ADVERTISEMENT
Streams of Consciousness

Streams of Consciousness

The scoop on how we think, feel and act

Porn on the Mind

|

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.

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

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Email this Article

X