Sex & Dating | September 15, 2020 9:57 am

Why Science Has No Idea Whether Porn Is Good or Bad for You

For decades, researchers have tried in vain to prove the "effects" of porn consumption

is porn good or bad
What does porn to do your brain? No one really knows.
Getty/PornHub

As porn viewership explodes thanks to pandemic stress, isolation and boredom (some sites has reported traffic boosts of over 20 percent), public debates have broken out about the effects all of that salacious screen time could have on viewers.

In outlets like CBN News, The Federalist and the National Catholic Register, writers argue that ample research shows porn is addictive and corrosive, and thus this boom will create a shadow crisis of broken marriages, sexual dysfunction and perhaps even violence. In outlets like The Conversation, Fast Company and Reason, meanwhile, writers retort that porn isn’t nearly so harmful as the conservative commentariat would lead you to believe. Instead, they say, existing research shows it can be a neutral source of entertainment, or even a positive form of fantasy exploration and stress relief.

These debates are not new. Some of the same arguments have actually been floating around since Western countries started legalizing hardcore porn —and fretting about the effects of having done so — around 1970. Yet despite decades of research and rehashing, there may actually be less consensus among both experts and everyday folks on whether porn is an overall good, bad or neutral social force now than there was 50 years ago.  

Some of this confusion is the byproduct of strong cultural and religious beliefs about porn (and often about sex more generally) and the human tendency to seek out information that confirms our preexisting convictions while ignoring or discrediting information that runs counter to them. Staunch porn critics notably argue that adult content’s harms are both intuitively clear and borne out by so many studies that it’s impossible to ignore, and claim any research that questions this orthodoxy is marginal, flawed, and perhaps even the paid product of porn-industry conspiracies. It is hard to advance a debate when, no matter what new evidence or arguments come forward, many prominent debaters have already made up their minds and talk past or down to each other. 

But a lot of popular uncertainty about adult content reflects the fact that the field of porn-effects research is, as the psychologist Tyler Kohut puts it, “basically a dumpster fire.” Dozens of studies may reach similar conclusions, but most of their methodologies are so deeply flawed, or their findings so contextually limited, that Justin Lehmiller of the Kinsey Institute argues they just cannot support “big, bold, definitive claims about the effects of porn.”

Kohut, Lehmiller and other researchers all have ideas about how to overcome these limitations and firmly advance our understanding of porn’s impacts. But most of those solutions are not logistically feasible given some of the cultural and institutional restrictions that have evolved around the study of porn. 

What even is porn, really?


One of the greatest barriers to porn research, the experts InsideHook canvassed for this article largely agreed, is chronic disagreement about what actually qualifies as porn.

Sure, most people would probably agree that any overtly sexual content intended to get a viewer hot and bothered is porn. But some believe that only encompasses pictures or videos featuring nudity and explicit sex acts — and even then, only if it’s not part of artistic or educational materials. Others, Lehmiller notes, look at Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues and say that is obviously porn as well. Despite this clear lack of consensus, researchers rarely bother to define exactly what they think counts as porn, so many porn studies may actually be looking at vastly different samples of content. 

Even if and when studies clearly define porn overall, psychologist Eric Sprankle points out that they often “treat porn and its consumers as monolithic groups.” Looking at porn as a whole fails to acknowledge that porn featuring, say, violent scenarios, racial stereotypes and a lack of clear consent may have different effects on viewers than more conscientious content. Meanwhile, looking at porn consumers as a whole fails to acknowledge that differences in the way people see the world and process information could modulate the way the same types of porn affect all of them. Folks with strong religious or moral beliefs in the dangers of porn, for instance, are seemingly far more likely to worry that they’re addicted to it and suffer from its harms than their peers who do not share these beliefs —even when they actually consume far less or less extreme content. 

Beyond these definitional issues, numerous reviews of existing studies have found that the vast majority are just plain bad research. Many clearly set out to prove things their authors already assume are true about pornography, at times running test after test until they find results they like then dumping out all of the data that didn’t cohere with their views. Many more make wild and overblown conclusions based on minor findings, and the vast majority of studies depend on tiny sample sizes and murky or questionable approaches to measuring porn usage and its effects. 

Even studies untainted by clear biases, looking at large groups of people, and using rigorous and respected protocols to analyze them often rely on surveys, journaling or other means by which the folks they’re looking at self-report their own porn-consumption habits and other aspects of their lives. But people lie on surveys — even when they’re anonymous — to protect and reinforce an internal sense of identity or morality, and this is especially true when sex is the subject in question.

Even barring this misreporting issue, connecting porn consumption with other trends or behaviors recorded in a survey shows only that: correlation, not causation. So while many studies have correlated higher levels of porn consumption with erectile dysfunction, relationship struggles or psychological distress, Lehmiller stresses that they don’t actually clarify whether porn use causes these issues, or whether people dealing with these and other issues as a result of other factors turn to porn for distraction or release they’re having trouble finding elsewhere. Likewise, he adds, studies that have connected couples’ porn viewing to greater sexual satisfaction don’t show whether porn is a cause or effect of that sexual satiety. 

Even fairly direct studies — in which researchers show people porn and then watch how they act, or how their brains light up within an imaging machine compared to a group that didn’t look at that porn — can have serious limitations. Not everyone agrees on how to interpret what they see in a brain scan, and whether certain patterns of activity reflect porn’s effects or people’s unique personal reactions to the idea of porn. Because these studies usually don’t track people over long periods of time before and after they view that porn, psychologist Joshua Grubbs adds, it is hard to tell how long the direct effects researchers do observe actually last. It’s also hard to tell if the effects observed in a clinical setting reflect effects in the real world. And because most studies only get run once, it’s always possible researchers’ big, flashy results were just flukes. 

Kohut recounts one famous study from 1989 in which researchers showed men Playboy images, then asked them about their partners and compared their answers to a group of men who looked at abstract art beforehand instead. “What they found is that men who saw the porn centerfolds reported less attraction to and less love for their partners compared to men who saw the abstract art,” he says. “There you have it: Porn kills love, at least for men.” The study became a key point in public-health arguments against porn. But, he adds, a couple of years ago some graduate students decided to try to re-run this study, believing they would replicate its results. They consulted the original researcher to make sure they followed his methodology to a T. Yet after re-running the study three times, Kohut says, they couldn’t get the same results, leaving observers to wonder “if the original effect disappeared as porn became more accessible, or if the original effect never really existed in the first place, and Kendrick’s initial results were just chance findings.” 

“Far too few direct replications are being conducted,” Kohut laments. Unfortunately, re-running someone else’s experiment and potentially finding nothing is just not a good way to land funds or build a career. 

Limited research, limited results


Ideally, the researchers InsideHook spoke to agreed that they’d love to be able to run studies of large and diverse groups of people, randomly giving some participants clearly defined types of porn to watch in their everyday lives and making sure others don’t watch porn, then tracking them over long periods of time.

Of course, even these studies would have their limitations: they’d only suggest causal links between viewing very specific types of porn, in specific contexts, and with limited outcomes. Ideally, Kohut adds, researchers would then be able to run the same studies multiple times, and then run a number of other studies investigating the same types of porn, groups of viewers and effects of interest from different angles, and using different methods, to reach relatively stable conclusions. 

But these sorts of experiments are incredibly difficult to run, in part because of ethical standards around porn studies. You can’t take an absolutely random pool of people and force some of them to watch porn without prior warning, Sprankle explains, so instead you have to recruit people who are ready and willing to do porn research. He stresses that such participants “may be significantly different in their measurable attitudes and behaviors than those who are not comfortable participating in porn research.” Nor can you show porn to kids. Nor can you show people porn that you, or any member of an ethics review board, even remotely believe could harm them or lead them to harm others. So right off the bat, researchers can only conduct the most robust studies possible on narrow populations, types of porn and effects. Even then, Kohut adds, ethics boards sometimes block “research ideas that, while ethical, are offensive to the values of their members.” 

On top of that, these studies are expensive to run. Research funding is often scarce to begin with, and funders are especially unlikely to give it to porn studies, Lehmiller argues, because of all the taboos surrounding the topic. Psychologist Nicole Prause has also argued that funding usually flows toward studies probing for new, potentially negative effects rather than general effects or following up older studies, because if you find new evidence of harm, you and your backers will not only get attention, but also more support to find ways of mitigating that harm. “If [you find] something is not harmful,” or just check an older study’s findings, she adds, “Great … nobody gets paid.” 

Debates about porn effects are also so vitriolic and high profile that many researchers with solid ideas for studies choose to stay out of the field to avoid stigmatization among their colleagues and an inevitable deluge of slander and intimidation from ideologues who don’t like their foci or findings. Kohut complains that one group of porn critics accuses researchers who want to study how porn influences adolescents’ psychosexual development of being “pedophiles who are intent on harming children” through their work. “Imagine trying to conduct science in a setting where your detractors are telling everyone that will listen that you’re a child molester,” he laments. 

So, we’re functionally stuck with limited lines of research that yield equally limited results.  

Know thyself, know thy porn


But even if researchers could do more constellations of robust studies, the experts InsideHook consulted for this article believe they wouldn’t find clear evidence that porn is good, bad or neutral overall, but instead a mélange of effects dependent on who is watching what specific type of porn in which contexts and with what particular beliefs or expectations about the content they’re consuming.

“It’s truly rare for any stimulus, sexual or otherwise, to have a universal effect,” says Lehmiller. “Science is usually a story of complexity and nuance, not of all or nothing.” 

More often than not, Sprankle adds, attempts to characterize porn as harmful, helpful or even neutral writ large, and to pursue or frame research as part of an effort to bolster such an overall characterization, just serves ideological goals of “either prohibiting the use of porn for everyone” based on personal values, “or shielding porn and its industry from any negative press.” 

This complexity can be frustrating for people who worry about their — or a loved one’s — porn use and just want clear and simple answers on how to navigate it. That’s why some people choose to ignore science altogether and just assume the best or the worst about porn for their own convenience and ease of mind.

But complexity can be liberating, as it means that there is no single, healthy way to engage with porn. It forces all of us to examine, on our own or with a therapist’s help, how and why we use porn, and — if we’re uncomfortable with our habits — why that is the case. Unpacking our own unique contexts can help us recognize cultural shame, repressed desires or any number of issues that go far beyond porn usage proper. 

Some people who pursue this sort of introspection, Kohut says, “would probably be better off if they changed their beliefs and attitudes about sexuality, or their social circumstances, rather than their porn use. Others may be helped more if they found ways to lessen or avoid porn use.”

Ultimately, any experience with or approach to porn is equally valid, so long as we know ourselves and our porn. 

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