‘Easy access to porn is “damaging” men’s health, says NHS therapist’, read an article on the front page of the BBC News website this week, the latest in a long line of worrying media stories about the damaging effect porn is having on young people’s lives.
What was the basis for this claim? The first indication that the article was less than reliable came in the fourth line: ‘There are no official figures, but…’ This is normally the point at which one would stop writing a supposedly factual article and write something else instead. But the BBC ploughed on, explaining that a ‘top psychosexual therapist’ has sounded the alarm that young men are increasingly suffering from erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems caused by watching, and often becoming addicted to, internet pornography.
The article continued with the story of porn addict ‘Nick’, whose use of erotic materials, starting at age 15, escalated to the point that his relationships were suffering and he had to seek medical attention.
They say it’s very easy to find porn on the internet (I wouldn’t know). But it’s also pretty simple to look up the research on porn’s effects. This isn’t even my area of study, but within minutes of reading the BBC article, I had found a whole host of peer-reviewed scientific studies that cast doubt on the whole story.
Published studies are worth far more than anecdotes like that of ‘Nick’. Nobody could deny that some individuals have an unhealthy attachment to pornography (and likewise, nobody would argue that minors should ever be allowed to see it), but the stories tell us nothing about whether the porn is a cause of health problems, or whether the people in question had pre-existing issues — perhaps anxiety-related — that caused both their heavy use of pornography and their interpersonal problems.
Indeed, researchers have cast doubt on the whole idea of ‘porn addiction’: in one detailed 2014 review, the authors concluded that ‘the popularity of the porn addiction concept to describe high rates of [porn] use appears to be driven by non-empirical forces’ (see also this review, which argues that porn addiction research is generally of poor quality and is often driven by personal bias; and this review, which notes that, on pornography, the media ‘rushes to judgement… while research lags behind’).
Setting aside the ‘addicts’, is there evidence on the population level that pornography use causes — or even correlates with — sexual health problems? Most of the evidence seems to suggest not, or not very much. This 2007 study from Denmark found that adults report generally small, and often positive, effects of pornography on their sexual health. A 2012 study of couples found a very small negative correlation of male porn use on sexual quality, but also a very small positive correlation of female porn use with the same outcome.
The authors of a large cross-cultural study from 2015, with a sample size of almost 4,000 men, wrote that, ‘contrary to raising public concerns, pornography does not seem to be a significant risk factor for younger men’s desire, erectile, or orgasmic difficulties’. An even larger study from June 2016, a report from the Australian Study of Health and Relationships (including about 20,000 participants), found that a majority of respondents had watched porn, but that only a vanishingly small proportion reported any porn-related health problems.
So perhaps there’s little reason to panic, despite the lurid warnings about an impending generation of porn-addled zombies. To be sure, there are many reasons to dislike pornography – political reasons, aesthetic reasons, reasons to do with the treatment of women within the industry. But we mustn’t let our personal opinions, or our sense of disgust, influence our reading of the evidence.
It may be that, once better data is collected and the evidence becomes clearer, we’ll find the damaging effects of pornography that are claimed by some psychotherapists and anti-porn campaigners. For now, though, take my advice: if you keep reading anecdotal scare stories on the internet, you’ll go blind.
Stuart Ritchie is a postdoctoral research fellow in the psychology department at the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter: @StuartJRitchie