The effects of pornography use among adults and young people
What do we know about the impacts of pornography on its users’ attitudes and behaviours? In this detailed submission to a recent government enquiry, I summarise contemporary scholarship on pornography, exploring evidence from research among adults, children, and young people. I explore the following points:
- Most everyday users of pornography are heterosexual men. Men are more likely than women to view pornography frequently, to be sexually aroused by it, and to have favourable attitudes towards it. They are more likely use pornography for sexual excitement and masturbation; initiate its use; and view it alone and in same-sex groups.
- Pornography has a series of demonstrated effects among children and young people (and among adults). Three types of factor mediate the impact of exposure of pornography: the characteristics of the viewer, the viewer’s engagement with the material, and the character and context of exposure: the type of material involved, the duration and intensity of viewing, and the context.
- Seven types of effects are significant, as follows.
- Pornography as sex education: (i) Sexual knowledge and attitudes. Exposure to pornography is associated with:
- Increased sexual knowledge, including about bodies and practices
- Liberalised sexual attitudes (from both correlational and longitudinal studies)
- Greater acceptance of pre-, extra- and non-marital sexual relations
- More positive attitudes towards casual and recreational sex, and premarital and extramarital sex
- Acceptance of one’s own same-sex or other sexualities
- Greater acceptance of pornography itself
- Pornography as sex education: (ii) Sexual practices and relations
- Pornography is prompting shifts particularly in heterosexual boys’ and young men’s sexual expectations, practices, and repertoires.
- There is clear evidence that pornography is shaping young men’s and women’s sexual practices.
- This has been most well documented with regard to anal intercourse.
- Pornography also may be shaping interest and participation in other sexual practices such as extra-vaginal ejaculation, deep fellatio, sex with multiple partners, etc.
- Pornography use also may increase young people’s practices of unsafe vaginal and anal intercourse.
- Associations between pornography exposure and involvement in particular sexual practices such as anal intercourse or multi-partner sex can involve sexual coercion.
- Pornography as addiction? Some individuals’ use is compulsive and damaging. However, it is problematic to frame this as ‘addiction’.
- Pornography as distress (for younger children): Premature or inadvertent exposure to sexually explicit content may be distressing for younger children.
- Pornography as betrayal: Much of heterosexual men’s pornography use is likely to be hidden from their female partners. A substantial proportion of female partners who are aware of their partners’ pornography use experience hurt and distress.
- Pornography as sexist education: Pornography influences children’s and young people’s adoption of:
- Sexist and stereotypical constructions of gender and sexuality.
- Sexually objectifying understandings of and behaviours towards girls and women.
- Pornography as rape training
- There is now very substantial evidence that pornography is associated with sexually aggressive and violence-supportive attitudes (in both experimental and correlational studies and from meta-analyses of these).
- There is now very substantial evidence that pornography is associated with sexually aggressive behaviour (in both experimental and correlational studies and from meta-analyses of these).
- Beyond simplistic accounts of effects
- We must move beyond simplistic, deterministic claims and towards more sophisticated and evidence-based accounts of pornography’s effects.
- Pornography is one risk factor, among many, for sexual violence perpetration.
- Integrative models: Pornography consumption is one factor, which combines with others, to predict sexually aggressive behaviour. Pornography increases the risk of sexual violence perpetration for some individuals much more than others.
- Pornography’s role in children’s sexual offending is likely to be similar.
- The impact of exposure of pornography is complex.
- The user / consumer matters: How users interpret form and content, and what users do during and after consuming pornography
- The content matters: violent pornography appears to have stronger associations than non-violent pornography with sexually violent behavior, but this is complex.
- The form matters: There is some evidence that pornography’s form – online versus online, video versus print – matters.
Please see below for the full submission, in PDF.