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Is Porn Really Turning Us into Craven Sexless Zombies?

America's political and religious leaders are issuing dire warnings about the damaging effects of pornography—warnings that aren't backed up by the science.

by Justin Lehmiller, PhD
Sep 2 2016, 1:49pm

Photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images

America's war on porn has really picked up steam this year. In March, the State of Utah became the first to formally declare pornography a "public-health hazard." Over the summer, the Republican National Committee used its party platform to amp up the rhetoric by declaring porn a "menace" and a "public-health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions."

The Wall Street Journal echoed these claims this week in an editorial warning against the "addictive dangers of pornography." This editorial, co-authored by rabbi Shmuley Boteach and, interestingly, former Playboy model Pamela Anderson, argues that porn is tearing apart Americans' marriages and families and that we must therefore give it up altogether. But is porn really as damaging as they claim?

As the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, I study the science of sex for a living, and I can assure you that it's not. Research has consistently shown that porn actually has far more positive than negative effects and, further, that it's only problematic for a minority of users. If the anti-porn advocates were serious about helping this minority, they'd stop pretending that porn is the boogeyman and start paying attention to the very limited circumstances under which porn can be problematic.

Anti-porn activists have argued that pornography is responsible for a wide range of ill health effects. Among other things, they claim that it has created an epidemic of erectile dysfunction among young men and that it's causing them to commit rape and sexual assault.

When you look at the research, these health claims have failed to garner empirical support. For instance, studies haven't found that men who use more porn have more erectile difficulties (see here and here for summaries of two recent studies on this topic).

Likewise, there's no evidence that greater usage of porn is contributing to more sexual violence. In fact, what the accumulated research shows is that as US porn consumption has increased, the rate of rape has actually declined.

Another big health claim associated with porn is that it is destructive to our relationships. This is the central message of this week's WSJ editorial by Boteach and Anderson, in fact. They argue that men who use porn in particular tend to have "less satisfactory intimate lives" and that porn use leads people to become "inured to intimacy."

In support of these claims, Boteach and Anderson point to a research summary published on the American Psychological Association's website suggesting that porn use is linked to lower quality sex and relationships. What they don't acknowledge is that the studies aren't drawing a causal link between porn and lower relationship quality, but rather an associative one: They don't take into account the possibility that people's relationships and sex lives may have been on the decline first, prompting an increase in porn use. Put another way, these studies don't tell us whether porn use is the cause or symptom of relationship problems.

Further, consider that two studies have emerged this year alone finding that porn helps far more relationships than it harms. A national study of nearly 40,000 cohabiting and married men and women in America found that those who watched porn with their partners had an easier time keeping passion alive in their relationships. That's right—couples who watch porn together tend to feel more, not less, passion and desire for each other.

Likewise, in a smaller study of men and women in relationships who were asked to write about the effects of their own personal use of porn, the single most common thing participants said was that there were "no negative effects" on themselves or on their relationships. Among those who said that their porn use did impact their relationships, positive effects (eg, better communication and more sexual experimentation) were mentioned with far greater frequency than were negative effects (eg, feelings of insecurity and reduced desire).

Suffice it to say, the weight of the evidence doesn't support political claims about the negative health effects of porn. However, one thing that's clear from the research is that porn doesn't seem to affect everyone the same way, and there is a small minority of folks who report that porn has negative effects on them.

For instance, in a recent nationally representative survey of Australians , 13 percent of men and 10 percent of women agreed with the statement that "pornography has had a bad effect on you." Likewise, this week's WSJ editorial cites an American study in which 9 percent of respondents said they were unsuccessful in trying to give up porn. This suggests that perhaps as many as 1 in 10 adults feel that porn is personally harmful or have trouble regulating their use of it.

It's worth noting that research suggests that for many of the people who report these negative effects of porn, the real problem isn't porn per se—it's that they have hang-ups about using pornography in the first place. For example, studies have found that being more religious is linked to feeling more distressed about one's own porn use, as well as feeling that one is "addicted" to porn.

By the way, neuroscience research has found that porn isn't addictive in the same way that, say, drugs and alcohol are. In fact, the brains of people who consider themselves to be "addicted" to porn don't respond in the way you would expect if these people truly had an addiction (see here for a summary of the research). "Porn addiction," therefore, isn't a scientific term, let alone an official diagnosis. Labels like this are problematic in other ways, too. For instance, as psychologist David Ley argues in his book The Myth of Sex Addiction , when we incorrectly use the "addiction" label for behaviors like this, it effectively absolves people of personal responsibility.

I'm not trying to suggest that porn can only be problematic for people who feel religious guilt. In order to really understand the circumstances under which porn is likely to be harmful, one must be open to having a very nuanced discussion about how specific types of porn might affect specific types of people.

For example, although national-level data do not find a link between porn consumption and sexual violence, there are specific cases in which porn could potentially predispose certain viewers to committing sexual assault, such as when men who are already at high risk for engaging in sexual violence watch very violent pornography. Indeed, studies suggest that it's really the confluence of certain personality traits with really hardcore porn that's likely to result in problems.

In discussions about the effects of pornography on health, it is therefore important to acknowledge that not all porn is created equal and, moreover, that not everyone responds to porn the same exact way. As such, declaring war on porn in general is neither helpful nor realistic.

The vast majority of Americans are at least occasional viewers of porn, and most of them are not harmed by what they watch. In fact, the research is pretty clear that they're more likely to experience porn as a positive rather than negative force in their lives. However, a minority of viewers is clearly and negatively impacted by some kinds of porn, and they are deserving of our attention.

If we're serious about helping them, though, we need to let the research—not political rhetoric—be our guide.

Justin Lehmiller, PhD, is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter.

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