Big Brain Energy: The great psychological debate surrounding pornography

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Porn has revolutionized the debate around sexual habits and remains a controversial subject for researchers.  Photo by    Pablo Heimplatz    on    Unsplash

Porn has revolutionized the debate around sexual habits and remains a controversial subject for researchers. Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Sex. It’s everywhere. In the music that we listen to and the movies we watch. It’s on the social media apps we sometimes forget incredibly young children are using — take a 12-year-old on TikTok dancing to the song “BLACKOUT” by Lil Kapow with the lyrics verbatim being, “Pop a perc and I blackout / Fuck it, I’m blowing her back out.” A bit unsettling. Now more than ever, children and adults alike have access to explicit content on the internet and no shortage of pornography through mediums like PornHub and Redtube. 

Porn has revolutionized the debate around sexual habits and remains a controversial subject for researchers. Does porn use contribute to sexual violence? Does porn use contribute to erectile dysfunction and delayed orgasm? Does porn use contribute unrealistic sexual expectations that can contribute to the destruction of a relationship? Or are all of these suggested relationships merely correlational and NOT causal? Or do they not even exist at all? Let’s delve into the massive controversy regarding porn. Let’s talk about sex — or in more specific terms, sex which is set up between two paid actors and is highly edited/exaggerated for the purpose of arousing people across the world through a computer screen.  

In 2018, Grant Hilary Brenner, M.D. published an article in Psychology Today highlighting the four mediums by which porn can spell trouble for individuals. Those measures include sexual satisfaction, popular sex, loneliness and divorce. Current research confirms the dose-response related findings that exist within the realm of sexual satisfaction: More frequent porn use is associated with (not caused by, an important distinction) less sexual satisfaction in reality. Also important to note: In no analysis of the results did researchers find an increased sexual satisfaction as it relates to higher pornography consumption.

There also exists the question of whether or not pornography is more male-centered and if, in response, many young males enter their first sexual experiences lacking expertise or knowledge of methods by which to pleasure their female counterparts. Porn is a business. In all legal respects, it does a great job of appealing to its prospective job market — statistically speaking, men. That’s not to say women do not watch porn — but PornHub data reported in a 2018 Psychology Today article confirmed that the website’s demographic is broken down into 75% men and 25% women. The website was able to calculate this information from Google Analytics — a web traffic service that is able to break down site visits and the respective demographics of those visitors in several different ways. What’s more — the age cohort that frequents the site the most is 18 to 24-year-olds, claiming 30% of the site’s total visits.

Do these statistics, as well as the fact that porn is generally more focused on male pleasure and not the female orgasm (which, as agreed upon by the medical community, is incredibly hard to achieve as compared to male orgasm), spell trouble for young, impressionable people who may be attempting to use pornography as sexual education for their first sexual encounters? Dr. Brenner seems to think so. The curb appeal of porn exists in that it provides highly-arousing images with little background or emotion and suggests that women especially can orgasm from jackhammering penetration alone. Sorry dudes, that is just not the case.  

“If porn is taken as a “how-to” manual for sex, it does a bad job, to say the least,” Dr. Brenner said. “When it comes to instructing viewers on sexual pleasure, porn is generally inaccurate and likely to lead to low-quality sex and infrequent orgasm, especially for female partners, as well as one-dimensional, likely unsatisfying sex for males.”  

The third dimension discussed in Dr. Brenner’s investigation deals with loneliness as it pertains to pornography consumption. The relation is suggested to be bilateral in that in one sense, loneliness can contribute to a heightened attraction to porn and in another sense that increased use of pornography can cause an individual to isolate themselves from reality — including family, work, sexual partners, which as a whole can contribute to a serious porn addiction.  

Porn behaves as a sort of medication, especially for people who may be depressed or anxious. In the same way that social media can provide an escape from our problems, porn essentially provides the same relief: Highly arousing images give individuals a sense of relief and a rush of feel-good chemicals, but the feelings of despair and anxiousness can return with a vengeance once the high passes. In turn, people who are otherwise normal in regards to their mental health can develop emotional issues if pornography becomes too prominent in their lives.   

The final dimension has to do with actual romantic relationships and how pornography can cause destruction to marriage. There is a classic debate which exists in this realm: Is watching porn while married harmful, or can it be a good aspect to spicing up their sex lives, especially if we watch it together? A 2016 study titled “Till Porn Do Us Apart” investigates these trends further, and the numbers are staggering: People who started watching porn in their marriages were more likely to get a divorce. For men, that number jumped from 5% to 10%. For women, that number jumped from 6% to 18%. The researchers have good reason to believe the relationship is directional in that porn leads to increased divorce rates (as opposed to those in unhappy marriages electing to view more pornography in order to satisfy what they are lacking in reality). The results, especially for women, show significant reversibility: When women stop watching porn, their divorce rates revert back to 6% as opposed to the 18%.  

Despite all of this information, science still has a long way to go in assessing how dangerous porn can be, what it means for individuals and their sexual relationships as well as how to possibly harness its popularity for good (if at all possible). As the divorce study author and sociologist Samuel Perry said, these findings merely should contribute to a more open conversation about porn use and its implications in the many avenues of life. 

 “My colleague and I are trying to report what we think are interesting and relevant results, and [we] are not trying to contribute to a moral crusade against porn use,” Perry told Science Magazine in 2016.  “Information is a positive thing, and [we] hope we can contribute in that way.” 


Taylor Harton is the associate news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at taylor.harton@uconn.edu.

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