March 2, 2024

In decades gone by, pornography was limited to seedy theaters or stacks of Playboys in your uncle’s closet. Now, an immense array of sexual media is always at our fingertips via the internet.

Given how accessible pornography is today, it comes as no surprise that many people are concerned about it.  From earnest op-eds to toothless legislation calling pornography a “public health crisis,” to calls for warning labels, it seems that fears about pornography are everywhere.

Yet many of these concerns lack grounding in what careful scientific research has taught us about pornography use.

As a psychology professor and addiction researcher, I have made a career out of understanding pornography use and its effects, publishing dozens of scientific studies on the topic. Across that work, the most consistent finding is that simple narratives like “porn is bad” or “porn is good” are flawed. Such assertions, and the arguments that underpin them, always miss key information and are almost always wrong.

Those who foment panic about pornography often claim that pornography leads to addiction and mental health problems, damages the brain, results in violence against women, and drives epidemics of sexual dysfunction. The science does not currently support these claims.

Claims that pornography is inherently addictive are without basis. Some people do become out of control in their use of pornography, but the same can be said of exercise, shopping or even working. Yet, there is no rush to label most of these things as addictive because not every habitual behavior is an addiction.

And just because some people develop real problems with pornography, it does not mean that pornography is inherently likely to lead to those types of problems for most users. The scientific and psychiatric communities do not currently consider excessive pornography use to be an addictive disorder. 

Dozens of studies have demonstrated that most people who view pornography do not feel addicted or out of control. Among people who do say they feel addicted, the reasons for those feelings range from real concerns about how much they view pornography to simple feelings of shame about their sexual behaviors.

Similarly, although pornography use can be associated with mental health concerns, most evidence suggests that links between its use and things like depression, anxiety and stress are not causal in nature. Several studies have found no direct links between how often people use pornography and their likelihood of experiencing mental health problems in the future. People experiencing depression and anxiety might use pornography more, but there is no conclusive evidence that the pornography is the cause rather than the effect.

A careful read of the science around pornography use also does not support the idea that pornography is abnormally changing people’s brains or stunting neural development. Almost all human hobbies and interests lead to subtle changes in brain structure. Taxi drivers often have larger-than-average brain regions associated with memory. Professional video game players show structural differences compared to non-gamers. It should come as no surprise, then, that people who view pornography frequently may have subtle differences in their brains when compared to people who never view it. The presence of such differences does not necessarily imply problems in brain-function or abnormal development. Rather, it is consistent with the familiar idea that different activities and hobbies change our brains in different ways.  

While associations between sexual violence and violent pornography have been found in some research, these links are not present in all studies. And research showing that pornography use actually causes violence is lacking. The known links between violence and violent pornography may only imply that violent people prefer violent pornography, or that other experiences attract some people to both sexual violence and violent pornography.  

Additionally, violence in pornography is incredibly subjective. (For example, is spanking violence?) Finally, contrary to what one might expect if pornography use causes greater sexual violence, National Crime Victimization Survey statistics show that sexual violence rates in the U.S. have not risen since the mid-1990s. If that causal link were real, then one would expect an explosion of sexual violence since then, due to the massive expansion of online pornography.

While claims about pornography addiction and pornography’s effects on brain functioning are unsupported, claims that pornography is driving a wave of erectile dysfunction in otherwise healthy young men are outright false.  Numerous peer-reviewed studies in both the U.S. and abroad have conclusively shown that pornography use alone is not related to erectile functioning issues.  

Ultimately, pornography is one form of media in a world that is more saturated than ever with media of all forms. Pornography has flourished in the internet era; so too have podcasts, streaming television, and digitized music. It is natural for parents, educators, and policymakers to be concerned about children’s exposure to sexual media. It is also normal for people to worry about how new forms of media are affecting people of all ages.

But moral panics based on fear and pseudoscience don’t lead to effective parenting, education or policy. Instead, what is needed is real support for science seeking to understand how all media is affecting people and a willingness to understand the science before making regulatory and policy changes. 

Joshua B. Grubbs is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico, where he is also an investigator in the Center on Alcohol, Substance Use, and Addiction.

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