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Porn on the Mind


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If you like to surf porn on the Internet, you’ve got company. In a 2008 survey of college students, 90 percent of males and 60 percent of females had been there, done that. The practice is only half as common among people in their 40s, but still hardly rare, and the habits of youth are better predictors of what’s to come. No longer is there any real risk of exposure when you want to take a peek at a racy photo or video. Sitting at your computer is just about as private as you can get. So a lot of people figure, “Why not?”

iconic image of female face behind screen

Via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe because this porn watching is perturbing male minds, engendering sexist, even misogynist attitudes toward women? Maybe its use portends a rise in violence against us, the weaker sex?

A new report (The Sunny Side of Smut) in the current issue of Scientific American Mind by Melinda Wenner says nah, let the guys (and gals) have their porn. Sure, porn gives a lot of us bad vibes. At best, it is in bad taste and worse, flatly immoral. But engaging in a tasteless, sleazy diversion is different from doing something dangerous. In fact, it’s very difficult to find backing for the argument that porn is harmful. And there is at least as much data to support the contention that porn might be doing its fans—and even the rest of society—a bit of good. (Hear me chat about this on the radio.)

First of all, the guys who watch mainstream porn seem to be just normal guys—not total creeps—which, given that porn watching seems pretty darn common, does not surprise me. But to give the research its due: in a 2007 survey of 650 young men, scientists found that users of mainstream, nonviolent pornography were neither more nor less sexually satisfied than nonusers. Both groups felt the same degree of intimacy in their relationships and had similar sexual experiences.

The men with a penchant for violent or fetishist porn did have a few quirks: they masturbated more frequently, had more sexual partners in their lives, and were not as close to their partners as the average, non-porn-watching male (whoever that is). But, of course, people do vary in these characteristics in ways that are not necessarily pathological or bad. Other studies Mind columnists described in a previous article (Sex in Bits and Bytes) have shown that men who view a lot of violent porn are more likely to display sexually belligerent behaviors such as holding a woman down against her will. But think about it. Guys who like to view violence tend to be more violent. Not sure what the porn had to do with it.

My take: a lot of things happen to males during their development to shape their brains one way or the other, to be nice guys or jerks. By the time they start watching porn, their habits are more likely to reflect who they are than to shape their personalities in any significant way.

XXX icon

Via Wikimedia Commons

But Wenner’s story goes beyond saying porn is safe. It suggests that it might actually be beneficial. I am not sure I buy this, but some coincidences worth mentioning back up this view. First, as access to Internet pornography grew in this country, rates of rapes and sexual assault went in the opposite direction. Those stats are at their lowest levels since the 1960s. And something similar happened in Japan, China and Denmark.  Along those lines, the U.S. states in which rapes rose by 53 percent had the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and so the least access to Internet porn. States with the most access saw a 27 percent drop in reported rapes. These opposing trends don’t prove anything. It could be that they are unrelated to each other or that a third factor underlies both. But it makes you wonder.

If porn somehow reduces rape, why would that be? Wenner suggests that pornography may be a safe outlet for deviance. Exposure to it correlates with lower levels of sexual repression, experts say. And people seeking treatment in clinics for sex offenders commonly say that it helps them keep their abnormal sexuality in their minds. Otherwise, maybe these folks, and others, might have been contributing to those rape stats. I don’t really know, but that’s the idea.

Relationship-wise, watching porn could have drawbacks. Guys, if you overindulge and advertise it, you are unlikely to score points with your wife or girlfriend. In a study of female partners of heavy porn users, 42 percent said it made them feel insecure; 39 percent said it had a negative impact on their relationship and 32 percent said it negatively affected their lovemaking.

On the other hand, maybe more of us gals should see what it’s like. Peeking at porn is probably not going to make us violent toward our partners, after all. Maybe we’d get it (and be one with the guys). Maybe we’d be grossed out. Maybe both. In any event, it might spark ideas. And those can be good for a relationship.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. candide 3:32 pm 08/3/2011

    “porn” as a word is used so casually here, but what does it mean?

    There is such huge variation and extreme differences of opinion on what “porn” is that I find even some of the most basic findings very difficult to evaluate.

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  2. 2. rmw26 3:41 pm 08/3/2011

    don’t forget; never pay for porn. We need another Jenna Jameson about as badly as we need another Dr. Phil or Oprah.

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  3. 3. emilyhasbooks 3:44 pm 08/3/2011

    “At best, it is in bad taste and worse, flatly immoral” I disagree, and with the above poster’s statement, how are you defining ‘porn’?

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  4. 4. David in Cincinnati 4:11 pm 08/3/2011

    To really understand what the above posters are questioning, Google “I Feel Myself”. You’ll find no defining boundaries and nothing in bad taste or immoral except in extremely limiting religious systems.

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  5. 5. jimaginator 4:14 pm 08/3/2011

    Beyond the unclear definition of “porn”, the phrases “bad taste” and “flatly immoral” need to be clarified as well. Most people would agree that unprovoked murder is “flatly immoral”, but I doubt very much that many would put murder in the same category as porn. “Bad taste” is probably even harder to clarify. It often comes back to the “I know it when I see it” argument, and that is always subjective.

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  6. 6. Ingrid Wickelgren in reply to Ingrid Wickelgren 8:17 pm 08/3/2011

    Candide: This is probably one more problem with the research, on both sides of the issue.

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  7. 7. Ingrid Wickelgren in reply to Ingrid Wickelgren 8:20 pm 08/3/2011

    Ha! Yes, I think “bad taste” and “flatly immoral” are purposely vague statements (and I used them that way). They are more emotional reactions, gut responses, than anything else. As for porn, that may come back to “I know it when I see it…”

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  8. 8. Ingrid Wickelgren in reply to Ingrid Wickelgren 8:21 pm 08/3/2011

    You seem very flexible, morally. I like that.

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  9. 9. outward appearance 11:15 pm 08/3/2011

    Morality is about figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong. The line isn’t flexible, however it might be difficult to find it. I would say that doing something immoral always causes some kind of damage (un-good). Similarly, I would maintain that doing something moral always causes something good. That may or may not be measurable with the instruments used in the research above. The welcome negative correlation with rape numbers may be far outweighed by the indicated relational damage which is probably harder to measure. Regarding the overall casual treatment of a topic where much is at stake for the well-being of our generation and that of our offspring, I would like to encourage more attention to the complexity of the topic and less casual treatment.

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  10. 10. hyperobjects 5:13 am 08/4/2011

    This article is way lame. I’m sick of only hearing about porn from the same old heteronormal perspective that only serves to reinforce shallow gender stereotypes of men VS women. What about gay and bisexual porn?! Or, a genre that’s more popular among straight men: “chicks with dicks” porn, or even still: “dominant female / submission male” porn? Yes, there is merit to feminist readings of pornography that critique power discrepancies between actors, but no. 1, you can’t just say it’s men disempowering women, and no. 2, pornography is a large and heterogeneous industry and I don’t think you can say that most porn on the internet is vanilla straight sex. Do you have data to support this? These days, A lot of contemporary straight porn verges on demented surrealist cinema. What does this say about the average purveyor of porn? Perhaps it says that individuals will consume whatever media is most readily accessible. Also, why not compare violent porn to other forms of violent visual media like war movies or video games? violence is videogames is widespread, and doesn’t necessarily reflect particular personality dispositions of the gamer.

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  11. 11. Ingrid Wickelgren in reply to Ingrid Wickelgren 11:11 am 08/4/2011

    @outward appearance. Thanks for your thoughtful post. By flexible, I did not mean loose. I only meant that this particular commenter seemed to be flexible in his thinking, but only after considering the moral issues. I do not appreciate disregard for morals. Morality is important to consider. As for the tone you object to, that’s fair. I think we see the topic differently from an emotional standpoint.

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  12. 12. Ingrid Wickelgren in reply to Ingrid Wickelgren 11:13 am 08/4/2011

    @hyperobjects. Interesting point of view.

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  13. 13. Infinity_NYC 12:13 pm 08/4/2011

    @Ingrid

    I just feel there is nothing new here. As a man, and avid porn watcher I agree more with a recent article in New York Magazine which hypothesizes women have to be willing to do a lot more because men are becoming anesthetized to simple acts of sex and have a tougher time getting aroused due to all the porn out there.

    Whether, Ingrid, you agree or not, you should be made aware of this story if you continue on this subject:

    http://nymag.com/news/features/70976/

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  14. 14. alejo699 1:45 pm 08/4/2011

    What’s vague about the term “flatly immoral?” Everyone’s entitled to their opinion considering porn (and everything else), but when you’re stating yours in an article, please say so.

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  15. 15. MandoZink 2:23 pm 08/4/2011

    Porn actually can work out well in a relationship. Early on, a wonderful old girlfriend warned me not to let it lead to objectify women, so I began thinking of how much I loved my women friends while looking at porn. One night years later, a new girlfriend and I got real honest. I showed her my porn and we both shared our deepest fantasies. That night we became very in tune to each other. I quit liking things she didn’t care for, and I suddenly found a new appreciation for fantasies she had, which included things that had never turned me on before.
    That was 25 years ago. We eventually got married years later. She still blows my mind with her fantasies and I include her in all of mine, if she is there or not.

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  16. 16. gesres 3:22 pm 08/4/2011

    “At best, it is in bad taste and worse, flatly immoral. But engaging in a tasteless, sleazy diversion is different from doing something dangerous.”

    The author strikes me as being pretty judgmental, if the above is any sample. Was it necessary to bash people who enjoy something you do not?

    Like many of the other commenters, I also hold that any activity that doesn’t harm anyone else has no moral connotations.

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  17. 17. iwickelgren 10:31 am 08/5/2011

    @Infinity_NYC: Thanks for this link. I do remember this article, which highlights a potentially important personal downside to porn, but probably applies mainly to those who watch a lot.
    @MandoZink: You seem to present the opposite view. My guess is that this worked for you because you involved your partner.

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  18. 18. iwickelgren 10:32 am 08/5/2011

    @gesres: Hmmm…wonder if you misread. Was just stating what I perceive as some of society’s gut reactions, not my own.

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  19. 19. iwickelgren 10:35 am 08/5/2011

    @alejo699. Again, that in particular was not meant as my own opinion about porn–rather my own view of how a segment of society views it. But you can pretty well assume that a blog is the author’s point of view/opinion, as it states at the bottom of the blog. Thank you–and everyone else–very much for reading and commenting.

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  20. 20. doug 1 5:28 am 08/7/2011

    Why the term “porn” and not “erotica”? I prefer “erotica”, but then preference is what it’s all about and where it’s really at. Cheers.

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  21. 21. arenaye 11:07 pm 11/16/2011

    Myself and a couple girl friends of mine both enjoy porn and enjoy watching it with others who we are sexually and/or romantically involved with.

    Silly connection, but this kind of reminds me of someone saying they hate sushi without ever having tried it. There is so much variety in porn out there; a little exploration never hurt anyone.

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  22. 22. Drew1 10:50 pm 12/1/2011

    Even though the statement at hand depicts that frequent visits to porn sites pose little or no threat there are statistics that prove otherwise Horn (2010) states that pornography actually increases criminal intention in dangerous delinquents; there are have been more than 65 studies that demonstrate the dangerous criminals (pedophiles, murders, rapists, incestuous family members), are mot only more likely to commit their acts if they “view” pornography, but also intensely and extensively use pornography right before committing their crimes. So then, it is safe to say that pornography should not be taken to so lightly; there should be more rules and regulations that help to control such an industry as well as keep an open mind that pornography will affect every individual in a different way. Some individuals may react in a negative matter whereas some may refrain from negative behavior.

    Drew

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