On The Effects of Pornography

The negative results of porn consumption are due to other variables, not porn itself. Furthermore, porn is not addictive as some have argued.

Among some commentators and those on the political right, it’s argued that porn has many negative effects on relationships, individuals, mental health, and is addictive. In essence, porn is a digital drug and something should be done about it. Originally, this was going to be an article debunking anti-anti-porn critics, but I realized the situation was more nuanced than what people like Gary Wilson, a leading voice against porn, has argued. Instead, the evidence was more nuanced and showed a radically different picture. In reality, the negative effects of porn on relationships is due to variation in how people watch porn; porn doesn’t lead to lower mental health; is not associated with crime; and it’s not addictive. I made sure to go to anti-porn sites like Fight The New Drug and Your Brain on Porn, so this is not an article cherry-picking studies. In fact, it’s explaining and responding to claims from FTND and YBOP. No moral judgment is made about porn, rather only the supposed effects.

A Short History of Porn

Although porn — imagery depicting sexual acts via photos, drawings, videos and literature — has been around since prehistoric times (refer to Black, Green, and Rickards 1992; O’Connor 2001; and Hyde and Ernst 1965), it has not been as widespread as it is today. Indeed, centuries ago pornography shocked many people when they were exposed to it. Fanny Hill, a book about a rich English woman’s sexual adventures like orgies and prostitution, is considered to be one of the first English prose porns that is in the form of a novel. After its release in 1748, the authors were charged with the corruption of individuals. During the 1860s when Pompeii was being evacuated, erotic Roman art was put into the spotlight and it shocked the Victorians who saw it. The art was put into a secret museum, and the art that couldn’t be removed was covered so it wouldn’t corrupt individuals like women and children (Pornography: A Secret History of Civilization). Before pornography came to be “accepted”, there were many laws in place made specifically for banning it. For example, the world’s first law that banned pornography was the Obscene Publications Act 1857, a law that took place in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The American law that resembled this was the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal to send any obscene material through the mail. 

After the invention of motion picture in 1895, pornography changed from statues and drawings to movies. Porn movies, like Le Coucher de la Mariée, were being made — although they weren’t the same as the porn available today. For example, the “porn” in this film was mild when compared to today’s porn, as an actress in this film was stripteasing but she was still wearing her undergarments (keep in mind that today’s undergarments are radically different than those in the 1800s). After the release of this film, people started to see that they could make a profit from this. Processing the films and distributing them were risky and distribution was kept private. Some “members only” cinemas played porn on the silver screen. In 1969, Blue Movie was the first pornographic film to depict explicit sex and to be released in U.S. theatres. As time went on, porn changed and has since become more available to the gender public. Going to members only theatres or knowing someone who could give you porn wasn’t needed, since the invention of the internet has allowed people to access porn in a few seconds. 

Even before porn became available on the internet, there was a debate about it. An example of this is Women Against Pornography, a radical feminist group in the late 1970s- 1980s. The views espoused by this group condemned porn as they saw it as depicting violence against women and that porn facilitated violence against women. Catharine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, American feminist, called for legislation that would hold pornographers be accountable for harms that could result from their work (McKinnon and Dworkin 1988). McKinnon charged that pornography entailed different types of violence against women, and that women are brutalized in the current porn industry. Since then, multiple studies have been released that discussed this issue in depth. Since the time of McKinnon and Dworkin, new voices have emerged that have re-lit the debate on pornography. An example of this is the popular group known as Fight The New Drug. Many of their online articles are dedicated to showing the negative outcomes of porn via the use of studies and personal stories. Due to this, it’s unsurprising to see that many researchers and articles have responded to some of their claims (e.g. Prause et al. 2016; Harlot Magazine 2015 claims that they use “pseudoscience”, but no evidence is given and it seems to be attacking the site and how it is overall). While it is not uncommon for people to critiqued, a problem arises when only one side of the science is given.

Brown (2017) gives examples of anti-porn arguments and how they’re flawed or how the evidence is conflicting, but the author seems to ignore countless of other studies. For example, one researcher may attack a study for its small sample size, but if many studies with small, random sampling are finding the same results then the totality of the evidence does suggest a trend in the field. Sisley (2019) argues against anti-porn claims with the words of a porn star, but they cite no evidence and the porn star just hand waves away claims because of her personal experience in the industry. Other articles don’t even mention conflicting evidence, rather they make large statements like “Porn is good for society” (Arrowsmith 2011). (No evidence is given for this claim.) While it is not wrong to cite evidence that may have proved an older study wrong, it is wrong to only cite responses from critics and not report on responses from the original researcher – or to ignore the totality of the evidence and come to a conclusion. Much of this article is dedicated to looking at both sides and coming to a conclusion. If there are mediating variables that explain why some studies find what they do, then they should be mentioned.

Who’s Watching Porn?

Internet pornography has become one of the most widely watched items on the internet. Using data from Pornhub, a popular online pornography website, we can see the scope of how much porn is consumed for their site. In the past year, 5,517,748,800 hours of porn were consumed on their site alone. Since large amounts of porn is consumed online, one has to wonder who exactly is consuming porn (digital and physical) and at what age.

In a sample of 10,000 Norwegians between the ages of 18-49, 82% have read pornographic magazines, 84% had seen pornographic films, and 34% had examined pornography on the Internet. 14% used the internet for erotic chatting. Younger individuals were more likely to use the internet to view porn and chat (Traeen and Nilson 2006). Sabina, Wolak, and Finkelhor (2008) used an online survey and found that 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to online pornography during adolescence. Boys were more likely to be exposed at an earlier age than girls, and were more likely to see more extreme images (e.g. rape, child porn). They often viewed more porn that girls. Girls, on the other hand,  reported more involuntary exposure to porn. Most exposure to porn was between the ages of 14 to 17. In a study of Australians between the ages of 15-29, 87% of people viewed pornography. The median age of first exposure to porn for men was at the age of 13, and for women it was 16 (Lim et al. 2017). Using data from Poland between 2004 and 2016, Lewczuck, Wojcik, and Gola (2019) found that pornography viewership was higher among men (47%) than for women (27%). In their data, 25% of young internet users between the ages of 7 to 12 accessed pornography, too. Carroll et al. (2008) looked at 813 university students and found 87% of young men in their sample reported using pornography compared to 31% of women. In a Dutch sample, it was found that out of the 46,000 people between the ages of 15 and 25, 88% of men and 45% of women has consumed sexually explicit material in the past 12 months (Hald et al. 2013). Sun et al. (2016) looked at 487 college men (ages 18-29) and found that 58.7% of the men watched pornography weekly via the internet. Although the literature is large and spans age groups and years, almost all studies on porn viewership have found higher porn consumption in males than females and some have found the first exposure to porn to be at a young age (e.g. Chi, Yu, and Winter 2012; Hald 2006; Brown and L’Engle 2009; Rissel et al. 2017). 

Trying to find data on porn viewers under the age of 18 from online porn sites leads to a dead end. Most big porn sites only report their demographic statistics from the age 18 and above, so those under the age of 18 are completely left out of the official statistics. If online surveys and personal stories tell us anything, it’s that many young people watch porn online. This demographic of younger individuals is probably mostly men since most people who watch porn are men, according to Pornhub statistics (Castleman 2018).

Talking about the age of first consumption to poronography is problematic since some individuals extrapolate the negative effects porn has to those at young ages. Although porn does influence the minds of young people by warping their perception on how real sex should be, this goes away with sex education (Allen et al. 1996). The argument of perception should not be used against porn in my opinion, especially since this line of thinking could be applied to a multitude of media topics (like music and movies) and is just a good argument for sex education in schools. One of the negative effects present in young people via porn is their sexual experiences and actions during sex, but there is no reason to assume sex education will not fix this and even then causality can not be found for this relationship (see Miranda et al. 2013). Moving on from this issue, we can discuss the negative effects porn has in general, or at least a closer look on their supposed negative effects.

The Effects of Pornography

Relationships & Individuals

When it comes to the effects pornography has among individuals, there seems to be a stark difference between what critics say and what studies say. For example, critics of pornography, like Fight The New Drug, often give narratives from individuals claiming that porn has harmed them in some way (e.g. Fight The New Drug 2019a2019b2019c2019d [FTND has also been caught misrepresenting what people have said about porn to paint it in a negative way [in Kernes 2015]). The constant theme of these stories is not that porn has helped them, but rather that porn has harmed them in some way. When looking at the data, it paints a different picture when compared to looking at singular narratives. Hald & Malamuth (2008)Hald, Smolenski, and Rosser (2013) and Mulya and Hald (2014) found that when asked about how porn has impacted them, consumers report that porn increased their sexual knowledge, outlook, efficiency, skills, relationships, experiences and their life in general. Those who consume porn more frequently and for longer durations are more likely to report such positive impacts noted above. So, it seems that there are also couples who say that porn has helped their relationship, contrary to pictures that Fight The New Drug say.

Some studies that are evoked to show how porn “kills love”, in the words of Fight The New Drug, show their sample some type of pornography and then ask them to rate their significant other. When exposing their subjects to female nudes taken from magazines or abstract paintings in a controlled condition, Gutierres, Kenrick, and Goldberg (1989) found that exposure to erotic stimuli compared to neutral stimuli made men see their female partners as less attractive. They also reported a tendency to loving their female partners less after exposure to the nude photos. Although the sample size for this study was small (n=65: 30 men and 35 women), it’s not even known if the effects were permanent. It’s possible that porn may decrease the feelings someone has for their partner, but these effects may not even persist shortly after. A follow-up would be needed to see if these findings persist, but the fact that this study did not do this makes it a bad argument against the effects porn has on a relationship. It’s similar to cannabis critics who say that cannabis leads to worse memory, but the effect turns out to be temporarily instead of permanent when follow-ups are done. Weaver, Masland, and Zillmann (1984) conducted a similar investigation as Gutierres, Kenrick, and Goldberg, but this time they used sexually graphic videos added to a series of slides of nude photos. Exposure to porn featuring beautiful women prompted the subjects to judge their partners body as being less endowed. Their mate satisfaction did not decrease, though. Much like the study before, it did not have a follow-up of any kind. Furthermore, it did not provide data on their judgement of their partners before being exposed to porn. If they did, it would be possible to calculate Cohen’s d to see how large the difference was in judgement before being exposed to porn and after. In a replication attempt of Guterres, Kenrick, and Goldberg, Balzarini et al. (2017) remarked that they didn’t find support for the original finding that exposure to attractive images of the opposite sex affected a person’s rating of their partner’s sexual attractiveness or love for them. It’s possible that the original negative findings were due to low statistical power. Since past studies on the issue seem to suffer from methodological issues and a more recent replication attempt failed to report the original findings, then it’s doubtful if porn does lead to seeing your partner as less attractive and loving them less.

A critical counter to this from anti-porn activists might be that many studies have found that pornography harms relationships in other ways, not just love and attractiveness towards one’s significant other. For example, FTND claim that in therapy, many couples cite pornography as a variable that is causing difficulties in their relationship (Mitchell, Becker-Blease, and Finkelhor 2005). An issue with this is that clinical samples may not be representative of the general population as a whole, especially since not all couples will go to therapy and talk about the variables causing strains on their relationship. Due to this, clinical samples may not offer much insight into the issue at hand.

Beyond clinical samples, it’s said that pornography consumption leads to less stability in a relationship (Mitchell, Becker-Blease, and Finkelhor 2005), an increase risk of cheating (Schneider et al. 2007), and a higher chance of getting divorced (Zillman 2000). Speaking specifically about divorce, in an interesting study by Shumway and Daines (2012), they found that divorce rates were significantly associated with sales of the magazine Penthouse but not Time magazine. According to them, pornography has caused 10% of all divorces in the United States in the 60s and 70s. Doran and Price (2014) examined 20,000 ever married individuals from the General Social Survey data and of adults who watched pornographic films, they were more likely to be divorced, more likely to have had an affair, and less likely to report being happy in their marriage or overall marriage. Similarly, perceiving partners as pornography consumers is associated with less relational, sexual and body satisfaction, and the association for self satisfaction is negative (Wright and Tokunaga 2017).

The issue of porn use and divorce is a little more complicated, especially since a lot of fake studies seem to be intertwined with the issue. For example, one common study brought up to show that pornography use is associated with divorce is a study by Dr. Jill Manning. In her study, she noted that 56% of divorce cases involved one party having an “obsessive interest in pornographic websites.” What do we make of this study? Well, nothing. It does not exist, and no copy of exists online for people to read. In fact, googling the study name (“Is the Internet bad for your marriage? Online affairs, pornographic sites playing greater role in divorces”) brings up sites from anti-porn critics — no actual journal or transcripts of anything. Another example of fake studies in this issue makes use of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. According to this supposed study, 350 divorce attorneys were polled and two-thirds reported that pornography played a significant role in divorces. Where can we find this study? Nowhere! Once again, this is an issue of a supposed study not existing at all. Googling “American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers porn” only brings up anti-porn articles citing the study, but with no citation. It’s unlikely these studies even exist, so we have no reason to trust their validity.

Perry and Schleifer (2017) made use of GSS data and looked at 2,120 couples. When couples watched pornography, it doubled their chances of divorce. When neuroscientist Nicole Prause was asked about this study, she said:

“Since masturbation almost always occurs with sex film viewing, [not controlling for masturbation] s a gross oversight,” Prause said. She also faulted Perry’s team for failing to control for other variables, such as job loss, that might explain “greater free time that would allow more masturbation, but also stress the relationship.”

in Clark-Foy (2016)

Similarly, David Ley, a clinical psychologist, noted that “The fact that women who use pornography experience higher levels of divorce may in fact reveal that these may be women who are, or become, sexually dissatisfied in their relationship and their continued use of pornography reflects their continued incongruence in meeting their sexual needs with their husband,” he said. “Women may use porn as a way to say to their husbands, ‘This is what I want, let’s do this,’ and women may learn from porn use that their sexual needs are important for them, and that they are not shameful.” Furthermore, the negative effects of porn on marital quality was only significant for husbands, for wives it was not. In fact, wives who viewed porn more frequently reported higher marital satisfaction than those who viewed it less frequently or not at all, as echoed by Ley.

Perry and Davis (2017) found that individuals who viewed pornography were nearly 2x as likely as those who never watched porn to report a romantic breakup in the last 6 years. Perry (2017) looked at 445 people from the Portraits of American Life, a nationally representative sample, and found that people who looked at porn in 2006 were more likely to experience a marital separation by 2012. This held true even after marital satisfaction and sexual satisfaction and other correlates were held constant.

Although the evidence may show that viewing pornography is harmful to relationships, this is due to the variation in how couples view pornography.  Daneback et al. (2009) found that among Danish couples who watched porn together, they reported more sexual communication than couples who were discordant (one partner watched porn and the other didn’t). Shared pornography use is also associated with perceived improvements in sexual communication (Grov et al. 2011)Kohut et al. (2017) also found that participants reported that porn viewership had improved their sexual communication with their partner by making conversations about what they like and dislike being more honest and open. In couples that watch porn together, respondents report enhanced emotional connections, bonding, closeness and intimacy. In a study of 200 married couples, Kohut et al. (2018) found that the link between pornography use and relationship health is largely a function of different patterns of pornography use within couples. Maas et al. (2018) found that for men more accepting of pornography, it’s associated with more relationship satisfaction; however, for men who are less accepting of porn, it’s the opposite. There was little difference between women who were accepting of porn. Women who weren’t accepting of porn had lower relationship satisfaction. The negative correlation between pornography use and relationship happiness has less to do with porn and more about masturbation. Pornography is unassociated with relationship happiness once masturbation is controlled for (Perry 2019). The fact that studies on relationships and divorce did not control for masturbation shows that the correlation between pornography use and negative relationship health might be an artifact of masturbation.

Of the studies looking at getting into a marriage, Zillmann (2000) notes that exposure to porn in adolescents diminishes trust in intimate partners, abandonment of hope for sexual exclusivity in partners, and the institution of marriage, like having a family, is considered as unattractive. Zillmann offers no citation for these claims, but how valid is self-reported data in adolescents? In other words, does their views during their adolescent age carry onto adulthood? I’m not aware of any study that looks at that, but what has been claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Focusing on getting into a marriage, Perry and Longest (2019) found that among 1,691 young Americans to adults, high porn viewing frequency did not significantly differ from non-viewers in their likelihood of marriage entry. Thus, watching porn does or not does not lead to differences in the probability of getting into a marriage.

In conjunction with relationships, one argument among porn-critics is that porn can lead to erectile dysfunction (ED) caused by porn (refer to Fight The New Drug 2018Park et al. 2016). As pornography consumption increases, so does erectile dysfunction, meaning that it’s harder for some individuals to become sexually aroused. The evidence for this seems to be incredibly flimsy, especially once statistical techniques are introduced.  Grubbs and Gola (2019) looked at 433 sexually active men in the United States and found that latent growth curves demonstrate no significant relationship between any pornography variables and trajectories of ED.  Berger et al. (2019) found no association between the International Index of Erectile Dysfunction and craving for, or obsessive passion for, porn; the same went for females. Landripet and Štulhofer (2015) examined 3,948 Croatian, Norwegian and Proguese men using an online survey. There was little evidence to suggest an association between pornography use and disturbance in the sexual health of men. Porn didn’t seem to be a significant factor for younger men’s desire, erectile, or orgasmic difficulties.

According to the researchers, “when compared with men who reported decreased or stable frequency
of pornography use in the past 12 months, those with increased pornography use were not characterized by higher odds of reporting ED…”
Buchholz et al. (2021) found that hat porn use does NOT predict Erectile dysfunction, and that porn use is predicted by testosterone and libido. Another issue with porn and E.D. is the issue of guilt and masturbation; guilt about masturbation leads to E.D. (Chakrabarti, Chopra, and Siha 2011). Studies should control for masturbation issues and still see if E.D. is associated with porn. Prause and Pfaus (2015) found that viewing sexual stimuli was associated with GREATER sexual responsiveness, not ED among 280 adult males. So, porn probably has no relationship with ED once statistical methods are implicated and effect sizes are observed. Studies should also control for masturbation and see if an effect still persists.

Interestingly, one study has found that porn stops people from wanting real sex. Albright (2008) found that in their sample of 15,246 individuals, men reported being more critical of their partners body and being less interested in actual sex. Contrary to this, Graaf and Wijsen (2017) found that for most people, watching porn does not replace or hinder sex with a partner.

Thus, the negative effects of porn on relationships are due to how couples watch porn rather than porn itself. Kohut and Campbell (2019) give a longer discussion about porn’s effects on relationships. According to the authors, there is no clear consensus on the operational definition of porn (i.e. different terminology) and measurement validity. The latter refers to the fact that most studies on porn rely on self-report surveys and it’s unknown if self-report surveys reflect any real world behavior. Kohut and Campbell’s paper discusses the validity of older studies and comes to the conclusion that researchers have come to a premature speculation about porn’s effects on individuals.

Although porn itself may not harm relationships, rather variation in consumption does, there does seem to be negative effects in other areas, like how one views themselves. Negative effects of self satisfaction have been because of adult film stars having high sexual stamina, technique, the ability to ejaculate when they want to, the ability to attract attractive sexual partners and the attributes of traditional masculinity and traditional femininity (Doornwaard et al. 2014Frable, Johnson, and Kellman 1997Kvalem et al. 2015Tylka 2014). A possible fix to this problem can be with sex education and teaching people that porn, the actors and everything about it is not real and all manufactured. Although porn may show something, that’s not how reality is. Simple sex education about porn can help mediate these negative effects.

Mental Health

Sniewski and Farvid (2020) looked at 15 men and found that pornography use was associated with guilt and shame, poorer mental health and lower mental health. Considering this study only had 15 people in their sample, we really can’t draw any conclusions given their tiny sample size. Wordecha et al. (2018) was a clinical study that looked at 9 males and found that binge watching pornography among the sample was associated with increased elevated levels of anxiety. Given the small sample size and the fact that it’s clinical, conclusions can not be made as the sample is not representative. Butler et al. (2018) looked at 1,247 people who completed an online questionnaire containing questions about pornography use. After controlling for gender, age, education, religiosity, and marital status, it was found that being male was associated with pornography use (B= -0.21) and that viewing pornography was associated with loneliness. Looking at 20 studies looking at pornography use in adolescents, it was noted that pornography use among teens was associated with lower self-esteem (Koletic 2017).

Similar effects have been noted in college students for self-esteem, too (see Brown et al. 2017). Continuing on with college students, in a study of 191 college students, high levels of daily pornography use was associated with depression and anxiety. Of the people who didn’t watch porn daily, there was no significant relationship between pornography use and psychosocial functioning (Harper and Hodgins 2016). Similar to Harper and Hodgins, Willoughby, Young-Peterson, and Leonhardt (2015) found that constant pornography use was associated with lower life-satisfaction. Those who view large amounts of porn report significantly higher depression and anxiety (Kraus et al. 2015).

Although porn may be associated with lower mental health, the relationship is not casual. Grubbs et al. (2015) noted that those who thought they were addicted to porn had more psychological distress. This wasn’t because of porn itself though, rather because feeling that you’re addicted to porn causes distress rather than porn causing it itself. The association between porn and lower mental health may also be due to mental health issues in general (i,e. those with lower mental health are more likely to watch porn). Indeed, individuals who have lower self-esteem and higher levels of excessive sexual interest are more likely to watch porn (Doornwaard et al. 2016). Even large amounts of porn consumption may not be associated with lower mental health.  Users who watch large amounts of porn experience no problems from use, and those who do already have depressive symptoms and moral conflicts about porn rather than a porn problem (Bothe et al. 2019).

In conclusion, porn is not associated with lower mental health. Instead, prior mental health problems and moral conflicts about porn lead to lower mental health. Studies looking at the correlation between porn use and lower mental health should control for moral views on porn and prior mental health. If this is done, the the correlation may go away.

Objectification, Aggression, Criminality

Objectification

As one spends more time discussing porn, the chances of someone bringing up porn and how it objectifies women increases (e.g. Fight The New Drug 2019e; Marriage and Religion Research InstituteFritz and Paul 2017McKee 2005Attawood 2007). The truth is that yes, porn does objectify women. Bridges et al. (2010) looked at 304 scenes and found high levels of aggression that was both verbal and physical. Of the 304 scenes looked at, 88.2% contained physical aggression like spanking, gagging, and slapping; 48.7% contained verbal aggression like name calling. Women in these scenes were depicted as liking it. Shor and Seida (2018a) looked at 400 of the most popular porn videos on the most visited porn sites. Women were objectified more instrumentally, but men through dehumanization. Although we have these findings that support some feminists (refer to Catharine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin) and porn critics, our picture is not one that supports their larger picture. For example, critics of porn are ready to point out how a trending video on a popular porn site may depict a female being hurt, being raped and liking it and other things, but how popular are these types of videos? Testing to see if aggressive porn content is on the rise and if viewers prefer these type of contents using views and rankings for aggressive porn videos, Shor and Seida (2018b) found no support for these arguments. They found that today’s average video has shorter segments depicting violence, and that videos that have violence receive less views and are less likely to be ranked as favorited by viewers. It’s also worth discussing who is viewing porn that objectifies women. In the book Everybody Lies by Stephens-Davidowitz (2017), a former google data scientist, he found that women disproportionately view videos with tags like “painful anal crying”, “public disgrace”, “extreme brutal gangbang”, “forced” and “rape.” Thus, objectification towards women is primarily supported by women. So porn companies are providing to their consumers, and even then violent videos are not o popular.

In conjunction with what was said on top, it it also said that porn increases the chances of porn consumers believing in the rape myth (i.e., women cause rape, should resist or prevent it, and rapist are normal). Donnerstein (1984 [in Zillmann and Bryant 1988]) reported that repeated exposure to non-violent and violent porn temporarily increased men’s sexual callousness towards women, and it increased after pornography consumption. After prolonged exposure to common, non-violent porn, or violent porn, Check (1985 [in Zillmann and Bryant 1988]) remarked that porn is capable of producing non transitory effects on men’s perception of their own propensity to use coercive means to achieve desirable social ends. Consumption of common, non-violent porn but not violent porn was found to increase men’s willingness to force compliance with their sexual desires in a reluctant partner and even to rape. Oddone-Paolucci, Genius, and Violata (2000) found that exposure to porn increased belief in the rape myth, with the effect size being very large (d = .64).  Looking at 62% of the fraternity population in a Midwestern public university, it was found that men who viewed more porn are significantly less likely to intervene as bystanders, report an increased intent to rape, and a more likely to believe rape myths (Foubert, Brosi, and Bannon 2011).

When it comes to negative attitudes towards women, this seems to be due to personality differences. After holding results on the Big Five constant, Hald, Malamuth, and Lange (2013) found that this was only true in men who had low agreeableness. Rasmussen and Kohut (2019) used a nationally representative US survey that had adults and found something very interesting. Of those who consumed more porn, they had more egalitarian attitudes than those who attended religious service more often, a finding also in Kohut, Baer, and Watts (2015). A critique against these study might be that egalitarianism was derived from questions regarding women in power, women in the workforce, and abortion — a problem that could lead to skewed results since religious people might be more traditional than progressive. Allen et al. (1995) looked at 24 studies and found that watching porn increases the chances of believing in the rape myth, but only in experimental study. When looking at observation studies, there was no correlation. Showing that the findings are conclusive. Martocci (2019) looked at 149 college students and found no significant correlation between porn consumption and believing in the rape myth. Rostad et al. (2019) looked at the correlation between porn use and the rape myth, and the correlation was only .15, a weak correlation.

Breaking down acceptance for the rape myth by different variables may show that porn itself does not cause people to accept the rape myth, rather other variables do. For example, Vincent (2014) found that being non-white was a strong predictor in thinking a rape victim was to blame in her being raped if she was out at night in a risky area. Similarly, being Catholic was also a good predictor:

Confounding variables like race and religion may mediate the association, but for now the evidence is not conclusive. We should remain agnostic on porn and the rape myth before we make any conclusions.

Aggression

In their meta-analysis, Allen, D’Alessio, and Brezgel (1995) used 3 types of porn: nudity, non-violent sexual behavior (etting, autoerotica, and fondling of genitals, oral, vaginal), and violent sexual behavior (intent to hurt against a person’s consent [includes bondage, although most bondage porn is consensual despite how many tears the actor sheds]), and they used media like photography, videos, audio or written text as they could produce different effects. The effect sizes can be seen below.

These effect sizes could be underestimates due to the failure of controlling for attenuated measurement. The results indicate that porn increases behavioral aggression (correlation is small at r = .132). As the authors continue, self-reported arousal and aggression was small and negative, meaning that as levels of arousal increased, observed aggression diminished across all groups. Nudity also decreased aggression (r = -0.137), non-violent porn increased aggression (r = 0.171), and violent porn had a larger correlation compared to the other two, but still a small correlation. The correlation between violent porn and aggression was at 0.216, so violent porn increased aggression but the correlation is small. When looking at prior anger, the authors remark, “non angered groups show no increase in aggression when exposed to pornography, angered groups exposed to nudity diminish in subsequent aggression, and angered groups shown sexual content increase in subsequent aggression.” Wright, Tokunaga, and Kraus (2015) looked at 21 studies in their meta-analysis of porn and sexual aggression. The mean effect size in all the studies they looked at was 0.28 (they did not break it down by group to see if porn affected aggressive and non-aggressive individuals). So, there exists a correlation (average= 0.248), but it depends on the condition and who you’re looking at.

Why does it matter if porn affects aggression in different individuals differently? This is because porn may have an effect on already aggressive individuals and none on non-aggressive individuals. Gray (1982) reviewed research since the 1970s and found that there is little evidence that hardcore porn increases aggression in males, but it does increase aggression in already angered males. So males who are already aggressive are affected by hardcore porn.  Baer, Kohut, and Fisher (2015) looked at 183 adult males from an Internet based survey. Men who were higher in hostile masculinity (HM) and sexual promiscuity (SP) were more likely to report sexual coercion when they frequently, not infrequently, watched porn. High levels of HM and SP were strong predictors of consumption of violent sexual media. This suggest that men who are higher in HM and SP consume different types of porn than those lower in HM and SP; suggesting that although porn may affect male sexual aggression (in this case coercion), it’s significant for already angered men than men who aren’t aggressive rather than for all men in general. As stated up previously, pornography may only affect aggression in men who are already aggressive, a finding also noted in Malamuth (2017) and Malamuth, Addison, and Koss (2012). A meta-analysis also found no link between porn exposure (Ferguson and Hartley 2020).

Criminality

Burton, Leibowitz, and Howard (2010) looked at 453 juvenile delinquents and found that for sexual abusers, porn exposure is not correlated to the age at which abusers start abusing, their reported number of victims, or to the severity of their sexual offense. Their forceful exposure scale was not correlated with either arousal to rape or degree of force by youth. In contrast to this, in looking at 8 studies, Seto and Lalumiere (2010) found that male adolescent sex offenders reported more pornography exposure than male adolescent nonsex offenders. Although, studies like these falsely assume that nonsex offenders are not sexually aggressive (refer to Planty et al. 2013). Dawson, Tafro and Stulhofer (2019) looked at 594 Croatian men in their longitudinal study. There was a slight increase in pornography consumption among adolescents who reported no or the lowest amount of sexual aggressiveness. Pornography use somewhat decreased in those who reported more sexual aggressiveness, a study counter to others. Seto, Maric, and Barbaree (2001)  remarked that

“individuals who are already predisposed to sexually offend are the most likely to show an effect of pornography exposure and are the most likely to show the strongest effects. Men who are not predisposed are unlikely to show an effect; if there actually is an effect, it is likely to be transient because these men would not normally seek violent pornography.

Similarly, Ferguson and Hartley (2009) noted that the casual link between porn use and violence is slim. According to the authors, “It is time to discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behavior.”

Although the effects of porn on criminality may not show on the individual level, what does it say about the national level? After Denmark relaxed their restriction on porn in the 1970s, researchers compared arrests rates before and after the relaxation on porn. When porn became more available, rape allegations decreased (Diamond 1999). Similar findings have been found in the Czech Republic, Japan, China, Germany and Hong Kong (Diamond 2011Diamond and Uchiyama 1999Kutchinsky 1991a1991bKutchinsky 1973). Critics often raise the issue that other studies have found that more porn increases rape (Fight The New Drug 2017, but these studies often have small sample sizes [refer to Castleman 2017).

Many porn critics argue that porn is linked to sex trafficking (e.g. Fight The New Drug 2019Enough is EnoughLuzwick 2017), and thus porn should be banned or some other proposed action. Most studies attempting to link the two are focusing on very specific types of porn and even people. For example, Fight The New Drug, one of the most popular critics against pornography, cite 4 studies in their numbers section on porn and sex trafficking. Although they are valid studies, they’re focusing on a specific part of the population who have been sex trafficked and have had videos sold to bidders and who were sold for sex (like in the film Taken, where the daughter is kidnapped and sold to someone as a sex slave). Although this is porn since porn is defined as sexual imagery designed to stimuli arousal in people, this is not all porn. Studies focus heavily on child victims and those sex trafficked, but the majority of people have no access to child porn, and sex trafficked videos are often sold within circles than being posted online, or if they’re posted online it’s for members only and gaining access is hard as it’s not as simple as finding a link on Google and going on your way from there. Although free videos showing sex trafficking victims may be available online for free, it’s hard to know the scope of the issue. To the degree that they’re posted for free on online sites for anyone to watch is most likely small, but this hasn’t stopped critics from using isolated incidents to paint broad narratives and making bold claims (e.g. Mickelwait 2020). It’s easy to link porn to sex trafficking when the definition is the way it is. There is no study looking at how much of porn is due to sex trafficking, and even Fight The New Drug admits that it’s not all porn, “but there’s no way to know.” Mickelwait, who runs a religious campaign called Exodus Cry ( see Hitt 2020 and Cole 2020 for a discussion on the organization) dedicated to shutting down the site Pornhub, also conflates non-consensual porn for consensual porn. For example, a quick glimpse at her online Twitter account shows her conflating hyperbolic porn titles with actual rape and abuse .(Mickelwait once referred her online followers to answer an online poll asking if they have ever seen rape/non-consensual content on Pornhub, and no comments were given on the validity of this poll or if the videos viewed were even non-consensual. [UPDATE: Seems her account has been deleted].)

According to an article on Christianity Today talking about Mickelwait and the site Pornhub, “Videos of assault involving underage girls, rape, and other exploitative content continue to be posted and reposted on the user-generated porn site, and the company is not doing enough to stop it” (Shellnutt 2019). According to critics of pornography, Mickelwait, porn is linked to sex trafficking because sites, like Pornhub, often host videos of sex trafficking victims (see Baraka 2020). Although tube sites may host illegal content, this is not due to them endorsing. Instead, it’s due to the users; tube sites are not responsible for what their users post. As Juzwiak (2020) notes,

Tube sites are simply less regulated than the sites of official porn studios. Most professional porn companies adhere to a federal law that requires producers to verify and keep records of the age of their models. But a court in 2018 held that the law only applies to primary producers, as in those who make porn, and that it violates the First and Fourth Amendments when applied to  “secondary” producers like distributors and online tube sites, and so they are not required to keep such records on file. (The Supreme Court has not definitively resolved the issue.) Reached by email, First Amendment lawyer Larry Walters said that intermediary platforms “should not be burdened with the obligation to verify the age of models depicted in content uploaded by third-party users,” because “doing so places blame on the wrong party, and stifles online innovation.” He compared the sites’ responsibility with that of a telephone company, which provides a service that could be used for illegal activity through no fault of the company.

As of now, there is no clear evidence showing a connection between commercial porn and sex trafficking. Survey data on porn stars do not show that they’re there because of sex trafficking.  Griffith et al. (2012a) looked at 176 female actors and the most frequent reasons for joining the adult industry included money, sex and attention (even trying to find a partner). Looking at 105 male and 177 female porn actors, Griffith et al. (2012b2012c) found that when looking at the perceptions college students have on porn actors and how porn actors really are, porn actors have high self-esteem, enjoy sex, have higher quality of life and are careful during sex since they too are worried about STDs. If people in porn were largely there due to sex trafficking, it’s odd that we’d see these results in porn stars. It’s possible that people won’t answer that they were forced into the industry or something, but I haven’t seen a study that has proved that to be the case. There has been no hard study that has examined the issue without focusing on something very specific (refer to Weitzer 2012 for more).

Porn Addiction

Probably one of the most popular arguments against pornography consumption is the claim that porn is addictive (Wilson 2014). Even those among the political right often claim that pornography is like a drug, the way it’s addictive and the way it affects the brain.

Before we can discuss the validity of the claims made by porn critics, we first have to discuss what porn addiction actually is. It’s hard to define what “porn addiction” even is given there is very little evidence to include it in the DSM-5 (Weir 2014). Regardless, some commentators have argued that since the brain of porn users resembles that of addicts to other substances, then there does suggest to be evidence that porn is addictive. An example of this is a study by Voon et al. (2014). According to the authors, internet porn and addictive substances like tobacco have similar effects on the brain. Looking at compulsive sexual behavior (CSB) in 19 subjects and 19 healthy subjects, it was found that the brain of those with CSB showed brain activity similar to those with alcohol and drug addictions. Despite the small sample size that does not allow us to make any generalizations, Voon noted that “We need more studies to clearly state that it’s an addiction” (in Weir). Similarly, other studies have made similar remarks about the brain of “porn addicts” and the brain of other addicts. The most popular of these studies is Gola (2017). The problem with this is that sex, food, and gambling brain imagery engage in some overlapping, but distinct, areas of the brain. Money, gambling addictions and others can’t be generalized onto one another (Arsalidou, Vijayarajah, and Sharaev 2020), so trying to show that the brain of porn consumers resembles that of other types of addicts is false. 

From Arsalidou, Vijayarajah, and Sharaev 2020

In contrast, Love et al. (2015) argue that internet porn is addictive. According to the authors, addictions follow a cycle: (1) binge/intoxication; (2) withdrawal/negative affect; (3) preoccupation/anticipation. The authors attempt to show that different neuroscience studies show that the brain of porn consumers resembles those of other addicts, but this is false. As has already been noted above, the brain of “porn addicts” does not resemble that of other addicts once overlapping is removed. Since erotic stimuli activates certain parts of the brain, it can’t be generalized that one addiction resembles another. This has not stopped the authors from making the argument, though. The authors also argue that porn leads to a decrease in grey matter, a finding by Kuhn and Gallinat (2014). According to Love et al., “The authors suggested this lower volume may reflect tolerance brought about by desensitization: “This is in line with the hypothesis that intense exposure to pornographic stimuli results in a downregulation of the natural neural response to sexual stimuli.” Studies like this are poor, and trying to pass them off as evidence shows that these arguments are made in bad faith. Let’s take a look at Kuhn and Gallinat.

In their small sample (n=64), the claim to show that porn use is associated with lower levels of gray matter. When one looks at their regression, they see that the data points are deviating from the trendline.

What’s unclear is if watching porn leads to lower gray matter, or if those who have lower gray matter watch porn. Much like the section on mental health, people with different brains could be more likely to watch pornography. Love et al. also make the argument that porn affects the “reward system”, an argument akin to Brand et al. Brand et al. (2015) used fMRI data to show elevated activity in the ventral striatum when participants viewed sexually explicit stimuli, showing that the brain’s reward system was releasing dopamine — a chemical released by neurons that sends signals to other nerve cells, and that has some pathways that play a major role in reward-motivated behavior. The “high” you get from this makes you want to repeat the behavior again and again, sorta like how riding a roller coaster or going out of your comfort zone will give you a rush that you want to repeat again in order to feel that high-like state. Meanwhile, analysis of the participants self-reported porn consumption showed that many reported subjective symptoms of porn addiction. People who reported higher porn addiction experienced greater degrees of ventral striatum activity when they looked at pornography. Since the brain can’t tell the difference between something like drugs and a real reward (like eating healthy, working out, doing something that scares you), it makes the brain crave the fake reward (in this case, dopamine from watching porn [Berridge and Robinson 2017Pitchers et al. 2013]). 

There are two problems with this assertion: (1) there is no singular reward system and; (2) dopamine is not a pleasure chemical. In a meta-analysis of 1,452 subjects comparing the brain responses to monetary, erotic and food reward outcomes, Sescousse, Caldú, Segura, and Dreher (2013) found that there is no “core-reward system”, and rather it’s type-dependent on brain structures. Number 2 is also probably the most common myth spread among porn-critics. Dopamine is not a pleasure chemical, but yet porn critics still argue this (e.g. Fight The New Drug 2017). According to Ley (2017),

When a person is about to experience pleasure, dopamine is released in the brain, and in the parts of the brain that experience and process pleasure. Dopamine’s role here is NOT that it makes you feel good. It doesn’t—the pleasure and hedonic or euphoria feeling comes from opioids in the brain, neurochemicals which increase pleasure and deaden pain. Dopamine’s role in pleasure and reward is that it helps your brain to recognize “incentive salience.” This means that it’s like a little red flag to your brain, saying “hey, pay attention, this is about to feel good, and you want to remember this, so you can do it again.” A critical issue here is that a lack of dopamine doesn’t actually make the experience feel less good. In studies with rats, where dopamine was suppressed, rats showed “normal hedonic reaction patterns,” and still showed normal pleasure responses even though dopamine was suppressed.

So, not only is dopamine not a pleasure chemical, but normal pleasure responses are still there even when dopamine is suppressed.

Brain studies on the issue of porn addiction seem to be poorly done, with small samples which may lead to low statistical power. One study found opposing results, though. Looking at LPP, which reveals the extent to which a stimulus evokes an emotional response, it was found that individuals showed a decrease in LPP levels when viewing sexual stimuli when compared to non-sexual images (Prause et al. 2015). Although some people may struggle with porn, it’s not an addiction. Brain studies seem to be conflicting, so we shouldn’t put much trust in them and make premature conclusions on the brain of “porn addicts.” Hilton (2013) and Hilton and Watts (2011) argued that porn is addictive in a neoplastic view, although he has been responded to (Reid et al. 2011)

Going back to Love et al., it’s important to examine their addiction cycle: (1) binge/intoxication; (2) withdrawal/negative affect; (3) preoccupation/anticipation. There are strong reasons to doubt that porn “addiction” even follows this cycle. In respects (1), people overestimate their actual internet use when compared to log data. For example, Scharkow (2016) found that self-reported frequency internet use was weakly associated with actual log files from the participants computers. Ellis et al. (2018) found a weak correlation between self-reported phone frequency use and and their actual phone use. In the context of porn, Grubbs et al. (2020) reported on multiple studies and found that those who think pornography is immoral are more likely to think that their own porn use is out of their control and linked to an addiction, like a relationship with porn. Since self-reported internet frequency use do not match up, and people who think porn is immoral think their porn use it out of control, it cast strong doubt on whether most self-identified “porn addicts” even binge porn.

When it comes to withdrawal/ negative affect, the association is probably not even causal. Dwulit and Rzymski (2019) looked at 4,260 people and found cases of withdrawal symptoms stemming from pornography.

Withdrawal

72.2% of those who attempted to quit reported erotic dreams, attention disturbance, sense of loneliness, irritability, insomnia and other effects. Gary Wilson claimed that personality was not associated with withdrawal symptoms, but this study did not attempt to prove that. All they showed was that personality was not associated with access and exposure to pornography, not that withdrawal symptoms are not associated with personality. Bothe et al. (2017) looked at 772 people and found that non-problematic porn users, low risk users, and at risk users all reported withdrawal.

This study, much like the previous one, did not control for personality. Since personality can influence the effects of porn on someone’s mental health and even watching porn, it could influence the chances of getting withdrawal symptoms. The fact that these studies did not control for this do not allow us to come out with a conclusion. If anything, those who experience withdrawals may just have certain traits. More research is needed.

As for (3), I am not aware of any study showing that porn has affected peoples preoccupation/anticipation. It could be that porn stops people from doing other things, but this is most likely not due to porn at all. Since most people who watch porn are young males, risk factors associated with watching porn can lead to them watching porn instead of doing anything else. Predictors of porn use are being a man, being young, religiousness, frequent Internet use, negative mood states, being prone to sexual boredom, and novelty seeking (Ross, Månsson, and Daneback 2012Ballester-Arnal et al. 2017Štulhofer, Jurin, Briken 2016Frangos et al. 2011). Since most young men will be sexually bored, it’ll lead them to watching porn. This does not show that it fits an addiction cycle, rather that these people just have nothing else to do and just watch porn. Since Grubbs et al. (2015) noted that those who thought they were addicted to porn had more psychological distress, it’d make sense for them to think that it’s affecting them from doing anything and that they’re experiencing withdrawals.

Supporters of the addiction argument have also claimed that after a while, consumers of porn end up wanting extreme content. This is true, but misleading. Looking at 2,035 Croatian individuals who reported being consumers of “sexually explicit media”, it was found that participants who were aroused by non-mainstream porn tended to be aroused by all categories of porn (Hald, Stulhofer, and Lange 2018). This was also a finding in Landripet, Buško, and Štulhofer (2019) who found that pornography use stays stable over time and preference for extreme content decreased with time. So, consumers of porn do end up preferring more extreme content over time, but this goes away after a while and consumers tend to be aroused by all categories of porn — not just more extreme porn.

At the end of the day, it’s doubtful most people are even addicted to porn. Looking at 51 people, Najavits et al. (2014) found that only 9.80% of the people in the sample were actually addicted to porn. Ross and Daneback (2012) looked at 1,913 people, and only 4.5% reported feeling addicted to porn. Ballester-Arnal et al. (2017) looked at 1557 college students, and only 0.7% were pathological porn users. In a study with a sample of 20,094 people, 1.2% of the women considered themselves addicted to porn and 4.4% of the men considered themselves addicts (Rissel et al. 2017). If one were to control for views on porn, it’d probably lower the rate at which people think they’re addicts. Recently,  Williams, Thomas, and Prior (2020) found that experiencing pleasure is an affective state common to both validated addictions and leisure, and porn addiction models have failed to take this into account. After reviewing different arguments supporting an addiction hypothesis, it was found not to support the idea of porn addiction.


In conclusion, the effects of pornography seem to be overblown by porn critics and even those on the political right. Many on the political right should rejoice that porn doesn’t ruin relationships, doesn’t lead to objectification and crime, and is not addictive. If anything, it should be considered good that porn doesn’t seem to have negative effects. Not all studies have to be on the side of the political right, and this is one of those cases. Organizations who argue that porn is negative should not mislead their audience, especially when it comes to porn addiction; many young men feel like they’re in a modern day spiritual battle against porn, and them quitting is a blow to porn world. In reality, organizations like Exodus Cry and FTND will just feed them stuff that isn’t true, and they’ll never realize that their great crusade is more due to them, not porn. Porn is not addictive, nor is it bad for most people.

4 thoughts on “On The Effects of Pornography

  1. A lot of work clearly went into this effort, but why have you omitted news of the new “Compulsive sexual behaviour disorder” diagnosis that the World Health Organization adopted in 2019 as part of its most recent edition of its diagnostic manual, the ICD-11? Researchers estimate that 80% of those seeking treatment for CSBD complain of compulsive internet porn use. Most of the research that supports that new diagnosis is also missing from your piece. Instead, it seems to focus on all the favorite sexology talking points and, if I may say, to “cherry-pick” research items and misrepresent the people with whom you disagree.

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    • CSBD is a very flawed area of research, see:
      “Sexual Addiction 25 Years On: A Systematic and Methodological Review of Empirical Literature and an Agenda for Future Research”

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  2. The world’s health experts don’t agree with you.

    Incidentally, Grubbs has a long history of questionable research. For example, his “perceived addiction” concept was discredited. Most recently, his “moral incongruence” concept is falling apart, despite vigorous efforts of the porn industry and its allies to prop it up. See “Frequency of use, moral incongruence and religiosity and their relationships with self‐perceived addiction to pornography, internet use, social networking and online gaming.” Ex-fundamentalists like Grubbs should recuse themselves from the research of porn. They lack the necessary impartiality to do science in this field.

    BTW, your criticism of the paper from the Max Planck Institute – that the data points don’t agree with the regression line – suggests you may not understand the idea of minimum squares error in a regression line. Of course no regression is perfect. But the trend is clearly negative (hours and caudate grey matter volume). Trying to deny that evidence suggests lack of statistical knowledge or worse.

    I could go on, but the bias in this piece is a signal that further discussion is likely to be fruitless. Thanks for posting my comments. Stay healthy.

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    • Ah, the Gary Wilson style of arguing. Instead of responding to what a researcher has said, instead it’s resorting to “past stuff they said is wrong.” Whether the past stuff they said is wrong or right is irrelevant to what I cited them for. Since I cited Grubb et. al’s paper on CSBD, anything they said outside of that is nothing worth caring for. Either their paper is wrong or right, but his history doesn’t mean anything if it’s not related to anything I cited.

      “The world’s health experts don’t agree with you” : I do not care about consensus, and it’s just an appeal to authority. There’s plenty of examples of where consensus do not align with actual research (e.g. the consensus that race is not biological despite you being to see someone’s race via alleles; or IQ not being a valid construct when all the research shows it to be construct valid). Consensus from a group of lab coats doesn’t matter unless you eat anything they tell you.

      “BTW, your criticism of the paper from the Max Planck Institute – that the data points don’t agree with the regression line – suggests you may not understand the idea of minimum squares error in a regression line. Of course no regression is perfect. But the trend is clearly negative (hours and caudate grey matter volume). Trying to deny that evidence suggests lack of statistical knowledge or worse.”: You clearly did not read what I said about the Kuhn paper. As I said, “In their small sample (n=64), the claim to show that porn use is associated with lower levels of gray matter. When one looks at their regression, they see that the data points are deviating from the trendline.” Despite the small sample size, the data points were not near the trendline, they were far from it. Any student of statistics knows that when the data points aren’t clustering to the trendline, there’s a problem. Trying to deny that suggests a lack of statistical knowledge or worse

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