Is Porn Actually Bad For You?

What does science have to say about the impact of pornography? As University of Sydney academics Spring Chenoa Cooper and Gregory Zimet explain, the answer is: probably not what you think.

Tissues picture from Shutterstock

Porn. Just utter the word aloud and hearts pound, pulses quicken, and minds start racing. Depending on the context, these effects may be the result of concern for young people's well-being rather than a sexual response.

Consider the UK prime minister David Cameron's recent announcement that every household in the country will have a porn filter unless adult content is specifically allowed. This opt-in system will mean service providers will ask their customers whether they want unfiltered porn.

The plan is aimed at the "corroding" impact of porn on young people. But, instituting a policy like this is may be a bit preemptive.

Society has a long tradition of moral concern about young people and sex. And research in this field has long tried to prove or disprove that causal links exist between viewing explicit materials and actual behaviours. It hasn't been very successful.

New research

Recent research looking at the impact of sexually explicit material on young people's sexual behaviour provides more information, but not sufficient evidence, to guide public policy.

The study, which involved surveying 4600 young Dutch people, found some association between the two but the authors acknowledge and emphasise that they were small. The authors said sexually explicit material was related to some sexual behaviours, specifically adventurous sex and transactional sex.

Adventurous sex includes experience with more than one partner at a time, experience with a same-sex partner, or with a partner met online.

Transactional sex is defined as money or goods being exchanged for sex. But the authors posited that there were likely other factors involved in the associations.

It's impossible to determine causality in a study that didn't involve follow-up or longitudinal methods. In a cross-sectional study such as this one (a study performed at a single point in time), we can only determine associations. That means that we don't know the variable is causing certain behaviour.

This is a common gap in research about many aspects of young people's sexual development. And we'll need to do more carefully-controlled longitudinal research to capture the true causes of risky sex and promoters of healthy sexual attitudes and behaviours.

Is porn all bad?

Another problem with research in the field about the effects of sexually explicit material is that most of it focuses on negative outcomes. This means that only associations with negative behaviours, such as risky sex, are sought and found.

Australian researchers have identified 15 domains of healthy sexual development. They span consent, safety, relationship and communication skills, and self-acceptance, to name just a few.

These researchers contend that the impact of sexually explicit materials should be evaluated across this range of domains to fully understand their influence on young people's development. There are many examples of sexually explicit material having positive influences that could be explored in relation to young people's viewing.

Some pornography emphasises positive sexual or body self-image, for instance, and may contain helpful examples of communication and negotiation. Some of it provides examples of people enjoying sex without anxieties.

So it may be useful to not paint all sexually explicit materials with a broad negative brush. Safer sexual practices, mutuality between partners, and healthy enjoyment of sex are all positive things for young people to see and can be portrayed explicitly.

And this kind of material will likely have a very different effect on development of sexual behaviour than other forms of sexually explicit media, which often portray unsafe sex, demeaning attitudes toward women and sexual violence, or all of these things together.

One thing that we can take from the Dutch research is that there are quite a lot of young people accessing sexually explicit material (88 per cent of males and 45 per cent of females reported watching some in the past year). This suggests that most adolescents are viewing some type of explicit media (in other words, such behaviour is statistically normative).

This data is valuable for understanding young people's viewing behaviours. It also suggests that efforts to limit access to sexually explicit materials may be extremely difficult.

What else is important?

The link between sexually explicit materials and sexual behaviours most certainly needs to be explored further if we are to have a more concrete understanding of its harms or otherwise.

With this in mind, the filters planned by the UK government seem to overzealous and akin to banning all beverages so people don't drink alcohol.

There are many factors other than viewing explicit material that influence young people's sexual attitudes and behaviours. The mainstream media, education, family and friends, genetics and an individual's broader environment and experiences all play a role.

While the potential effects of porn are quite interesting, let's not get too excited about it. Rather, we should focus our enthusiasm on questioning the government's role in controlling media.

Spring Chenoa Cooper is a Senior Lecturer at University of Sydney. Gregory Zimet is Professor of Pediatrics & Clinical Psychology at University of Sydney. The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations. The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    The points about just enjoying sex without anxieties and showing other positives of sex are very valid IMHO. I think that our society is too puritanical about sex, which leads to hang-ups that add nothing but confusion and anxiety to the experience of growing up. Exploration is normal, and I've found porn to be a good way to look into various kinks or preferences to see what sticks after the initial titilation fades away.

      So we are just ignoring the fact that the porn industry is the trash basket where we toss society's damaged children? Well you've been assaulted, raped, under educated or groomed into the porn industry but hey there kids! Chin up! You can imagine all those liberals out congratulating themselves that they, at least, aren't scared of being sexually open as they play with themselves and reassure themselves that it is okay to support an industry drug abuse and assault, cause now you are at least making money out of your degredation. Hooray!

    It's the same hypocrisy that is applied to drugs. Alcohol, the most dangerous and damaging drug of all time, is perfectly ok, but other recreational drugs like marijuana aren't. Everyone knows that marijuana is far far less harmful in every respect.

    So then, why is porn 'bad', but violence is ok?

      Yeah, that second part (sex vs violence) is something that really gets me, especially in America.
      Watching a violent movie is fine, showing graphic footage of simulated (or real) accidents and tragedies (news shows for instance) is fine, but the moment a nipple is seen America goes crazy (that Janet Jackson event.)

      It all suggests to people that violence is fine and expected, including graphic violence, but that even seeing someone's private parts is going to corrupt our youth!

    Was it wrong that I got a boner while reading the article?

      It's all those long, hard studies, throbbing research and exploding cross-factors, isn't it?

      "I'm not allowed back to question time at parliament. Don't ask, I'm just.. not allowed"

    Pornography serves the community by providing a solution to the sexual needs of the unfortunate.
    One example is people with a disability, who often have trouble finding a partner. Sexual frustration can cause depression and suicide. By simply buying some pornography many people can find it within themselves to keep going.
    Society is about making things as good as possible for everyone, and tolerating pornography is one way of helping everyone find happiness.
    Life isn't a fairy tale for all, so let's be nice to each other.

    I love you. Be safe.

    Pot is just as damaging.

      Can you provide a single study that backs your claim up?

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=persistent%20cannabis%20users%20and%20meier

          It doesnt say anywhere in that article that pot is just as bad as alcohol.. Maybe read your links before posting them.

            The article clearly states that pot causes Neuropsychological Decline. Alcohol has been proven to not cause Neuropsychological problems

    What I genuinely think needs studying are the people who are so adamantly against porn.
    Sure, a lot of them do it for transparent, superficial social political reasons: "I want to look good by saying something that people will publicly approve of"
    There's no downside to that sort of cowardly crusade because those who are for porn are easy to paint as perverts and undermine so you get to fight against a strawman demon of your own design and win every time.

    That aspect of anti-porn crusaders is easy to comprehend. It's the strange, freakish ones who have a genuine belief in its harm, a fear and revulsion of it that need investigation. These people are the ones who are aberrant in our society and that needs acknowledgement and study to determine why.

      Yes. They're scary. They say watching porn makes men want to go out and rape people. They might, but normal people don't.

    Cause when you do a survey about sex, you'd have to conduct in the Netherlands, the horniest country in the world. Not the best control group I must say.

      They could go with the British:

      "Almost. Almost. Almost. There we are."
      "Well done."

      Or the Canadians?:

      "Ooh you like that, ey?"
      "Yes, sorry"

      Or the Germans:

      "Kiss me or I crush you!"

      (Sorry!)

        Hahah, I literally lol'd at that, especially the Canadian one.

Join the discussion!