In today’s world, pornography is more affordable and accessible than ever, and there are a whole lot of (mostly uninformed) opinions about whether this is good or bad or neither or both. Some folks seem to think that porn is great for sex and relationships, the more the better. Other people feel that porn is the bane of human existence, so please ban it and banish anyone who uses it. Interestingly, both sides of this somewhat contentious conversation are convinced that porn is taking over the internet.
Of course, neither side of the great porn debate – is it good or is it bad – seems overly interested in actual facts. Mostly there’s a lot of uninformed bragging on one side, countered by mostly uninformed fear-mongering on the other. Our preference is that you make up your own mind about porn, with your decisions based on facts rather than spurious arguments from one extreme or the other.
Here are five research-based facts about pornography, its use, and its effects.
- There’s a Whole Lot of Porn Out There.
Not that long ago, if you wanted to look at pornography you had to buy a magazine at a gas station or an adult bookstore, or skulk into an adult movie theater. And even then, your options were minimal. If you bought every magazine on the rack, you’d get maybe 100 images total. If you watched every video in theater, you saw half a dozen or so sex scenes. If you wanted something outré or kinky, you needed to do some serious searching and spend some serious cash.
Today, not so much. There are millions of porn websites, most of which house thousands of images and videos. Plus, there are countless user-generated porn images floating around on social media, dating sites, and hookup apps.
How much porn is out there, you ask? Well, in 2012, researchers analyzing Internet search engine data found 2.5 million different porn sites offering every type of imagery imaginable. The researchers also learned that 13% of all internet searches are porn-related (Ogas and Gaddam, 2012). So yeah, there’s a lot of porn out there, and a lot of people looking at it.
- Kids Look at Porn.
Some people think that only adults access porn. Those people are wrong. A 2008 study found that nearly all boys and most girls look at porn, though boys tend to view it earlier and more often (Sabina, Wolak & Finkelhor, 2008). In an earlier study, researchers estimated the average age of first porn use at 11 (Wolak, Mitchell & Finkelhor, 2007). So, almost all kids experiment with porn.
Adolescent males are particularly drawn to internet porn. In a study of 16-year-old boys, 96% stated they used porn, with 10% admitting they used it daily (Mattebo, Tyden, Haggstrom-Nordin, Nilsson & Larsson, 2013). And when a Canadian researcher tried to study the effects of porn use on adolescent males, he couldn’t, because he was unable to locate even one potential study participant who wasn’t already using porn. Without a control group, there was no way to make comparisons, so the study was abandoned (Liew, 2009).
- Porn Can Be Bad for Relationships.
Recent research tells us that porn use while married almost doubles the likelihood of getting divorced in the next four years (Perry, 2017). Research also shows that increasing porn use correlates with decreasing marital satisfaction in both the short-term and long-term, especially when it’s the husband who’s using the porn (Perry, 2017). Moreover, porn users who self-identify as sexually compulsive/addicted tend to have issues with erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation, and anorgasmia (the inability to reach orgasm) (Rosenberg, Carnes, & O’Connor, 2014; Hall, 2012; Voon, Mole, Banca, … & Irvine, 2014).
- There Are Many Different Reasons for Using Porn.
Recent research shows that motivations for using porn vary widely, with those reasons often overlapping. In one study, 94.4% of porn users said they went online for sexual satisfaction, 87.2% said they used porn to feel sexual arousal, 86.5% used it to have an orgasm, 73.8% used it to alleviate stress, 70.8% used it to relieve boredom, 53.0% used it to temporarily escape daily problems, 44.9% relied on it as a short-term cure for loneliness, and 38.1% used it to combat depression (Wéry & Billieux, 2016).
- For Some People, Porn Use Creates Problems.
Plenty of people are able to use porn without consequences. They view porn recreationally, their viewing is under control (they can stop when they want to), and their porn use does not create problems for them or anyone around them.
For other people, however, porn use can be an issue – even when it doesn’t rise to the level of compulsivity/addiction. For starters, not all porn users feel OK with what they’re doing. One study found that 61.7% of adult males who look at porn felt shame about what they were doing, with 27.6% of test subjects self-assessing their use of porn as “problematic” (Wéry & Billieux, 2016). The same study found that people who use porn to control what they’re feeling (to self-medicate stress, anxiety, boredom, depression, loneliness, etc.) are far more likely to view their porn use as problematic (Wéry & Billieux, 2016). This is similar to what we see with alcoholics and drug abusers, where consistently using as a way to self-medicate is a sure sign of addiction.
Our Professional Opinion (If You Want It)
Although smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other digital technologies facilitate and even encourage porn use, technology itself is not the driver of porn-related issues. In fact, as stated above, most people can use porn without problems just as most people can drink alcohol without problems. Generally, it is individuals who are predisposed to emotional and psychological issues thanks to unresolved early-life trauma (and perhaps iffy genetics) who experience porn-related issues like sexual dysfunction and sexual compulsivity/addiction, just as these individuals might experience problems with alcohol, drugs, spending, gambling, video gaming, and the like.
Hall, P. (2012). Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction: A Comprehensive Guide for People Who Struggle with Sex Addiction and Those Who Want to Help Them. Routledge.
Liew, J. (2009). “All Men Watch Porn, Scientists Find.” The Telegraph. Retrieved Jan 16, 2015 from telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/6709646/All-men-watch-porn-scientists-find.html.
Mattebo, M., Tyden, T., Haggstrom-Nordin, E., Nilsson, K.S., & Larsson M. (2013). Pornography Consumption, Sexual Experiences, Lifestyles, and Self-Rated Health Among Male Adolescents in Sweden. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 34(7):460-468.
Ogas, O. & Gaddam, S. (2012). A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us about Sexual Relationships. New York, NY: Plume.
Perry, S. L. (2017). Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence from Longitudinal Data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559.
Rosenberg, K. P., Carnes, P., & O’Connor, S. (2014). Evaluation and Treatment of Sex Addiction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 40(2), 77-91.
Sabina, C., Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2008). The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(6), 691-693.
Voon, V., Mole, T. B., Banca, P., Porter, L., Morris, L., Mitchell, S., … & Irvine, M. (2014). Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals With and Without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours. PloS one, 9(7), e102419.
Wéry, A., & Billieux, J. (2016). Online Sexual Activities: An Exploratory Study of Problematic and Non-problematic Usage Patterns in a Sample of Men. Computers in Human Behavior, 56, 257-266.
Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). Unwanted and Wanted Exposure to Online Pornography in a National Sample of Youth Internet Users. Pediatrics, 119(2), 247-257.