Dueling Statistics: How Much of the Internet Is Porn?

Depending on the source, the Internet either is—or isn’t—largely about porn.

Posted Nov 03, 2016

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 on who you ask. Some commentators, especially 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 Perspective

Most social/religious conservatives, by definition, condemn sexual expression and activity outside of procreative sex within marriage. Such social conservatives especially denounce porn. Combine that stance with new means of communication—the Internet, cell phones—and the resulting response is what some liberal commentators have dubbed a “sex panic.” Groups that hope to persuade Americans to promote or to adopt their socially conservative vision of morality have produced statistics that suggest that you can hardly look at a screen without seeing pornography.

Covenant Eyes is one site that claims that porn is inescapable. The company produces software that enables parents to track kids’ Internet use and block content they deem “inappropriate.” The software can also be used by those wishing to track a spouse's or a lover's 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 this organization:

• 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, a set of 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. 

Ogas and Gaddam also tracked 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 material on 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 link 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 researchers note, the proportion of porn searchers has fallen substantially.

Who Should We Believe?

I’m deeply skeptical of the social 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 (generally spelled out as bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism). However, anyone who understands consensual BDSM knows that it’s not violent, but rather erotically-charged theater/play with the action totally controlled by the submissive “victim.” This is consensual activity. 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, I'd like to argue, 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 would bet that most readers of this post viewed some porn as kids or teens and grew up to be mentally healthy adults.

Socially conservative critics of porn argue that it encourages men to commit sexual assault. On the contrary, as I've pointed out in earlier posts, the fact is that in the same period that porn has become more easily available, sexual assault has declined (see “Does Porn Cause Social Harm?” and “The Evidence Mounts: More Porn LESS Rape”).

To be fair, I also have questions about the study showing that the proportion of men using porn has increased by only 2 percent during the last 30 years. Before the Internet, porn consumption involved furtive trips to seedy 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, the Ogas-Gaddam estimates, reached through rigorous studies, seem to be the most credible—4 percent of websites are X-rated and 10 to 15 percent of searches 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

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

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