Porn Study: Does Viewing Explain Doing—Or Not?

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teensPorn alters sexual behavior; so do other things

A new Dutch study ("Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association Between Sexually Explicit Materials Use and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults") finds porn use correlates with risky sexual behavior in 15 to 25-year olds...and that other things do as well.

Surely this finding is unsurprising, unexceptionable and unworthy of wide publicity.

However, the casual reader glancing at noisy headlines and related quotations gets the impression that everyone should shrug off the effects of Internet porn use as totally uninteresting, and just move along. That was certainly the conclusion of the editors at AVN® Media Network, Inc ("the definitive source for all that is adult entertainment."): Study Results Downplay Porn's Influence on Teen Behavior, Time: Study: Porn May Not Be Such a Bad Influence on Sexual Behavior, and Huffpo: Porn Use Impacts Sexual Behavior Less Than You Might Think, Says Study.

Lead study author Gert Martin Hald, a clinical psychologist at the University of Copenhagen, opined:

"Pornography is not as big and bad a wolf as we thought it was, and maybe we should focus on other factors. It explains a portion of sexual behavior, but it is modest,"

Actually, porn is a "big and bad wolf" if it's the reason your erection isn't happening (more in a moment). In any case, the study's actual conclusions are far from headline-worthy;

"This study suggests that, when controlling for important other factors, Sexually Explicit Material (SEM) consumption influences sexual behaviors. The small to moderate associations that emerged between SEM consumption and sexual behavior after controlling for other variables suggest that SEM is just one factor among many that may influence youth sexual behaviors."

The take away: Porn use can encourage certain risky sexual behaviors, yet other factors can also. This finding does not tell us anything about young users' overall sexuality, such as relationship contentment, sexual function or sexual pleasure. More important, these findings have nothing to say about the myriad negative symptoms young porn users describe, or the many benefits they report when they eliminate porn.

Delving deeper

Curious about how such a ho-hum finding could garner such commanding headlines, we took a closer look. The study has even less to recommend it than we initially assumed. First, the study is not representative, as the researchers acknowledge. It relied on online volunteers, 70% of whom were women (only 5% of whom used porn once a week or more).

The researchers only analyzed subjects who had engaged in sexual activities. This may seem like an obvious essential criterion since the study was examining "sexual behavior." However, the "sexual behavior" that many of today's young (male) porn users complain about is inability to engage in normal sexual behavior. That's why they are experimenting with giving up Internet porn.

They report loss of attraction to real partners, sexual performance problems (ED, DE, inability to orgasm with partner), crippling social anxiety, etc. With their sexual prowess not up to snuff, few of these guys even have the option of engaging in risky sex, which sometimes drives their increasing dependence on porn. Some are still virgins—and extremely unhappy about it. They would have been excluded from this study entirely.

In other words, loud headlines claiming that Internet porn use has little effect on sexual behavior create a false impression that sexual wellbeing is not much impaired by Internet porn use. Yet the only sexual behaviors the researchers actually quantified were:

  • Adventurous Sex: (i) experience with threesomes; (ii) sex with a same sex partner; and (iii) real-life sex with a partner met online; 
  • Partner Experience: (i) age at first intercourse (in years); (ii) experience with one-night stands; and (iii) lifetime number of different sexual partners (1 = 1 partner; 7 = 20+ partners).
  • Transactional Sex: (i) ever been paid/paid for sex (in money or in kind).

Many of the heavy Internet porn users whose stories we read online would love to say "yes" to one or more of the behaviors listed above, but they're out of the game due to severe symptoms stemming from overconsumption of porn. These symptoms include finding porn use easier than pursuing real mates and even full-fledged, incapacitating addiction.

Some users do act out, inspired by porn. They show up in the forums we follow because they're concerned that, as everyday stimuli lose the ability to arouse their sexual response, they're escalating to sexual stimuli and behaviors that "aren't really me," or that they don't want to have to engage in just to get off. In keeping with this phenomenon, the researchers in the current study noted that the search for sexual sensation indeed appears to be driving the risky behaviors:

"Notably, for both genders, all three sexual behavior categories were highly significantly associated with sexual sensation seeking."

Those who act out appear to be a relatively small percentage of the users complaining about porn-induced problems. More users report that porn use inhibits participation in real sex.

A distorted picture?

So if there are more users acting out at one end of the spectrum and users with unnatural inhibition at the other, what's really going on? Is today's porn driving some people toward riskier behavior, while others are shut out due to porn use? Are these two groups partially canceling each other out because they're at opposite ends of the bell curve in the study's results? If so, the study may offer a distorted picture of the effects of Internet porn on sexual behavior.

Incidentally, the study data was gathered in 2008 and 2009. That's a long time ago in the world of porn and porn-inspired sexual activity. For example, Grindr, the pioneer facilitator of online-assisted casual hook-ups, only went live in 2009.

Back then, smartphones (and porn access) were not ubiquitous. Nor was the use of porn tube sites, which users often say ratcheted up their porn use. It remains to be seen what effect these recent developments will have on the connection between porn use and (impaired) sexual behavior.