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Is Watching Porn Right for You?

David Ley  |  May 05

Is Watching Porn Right for You?

Watching porn is harmless for many people, but not everyone.

Key points

  • Research suggests that watching porn is more likely to be harmless for LGBTQ individuals, non-monogamous couples, and women than it is for others.
  • Using pornography to compensate for unmet sexual needs in a relationship, however, may lead to problems for individuals of any gender.
  • Individuals and couples who are highly religious or morally opposed to porn are likely to experience conflict if they watch pornography.
  • Adolescents who watch pornography may learn unhealthy, unrealistic lessons if they haven't had adequate sex education.

People worry about whether watching pornography can harm them, their marriages, or negatively affect their sexuality. The complicated truth is that for most people, watching pornography has little negative effect. But for some small numbers, watching pornography can trigger extreme conflict and personal struggles.

Sadly, most literature on pornography has done a poor job of bridging this divide, making it difficult for people to understand how to think about what pornography research means specifically for them. Porn might not be suitable for everyone, and now we need to start helping people better predict how watching porn might affect them.

There are tidal waves of new research into the effects of pornography, exploring more sophisticated, nuanced, and interactive effects. As a result, we must now move away from blanket prohibitions such as “pornography is addictive,” “pornography is harmless!” or “pornography destroys love!” Instead, we need to help people use this research to answer the question: “Is watching porn going to be harmful to ME?” These different effects break out into a few general areas, cross-cultural issues, age and gender, relationships, and pre-existing mental health issues.

Culture, morality, and porn

One of the clearest patterns to emerge from recent research findings is a significant conflict between porn use and moral and religious values. When people who think porn is immoral, gross, or sinful choose to watch porn anyway, they’re the group that is most likely to struggle. It’s important to note that these moral values include more than just religion. For instance, if you’ve been raised to believe that “real men” don’t masturbate, and then you do so while watching porn, you’re likely to feel shame and guilt, even if you’re not particularly religious.

  • MoralityIf a person thinks that watching porn is “bad,” “immoral,” “weak,” “depraved,” “perverted,” watching porn may feel good at the time, and then painful later. Doing so will likely make them feel guilty and ashamed. They might later decide that they no longer agree with the moral judgment of porn. But at the moment, doing something that they think is immoral is likely to be unhealthy.
  • Religion: If a person, or their spouse, is highly religious, the use of pornography could likely cause moral and emotional conflict for them, or their relationship, mostly because of the modern religious judgment of those who watch porn. This effect may change if the individual or couple changes their views of religion and sexuality.
  • Shame: When people have secret sexual desires (such as kink, group sex, or same-sex encounters) they only indulge while watching porn, they often have shame and guilt about those aspects of their sexuality. Good therapy with an informed clinician can help unpack the origins of that shame.  

Age, sexual orientation, and gender

  • Adolescents: Young people who have never received adequate education on healthy sexuality get unrealistic ideas about sex from porn. Pornography is fantasy—we don’t learn to drive watching The Fast and the Furious, and don’t learn to make love by watching Pornhub. Given that adolescents today have access to sexual material which was unavailable to teens in the past, our sexual education strategies need to change—and sadly, they haven’t. There's one great step in that direction: a porn literacy curriculum for adolescents. It teaches that porn is adult entertainment. For adults.
  • Female: There’s very little evidence of negative effects on females watching porn UNLESS they are in a sexually mismatched marriage where their sexual needs are unmet. In that case, watching porn might increase dissatisfaction with their relationship. For some women, watching other women have pleasurable sex may increase the degree to which they decide to leave their marriage and seek out what’s important for them. Some women report they feel a lot of guilt and anxiety about watching porn because they worry that the female performers are being exploited or aren’t enjoying themselves. Viewers concerned about the exploitation of performers are often delighted to find ethically produced material, such as Afterglow, or Erika Lust, to name just two.
  • LGBTQ: Non-heterosexual people watch more pornography than heterosexuals, and generally experience few negative effects. However, people who live in religious or conservative communities who are questioning their sexuality may find pornography to be a temptation to experience a form of sexuality they are struggling with. When they embrace their sexual identity, this struggle with pornography often vanishes. There is some research exploring whether pornography increases or decreases the risk of engaging in unsafe sex in gay males. Results are mixed. The best answer is to focus on harm reduction and interventions such as PrEP, to reduce the risk of HIV from unsafe sex, as no evidence changing people's porn use changes their sexual behaviors.   

Porn and marriage

The impact of porn on marriages and relationships is generally much more positive than most people have thought.

Couples who watch porn together experience little to no harm from it. In fact, as fellow PT blogger Stefani Goerlich points out, watching porn together can facilitate sexual communication about likes and dislikes.  

Some factors that may influence whether a couple does or does not benefit from watching porn can include:

  • Secrecy: Individuals who watch porn in secret from their spouse or partner are likely experiencing shame or sexual conflict with their partner. I suggest that watching porn can be a form of infidelity if you keep it secret from your partner. The important part is to identify why it’s a secret.
  • Mismatched libido: Many men use masturbation to pornography as a means to compensate for decreased sex within their marriage when their partner wants less sex. When this dynamic is not openly discussed within the relationship, it may become a festering conflict. 
  • Nonmonogamous: If you’re in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship, it’s very unlikely that porn use will harm you or your relationship(s). Why? Because nonmonogamous people tend to be much more skilled and open about discussing their sexual needs and interests with their partner(s) in a non-shaming and accepting way. They are more likely to watch porn with their partner(s) and much less likely to engage in sexual secrecy. Nonmonogamous people tend to have greater communication skills and more positive attitudes towards sex, and these skills help discuss the role of pornography in their life and relationship.

Mental health and porn

Many individuals use pornography as a coping strategy to help them deal with negative emotions. In general, this is positive, but if you are really struggling to manage your emotions, it might be better to spend time learning other skills to manage your feelings. 

  • Anxiety: People with high anxiety who can only relax when masturbating and watching porn, can experience problems when trying to be sexual with a partner. This happens when they have not dealt with their anxiety and concerns about sex. This can make partnered sex more intimidating.
  • Out of control: People who feel like they can’t control their porn might have a problem, but it’s unlikely the porn is the real problem. The feeling of being out of control is different from truly being out of control. Most people who feel their porn use is out of control aren’t really watching more porn than other people—they just feel worse about it, usually because they fear that their porn use is immoral and shameful, and they try to control their thoughts about sex. Unfortunately, the efforts to control their thoughts of sex may make them worse, in a complex spiral.
  • Questions of realism: Recent research finds that people suffer more problems when they perceive pornography as a realistic depiction of sex, a problem easily cured through effective sex education.
  • Misogyny: For males with significant anger towards women, watching violent porn is sometimes a way to experience that anger. Some research suggests that watching violent porn might increase the chances of these men acting violently towards women. Some new findings suggest this pattern might not always hold (in some adolescents, porn use appeared to decrease their feelings of anger towards women and risk for violence), and these effects apply only to a small percentage of angry, already violent men. However, for these men, porn may increase the risk of violent acts.

If you read through this and said, “None of this applies to me!” Great! That means that you are probably a person who has done some self-examination about your sexuality. You’ve considered how your sexual needs are a part of you and accepted that your sexuality is an important thing for you to negotiate ethically in your relationship. Sexual shame is a hill you’ve conquered, and, likely, watching porn is not going to be harmful to you.

But you might have read through this and said, “Ugh, that one hits the bulls-eye.” If so, you just learned something, and what you learned has to do with you and your relationship with your sexuality. It truly says very little about porn itself.

What you might notice in the list above is that overwhelmingly, porn-related problems are signals of other problems and issues: Moral conflicts over sex, shame over sexual desires, fear of sexual secrets being exposed and leading to rejection, anxiety over sexual inadequacy, anger towards other people, sexual mismatch in a relationship. Porn use can sometimes be a way to avoid dealing with those problems. The important thing now that you’ve realized this problem exists for you is to find a way to deal with it. Porn isn’t the problem—but it might be a way for you to learn about what the problem actually is.

*Sincere acknowledgment to Lauren Garza, Ph.D. for assistance in editing this article. Any errors are completely my own.

Originally published on Psychology Today.

Cover photo by Unsplash


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