Propoded by Mari Vafia
Considering an estimated 91.5% of men and 60.2% of women consume porn, let’s examine how porn may be affecting consumers, relationships, and our society.
Did you know that the average internet user spends over 40% of their waking hours online?1 40%! That’s a lot of time on the internet.
Whether streaming a new Netflix series, scrolling through social media, or sending memes to friends, everything we consume communicates a message. So, does the media we consume online actually have an effect on us, or is it passively consumed and then quickly forgotten?
Countless researchers have been asking similar questions since the dawn of the internet, and according to their findings, the short answer is “yes”—our internet consumption has an effect on the way we think and behave. From poorer mental health2 to more negative body image,3, 4 studies are increasingly clear that what people consume online has the potential to affect them—both positively, and negatively.
How Porn Can Impact Consumers’ Brains
Decades of studies from respected academic institutions have demonstrated porn’s harms to those who consume it. Let’s dive into a few neurological and psychological components of porn’s impacts on consumers.
Why Porn Can Be Difficult to Quit
When it comes to the topic of porn, one of the most common questions is whether porn can actually be addictive. The short answer is yes—it absolutely can be. While it’s important to remember that most porn consumers—even many who may find it very difficult to quit porn—do not qualify as “addicts” in a clinically diagnosable sense,6 many addiction experts and specialists agree that pornography addiction is, in fact, very real.7,8,9
Because so much of addiction happens neurologically, some experts have determined four major brain changes common to addicted brains: sensitization, desensitization, hypofrontality, and a malfunctioning stress system.10 Spoiler alert: research confirms that each of these brain changes can be found in cases of pornography consumption. Sensitization, in particular, can make porn difficult to quit.
Dozens of studies have exhibited sensitization’s role in problematic porn consumption.11,12,13 In everyday conversation, we sometimes refer to sensitization as the feeling of being “triggered.” For example, when an addict experiences specific cues related to their addictive behavior—such as related images, certain locations, or even a specific time of day—they may experience sudden urges which can be incredibly difficult to resist.
How Porn Can Affect the Brain Like a Drug
Deep inside the brain, there’s something called a reward center. The reward center’s job is to release dopamine into our brains in response to behaviors our brain perceives as positive, like eating tasty food, getting in a good workout, or enjoying a kiss. While the reward center is largely responsible for wanting, it’s our prefrontal cortex that is largely responsible for putting the brakes on those wants when needed.
Under normal circumstances, your prefrontal cortex would disrupt unhealthy patterns such as substance use or an escalating porn habit—and for many people, it does. But with addiction, the prefrontal cortex’s “braking system” starts to wear out, making it more difficult to keep addictive behaviors in check.14
This impaired decision-making ability is known as hypofrontality—another one of the four major brain changes involved in addiction. And, you guessed it, just as with substance addiction, research demonstrates hypofrontality in porn consumers.15,16
How Porn Can Change the Brain
Did you know that thanks to a process called neuroplasticity, our brains are constantly changing? When we engage in an activity—particularly a pleasurable activity, and particularly if it involves repetition and intense focus—our brains alter themselves so that they’ll be better and more efficient at doing that activity the next time.
But this brain process can also be overwhelmed by what’s referred to as a supernormal stimulus—an exaggerated form of what’s normal. Pornography, for example, can take our brains’ natural stimuli—our desire for intimacy and connection—and give us more quantity, more exaggerated, and more “supernormal” versions of that desire.17 Through the neuroplastic process, porn can change what we perceive as normal, warp what we find exciting, and make real intimacy seem less interesting by comparison.18
These changes in our expectations can have tremendous implications for how we view others and how we view relationships.
How Porn Can Become an Escalating Behavior
A third brain change shown in addiction is desensitization, which refers to a numbed pleasure response, or the inability for a consumer to achieve the same “high” they once did. Research shows that porn consumers can become desensitized to porn, often needing to consume more porn, more extreme forms of porn, or consume porn more often in order to get the same response they once did.19, 20
In fact, according to one 2016 study, researchers found that 46.9% of respondents reported that, over time, they began watching pornography that had previously disinterested or even disgusted them.21
How Porn Can Contribute to an Unhealthy Cycle of Stress
While stress can actually be a healthy motivator in moderation, addiction experts consider a malfunctioning stress system to be another brain change common to all addictions.22
In short, when a person is suffering from addiction, their stress response and their addiction become intertwined in unhealthy ways. Instead of driving them to respond appropriately to life’s challenges, stress will instead drive them further into their addiction. Likewise, anytime they’re cut off from their addiction, they will experience intense feelings of stress and anxiety (also known as withdrawal), creating an unhealthy cycle. In other words, for those suffering from addiction, stress and anxiety don’t spur growth or positive action—they just fuel the addictive cycle.
While this is the aspect of pornography addiction least studied by researchers, studies do exhibit the existence of malfunctioning stress systems in porn consumers,23,24,25 showing that all four addiction-related brain changes have been found in cases of porn consumption.
How Porn Can Impact Relationships
Decades of studies from respected academic institutions have demonstrated porn’s harms to relationships, romantic and otherwise. Let’s dive into a few psychological and relational components of porn’s impacts on people’s connections to each other.
How Porn Can Impact Mental Health and Fuel Loneliness
Many porn consumers use porn as an escape mechanism or self-soothing technique, turning to porn when they’re feeling lonely or depressed. But research actually indicates that those who consume pornography to avoid uncomfortable emotions have some of the lowest reports of emotional and mental wellbeing.26
In fact, a number of peer-reviewed studies have found a link between pornography consumption and mental health outcomes like depression,27 anxiety,28 loneliness,29 lower life satisfaction,30 and poorer self-esteem and overall mental health.31
These studies have found that these links are particularly strong when pornography is consumed to try to escape negative emotions, and also when pornography consumption becomes heavy and compulsive.32
How Porn Can Normalize Sexual Objectification
Sexual objectification occurs when people perceive others as sex objects, rather than complex human beings deserving of dignity and respect, and is considered by experts to be the “common thread” that connects different forms of sexual violence.33 This is especially concerning considering that research shows that when someone is watching porn, they are likely participating in sexual objectification.3435
When porn consumers develop habits of objectifying others, it can also harm their partners and relationships.
According to a 2015 study, previous partners’ pornography consumption predicted women’s levels of feeling sexually objectified, higher levels of body shame, and even lead to increased eating disorder symptomatology. The researchers of the study concluded, “…these women reported feeling that their male partner transferred the objectifying treatment of women in pornography onto them.”36
How Porn Can Harm Consumers’ Sex Lives
When someone regularly consumes porn, they can become accustomed to being aroused by the imagery and endless novelty found in porn.37,38 Pretty soon, natural turn-ons and real relationships may not seem like “enough,” and many porn consumers find they can’t become fully aroused by anything but porn.
Ironically, despite porn’s promise of improving consumers’ sex lives, there is growing evidence that porn consumption is linked to sexual dysfunction.
Research indicates that compulsive pornography consumption is directly related to erectile dysfunction,39 sexual dysfunction for both men and women,40 problems with arousal and sexual performance,41 difficulty reaching orgasm,42 and decreased sexual satisfaction.43
How Porn Can Hurt a Consumer’s Partner
For people whose partners consume porn, feelings of rejection, loneliness, anger, and shame are unfortunately common.44 According to research, porn consumption can complicate relationships by introducing shame, isolation, and mistrust into a relationship.45 Additionally, porn has been shown to foster unrealistic expectations that partners feel they can never live up to in a real relationship.46
The pain caused by a partner’s porn consumption can go far beyond a bad experience in the bedroom, as many partners internalize their shame and confusion, asking themselves why they aren’t “enough.”47 In fact, one study found that the frequency of an individual’s porn consumption was negatively correlated with their partner’s sense of self-esteem, level of relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction.48
How Porn Can Negatively Impact Love and Intimacy
Dozens of studies have repeatedly shown that porn consumers tend to have lower relationship satisfaction and lower relationship quality.495051 Porn consumers tend to experience more negative communication with their partners, feel less dedicated to their relationships, have a more difficult time making adjustments in their relationships, are less sexually satisfied, and commit more infidelity.52
Research also shows that porn consumers tend to become less committed to their partners,53,54 less satisfied in their relationships,55 and more accepting of cheating.56
Reports consistently show that porn consumers are twice as likely to later report experiencing a divorce or breakup—even after controlling for marital happiness, sexual satisfaction, and other relevant factors.57,58,59
One study, for example, tracked couples over a six-year period to see what factors influenced the quality of their marriage and their sexual satisfaction. The researchers found that of all the factors considered, porn consumption was the second strongest indicator that a marriage would suffer.
How Porn Is Impacting Our Culture and World
Decades of studies from respected academic institutions have demonstrated porn’s harms to our greater culture and society. Let’s dive into a few sociological components of porn and the porn industry’s impacts on our world.
Why Today’s Internet Porn is Unlike Anything the World Has Ever Seen
The argument that porn is nothing new—that it’s been around forever and never caused any great harm—seems pretty naive when you think about how different today’s internet porn is from anything that existed before.
Porn is incomparably more accessible and more extreme than anything before seen, even a generation ago—a couple of ratty old centerfold magazines found in the park are nothing compared to the hardcore, high-definition videos that minors have access to today.61
Today, porn sites receive more website traffic in the U.S. than Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Pinterest, and LinkedIn combined.62 Pornhub, one of the leading porn sites in the world, claimed that in 2019 they had 42 billion visitors with 39 billion searches performed. That’s 115 million a day—almost 5 million an hour, and almost 80,000 a minute—and that’s just one site.63
Together, the top five porn websites in the world account for more than 6 billion visits per month, nearly one a month for every person on Earth.64
How the Porn Industry Profits From Nonconsensual Content and Abuse
How can you know whether the porn you’re watching is truly consensual? Well, the unfortunate truth is that in the porn industry, there is no guarantee.
Because of the brave survivors who have shared their stories in recent years, more light is being shed on the abusive practices of the porn industry, including their history of profiting from nonconsensual content.65
Most major porn sites do not verify the age or consent of all participants involved in the content uploaded to their platforms, making it incredibly easy to upload image-based abuse (sometimes referred to as “revenge porn”) or even child sexual abuse material (also known as “child pornography”).66
And unfortunately, even with adults who consent to be in porn, many performers are abused or taken advantage of on-set.67 At the end of the day, it is virtually impossible to know whether any piece of pornographic content is truly consensual, ethical, or even legal.
How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding of Healthy Sex
Survey research suggests that most young people are exposed to porn by age 13. 68 And according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens, 84.4% of 14 to 18-year-old boys and 57% of 14 to 18-year-old girls have viewed pornography.69 That means that most young people are getting at least some of their education about sex from porn, whether they mean to or not. In fact, one study shows that approximately 45% of teens who consumed porn did so in part to learn about sex.70 Similarly, survey results also show one in four 18 to 24-year-olds (24.5%) listed pornography as the most helpful source to learn how to have sex.71
Survey results also revealed that over half of 11 to 16-year-old boys (53%) and over a third of 11 to 16-year-old girls (39%) reported believing that pornography was a realistic depiction of sex.72
In fact, 44% of boys who watched porn reported that online pornography gave them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.73
This is especially concerning considering how wildly unrealistic and toxic porn can be. In fact, according to a 2021 study, 1 out of every 8 porn titles shown to first-time visitors to porn sites described acts of sexual violence.74 In addition to the sexual violence shown in porn, porn also promotes sexist narratives, racist tropes, and other harmful ideas about sex and consent. What type of message does that send to young people who turn to porn to learn about sex?
How Porn Can Fuel Sex Trafficking
Of all the ways pornography and sex trafficking overlap, one of the most surprising elements of all might be this: even in the production of mainstream porn with popular performers, sex trafficking can still occur—and it happens more regularly than most people think.75
According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, sex trafficking is defined as a situation in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”76 That means that sex trafficking doesn’t require kidnapping or threats of violence—if there is any level of force, fraud, or coercion involved in the production of porn, it legally counts as sex trafficking.
Additionally, the consumption of pornography can help fuel the demand for sex trafficking. Showing porn to victims is a common grooming tactic used by abusers or traffickers to help normalize sexual abuse.77,78 In fact, porn can be so effective at desensitizing consumers to toxic narratives that some evidence suggests that the desensitization of consumers can manifest in more willingness to buy sex, which increases the demand for individuals being trafficked for sex.79,80
As long as there’s a demand for porn—especially porn that is extreme, abusive, or degrading—the porn industry will continue to exploit vulnerable people to meet that demand.
How Porn Can Promote Sexual Violence
According to a number of studies analyzing the content of popular porn videos, as few as 1 in 3 and as many as 9 in 10 porn videos depict sexual violence or aggression.81,82 And as each of these studies agreed, women were almost always the targets—about 97% of the time.83
While the amount of violence shown in porn is troubling, what is perhaps even more disturbing is the portrayed reactions to that violence. One study found that 95% of the targets of violence or aggression in porn appeared either neutral or appeared to respond with pleasure.84 In other words, porn is sending the message that sexual violence is just a part of sexual pleasure.
By watching scene after scene of dehumanizing or violent content, it can start to seem normal.85
In fact, research indicates that porn consumers are more likely to sexually objectify others,86 more likely to express an intent to rape,87 less likely to intervene during a sexual assault,88, 89 more likely to victim-blame survivors of sexual assault,9091 more likely to support violence against women,92,93 more likely to forward sexts without consent,94 and more likely to commit actual acts of sexual violence.95,96,97,98
Porn is not harmless. Decades of research and hundreds upon hundreds of studies indicate that porn can have serious negative consequences for individuals, relationships, and society as a whole.
While the multi-billion dollar porn industry may try to sell porn as harmless entertainment, the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise. Help build a healthier world by rejecting porn and its toxic narratives
October 25, 2021
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