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No One Knows if Porn Is Bad for You

Recent reports claim exposure to porn at a young age can turn men into misogynists. Is it really that simple?

Gray Chapman

Gray Chapman

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

No matter your introduction to porn—finding a stack of dirty mags in the back of dad's closet, a furtive group viewing of Girls Gone Wild at a pal's sleepover—it's a formative experience. How formative, and how porn might later shape our behavior, attitudes, and preferences, are questions that have been haranguing researchers for decades.

The answer, should you try to find it yourself, seems to be smeared all over the Internet in the form of "this is your brain on porn"–style headlines: Porn is bad for your brain, porn kills your friendships and your boner, porn overloads your frontal lobe with heady rushes of pleasure-jolting dopamine. (Side note: In reality, dopamine doesn't really work that way). Hell, porn even taunts John Mayer's orgasms.

Does it turn naïve young boys into strapping misogynist men, too?

Recently, a team of doctoral candidates at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln presented the findings of a study that examines the links between the age at which men first experience porn (specifically online) and, later in life, their attitudes toward women. The team surveyed roughly 300 male undergraduate students, mostly white and heterosexual (84.9 percent white, 92.6 percent hetero) at the university about their early porn exposure and the nature of the encounter (i.e., whether it was accidental, intentional, or forced), then asked each participant to complete a questionnaire that measures how closely men conform to certain "norms" of masculinity, such as the desire to seek power over women or the pursuit of status, which the Conformity of Masculine Norms Index (CMNI) defines as "being pleased with being thought of as important."

Their data revealed that participants who reported a younger age of exposure were more likely to seek power over women, based on their answers to the survey, which defines that behavior as "perceived control over women at both personal and social levels." Meanwhile, participants first exposed to porn later in life were more likely to exhibit promiscuous "playboy" behavior, defined by the inventory as "desire for multiple or non-committed sexual relationships and emotional distance from sex partners." In essence: The younger you watch porn, the more likely you are to be an asshole to women. Is it really that simple?

Not exactly.

Media is typically thirsty to take this kind of data and run with it. But claims that porn causes misogyny, or that "boys who watch porn are more likely to become misogynists," are pretty blatant distortions of what this data really represents. Take it from the researchers themselves: "Because it's not a causal relationship, we can't say which one came first," says Christina Richardson, a UNL doctorate candidate on the team that conducted the study.

Yet, when it comes to studying porn, we nonscientific laypeople are horny for conclusions. "Porn is a lightning rod for our curiosities as a culture and our anxieties around sexuality," says Shira Tarrant, gender and sexuality studies expert, author, and noted porn researcher. "That's part of what I see in the attention studies get, even when it's preliminary data." Which, she cautions, this study is. Data, yes; a tiny step forward toward a better understanding, yes. But it's not proof porn causes misogyny.

Research that relies on self-reported data can be problematic, Tarrant goes on to explain, especially when it comes to culturally loaded, baggage-laden topics like sex and gender: The answers are simply less reliable. Plus, as both Richardson and Tarrant point out, there are plenty of other variables to consider in the relationship between porn exposure and later gender behaviors: Did they grow up with religion? How were they raised, ideologically? What was their sex education like, if any? "There are so many other things that factor into how we understand ourselves or form our gender identities, and all those other things can also impact how a teen boy might experience exposure to pornography," Tarrant says.

While the results of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln's study are by no means conclusive, they still represent a teeny-tiny step forward. Richardson says that, in addition to reinforcing some theories, the data also could have interesting implications for sexual assault prevention, especially since the quality and content of sex ed in the US is basically a geographical crapshoot. "The average age at first exposure in our group was 13," she explains. "So at 13, if pornography is the only way that you're getting any messages about sexuality, maybe we could supplement that with more balanced views, or we could prevent that from being the only message that they're getting, if it is leading to some more problematic beliefs."

Porn is an object of lurid fascination in popular science, but based on my conversations with researchers, from their perspective it's a morass of uncertainty, flimsy claims, and, like this University of Nebraska–Lincoln study, small sample sizes. The psychological, sociological, and physiological implications and long-term effects of porn consumption have been an area of interest for decades, but the research itself is notoriously fuzzy. Add to that the social taboo surrounding porn, and it gets messy. "The way researchers define [porn] can often depend on their political perspectives to start out with, what kind of content they find alarming," Tarrant explains.

Zachary Bloom, an assistant professor in Northeastern Illinois University's Department of Counselor Education, describes the field of pornography research as "riddled with limitations," citing methodology variables, differing definitions of pornography, and a lack of any uniform way to quantify porn exposure. "Interest in pornography as a research agenda is still gaining momentum from where it was before the widespread use of the internet, and researchers are limited in the array of instruments that have to measure constructs related to pornography exposure which, again, makes it difficult to draw conclusions when comparing studies," he says. "We can find trends in the extant research on pornography exposure and use, but conclusions need to be treated with skepticism." Most of the research published to date—including this new data—shows mutual relationships, not necessarily evidence of cause and effect.

Simply put, scholars still aren't sure of the extent to which porn shapes our brains and behaviors. But, with every scrap of data, science nudges a millimeter forward toward a better understanding of how porn molds us into the people we become.

"That's what knowledge is; that's what science does," Tarrant says. "Someone who works in their lab for 20 years and moves like an inch closer to understanding the phenomenon… it's not the final word, but it's a step in the constructive direction."

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