Part of our Sex Ed Series
When we say “porn”, we’re talking about any type of sexually explicit media that shows either nude or partially nude people. It can be magazines, tv shows, films, online videos, etc. Pornography has always been a controversial topic, and because some of the research has conflicting conclusions, it’s hard to really understand whether it’s more beneficial or harmful for us. When we read news such as how seventeen US states have declared pornography as a “public health crisis” since 2016, it automatically influences our opinion of it. But when we take a closer look at the resolutions and see that not all of the claims are evidence-based, it might change our opinion of it again. What we do know, based on research, is that the majority of people who watch porn report that they do not experience any substantial problems because of it, although there are certainly people who are negatively affected by it. So, let’s look at some of the facts, the myths and the unknown.
Access to Porn
With the internet more accessible than ever before, porn has also become much more accessible. The age of first exposure of hardcore porn is as young as 8 to 11 years old, which is especially concerning since many children this young have not had proper, comprehensive sexual education yet. Pornography is NOT sexual education (though 1/4 of young adults list it as one of their top “sources” of sex education)- it’s just a fantasy like all other fiction movies. In one study, researchers found that 76.5% of college students reported accessing online sexual entertainment. Pornography websites such as Pornhub are free and accessible to anyone with the internet; Pornhub gets as many as 115 million visits each day. The concern is what the porn is modeling. Many videos influence body image perceptions - they might cause unrealistic expectations of what people’s bodies are “supposed” to look like. Some people might feel like they need to change how they look, like shaving their body hair or going as far as plastic surgery (there has been a 600% increase in labiaplasties since 2011). Porn often doesn’t model safer sex practices (like wearing condoms). Also, you do not need to practice getting consent when you watch porn, and most of the time the actors in the videos don’t ask for consent either. A lot of things to be mindful of when deciding which video to watch!
This is why it is important to know whether the porn you’re watching is ethical or not. Ethical porn is porn that was produced legally, where all parties involved give their consent, and the actors are appropriately paid and credited for their work and are of legal age (18 years old). Also, they should have safe and comfortable working conditions and be routinely tested for STIs. While sites like Pornhub may be easy to access, they can have issues like uploading videos of rape and revenge porn (porn that is posted typically by a former partner, without consent of the person in it). In some cases, Pornhub even refused to take some of these videos down. The search term “teen” was the 12th most searched for term on Pornhub, which makes you question how many of the teens portrayed are actually of age to give consent (can vary by state) or legal age to appear in pornagraphic material (18 years old). Typically, if the porn is free, then there’s a good chance it wasn’t ethically made. Sites like Onlyfans allow the creators to have control over who sees what.
Porn on the Mind
Did you know that watching porn can actually affect the anatomy of your brain? Crazy, right? This is something that science actually supports - a study in 2014 found that watching more porn can shrink part of your brain that is associated with pleasure. For all my anatomy and physiology friends - we’re talking about the striatum, which is a part of the brain’s reward system. This means that those individuals might feel the need to watch even more porn in order to become aroused - what used to get the job done in the past might not cut it for them anymore. Some college students report the need for longer stimulation (12% of participants) or more sexual stimuli (17.6% of participants) in order to orgasm.
Another concern about pornography related to the brain is addiction, since it has been shown to mirror the way drug addiction works. There is definitely evidence that those who have sex addiction (being so obsessed with sexual thoughts/urges/behaviors that it causes distress in your life) are more likely to desire and use porn, however it less clear whether porn itself can cause addiction. With that being said, a study that focused specifically on university students found that 15.5% of participants perceived themselves as addicted to porn. Also, 3-16% of people worldwide report compulsive porn use. Porn gives you pleasure on-demand without having to make a connection with another person, which is why it’s used so much.
Violence and Negative Attitudes toward Women
A lot of people worry that porn encourages sexual violence, since there appears to be an increase in that type of content (in 2010, researchers found that over 88% of the 300 porn scenes they analyzed included physical aggression, typically with male perpetrators). However, research does not support the idea that pornography contributes to an overall increase in sexual assault. Also, recent research indicates that having a higher risk of committing sexual violence (an intentional choice to cause harm) because of watching porn, is only apparent in the minority of men who are predisposed to sexual violence. While men may be more likely than women to commit sexual violence, they have equal likelihood of being a victim. Men are more likely to be a victim of sexual violence than a perpetrator themselves.
However, when researchers examined how porn affects attitudes toward women, they found that men who had low agreeableness (which means how helpful/trusting/sociable someone is) and who watched more porn have more negative opinions of women, such as feeling hostile toward them. It’s also important to recognize how people, especially women and people of color, are fetishized in porn. Pornhub’s 2019 list of most searched terms include “japanese”, “hentai”, “lesbian”, “milf”, “korean”, “asian”, and “step mom”. The type of porn people frequently watch can affect how they view (and interact with) people in real life.
Relationships and Porn
When it comes to sex life within heterosexual relationships, research shows that porn has a different affect whether individuals watch it alone or together with their partner. Those who watched it alone reported feeling less dedicated and less sexually satisfied than the couples who watched porn together. There also appears to be a difference between genders with how porn is used. More men reported using porn for solo masturbation, whereas more women reported using it as a part of having sex with their partners. This led to men feeling more dissatisfied with their sex life compared to the women in the study.
Unfortunately, a lot of the research that has been done focusing on how pornography affects relationships is conflicting and tends to only focus on heterosexual couples. In the past, it was believed that if men watched porn, then they would be less interested in their wives. However, more recent research (which had ten times as many participants) did not support this concept. They found no difference in how much individuals were attracted to their partners after looking at porn. But this study is also in conflict with other recent studies - like one that found watching porn to be a predictor of divorce. Their results showed that people who were at the highest risk of separating with their partners were the ones who watched porn two to three times a month. There might be reverse causality at play here, however, because researchers were unable to determine if the individuals watched porn because they were already unsatisfied with their marriage, or if the act of watching porn was what caused the marital issues. The weird thing about this study was that they found those who watched porn at least everyday had a lower risk of divorce compared to those who had never watched it. So basically, science has not given us a clear answer yet about how pornography affects marriages.
Potential Benefits of Porn
Porn can be beneficial in some ways. As stated earlier, partners who watch it together can feel more dedicated to their relationship and more sexually satisfied. It can give them new ideas of what they might enjoy in bed. Porn can also reduce risks from sex (like STIs) if individuals are masturbating by themselves rather than having sex with others. Masturbating is normal and healthy, and it can help you understand your body better. Watching porn can help some individuals feel more empowered and less stressed. Porn can even help with destigmatizing sex. The goal is to have safer and more pleasurable sexual experiences, and if watching (ethical) porn helps you do that, then that’s what matters!
So, what’s the verdict?
Is porn good or bad? Well, that’s really up to you to form your own personal opinion about - you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to incorporate it into your sex life. The research about porn shows that while mixed, overall, most people don’t experience any substantial negative effects from it, but of course nobody knows you like yourself! You can understand how it affects yourself personally and make your decision based on that. Does it make you feel better or worse about yourself or other people? Does it align or go against your personal beliefs or values? Is it affecting your relationships in any way? Do you feel more sexually liberated from it? If you do choose to use it, make sure it’s from ethical sources and that you still engage in safer sex practices!
By: Ryleigh Emelander, RecWell Health Promotion Assistant and WIT Peer Educator