Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 9, Dec. 31 , 2006



Exposure to sexually explicit materials in the presence of others


Gregory D. Morrow, Ph.D.

Edinboro University of Pennsylvania

Poster session presented at the annual meetings for the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. November 2006, Las Vegas, Nevada.



This study was carried out as a preliminary examination of individuals’ exposure to sexually explicit materials (SEMs) in the presence of others. The study explored the prevalence of, respondents’ reactions to, and various correlates of exposure to SEMs with others. Data were collected via an on-line survey. Fifty individuals returned completed questionnaires. Forty three percent indicated that they had viewed SEMs with their romantic partner within the past year while 23% had viewed them with a same-sex friend and 21% had done so with an opposite-sex friend. Reactions of participants to these experiences were mixed with the most positive reactions occurring with romantic partners. Attitudes toward SEMs were among the important predictors of both frequency of, and reactions to, exposure to SEMs with others.


The pornography industry in the Unites States is a multi-billion dollar business fraught with controversy and debate. Social scientists and laypersons alike have questioned the effects that sexually explicit materials (SEM) may have on viewers. In response, many empirical studies have been carried out to address this issue. Surprisingly, however, researchers have largely ignored what may be a common phenomenon, the choice to view such materials with others. It is clear that individuals sometimes view SEM with romantic partners, same- or opposite-sex friends, or even strangers in a variety of contexts. An extensive review of the literature, however, revealed only three studies that examined the effects of viewing SEM in the presence of others.

Mann, Sidman, and Starr (1973) examined the effects of exposure to erotic films on the sexual behavior of married participants. Some couples viewed erotic films together while others viewed non-erotic films. In a third group, husbands viewed erotic films while wives viewed non-erotic films. Mann, et al. report that exposure to erotic films did increase the immediate sexual activity of the couples but that sexual behavior was not affected by the different viewing conditions.

In 1993 Saunders & Naus examined the responses of 48 male undergraduates to erotic and pornographic films. Participants viewed the films either alone, in the company of another male, or in the company of a female. The authors reported no effect of viewing condition on participants’ responses to either type of film.

Most recently, Sinclair, Lee, and Johnson (1995) reported on a study of the effect of social-comparison cues on male participants’ responses to three types of films (erotic, sexually violent, or violent but non-sexual). The social-comparison cue consisted of having a confederate indicate (or not) that the film was degrading to women. The results indicated that those who received the social-comparison cue were less aroused by the erotic film and reported that the film was more violent. Participants were also provided the opportunity to shock a female confederate in a supposedly unrelated learning study. Social-comparison cues also reduced the level of shock delivered to the confederate in all three film conditions. Thus, Sinclair et al. (1995) clearly demonstrated that the response of others to erotic stimuli could influence perceptions of those stimuli, as well as participants’ subsequent aggressive behavior.

Other researchers have occasionally explored related issues. Byrne, Cherry, Lamberth, and Mitchell (1972) for example, exposed married couples to a series of SEM in order to explore husband-wife similarity in responses to such materials. These authors found that spouses reported similar levels of arousal in response to SEM as well as similarity in judgments as to whether or not the stimulus materials were pornographic. No participants, however, were exposed to SEM without the presence of their spouses. Thus, no determination could be made regarding how the presence of the spouse may have influenced participants’ arousal or judgments of the stimuli.

In a more recent study Bridges, Bergner, and Hesson-Mcinnis (2003) explored wives’ perceptions of pornography use by their husbands. Participants in the study did not report strongly negative attitudes regarding the use of pornography by their spouses but neither did they feel overly positive toward their spouses’ behavior. This study was also limited in that it did not attempt to address pornography use by the wives or the question of whether or not husbands and wives ever used pornography together.

This paucity of empirical attention to the issue of the use of SEM with others is surprising given the plethora of research in social psychology on the effects that others may have on the attitudes and behaviors of the individual (i.e., conformity, group polarization, deindividuation, etc.). Thus, the present study was a preliminary examination of exposure of individuals to SEM in the presence of others.

Goals of the Study



Participants in the study consisted of 45 (15 males, 30 females) students, faculty, staff, and administrators from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Participants ranged in age from 17 to 63 (M = 33.1) and were primarily Caucasian (N = 43). Two respondents reported their race as ‘other’.

Materials and Procedures

Four hundred individuals (200 students, 200 faculty, staff, and administrators) were contacted via e-mail and were asked to complete an on-line questionnaire. The questionnaire contained 31 items that measured demographic characteristics, exposure to sexually explicit materials, reactions to those materials, and a brief sexual history.


The primary goal of this study was to explore the frequency of participants’ exposure to sexually explicit materials (SEM) in the presence of others, as well as reactions to, and correlated of such exposures. Prior to examining these issues, however, participants’ exposure to SEM in the past year was explored. Forty-one of 45 participants reported having viewed or acquired SEM. All 41 of these participants reported exposure to sexually explicit videos while 21 (51%) reported exposure to sexually explicit magazines and 24 (58%) reported exposure to sexually explicit internet sites within the past year. Figure 1 depicts participants’ reported attitudes toward SEM, which were primarily neutral or negative. It should be noted that subsequent analyses were carried out only on the 41 participants that reported having viewed or acquired SEM within the past year.

Having ascertained that most participants had been exposed to SEM in the past year, their exposure in the presence of others was explored. Specifically, participants were asked to indicate their frequency of viewing SEM with their romantic partner, same-sex friend, and opposite-sex friend within the past year. These findings are presented in Figure 2 and indicate that while the majority of participants had not viewed SEM with others within the past year, those that had were most likely to have done so with their romantic partners.

Next, individuals’ reactions to their experience viewing SEM with others were examined. Participants were asked to indicate how they felt (or imagined they would feel) when viewing SEM with their romantic partner, same-sex friend, or opposite-sex friend. These findings are presented in Figure 3 and indicate that participants generally felt more arousal and less discomfort when viewing SEM materials with their romantic partners in comparison to viewing SEM with either same-or opposite-sex friends.

Table 1 presents the correlations between the frequency of participants’ exposure to SEM with others and their feelings while doing so. Clearly, individuals who report viewing SEM materials with one group (romantic partner, same- or opposite-sex friends) are more likely to view SEM with the others as well. Individuals’ responses to viewing SEM with others were similarly related such that those reporting greater arousal when viewing SEM with one group also tended to report greater arousal with the others. In addition, individuals’ reported frequency of viewing SEM with their romantic partners was positively correlated with their reported arousal from doing so. The frequency of viewing with same-sex friends was associated with greater arousal from viewing SEM with both same- and opposite-sex friends. Interestingly, participants’ reported arousal from viewing SEM with their romantic partners was negatively correlated with their frequency of viewing with an opposite-sex friend. Thus, those who viewed these materials more often with an opposite-sex friend reported less arousal to SEM when viewing them with their partners.

Lastly, the relationships between several aspects of respondent’s sexual attitudes and behaviors and both the frequency of and reactions to viewing SEM with others were examined. These correlations are presented in Table 2. Not surprisingly, participants’ attitudes toward SEM were positively associated with the likelihood of viewing these materials with both their romantic partners and same-sex friends (but not opposite-sex friends). Those with more positive attitudes towards SEM also reported greater arousal from viewing them with their partners, same-sex friends, and opposite-sex friends. Viewing habits were, however, relatively unrelated to other aspects of participants’ sexual behavior. Sexual satisfaction was correlated only with greater feelings of arousal while viewing SEM with same-sex friends and the same was true when frequency of masturbation was examined. Finally, frequency of intercourse was related only to frequency of viewing SEM with the romantic partner, such that more frequent viewing was associated with more frequent intercourse.


Although exploratory in nature, these data indicate that a substantial number of individuals are exposed to SEM in the presence of others (particularly in the presence of romantic partners). Not surprisingly, both the likelihood of viewing SEM with others, and individuals’ reactions to doing so, were associated with their attitudes regarding SEM. Participants also reported a variety of reactions to those experiences; generally indicating greater arousal to viewing while with their romantic partners and more neutral or negative reactions to viewing while with same- or opposite-sex friends. Furthermore, frequency of intercourse (but not frequency of masturbation or sexual satisfaction) was positively associated with the frequency of viewing SEM with the romantic partner.

While providing some very interesting insights into the phenomenon of individuals viewing SEM with others, the present findings are rather limited. The small number of participants in the present study is problematic and this sample may not be characteristic of the more general population. For example, 91% of these participants indicated that they had watched a sexually explicit video in the past year, a figure that is much higher than is reported by other researchers (cf. Buzzell, 2005). In addition, many of the measures utilized in the current study were quite general. Subsequent research should examine all of these variables in greater detail and should also include other relevant measures (i.e., who initiates the use of SEM with others). Finally, future research should also explore in more detail the effect that exposure to SEM with others may have on subsequent sexual behaviors.

In summary, this study (as do most) raises many more questions than it answers. These data, however, clearly indicate that many individuals do view SEM with others and that this is a phenomenon deserving of greater empirical attention


Bridges, A. J., Bergner, R. M., & Hesson-Mcinnis, M. (2003). Romantic partners’ use of pornography: Its significance for women. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 29, 1-14.

Buzzell, T. (2005). Demographic characteristics of persons using pornography in three technological contexts. Sexuality and Culture, 9, 28-48.

Byrne, D. Cherry, F., Lamberth, J., & Mitchell, H. E. (1973). Husband-wife similarity in response to erotic stimuli. Journal of Personality, 41, 385 – 394.

Mann, J., Sidman, J, & Starr, S. (1973). Evaluating social consequences of erotic films: An experimental approach. Journal of Social Issues, 29. 113 – 131.

Saunders, R. M., & Naus, P. J. (1993). The impact of social content and audience factors on responses to sexually explicit videos. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 19, 117-130.

Sinclair, R. C., Lee, T., & Johnson, T. E. (1995). The effect of social-comparison feedback on aggressive responses to erotic and aggressive films. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 818-837.

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