You’re not a horny teenager. You’re a professional and a functional family man (maybe in that order, maybe in reverse). You do, however, tiptoe into the seedier corners of the internet from time to time. You like porn, and you’re not alone. Hungry eyes took in 4.6 billion hours of porn in 2016—some five thousand centuries of smut. But how does this adult habit impact your mental health? Can it take a toll on your family? And how much porn is too much? The answers to these questions are harder to find than footage of even the most acrobatic carnal acts. But, thanks to new research, they are finally coming into focus.
It’s worth prefacing this discussion by clarifying that porn is neither new nor, from a scientific perspective, necessarily bad. Most studies have shown that men who view pornography only occasionally, and with the consent of a significant other, suffer no adverse outcomes. But once you’re sneaking around, or clicking through pornographic sites when you are supposed to be picking up your kids from soccer practice, psychological and relationship fallout inevitably follows. Men who watch porn compulsively tend to have lower self-esteem, researchers have found, as well as trouble connecting with loved ones. And women who discover their husbands watching porn behind their backs report feeling betrayed—as if cheated on.
“That’s the sort of porn consumption that wreaks havoc on relationships,” says Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma. “That’s what people are talking about when they talk about porn’s potentially destructive consequences.”
There are literally thousands of studies on the psychosocial impacts of internet pornography. Surveys suggest that about 98 percent of men and 80 percent of women in Western countries have watched internet porn at least once. Men report watching porn quite a bit more frequently than women—one Danish study found that 70 percent of men surveyed consumed porn at least once per week. Yet, despite the proliferation of porn addiction clinics, experts agree that porn addiction probably does not exist. The American Psychiatric Association does not even recognize the diagnosis. “I have never seen a reliable, accurate study that describes porn addiction,” Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author, told Fatherly. Peter Kanaris, psychologist and sex therapist, agrees. “While the concept of porn addiction has worked its way into popular culture, there is no scientific evidence to support such a diagnosis.”
“Like participation in sports, art, and music,” he says. “Porn can be another fun activity.”
Adult media can even be therapeutic. Sex therapists often suggest moderate porn use to help couples get through inevitable downturns in their sex lives. And deployed judiciously, as inspiration, it can spice up even a healthy bedroom, whether viewed as a couple or in private, with one another’s consent. It’s a way to blow off steam.
The problems begin when porn informs men’s attitudes. For instance, one 2014 study of college men noted a strong correlation between regular porn consumption, poor body image, and high relationship anxiety. Experts say this may be because there is a tendency to imagine sex theater as more authentic than other forms of acting. “Consider the Fast and Furious franchise films,” Tibbals says. “No one internalizes those fantasy creations as driver’s ed. This is because we have a context for understanding Hollywood film production. We do not have parallel relevant access and understanding for sex and porn information.”
This disconnect may explain why men who watch porn consistently worry more about their body image and their sex lives. If every man is supposed to have defined abs, and every woman is supposed to orgasm at first touch, it is easy to see how normal men could develop a complex after even a brief tour of PornHub.
Relationships suffer, too, when porn is consumed in an unhealthy way. One 2016 study found that “greater discrepancies between partners in pornography use were related to less relationship satisfaction, less stability, less positive communication, and more relational aggression.” Meanwhile, women who suspect their partners of regular porn consumption behind their backs report lower self-esteem and relationship satisfaction. And some fathers who watch porn have reported feeling less close to their kids after partaking. “It seems like guilt and shame may cause fathers to back away from the relationship,” Perry says.
The negative consequences porn use may have for intimate relationships are more pronounced for people of faith. There are several reasons for this. Religious men are more likely to feel shame about their pornography use, so they’re more likely to lie about it to their spouse and try to hide it, which hurts their relationships. And Perry says religious women tend to be less understanding about their partner’s porn use. In his research, Perry has found that “Christian women who’ve been divorced are twice as likely as other women to say they divorced their husband because of his pornography use,” he says.
And while studies have never reliably linked porn consumption to rape or assault, experts suspect that adult media may exacerbate latent violent tendencies. “Porn consumption has been linked to harmful behaviors like greater approval of violence,” Perry says. “And I think there’s enough data at this point to suggest that there may be some causation involved.” Still, Perry suspects those predisposed to violence are most at-risk. “It’s not like violent pornography can turn Ned Flanders from The Simpsons into a rampaging sex predator,” he says. “If pornography is connected to anti-social behavior, it’s among those who are already inclined that way.”
How, then, is a family man to relate to pornography? All things in moderation, the experts suggest. And , despite porn’s potential pitfalls when misused, it helps to avoid demonizing the medium. “Having a healthy appreciation for porn as not inherently good or bad, but rather fantasy material that can be part of healthy sexuality is a good place to start,” Kanaris says. “Do not accept or support hysterical proclamations regarding the alleged evils of pornography.”
At the same time, the public’s relationship with porn has changed rapidly and substantively with the advent of widespread internet access. Consumption habits have changed and, as the research lags behind, it is hard to know what this may mean for modern men, from a sociological perspective. “Today, people may swipe through content with rapid-fire easy, taking in a much larger number and variety of images much more quickly and less in-depth than was previously even possible, much less widely done,” Tibbals says.
The experience of consuming pornography has, in other words, become a lot more intense, even as viewing sessions have gotten longer. If some of this can be chalked up to desensitization, some can also, of course, be chalked up to the rise of sites that work quickly and offer access to millions of hours of digital footage. This makes it more likely for porn consumption, easy as it is, to detract from genuine sexual interest or engagement. When men feel this happening and continue to consume pornography — perhaps feeling shame while doing so — they wind up suffering. “Addressing these issues lies in addressing the stigma related to sex and variable forms of sex expression,” Tibbals says. “Additionally, interpersonal communication and our difficulty with it on a societal level contributes to the problematic mix.”
Indeed, communication is key. Especially when a spouse gets caught, literally, with his or her pants down. “The worst situations I’ve seen are when a wife will discover her husband’s been using pornography and, rather than talk about it, it becomes an occasion to blast him for his betrayal,” Perry says. “Most husbands don’t see it that way.” Men often view porn as a casual activity, or a safe way of releasing sexual tension without committing adultery. They may know that it would bother their wives if they were caught, but they are often blindsided when their spouses equate the act of watching an adult film to bonafide cheating.
Getting past that sort of rough patch requires mutual understanding. “If the relationship is worth fighting for,” Perry says. “It goes a lot better if both spouses can open up and process, together.”