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How Do Sexual Images Affect You and Your Relationships?

Back in the 1960s, to get your porn fix, you had to go to an adult movie theatre or find a copy of Playboy. Today, pornography is everywhere. Anyone with access to the internet can get all the porn that she or he wants. How does this increased accessibility of porn affect us?

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In one set of studies, we examined the effects of exposure to sexual images on how people feel and what they want to do. People were invited to the laboratory and exposed to sexual cues that were subliminal (processed outside of one’s awareness) or supraliminal. The first three experiments showed that exposure to subliminal sexual cues resulted in people feeling happier. In one study, we asked people to report their mood after being primed. In a second study, we used a cognitive task (indicating whether a letter string is a proper English word as fast as you can) and examined whether being primed with sexual primes shorten the time it took people to identify words related to positive mood. In a third study, we tested whether being exposed to sexual images before evaluating meaningless symbols made people like those symbols more. In the fourth study, we demonstrated that the positive emotions resulting from exposure to subliminal sexual cues increased motivation to continue doing a neutral task. In other words, a task that otherwise was boring or annoying was perceived as fun following the subliminal sex prime. In the last study, we showed that exposure to sexual images did not simply increase the motivation to do anything and everything, but rather increased the motivation to engage in sex specifically.

Before you rush to the comment section to write ‘duh’, or look for ways to suggest my research as a candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize, think about this: While we are all familiar with the idea that sex equals fun, and people are motivated to engage in sex, very little research actually examines these ideas. Without such research, the ideas are nothing but intuition or opinion. Also, remember that people did not know what the study was about, or that they are exposed to sexual images, which allows us to get a glimpse into their subconscious, and the effects of sexual cues with minimal intervention from factors such as stigmas, taboos, etc. This allows us to avoid societal misconceptions and people’s attempts to manage their own impression, which could otherwise bias our results.

In another set of studies, we exposed people either subliminally (outside their awareness) or supraliminally, to erotic words and pictures and compared that to exposure to control words and images. We were specifically interested in the effects of “sexual priming” on relational outcomes—the tendencies to initiate and maintain close relationships. Once again, we assessed the tendencies using various cognitive and behavioral tasks as well as self-report measures. We found that subliminal but not supraliminal exposure to sexual primes increased (a) willingness to self-disclose, or tell more about one’s own fears, dreams, and other vulnerabilities, (b) accessibility of intimacy-related thoughts, (c) willingness to sacrifice for one’s partner, and (d) preference for using positive conflict-resolution strategies. The first two findings support the idea that when people are exposed to sexual images, they are more likely to initiate or be open to initiation of new romantic or sexual ties. The last two findings support the idea that exposure to sexual cues increases the tendency to maintain one’s existing romantic relationship. Together the four studies show that exposure to sexual images (at least subliminally) can actually help form and maintain relationships. We still do not know which goal (initiate or maintain a relationship) is likely to be more active after the prime. This suggests that exposure to sexual cues could potentially lead to infidelity (if the initiation goal is more active for someone who is already in a relationship), but it could also prevent infidelity by increasing the tendency to maintain one’s relationship.

The bottom line here is that the effects of exposure to sexual images are more complicated than people tend to believe, and they are definitely not all bad or harmful. People can use sexual images or porn to help their relationships, increase arousal, and find new ways to spice up their sex life. Importantly, the way the cues are processed—consciously or subconsciously—also matters.


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