Common Sense about the Effects of Pornography

Are concerns about pornography based in fact or fear?

Posted Feb 03, 2014

“Dr. Ley, enough with the research! Let’s talk about common sense!”

These were the surprising words I recently heard from eminent journalist Katie Couric, during an appearance on her talk show Katie. We were discussing pornography, and whether or not it has a negative effect, on peoples’ sexuality, on men’s objectification of women, on sex crimes and rape, on the developing brains of adolescents, and on erectile performance. In short, we were exploring all of the commonly held current beliefs about the dangers of pornography.

Katie’s right. Common sense is important to talk about. Common sense is what the majority of people rely on when they evaluate risks, dangers, and effects, especially when it comes to children. We need to discuss common sense, and what it says about pornography, and modern sexuality in general. Because common sense and those intuitive feelings of rightness and wrongness are the dividing line between people who are increasingly worried about the growing dangers of pornography on the internet, and those who argue that the effects of pornography are minimal, or even positive.

Sarah Palin once said: “Shoot, I must have lived such a doggoned sheltered life as a normal, independent American up there in the Last Frontier, schooled with only public education and a lowly state university degree, because obviously I haven't learned enough to dismiss common sense.”

Surprisingly (given the history of Ms. Couric’s revealing interviews with Palin), Couric’s approach seems to mirror Palin’s, at least when it comes to research on sex and porn. When scientific research reveals findings that contradict our instincts, which should we attend to?

It seems to make common sense that because pornography, and sex in general, feel so good, that they could become addictive. It also makes intuitive sense that, because sex releases neurochemicals in the brain, that those neurochemicals could act like drugs on the brain. When we hear people talk about starting with one form of pornography, like Playboy Magazine, and ending up later looking at some extreme forms of porn like rape porn or bestiality, it makes common sense for us to worry that porn could have a tolerance effect that might lead people to pursue harder and harder forms of it, in order to reach the same level of stimulation. That need for greater stimulation could also make it so that men can’t get erect with real women, but only when faced by their fantasy images. If that slippery slope of porn tolerance might lead men to watch extreme porn like rape porn, then might it not lead them to act on those desires? Couldn’t it push someone over the edge, from fantasy to reality?

It makes sense to all of us that we don’t want children watching pornography. Pornography contains extreme, unrealistic depictions of sex acts that even most adults don’t engage in. Certainly it makes common sense, that showing those images to kids might confuse them at the least, or even warp their ideas about sex, gender and relationships.

These are all very understandable, intuitively appealing common-sense ideas about pornography. These same ideas once fueled the 19th century fight against masturbation, when boys and girls had their genitals caged, or burned with acid, to prevent them from self-pleasure. They resurfaced in the 1980s when Playboy was removed from convenience store shelves, and even in current arguments in Great Britain, where the government has instituted filtering of the internet to protect children from pornography.

Unfortunately, while all these ideas make common sense, none of them hold up in the face of research. I believe that common sense, gut instinct, and intuition are incredibly valuable. For years, I’ve recommended the book The Gift of Fear, which reminds us to listen to our intuitive warnings of danger. As a scientist and empirically-guided clinician, I recognize that intuition and common sense can yield great insights, which must then be measured against objective evidence. The problem is that common sense is “commonly” subject to bias, and can often be warped by our limited experiences, our assumptions, our needs, our subjective values and our cultural norms.

It makes absolutely no common sense to believe that the earth is round or revolves around the sun. Our basic experience on a day to day basis tells us that the earth is flat, and the sun comes up in the east as it spins around our world. Common sense tells us that the world is solid. But science tells us that in fact, solid matter is comprised mostly of empty space and energy. The atomic bomb, nuclear energy, astrophysics, particle science, and quantum theory are all based on the idea that our common-sense belief about the world is wrong, and these theories are moving our world forward in ways that common sense cannot.

Most of us go through life making decisions based on common sense, but we all know that important decisions need to be based on the most accurate information we have available. I believe that decisions about sexuality are some of the most important decisions that we can make. Decisions about sexuality, our own, that which affects children, and judgment of the sexuality of others, should be made based upon information that is examined carefully, to weigh the influence of assumptions, and to determine whether our common sense is consistent with the data.

I’ll say something I didn’t have the chance to say to Katie and her audience: It’s truly sad that kids of any age are being exposed to pornography, because porn is intended as entertainment for adults. Pornography was never intended to teach kids about sex, and sadly, that’s what’s happening. Because adults in our society are so afraid to talk with kids about sex, and because abstinence-only sex education continues to be pervasive, kids are going to the internet to learn about sex. Learning about sex by watching porn is like learning to shoot a gun from watching Bruce Willis movies. Both are fantasy-based entertainment, and by following either one, somebody’s bound to get hurt.

But, porn exposure in kids doesn’t have a life-altering, warping effect on children. In fact, recent research in the Netherlands showed that exposure to pornography explained less than 4% of the variance in adolescents' behavior. This means that 96% of the reasons why these kids do the things they do have nothing to do with the fact that they saw pornography. But, from the hyperbole and panic that we all hear on a regular basis, we are paying a lot more attention to porn than it deserves.

People who like porn, and watch porn, tend to also be people who enjoy sex. Sex is healthy and good for you, and so is masturbation. Even lots of sex and lots of masturbation. There’s no scientific evidence that porn is any different to your brain than any other form of entertainment, from television to video games. The idea that porn use causes erectile dysfunction is bunk and is based on a simplistic, fear-based and gender-biased view of sex, porn, masturbation and the brain, fueled by a desperate need to find an explanation for erectile difficulties. Frequent masturbation and porn watching may affect a man's sexual behavior, but the effect is due to masturbation, not from porn. Efforts to pathologize porn are actually hidden attempts to again call masturbation dangerous and unhealthy. 

Greater social access to pornography actually correlates with a decrease in sex crimes, in research that has been replicated around the world. Sexual fantasy—even bizarre, scary types of sexual fantasy—have no proven link to peoples’ behaviors. We’d like to think they do. It makes common sense. But, engaging in sexual fantasy, even about scary, deviant, or illegal practices, is not a major factor influencing peoples’ behaviors. Fantasy is actually more likely to reduce the chances people act on scary, dangerous desires. Thinking about choking your boss doesn’t increase the chances you will do it. In fact, the daydream probably reduces your tension, allows you to resolve some emotional issues, and makes it easier for you to go back to work. Sexual fantasies are no different, whether they are in your head or on the computer screen.

Consistent research shows us that the overwhelming majority of pornography viewers report no problems or difficulties due to their use. When porn users do, their problems relate primarily to their relationships, their culture, their morals and their personal functioning, not to porn. Porn use may sometimes be a symptom of problems, but no research yet shows us that it is a cause of problems. 

Sexual issues and questions touch something deep inside us. Sexual concerns and questions can turn off some of our higher reasoning functioning, and make us react from a primal, protective, cautious place. Worries about kids and sexuality understandably trigger powerful fears, anger, and reaction. Before we give in to those fears, and allow our biases and unquestioned assumptions to dictate our choices, remember what happened to Chicken Little. In the story, Henny Penny believed the sky was falling, and the chick’s panic was contagious. Those who caught that panic from Henny Penny, and allowed their fear to rule their behaviors, led her into a cave, where they thought they would be safe. Instead, they were all eaten by Foxy Loxy, because their fear and desire for safety and protection made them dangerously gullible.

A young man contacted me recently, asking for treatment of porn addiction. As we began to assess his needs, he reported that "by the way," he was also using heroin during binges each weekend. But because of the panic about porn, this poor young man believed that his porn use and masturbation posed greater risk to his life and wellbeing. Use your common sense; it’s important. But, to make good, careful decisions, you must also use your ability to question your common sense, to suspend it momentarily, and examine the data. Our fears and panics over porn can lead us to ignore serious issues, at our peril. 

You can follow David Ley on Twitter, @DrDavidLey.