Health

The Earlier Guys Watch Porn, the Shittier Their Attitudes Are Toward Women

There are a few theories why.
August 3, 2017, 3:00pm
Stocksy/Misuno/Boris Jovanovic

Men who first view pornography in their teenage years tend to have more negative attitudes towards women, according to new research.

Porn is, of course, nothing new. Since humans figured out how to depict images, we've found increasingly creative ways to titillate ourselves with them. But thanks to the Internet, pornography is easier to access than ever before—researchers estimate that about 90 percent of men have seen porn. That ubiquitousness makes it easier for kids to get exposed to some creative sex before they might have even tried it themselves. Psychologists are just starting to understand how these changed habits may be affecting our relationships with sexual partners, and with ourselves.

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The research, which was presented this week at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington, DC, hinges on a survey of 330 men with the average age of 20, most of whom identify as white and heterosexual (the study didn't incorporate women—the psychological impact of pornography on women is even less understood).

The men filled out an online survey about the age at which they first saw pornography and under what circumstances (accidental, intentional, or forced). The survey also asked questions to gauge how strongly they conformed to stereotypical ideas of masculinity, such as the need to exert power over women. (Sample question: do you believe that things tend to be better when men are in charge?) and their propensity to act like "playboys" (how frequently would you change sexual partners?).

The researchers found that the younger men were first exposed to pornography, the more likely they were to exhibit attitudes of wanting to exert power over women. If they watched porn later, they were more likely to express opinions consistent with the playboy metric. The circumstances under which they saw the porn—accidental or intentional or forced—were irrelevant.


The researchers were surprised by their findings. They at least thought that the method of exposure would play a role, says Alyssa Bischmann, a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. "The interesting thing about pornography is that there are so many contextual factors that can make a difference. There were a lot of variables we didn't explore."

Shane Kraus, the director of the Behavioral Addictions Clinic at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts who was uninvolved in the research, thinks the work is interesting, and the data from the surveys reflects much of what he has found in his own research.

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However, Kraus adds, the data doesn't explicitly show that early exposure to pornography causes these attitudes—right now, it's limited to a correlation. When it comes to watching pornography, there are a host of other factors that might affect a person's relationship with sexual partners, including the actual content of that pornography, how often a person views it, and their "religiosity" (which can make them feel guilty for viewing pornography).

"As researchers, we don't know how that influence is going to factor in to men's sexual health and behavior. We don't have a great understanding," Kraus says. A study that determined a causal relationship between pornography and attitudes towards masculinity would have to follow subjects over the long-term, which is time-consuming and expensive, he adds.

Bischmann and her collaborators have a few ideas to explain how porn might be changing how straight men think about women, and what it means to be masculine. Pornography can alter expectations about what sex, and partners, are like in real life. "Sometimes men… see the porn and think that that's what sex will be like in the real world. That can create distress, because pornography is not like the real world," Bischmann says. "Some men have been quite distressed by that, and they end up with some anxiety about sexual relations."

Kraus agrees: "Porn is fantasy—you're exposed to things that don't happen for most people. If the person viewing it forgets that, that becomes their reality, and there can be issues," Kraus says. That can also create body image issues and throw off perceptions of how they themselves should be—what if they don't have the particular, um, attributes common among men in their favorite videos?

This study, Bischmann says, raised more questions than it answered. These researchers hope to take a stab at answering some—this study was part of an ongoing project.

Through more studies like these, researchers may soon have a sense of the myriad factors surrounding pornography and its effect on the viewers' psychology, which could help clinicians be able to better address issues such as pornography addiction and violence against women. "We need to understand the relationships between variables first before we can understand what some of the causes might be," Bischmann says.

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