In the hilarious Broadway musical, Avenue Q, an R-rated send-up of Sesame Street, one of the puppet characters strikes it rich in online porn and leads the cast in the show’s most rollicking song, “The Internet Is For Porn.”

Is it? That depends. Some commentators, notably social/religious conservatives and companies selling “net nanny” filtering software, claim that the Internet is so awash in porn that exposure to X-rated material is virtually unavoidable. Others, mostly academic researchers, concede that while a plethora of porn is just a click away for free, X-rated images account for only a modest proportion of sites, searches, and views.

The Conservative Sex Panic

Except for procreative lovemaking within marriage, social/religious conservatives and self-styled protectors of decency generally feel threatened by sex, especially by porn. Combine that anxiety with new forms of communication—the Internet, cell phones—and the result is what some observers have called a “sex panic.” Groups that hope to rally Americans to preserve their vision of morality have produced statistics that suggest you can hardly look at a screen without seeing activities rated XXX.

Covenant Eyes is one site claiming that porn is inescapable. The company produces software that enables parents to track kids’ Internet use and block “inappropriate” content. The software can also be used by those wishing to track spouses’ and lovers’ browsing. According to Covenant Eyes:

• In 2015, worldwide, there were more than 2 billion Web searches for porn.

• 20 percent of mobile-device searches are for porn.

• 90 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls are exposed to Internet porn by age 18.

• 56 percent of divorces involve one spouse (almost always the man) having an obsessive interest in online porn.

• Compared with faithful spouses, adulterers are more than twice as likely to be regular viewers of online porn.

Similar statistics come from InternetSafey101/Enough is Enough, which calls itself “the national leader in making the Internet safe for children and families.” According to these folks:

• Porn sites attract more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter combined.

• 30 percent of Internet content is porn.

• 88 percent of porn contains violence against women.

• From 2005 to 2013, searches for “teen porn” tripled to 500,000 a day.

• Compared with young adults who don’t view violent X-rated material, those who do are are six times more likely to commit sexual assault.

On the Other Hand…

Meanwhile, less ideological academic investigators argue that while the Internet has made porn more accessible and popular than ever, it hasn’t hijacked the Internet or enslaved kids, boyfriends, and husbands.

The key source academics use to explore trends in American porn consumption is the General Social Survey (GSS). Launched in 1973 by the National Science Foundation, the GSS is the nation’s only ongoing, national, interview-based survey of American beliefs and behavior. An Indiana University researcher (Wright, 2013) analyzed GSS responses from 14,193 men age 18 and older, and found that despite the explosion of Internet porn, consumption has not risen all that much. For years, the GSS has asked: Have you viewed pornography in the past year? During the decade before the Internet, (1987-1997), 32 percent of men answered yes. In the dozen years after (1998-2010), the figure was 34 percent, an increase of just 2 percent.

Meanwhile, the best book I’ve read about Internet porn is A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sex and Relationships. The authors, computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., and Sai Gaddam, Ph.D., analyzed several billion recent Internet searches, and found that of the 1 million most visited websites, 42,337 were sex-related, about 4 percent. (The world’s most popular porn site is LiveJasmin.com—35 million visitors a month, mostly men. For comparison, Quantcast.com estimates that PsychologyToday.com attracts 1.1 million visitors a month, mostly women.)

Ogas and Gaddam also tracked worldwide web searches from July 2009 to July 2010. The proportion that involved porn—13 percent.

Finally, they interviewed officials at the major search engines about the prevalence of porn searches. Those estimates: 10 to 15 percent. 

So somewhere between 4 and 15 percent of Web use involves porn. Crunching these numbers, Ogas and Gaddam estimate that porn accounts for around 10 percent of the Internet.

But if the 10-percent figure is true, how do Ogas and Gaddam explain conservatives’ consistent contention that one-third to half of Internet searches lead to porn? Ogas and Gaddam say that those figures come from the earliest years of the Internet (1997-1999) when the vast majority of web users were young adult men. In 1999, 40 percent of web searchers involved porn. But as web demographics have expanded to include most of the population, the proportion of porn searchers has fallen substantially.

Who Should We Believe?

I’m deeply skeptical of the conservatives’ statistics. CovenantEyes provides no sources for its assertions, but InternetSafety101/EnoughIsEnough does—and from what I can tell the site massages the data to fit its ideology.

For example, the claim that 88 percent of Internet porn depicts violence against women comes from a single study that labeled as “violent” all consensual BDSM. However, anyone who understands BDSM knows that it’s NOT violent, but rather erotically-charged theater/play with the action totally controlled by the submissive “victim.” InternetSafety101 ignored much better analyses that recognize consensual BDSM as play and, as a result, show much less violence against women in porn. In my view, the best of these studies pegged the proportion of porn showing any violence at just 2 percent—less violence than on the typical TV cop show. For more, see my previous post, "How Much Porn Depicts Violence Against Women?"

Furthermore, even if 90 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls are exposed to Internet porn by age 18, so what? I was a teen in the 1960s and viewed some porn, mostly X-rated magazines that friends’ fathers had hidden in their basements or garages. Yet, despite this exposure, I became a productive adult. I never committed sexual assault. I married, and my wife and I recently celebrated our 39th anniversary. We raised two children who were teens from 1999 to 2013. My son and daughter saw some porn growing up, mostly my son. Nonetheless, they’ve become productive adults involved in relationships that look to me to be healthy and loving. I don’t see how porn exposure has hurt me or them.

Of course, my anecdotal evidence can’t be called definitive. But I bet most readers of this post viewed some porn as kids or teens and grew up to be mentally healthy adults.

Social conservatives argue that porn encourages men to commit sexual assault. On the contrary, the fact is that as porn has become more easily available, sexual assault has declined—see my previous posts “Does Porn Cause Social Harm?”, and “The Evidence Mounts: More Porn LESS Rape.”

But I also wonder about the study showing that the proportion of men using porn has increased only 2 percent during the last 30 years. Before the Internet, porn consumption involved furtive trips to seedy X-theaters or out-of-the-way sex shops. Porn was available, but not very accessible and it cost money. Today billions of porn pages are just a click away for free. It doesn’t seem possible that in 30 years, the proportion of men accessing it has risen by only 2 percent.

Nonetheless, for my money, the Ogas-Gaddam estimates feel most credible—4 percent of websites are X-rated and 10 to 15 percent of searchers are for porn.

So how pervasive is porn on the Internet? Hard to say. I’d be very interested to hear what readers think. How much of the Internet do you think is porn?

References:

www.forbes.com/sites/julieruvolo/2011/09/07/how-much-of-the-internet-is-...

Ogas, O. and S. Gaddam. A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sex and Relationships. Plume, NY, 2012.

Wright, P.J. “U.S. Males and Pornography, 1973-2010: Consumption, Predictors, Correlates,” Journal of Sex Research (2013) 50:60.

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