Figuring out the risk-to-benefit ratio of watching pornography may just top the ranks of controversial topics scientists can’t seem to completely agree on. But one thing’s for sure: Americans like watching porn — and lots of it.
According to the website Paint Bottle, 30 percent of all data transferred online is porn. In a 2015 infographic, the porn site detailed that 70 percent of men consume the content compared to 30 percent of women. And the number of people consuming porn is rapidly increasing every week, according to the site.
After lawmakers in Virginia recently proposed legislation that aims to implement greater restrictions on watching porn, Fox News talked to three psychologists to learn more about what scientists know — and don’t know — about the potential health effects of its consumption.
How does porn affect the brain?
Studying porn and determining its health effects are tricky, experts say. That’s because several parties — neurobiologists, psychologists, sociologists, and others — are weighing in on the topic, and their methodologies and study cohorts can vary vastly.
“One big-picture question has to do with how confident one can be — scientifically — that pornography consumption is causally related to the various harms identified in the resolution,” Paul J. Wright, an associate psychology, socialization and media use professor at Indiana University Bloomington, told Fox News in an email. “To answer this question, one would have to identify a philosophy of cause that all agree to, standards for acceptable evidence, and then engage in systematic reviews of the literature associated with each hypothesized harm. In short, this would be a monumental effort, and likely would still lead to some disagreement among scientists, because although the promise of science is consensus, scientists rarely 100 percent agree on anything.”
In their proposed legislation, Virginia lawmakers claim pornography is “addictive,” promotes normalization of rape, may lessen the “desire to marry,” and “equates violence with sex,” encourages “group sex,” “risky sexual behavior” and infidelity, among other effects.
Dr. William Struthers, a psychology professor at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts institution just west of Chicago, said while much of the legislation’s tenets “seem to be pretty reasonable,” another challenge that researchers face is technology is outpacing scientific studies.
“Any kind of pornography research is incredibly muddy water,” Struthers told Fox News. “A lot of the research being drawn on was published 20 to 25 years ago, and that is very different from the pornography that is being consumed by young people now. The unfortunate truth is we can’t keep up with the pornography that is being produced.”
Can you be addicted to porn?
When it comes to alcoholism, gambling and drugs, the answer is clear: Addiction exists. Studies show a clear association between those behaviors and alterations in brain chemistry, which is coupled with physical withdrawal effects if the given behavior is restricted. But, “There really isn’t the science to demonstrate that porn is in and of itself harmful and addictive,” Ian Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist and sex counselor, told Fox News. “That has not been, in my estimation, scientifically or clinically proven.”
Rather, Kerner argued, excessive porn viewing often presents as a comorbidity with another health issue, like anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.
“When people get depressed, they may get lonely and tend to masturbate,” he said. “If they’re having anxiety, the problem occurs when the only way you know how to calm yourself is with masturbation … in those cases, porn is the symptom, not the problem.”
In fact, in Kerner’s experience, ethical, so-called feminist pornography — which often features storylines, and always contracted, paid adults having consensual sex — can enhance couples’ sexual experiences by helping partners get warmed up and be creative in the bedroom.
Perhaps counterintuitively, watching porn may also help keep some relationships intact, he said.
“I know a lot of men who travel and are happy to masturbate to porn rather than potentially pursue infidelity,” Kerner said. “When there are natural libido gaps in a relationship — maybe one partner is interested in sex more than the other partner, maybe one just had a baby and can’t have sex, or maybe illness is involved — porn is actually a really positive way to smooth over those libido gaps.”
As for adolescents consuming porn, the Virginia legislators argue the average age of exposure to porn is 11 to 12 — a stat that certainly would scare any responsible parent, yet one Kerner argued, if true, suggests a deeper issue for discussion.
“If kids are learning about sex through porn, well, that’s not a problem with porn — that’s a problem with a lack of proper sex education,” he argued. “If we live in a country that teaches abstinence only, the problem is there’s no competing script to porn.”
What don’t we know about porn?
And yet, experts like Struthers argue that basic psychological science suggests frequent exposure to something like porn may indeed lead to normalization of harmful behaviors.
“The more you’re exposed to something, the more you tend to see it as acceptable, whether it’s violence, gambling or sexuality,” Struthers said.
His concern, however, is the psychological effect that frequent exposure may have on developing brains.
“I think the questions we really need to be asking are, ‘What are the secondary effects that porn has?'" he said, explaining that pornography may cause some people to see others as objects rather than people in non-sexual settings due to potentially reduced empathy.
Wright, the professor at Indiana University, who has conducted research on porn’s potential influence on youths’ behavior, speculated that most scientists in this area and at this level of debate would agree with some of the lawmakers’ claims yet disagree with others.
But, he said one thing most would agree on is more can be done.
“Is there enough suggestive evidence of harm in terms of compulsive use and socialization toward attitudes and behaviors that most people perceive as antisocial that scientists should support policy efforts calling for further research, community and school education programs, and programs aimed at the prevention of harmful effects?” Wright said in an email. “I think the majority of scientists familiar with the research in this area would say, ‘Yes.’”