Menu
DonateNewsletter
SIGN IN
Does porn harm or help? Gender could matter in a surprising way | Psyche

Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

i

Does porn harm or help? Gender could matter in a surprising way

Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

by Nicolas Sommet & Jacques Berent + BIO

What is the impact of pornography on the sexual lives of young people? Many researchers have tried to answer this question, as young adulthood is a key period in the development of a person’s sexuality. Yet research has not offered a clear, simple answer.

Some researchers believe that porn use distorts young people’s views of sexuality and generates anxieties about sexual performance. They argue that porn use might set unattainable standards for sexual comparison – for instance, a man watching porn could develop pervasive concerns about not ‘lasting as long’ as the actors on screen, or a woman might develop concerns about not experiencing an orgasm as easily as actresses seem to do. For Gary Wilson, author of the popular book Your Brain on Porn (2015), this makes porn one of the root causes of the (alleged) recent surge of ‘morphing sexual tastes, a range of sexual dysfunctions, and loss of attraction to real partners’.

But others have warned against ‘harm-focused research approaches’ that concentrate on the negative effects of porn while ignoring its neutral or perhaps even beneficial effects. For proponents of this perspective, porn should not be conceived only as a psychological threat – it might also be a way to learn about sexuality and expand one’s sexual repertoire, especially during early adulthood. Some authors have even gone as far as suggesting that porn could be used as a therapeutic solution for people and couples who are struggling with sexual problems.

So, what is to be believed? Whereas some empirical studies support the view that porn predominantly hurts young people’s sex lives, other studies support the opposite view. And it is difficult to know which of these views are more correct because, in many of the studies conducted so far, only a few hundred participants are observed at one single point in time. This limits the ability to draw reliable conclusions from past research.

In 2015, we had the opportunity to launch a massive, multi-year study. At the time, we were both engaged in research on other topics in psychology. But we became interested in the literature on the psychology of pornography and, after meeting with some experts in this area, we decided to use the research opportunity to try to clarify the relationship between porn use and sexual functioning.

The evidence suggests that porn use tended to have a negative effect on men’s sexuality

Researchers had suggested many possible ways to explain the apparent inconsistencies in previous findings. For instance, people who have negative attitudes towards porn might tend to be harmed by it, whereas people with positive attitudes might benefit from it. For our part, we were interested in a different factor: gender. Men and women are known to have different sexual preferences, on average, and it seemed reasonable to think they might derive different guidelines for sexual behaviour from watching porn. To give a concrete example, men might conclude, based on porn, that cutting out foreplay during a sexual encounter is a good thing, whereas women might not reach a similar conclusion.

As we recently reported in the journal Psychological Medicine, we collaborated with Mathieu Sommet – the brother of the first author, and one of the most popular French YouTubers at the time of the research – and distributed a questionnaire on sexuality among his audience. Although the sample was not representative of the general population, it offered two key advantages: the participants were young (aged 21, on average, with 90 per cent being 18 to 25 years old) and highly connected (with easy access to online porn).

We were able to collect the responses from more than 100,000 men and women, including nearly 5,000 heterosexual couples in which both partners independently completed the questionnaire. (Our study was focused on the effects of heteronormative porn, and our analyses therefore concentrated on heterosexual men and women; more studies are needed to investigate porn’s effects on people with other sexual orientations and gender identities.) We also sent a follow-up questionnaire approximately one and then two years after the first wave of data collection, and nearly 22,000 participants responded to the three successive questionnaires.

We assessed sexual functioning from several complementary angles: we used a validated scale to measure participants’ sense of being sexually capable (with questions like ‘I am confident about myself as a sexual partner’) and a clinically recognised screening tool to assess other dimensions, including sexual arousal and biological functioning (eg, erection or lubrication) during sexual activities. Of course, the use of these self-reporting measures might be somewhat limited in how much they can reveal about people’s actual sexual functioning. So we asked partners who both (independently) participated in the study to report their own levels of sexual satisfaction. We then connected the responses within couples so as to gauge people’s sexual functioning through the eyes of their partner.

We found two consistent patterns of results that systematically differed between young men and young women. On average, the more that men watched porn, the less sexually competent they felt, the more sexual problems they reported, and (among cases where we had access to their partner’s answers) the more dissatisfied their female partner was. In sum, the evidence suggests that porn use tended to have a negative effect on men’s sexuality.

With regard to women’s sexuality, porn use tended to have a positive effect

Yet the results were very different for women: their frequency of porn use was associated with greater self-reported sexual competence and fewer sexual problems. The more that women who were in a couple watched porn, the more satisfied their male partner tended to be about the quality of sexual exchanges. So, the evidence suggests that, with regard to women’s sexuality, porn use tended to have a positive effect.

Importantly, these results were also observed over time, meaning that an increase in the frequency of porn use over the course of the study was associated with a reduction in the sexual functioning of men, but with an improvement in the sexual functioning of women. While it’s possible that the associations between porn use and sexual functioning that we found were due to other factors that were not captured in the study (such as changes in wellbeing), the longitudinal evidence makes it plausible, at least, that porn consumption in itself contributed to positive and negative changes in sexual functioning.

The data used comes from the first wave of data collection; shaded areas represent standard errors

Although we cannot yet say for sure what psychological mechanisms account for the gender differences we observed, we can rely on other research to speculate.

As mentioned earlier, some researchers argue that porn can be a source of threatening sexual comparisons, highlighting evidence that people might compare their sex life against sex as it is shown in porn and feel disappointed. On the other hand, other researchers argue that porn can be a source of sexual inspiration, given evidence that porn might encourage people to broaden their sexual horizons and explore new sexual behaviours.

In light of the patterns we found, it is possible that, for men, the degree to which porn is a psychological threat or has similar negative effects tends to outweigh its usefulness as sexual inspiration or other benefits – whereas the reverse could be true for women. This interpretation echoes research suggesting, for instance, that porn use is associated with penis size dissatisfaction among men (but not genitalia or breast dissatisfaction among women) and with intrusive thoughts about sexual performance during intercourse among men (but, again, not among women). Such psychological consequences could make it less likely that men’s sex lives benefit from porn overall.

Each potential consumer of porn is different, and those individual differences matter

It might be tempting to see our findings as confirming popular beliefs about porn: that reducing porn consumption could help men to overcome sexual problems – for examples of this argument, see the popular book Pornland (2010) by Gail Dines or publications from one of the online communities attempting to tackle what they consider porn addiction; or that increasing porn use could empower women (for instance, see this relevant piece from 2015 in The Guardian). However, we want to emphasise another important finding. The overall relationship between porn use and sexual functioning, for both men and women, seems to be rather modest – without being trivial – suggesting that it is only one of many factors that might affect people’s sexual functioning.

Variables that were not considered in our study, but have been highlighted by past researchers, could influence people’s sex lives and even the relationship between porn use and sex. For instance, watching paraphilic (ie, unusual) porn rather than mainstream porn is associated with more negative sexual consequences. As another example, watching porn with one’s partner rather than alone could have more positive sexual consequences. Moreover, other research shows that perceived problematic porn use might be more strongly related to worse sexual functioning than the frequency of porn use per se. These kinds of studies highlight that each potential consumer of porn is different, and those individual differences matter.

Contrary to certain popular beliefs, porn does not seem to be the best candidate to blame for sexual issues among men, nor does it seem like one of the most important factors to consider when thinking about potential solutions to women’s sexual issues. Overall, our findings suggest that most men who choose to stop using porn might see only minor benefits in their sexual life (unless, perhaps, they seem to have a pattern of problematic consumption, such as a perceived addiction). Likewise, even if some women see improvements in their sex lives related to porn use, they might do well to avoid thinking of it as some sort of sexual panacea.

With these results and implications in mind, our study suggests a somewhat ironic trend in the relationships between young people’s porn use and their sex lives. It seems that porn – created by a male-dominated industry that typically caters to a male-dominated audience – is more likely to have real-world sexual benefits for young women who use it than it is to have such benefits for young men.

Save

Share

Tweet

Email

27 July 2022