The pious and pompous preach the perils of pornography from pulpit and podium:
- It makes men view women as nothing more than sex objects rather than as human beings.
- It causes men to devalue their partners because they compare them with the women they see on screen.
- It encourages men to seek out dangerous or socially unacceptable sexual acts.
- Conversely, it leads to sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction and low libido.
Evidence for these claims is rarely offered since their truth seems self-evident. Or else we hear anecdotes of young men who spend their days watching porn and have no social life.
Many psychologists have investigated the effects of pornography use, but most of this research has looked for evidence to confirm the assumed dangers of porn. And, in fact, confirmatory evidence is easy to find. For example, if you ask men whether they’ve felt their partner was less attractive after viewing porn, the honest answer is often, “Yes.”
However, feelings are fleeting, and the real question is whether regular porn use leads to long-term sexual and relationship problems. Again, there’s plenty of correlational evidence, but teasing causation from correlation is always dicey. Maybe porn use causes relationship problems, or maybe relationship problems lead to porn use. And there’s also a third possibility—what’s known as the third variable problem. Namely, it could be that both porn use and relationship problems are symptoms of an underlying issue. We’ve got to look below the surface if we want to truly understand the human condition.
Pundits tell us that real men don’t watch porn and that those who do are shamed and scorned for their despicable behavior. But how do men who watch porn feel about their viewing habits? Are they compulsively drawn to it, hating themselves all the while they’re doing the “dirty deed”? Or do men watch porn because they feel it provides them with something positive? These are the questions a team of Australian and Danish psychologists probed in a recent report.
For the study, the researchers recruited over 300 men who identified themselves as heterosexual, ranging in age from 18 to 73. About three-fifths were college students completing the survey for course credit, and these participants were almost all under age 25. But the other two-fifths were recruited from the larger community, and these were mostly over age 25. About three-quarters of the respondents were from English-speaking Western countries.
The survey began with three yes-or-no questions:
- Have you ever watched pornography?
- Have you watched pornography in the last six months?
- At any point have you been a regular viewer of pornography (at least once a month for at least six months)?
They were also asked about the frequency of porn viewing, length of an average porn-viewing session, age at which they first viewed porn, and age at which they became a regular porn viewer.
The participants then responded to 14 items assessing perceived effect of pornography consumption on five aspects of their sexuality—sex life; life in general; attitudes toward sex; perception of and attitudes toward women; and sexual knowledge. Half the items were phrased positively (“viewing pornography has improved my sex life”), and the other half were worded negatively (“viewing pornography has made my life more problematic”). For each item, responses ranged from 1, meaning “not at all,” to 7, meaning “to an extremely large extent.”
And now for the results:
- 97% had viewed pornography at some time in their lives.
- 94% had viewed pornography in the last six months.
- 82% self-reported as regular viewers of pornography.
The average frequency of porn viewing was three-to-four times per week, with an average session lasting 15-30 minutes. The average age of first porn use was 13, and most had become regular porn users by 16 or 17. Further, the men as a group reported more positive than negative effects of pornography consumption on all five aspects of sexuality surveyed.
At this point, I’m guessing that you’re either breathing a sigh of relief or a sigh of despair, depending upon your personal attitudes toward pornography. These data clearly indicate that porn consumption has become a mainstream behavior that almost all men in Western society engage in. These men also see the positive aspects of their porn viewing as outweighing the negative.
There were, however, three qualifications to the finding that men consider their porn viewing to be an overall positive experience:
- Men who have never been regular porn users assessed pornography as having more negative than positive effects. There are all sorts of possible reasons for this. Perhaps their first porn experiences were unpleasant, so they never developed the habit. Or maybe it’s their preconceived negative attitudes that keep them away. At any rate, these men made up a minority of the sample, less than 20%.
- Men who were more religious reported more negative than positive effects of pornography. However, they didn’t report a lower frequency of porn use than non-religious men. No doubt, these men experience conflicting emotions as they struggle to reconcile their behaviors with their beliefs. They’re also easy targets for the purveyors of porn-addiction therapy.
- Although both younger and older men reported an overall positive experience with porn, younger men also indicated a greater degree of negative effects than did the older men. This result flies in the face of conventional opinion that the younger generation is more open to pornography than the older population. The researchers speculate that this is due to sexual experience. Young, inexperienced men turn to pornography for sexual knowledge, and when they later enter into sexual relationships they find out that real sex isn’t at all like what they’ve been viewing on the Internet. In contrast, older men who gained their sexual experience before pornography became widely available know that porn is fantasy, not reality. Porn sets unrealistic expectations about sex for naïve viewers, but it enhances sexuality for those who have realistic expectations about it.
Of course, just because men find porn viewing to be a positive experience, that doesn’t mean it’s good for them. A survey from 60 or 70 years ago on men’s smoking habits would have yielded very similar results. And even then, many people worried about the dangers of tobacco. But it wasn’t until there was an abundance of scientific evidence of the harmful effects of smoking that we as a society kicked the habit.
The same may eventually be true for pornography consumption, but I’m guessing it won't be. I believe it’s healthy to have an open attitude toward sexuality in all its forms as an essential aspect of human nature. Further, there’s plenty of evidence regarding the deleterious effects of repressed sexuality. Finally, I strongly suspect the guilt associated with illicit porn consumption does far more psychological harm than the recreational viewing of people having sex on the Internet. I imagine that, in another generation or two, people will wonder what all the fuss was about back in the dark ages of the early 21st century.
Miller, D. J., Kidd, G., & Hald, G. M. (2018). Self-perceived effects of pornography consumption among heterosexual men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 19, 469-476.