Don’t panic! There’s very little evidence that porn harms health

News & Analysis

17th August 2016

‘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


  • Rab iBurns

    Is it possible that the aimless overstimulation of the senses, imagination and reproductive system can be part of a healthy regimen?

    • Aubreythecat

      Define overstimulation.

      • Rab iBurns

        Any stimulation that does not result in the corresponding function (the *real* function, i.e. that may actually lead to conception)

        • Aubreythecat

          So, in answer to the first question: no. Obviously. I mean, bloody obviously.

          • Rab iBurns

            I agree but we may be old stick-in-the-muds. Maybe wanking is where it’s at these days.

          • Aubreythecat

            Whoops, I got my negatives etc mixed up. I meant, yes, bloody yes. Wanking has always been where it’s at.

          • Rab iBurns

            Well, cats are like that.

  • AlfTupperDarlin

    I think the real problem with these reports is the over-fixation on possible psychological damage.
    I’m almost blind and my wrists are completely shot.

  • Enoch Powell

    Could it be that the BBC is just shit?

  • Jojje 3000

    How about a study concerning the BBC’s effect on your health.

    • south_coast_boyo

      lol

  • hollisfergus

    This article grossly misrepresents the current state of the science. It cherry picks a few outlying studies, and selects 3 reviews that were not actually reviews, while ignoring 9 reviews of the literature by top neuroscientists. Lets’ start with what Stuart omitted:
    1) 15 studies that link porn use/porn addiction to sexual problems. List of studies here – http://pornstudycritiques.com/studies-reporting-relationships-between-porn-use-in-young-men-and-ed-anorgamsia-low-sexual-desire-delayed-ejaculation-and-lower-brain-activation-to-sexual-images/ – (it also contains 30 studies that correlated porn use with lower sexual and relationship satisfaction)

    2) 26 neurological studies and 9 recent reviews of the literature. List here – http://pornstudycritiques.com/current-list-of-brain-studies-on-porn-users/ So far, the results of every “brain study” (MRI, fMRI, EEG, neuropsychological, neuro-hormonal) offer support for the concept of porn addiction.

    A few examples of Stuart’s Google-searched, cheery picked papers:

    1) “The Emperor Has No Clothes: A review of the ‘Pornography Addiction’ model'” by David Ley (the author of the Myth of Sex Addiction). This “review” is anything but objective. In fact, it wasn’t a true review of the literature. Virtually none of its claims are supported by the citations cited, It omitted every single study that reported problem associated with porn uses. It made false claims that are unsupported by the references. It has been dismantled line by line here – http://www.yourbrainonporn.com/emperor-has-no-clothes-fractured-fairytale-posing-review

    2) “Pornography Addiction in Adults: A Systematic Review of Definitions and Reported Impact.” – Again, this wasn’t an actual review. It omitted all 26 neurological studies cited above. As a results, it’s conclusions are unsupported by the science.

    3) “Is Pornography Use Associated with Sexual Difficulties and Dysfunctions among Younger Heterosexual Men?” – The abstract doesn’t mention a pretty important correlation: Only 40% of the Portuguese men used porn “frequently”, while the 60% of the Norwegians used porn “frequently”. The Portuguese men had far less sexual dysfunction than the Norwegians.

    Elsewhere, the authors acknowledge a statistically significant association between more frequent porn use and ED, but claim the effect size was small. However, this claim may be misleading as analyzed a different way (Chi Squared), … moderate use (vs. infrequent use) increased the odds (the likelihood) of having ED by about 50% in this Croatian population. That sounds meaningful to me, although it is curious that the finding was only identified among Croats.

    The paper has been formally criticized by Danish porn researcher Gert Martin Hald’s editorial comments echoed the need to assess more variables (mediators, moderators) than just frequency per week in the last 12 months:
    EXCERPT: “Third, the study does not address possible moderators or mediators of the relationships studied nor is it able to determine causality. Increasingly, in research on pornography, attention is given to factors that may influence the magnitude or direction of the relationships studied (i.e., moderators) as well as the pathways through which such influence may come about (i.e., mediators). Future studies on pornography consumption and sexual difficulties may also benefit from an inclusion of such focuses.”

    4) “How the popular media rushes to judgment about pornography and relationships while research lags behind” – As the other 2 reviews above, It discusses porn addiction, but purposely omits all 26 neurological studies listed in my second link. It says it analyses studies related porn use to relationship problems, but omits nearly every study listed in my first link that reported negative effects on relationships (30 studies listed). It omitted the very first cross section/longitudinal study published – Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence from Longitudinal Data, 2016, which concluded that porn use caused relationship problems.

    5) “June 2016, a report from the Australian Study of Health and Relationships (including about 20,000 participants)”… – This was a country wide cross-sectional study. 25% of the men never used porn. The other criteria was having seen porn once in the last years – 75% of men. This tells us nothing about chronic users of porn or the age group described in the BBC article – young men who grew up using porn. That said – 12% reported having “bad effects from pornography”. 12% is quite large when we consider that this was cross-sectional, all age groups – and 25% of men and 60% of the women never watched porn. Nice job of hiding the stats Stuart!

  • Sean L

    Of course it’s harmful to a man just to expire in such nullity. As DH Lawrence says in the best treatment of the matter: “there are two great categories of meaning, forever separate. There is mob-meaning, and there is individual meaning” “Data” is mob meaning: statistics. Unrequited love, for example, probably kills more men prematurely than anything. But it will never show up as “data”. And if there’s anything more likely to make a men less appealing to a woman it’s one with no desire or confidence in himself, two sides of the same coin, which she can smell a mile off. And spending yourself with no reciprocity “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame” guarantees that. Every man knows it in himself as we’ve all been there.

    http://www.mjpenny.com/d-h-lawrence-pornography-and-obscenity/

    • Crutchbender

      Rated: drivel.

      • Sean L

        Perhaps, but the essay by Lawrence, Po r n o gra ph y and Obscenity, I linked to is a classic.

        • Crutchbender

          Lawrence is a joke.

  • Crutchbender

    Lots of crazed killers and whacko maniacs became hooked on porn first before they went on the rampage. Brady the Moors Murderer for example had stacks and stacks of porno mags he shared with his murdering b!tch girlfriend. Basically, porn and drugs are the two biggest causes of pyschotic nutjobbery and twisted mentalism ever.

    • Aubreythecat

      Bollocks.

      • Crutchbender

        Same to you with nobs on.

  • thomas greaves

    This absurd, mindless and utterly irresponsible article assumes readers to be a stupid as its author. Ask any porn addict what porn has done to their relationships, sex life and their general psychoemotional health. Porn can be extremely dangerous for those vulnerable to its toxic affects. There are countless sex addiction centres where porn addicts work extremely hard to overcome an extreme form of sex addiction. Our culture’s obsession with scientific proof is a manipulative mechanism to seduce people into believing that only knowledge derived from scientific measurements is worthy; and therefore science should be funded with billions. Yes, scientists want to hold onto their jobs, salaries, pensions and security. Of course science brings important knowledge BUT not the only knowledge. As yet, science has not proven the existence of thoughts, but we don’t doubt they exist.

  • JSC

    Ever so gradually the meaning of the word “addict” is being lost. Diluted to “compelling” with its ultimate end fated to be “hobby”.

  • BKB

    Wow. An article full of distortions by referencing minority research or poorly designed, already debunked studies. The vast majority of scientifically sound studies show that porn viewing causes major damage to individuals and families. See the other comments (hollisfergus’ comment has excellent references) for references to those studies. Please do your homework next time and quit leading people to think that porn-viewing is harmless. It is not.

    • Aubreythecat

      It is.

  • Jeff

    Gated Communities

    Gated communities are taking on an important role in modern politics. Donald Trump grew up in a gated community, and made his fortune building gated communities that illegally exclude African-Americans. Trump’s approach is not based on ideology, but on consumer demand, and in particular, the demand of the working class to live in a place where there are no minority groups, criminals, wierdos or politically correct (Catholic educated) people.

    A gated community has a number of characteristics. There is ideally a six metre high concrete wall to keep out intruders. When the wall surrounds a very large number of houses, the average cost of the wall becomes insignificant. Getting past the security guards is like going through customs. Hence there is no crime in a gated community, and children can roam unsupervised in complete safety. Parents can be sure their daughters will not encounter males that would be unsuitable sons-in-law.

    Allotments are typically quarter-acre or five acres (one-tenth or two hectares). Houses are fireproof and of a similar appearance. Services are provided by underground ducts, including pneumatic mail delivery. Television and internet are unobtrusively censored.

    There is a shopping centre with a supermarket and other key shops. Prices are controlled to prevent gouging. There is a club for men and older boys from which women are excluded. On the top of the shopping centre is a hospital and old people’s home overlooking a race track and playing fields.

    There is a non-denomination church, which has leather sofas instead of pews, and wallpaper with pictures of saints like in an eastern orthodox church. The priest is a family man employed by the management committee. There is a co-educational school, so that if children conceive a passionate desire for a classmate, it will be someone of the opposite gender. The school has international baccalaureate and no homework.

    Once people move into a gated community, it occurs to them that, instead of their having to move into a gated community, it would be better if the “undesirables” were forced to live in ghettos, or were kicked out of the country altogether. No doubt this is what Donald Trump has in mind. The Conservative Party should take on board this trend in modern living and become the party for people who live or would like to live in gated communities. eb