But in some ways, both arguments are moot: Whether or
not you think it’s moral, the fact is, people like porn. Various
international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50
percent to 99 percent among men, and 30 percent to 86 percent
among women, according to Gert Martin Hald, PhD, and
colleagues in The APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology
“Porn is practically ubiquitous,” says Ana Bridges, PhD, a
psychologist at the University of Arkansas. And the Internet
has made it easier than ever to get an erotic fix. The late sex
researcher Alvin Cooper, PhD, called this the “triple-A engine”
effect: The accessibility, affordability and anonymity provided
by the Web have put adult content right at our fingertips.
Many people argue that’s a good thing. In a 2002 survey
conducted for PBS/Frontline by the Kinsey Institute for
Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana
University, 86 percent of respondents said porn can educate
people, and 72 percent said it provides a harmless outlet for
fantasies. Among those who reported using pornography, 80
percent said they felt “fine” about it.
“There are a lot of people out there using a lot of porn who
have no problems with it whatsoever,” says Erick Janssen, PhD, a
senior scientist at the Kinsey Institute. “So when does it become
That, of course, is a key question for researchers trying to
understand pornography’s dark side.
While many viewers of adult content don’t seem to suffer ill
effects, porn can become problematic for others. The Kinsey
Institute survey found 9 percent of porn viewers said they had
tried unsuccessfully to stop.
When pornography use becomes excessive, romantic
relationships can suffer. Destin Stewart, PhD, and Dawn
Szymanski, PhD, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville,
surveyed female college students and found that those who
perceived their boyfriends’ porn use to be problematic
experienced lower self-esteem, poorer relationship quality and
lower sexual satisfaction (Sex Roles, 2012).
But it’s not always that simple. In a 2013 study, researchers
at Brigham Young University and the University of Missouri
surveyed heterosexual couples who were married or living
together and found that men’s use of porn was associated with
lower sexual quality for both men and their partners. Female
use of porn, however, was associated with improved sexual
quality for women (Journal of Sex Research, 2013).
Bridges and Patricia Morokoff, PhD, reported similar
findings: When men used porn, they tended to report lower
levels of sexual intimacy in their real-life relationships. When
women used porn, however, intimacy increased (Personal
Bridges points to two possible explanations for the finding.
First, she says, while men tend to view pornography solo,
women are more likely to watch it with their partners in a
shared sexual experience. “This was something that they
incorporated into their lovemaking ritual,” she says.
Also, men and women typically use different types of porn.
Men are more often drawn to videos showing sex acts absent
of context. “You might not even see anybody’s face,” she says.
Women, though, tend to watch “couples porn,” with story
lines and softer angles. “When partners use porn together, they
tend to watch things where both people are more egalitarian
participants in a sexual act,” Bridges says.
Although some couples seem to benefit from pornography,
that’s not the case for everyone. When one partner uses porn at a
high frequency — typically the men in the heterosexual couples
Bridges has studied — there can be a tendency to withdraw
emotionally from the relationship. Those men report “increased
secrecy, less intimacy and also more depression,” she says.
It’s not clear, however, whether pornography is the
proverbial chicken or the egg. Does a person turn to
pornography because he’s already in an unsatisfying
relationship? Or do women pull away and lose interest in sex
when they discover their partner is spending quality time with
adult film stars?
Bridges says both scenarios are probably true, based on the
couples she’s interviewed. And indeed, the two scenarios tend
to feed off each other. If a couple goes through a dry spell, the
ornography is a loaded subject. Opponents argue that it can ruin marriages, lead to
sexual addiction or other unhealthy behaviors, and encourage sexual aggression.
Proponents claim that erotica can enhance sex lives, provide a safe recreational outlet and
perhaps even reduce the incidence of sexual assault. (After pornography was legalized in Denmark
in 1969, for instance, researchers reported a corresponding decline in sexual aggression.)