also a greater incidence of those symptoms in women who said they felt pressured by their boyfriends or husbands to be thinner.

"Unlike other media forms, partner pornography use is indirect in the sense that women aren't necessarily viewing it themselves, but they may be aware that their partners are viewing it and perhaps using it while limiting, or even avoiding, sex with their female partners," lead author Tracy Tylka, PhD, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University in Columbus, told Medscape Medical News.

"This may prompt women to think 'Why does my partner do this?' or 'Perhaps I should try to be thinner to attract my partner and then do what it takes (maladaptive eating behaviors) to achieve this goal'," Tylka added.

Tylka and coauthor Rachel Calogero, PhD, Western Ontario University, Canada, published their findings recently in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Few Partner-Influence Studies

Tylka noted that previous research has tended to focus on media pressures to be thin and on how media may impact women directly.

However, "the media examined typically included ads of thin models viewed in magazines and, more recently, social media accounts," she said. Only a few studies have explored partner influences on women's disordered eating.

"There have been a few studies on how partner pornography use relates to women's self-esteem and body image, but only one study to date has focused on partner pornography use and disordered eating," said Tylka. That study was comprised of a sample of college women and was conducted by her.

For the current study, the researchers explored the partner variables that may be linked to women's ED symptoms, perceived pressure to be thin, and pornography use.

Tylka and Calogero included 409 US women between the ages of 18 and 64 years (mean age, 33.5 years), all of whom were in relationships with men.

Among the women, 78.5% identified as white, 7.1% as Asian, 6.4% as black, 4.1% as multi-racial, and 3.9% as Latina. In terms of relationship status, 47.1% were married, 44.1% were in a "long-term relationship" with a man (1 year or more), and 8.8% were in recent relationship (less than year).

The median household income ranged from $45,000 to $60,000; 85.2% had attended college; and 36.9% had obtained a degree.

Perceived Pressures

All participants were asked to anonymously answer an online questionnaire that allowed researchers to identify the symptoms of different EDs.

Further, participants were instructed to estimate how many hours of porn their current partner viewed each week.

To represent an aggregate of partners, participants also estimated how often former partners had viewed pornography: never, rarely, sometimes, often, usually, or almost always. They indicated whether a partner's pornography use bothered them using a 5-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

The Perceived Sociocultural Pressures Scale was used to measure the extent participants felt pressure from a source to lose weight and to have a thin body.

The Internalization subscale of the Sociocultural Attitudes Toward Appearance Questionnaire-Revised was used to measure thin-ideal internalization.

According to the study, missing data were minimal (0.28% of responses), and completely at random, which was handled via multiple imputation. Age (but not income, race, or relationship category) was related to ED symptoms and was adjusted in the analyses.

Partner-Integrated Intervention?

Hierarchical multiple regression was used to examine associations between partner variables and ED symptomatology. Women whose partners watched as much as 8 hours of pornography per week experienced a much greater risk of ED.

The findings also suggest that perceived partner pressure to be thin was not only related to dieting (4.1%) and bulimia/food preoccupation (5.1%), but also body fat preoccupation (4.7%), extreme eating-related guilt (4.7%), vomiting after eating (3.1%), and binge eating (3.7%).

Previous and current partner pornography use was linked to women's disordered eating behaviors, even after considering women's age and whether they reported being bothered by this use, Tylka noted.

"Previous partner pornography use was related to women's higher self-induced vomiting, binge eating, body fat preoccupation, and feeling 'extremely guilty' after eating, while current partner pornography use was related to women's higher self-induced vomiting, body fat preoccupation, and feeling extremely guilty after eating," she said.

Tylka added that she wasn't overly surprised by some of the findings because "I have had previous clients reveal how they've struggled with their partners' use of pornography and what it meant in terms of their relationship, their attractiveness, their sexuality as a woman."

She was surprised that the relationship between partner pornography use and disordered eating held for both previous and current partners, as well as that these relationships were significant even after accounting for a woman's personal desire to be thin.

These women "may be engaging in disordered eating due to other factors, such as her perceptions of her partners' desires for a 'thinner woman' or to cope with negative feelings that may arise due to his porn use. Given that this was a sample of community women, and that it is common for adult men in relationships to view pornography, this is an area worthy of additional study," she said.

"Perhaps partners should be integrated into eating disorder prevention and treatment interventions to open communication among couples as to how their behaviors, or their perceptions of their partner's behaviors, may be driving disordered eating," Tylka concluded.

Strong Media Influence

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD, clinical psychologist with the ED medical stabilization program at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California, said "there's no question" that many individuals with EDs are strongly influenced by what media presents as an ideal body. 

"This is despite the fact that bodies thought to be 'normal' or 'desirable' are often only attainable by plastic surgery, lighting, and Photoshop," said Kromberg, who was not involved with the current study.

Kromberg said those who struggle with EDs tend to be extreme people pleasers.

"They're typically hypervigilant about being seen in a positive light, so much so that a solid sense of self can feel lacking. It's as if they're a malleable shell, quickly intuiting what others want and becoming that in hopes of securing that person's love and admiration," she said.

"So, if a partner is interested in and aroused by pornography, those who are emotionally susceptible can feel compelled to use eating disordered behavior in hopes of attaining an ideal physical appearance. This goes hand in hand with the belief that if her body is starved into perceived desirability, she will be more valued and loved," said Kromberg.

The study authors and Kromberg have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Int J Eat Disord. Published online January 9, 2019. Abstract

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