the skeptic’s guide to porn

the skeptic’s guide to porn

Moral crusaders insist that porn is the mother of all modern social ills, but every scrap of data we have suggests they couldn't be more wrong.

For a skeptic, few topics present such interesting ground to cover, yet so little firm science as pornography. To religious zealots, obsessed to what seems like a pathological degree with controlling our bodies, it’s a dreaded destroyer of societies. Based on some awful attempts at research, they claim that it shatters families and is as addictive as crack, even though the papers they use to bolster these claims come from groups known to lack even the slightest semblance of objectivity on the subject, and pathologize the very act of watching porn, rendering their conclusions meaningless. They also tell us that having more than one sexual partner in life makes us miserable by — and I honestly can’t make this stuff up — giving us the ability to determine whether the sex with our current partners is any good. Yes, that’s a horrible thing, apparently, especially when getting married because heavens forbid that a decision which affects us for the rest of our lives is an informed one, and if porn was in any way discussed, you may as well file for divorce now. Sadly, not much of this is hyperbole when you read their appeals.

But surely, you say, this can’t be all in the moralists’ arsenal? What about that study from 1989 in which a sociologist found that porn made men far more critical about feminine beauty, and high porn usage correlated with intimacy problems in marriage? And hasn’t it been replicated consistently year over year? Well, yes and no. Many of the same objections raised in the linked posts have come into play as researchers tried to answer questions which considered subjects watching porn together, and accounted for the state of the relationship for each subject, the negative effects disappeared because they were predicated on the notion that correlation between porn usage and intimacy in the relationship was in fact causation and refused to consider that maybe the subject looked at porn more because they weren’t happy in their relationships in the first place. Likewise, the studies finding the altered preferences for attractiveness focused only on men, and a short term effect rather than trying to figure out whether their preferences were forever changed, which seems very short-sighted and ideological.

But then again, porn has an uncanny ability to unite archconservatives and ultraliberals against it, so there is a surprising number of studies that seem to be out to prove that it’s basically the worst thing ever straight from the get-go. The right hates it for portraying sex as potentially fun and lacking a rundown of the supposedly grave consequences of casual or premarital sex, leading to addiction and promiscuity, while the far left says it promotes and commercializes misogyny and unrealistic standards of beauty. And to be fair, there is some truth in both sides’ critical claims, but if we look at the world of adult entertainment as well as the billions who consume it with statistics and data, we’ll find that many of these claims are simply not as dire as they are cracked up to be, much like the studies which claim that porn destroys marriages by confusing causation with correlation. Just like with any really complicated subject, there are few absolutes and there is evidence that porn can be harmful to those susceptible and there are and plenty of shady things happen in the business. But there’s also quite a bit of proof that porn is not changing our preferences and relationships for the worse.

Basically, the best way to treat porn may be kind of like we treat alcohol, as something to be enjoyed responsibly, unpleasant in large doses, and with a non-trivial potential for harm if abused on a regular basis. Sadly, much of the proof for the more severe effects is anecdotal and we all know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s worth mentioning since all of those anecdotes are quite common and significant in number. We’ll get to them in due time, but first, let’s look at the industry in general and its macro effects on those who consume its products. While the image vividly portrayed in Boogie Nights and the seminal essay by David Foster Wallace about the AVN Awards is how most of us still tend to picture the porn industry to this day, this world is long gone through a combination of technology and a glut of content created by the ability for everyone to create a professional quality video with a cell phone and a hundred bucks worth of LED lights, and with only a few clicks blast it across the web, often more for fun than profit. The industry is now far less centralized and lucrative than it used to be. And this means many old myths about it need to be put to rest…

japanese model

Let’s consider the typical image of a porn starlet we were all taught as a ready to use punchline. She’s a tall, leggy, platinum blonde with almost cartoonishly large, hemispherical breasts. Usually she’s from the Midwest or the Great Plains where she was one of the prettiest girls in town and had an abusive boyfriend or a stepfather with boundary issues, and fed up with the small town blahs, she bought a ticket to LA to turn her life around and get discovered by a talent agent. When that didn’t work out, she started to strip, and after getting a self-esteem boost, started working in porn until she will be spat out in less than a year by the industry, stigmatized for life. Right so far? According to movies and TV shows set in San Fernando Valley, yes. But according to real world data? Absolutely not. Not even close. Certainly there are porn performers who have a similar story, after all stereotypes do need to start somewhere. But from the stance of both looks and childhood, this doesn’t seem to be the case according to some interesting research in which these stereotypes weren’t approached as a given. As it turns out, the typical porn starlet isn’t even a blonde with a double D cup, and mentally, she’s just as stable and healthy as anyone, probably even more so.

In 2013, journalist John Millward tried drawing on his expertise in research across vast data sets and went through 10,000 porn stars’ profiles to create a data-driven composite. The result was named Nikki Lee, and while she was some 48 pounds slimmer and 4 inches shorter than average woman, she did not have blond hair, or enormous breasts, or Midwestern childhood. In fact, she was a brunette with a B cup who was born in California, though there’s something like a 10% chance that she was born in New York, Texas, Florida, or Ohio. Her composite image looks like an attractive, but ordinary woman, and actually doesn’t have nearly as many on screen partners as we may be led to believe. The most prolific performers’ average is eight men per year, to most prolific male porn stars’ 45 women per year. And while this is a rather incomplete statistic regarding on screen partners, it does hint that since the number of performers is pretty high and their careers are short, they’re not having hundreds of sexual partners, but are on par with stigmatized heavy users of Tinder in their totals. Remember, this is based on a survey of a wide range of popular performers, so this is in fact what sells, not just something put together without accounting for the studios’ actual output.

Another big part of a porn performer’s backstory is supposed to be abuse or pathologically low self-esteem, and again, there are many unfortunate tales of abuse from porn stars, but a study in 2012 shows they are no more likely to be abused than a typical woman, and a number of studies show that they actually have higher self-esteem than the average person. While all of those studies can be twisted into something sinister, how the results apply varies from person to person and their history. In today’s hyper-competitive porn landscape, someone who builds a personal brand that makes enough to do this full time and is seen as desirable enough for him or her having sex to be exciting enough for millions of viewers to warrant being well paid, is a real accomplishment and a definite ego boost. Rest assured that we’ll dive more into the devil in the details of these results shortly, but in general, there’s no hard evidence that any study of porn stars’ mental state throws up any red flags common enough to indicate an industry-wide problem, no matter how badly millions of people seem to want adult performers to be “broken” and crying out for attention to justify their disdain of porn in general.

But all that said, we can’t exactly dismiss some harrowing stories of abuse or shady behavior in the industry. Like all of entertainment, porn is what many economists call a tournament labor market, where only the exceptional will reap the vast majority of rewards, and merely being really good does little to guarantee success. According to Millward, about 47% of performers do fewer than three videos and quit, likely finding that the money isn’t there anymore since adult performers’ typical incomes have halved over the last decade. In an era where a tech conglomerate dominates much of porn traffic online and driving down revenues, companies faced with low margins and a glut of new talent who don’t do their research will find themselves being asked to do all sorts of things “for exposure,” or given empty promises of stardom and cash which never materialize. And as independent contractors, many a would-be starlet finds out that all the money she makes will be immediately spent on maintaining her fledging career instead of building any sort of wealth. This is why there are more couples and amateurs trying to make money with an explicit cam and selling videos on sites that act as middlemen.

What this means of course, is that the average porn consumer may want to ask some questions about how the performers are treated and choose what he or she tends to watch wisely. This is easier said than done, but today, a near ubiquitous internet connection allows anyone to figure out the general reputation of a studio among performers, and I can imagine a future rating of companies by performer reviews, a kind of cruelty free porn stamp, or an ethical viewing guide. While I know this is a moral judgment rather than a data-driven one, this needs to be said. You may be encouraged to look down on those doing sex work, but they’re real people fulfilling a real demand and trying to run a personal business. Just because holier than thou critics of all things that don’t fit into their worldview hurl abuse at them, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a safe, professional environment when doing their jobs, especially when more than a billion people will feign outrage and ignorance of what they do in public only to stream it in private on a very regular basis. It’s almost a quarter of all internet traffic, we have the data on this.

woman in goggles

With some of key stereotypes about porn addressed, let’s tackle the big question of whether it has the adverse effects its critics say it does. If they’re right, we should see a steady rise in irresponsible behavior, number of sexual partners, and increased promiscuity at younger and younger ages because if their theory holds, the youngest and most connected generations which have readier and more access to porn than ever, should show all of those symptoms of the social evils porn supposedly creates. After all, back in the early days of the web, porn was hidden behind paywalls and scattered all over the web on sites that competed with each other, selling access with a monthly subscription. Today, it’s neatly organized on free -tube sites which still sell subscriptions and exclusive content, but are largely ad supported so they can afford to be a one stop shop for all your porn needs. And if easier and greater exposure to porn is detrimental, whatever ill effects they claim to have observed with their surveys should be accelerated, right? Well, if we look at the general data about younger generations and sex, we typically see exactly the opposite happening in the grand scheme of things.

Teen pregnancy is at a record low for the seventh consecutive year. The age of first sexual encounter is increasing, and is now at a record high. Sexually transmitted diseases, however, aren’t showing the kind of improvement we would hope, rising to new highs. But there’s a lot more to these results than meets the eye before declaring them proof of porn’s evils. There are political shenanigans involved. According to the CDC, the blame for the increase falls squarely on serious budget cuts for STD prevention and the data produced backs this up by showing that minority populations in the Sun Belt tended to be the most afflicted, and cites the rise of drug resistant strains which are a challenge to treat and tend to stick around longer. Heterosexual men and women haven’t actually seen statistically significant changes in STD rates so far, but the CDC warns that the more budget cuts come for clinics that can diagnose and help all those afflicted, the more these rates will rise, and in many cases end up undiagnosed and untreated. If anything, this sounds like an infrastructure problem that needs to be fixed.

But hold on, doesn’t porn encourage hypersexuality and those partners the patients wouldn’t have had could make them more likely to get infected? It does sound like a plausible scenario, but real world data shows that sexual partners are on the decline in younger generations. Overall, millennials are much more buttoned down than the media is giddy to assume and mistakes their more open conversations about sex for having more sex. According to the CDC, it’s the people in that exact age group bearing most of the risk of new infection, but again, the typical millennial has something like half the partners a boomer had at the same age brackets. This is why we can claim that the increase in STDs is indicative of budget cuts affecting a vulnerable set of populations at an extremely disproportionate rate, and when taken with the record lows in pregnancies, it further shows that the problem isn’t easily pinned down to multiple partners inspired by a daily porn habit, but a state level deficiency in adequate sexual healthcare and education, especially for minority populations which seem to be the most vulnerable.

This lack of education is not a trivial problem when it comes to porn either, because as younger generations are having fewer partners, delaying the age of their first encounters, and trying to be responsible despite the lackluster infrastructure to help them if and when they need help, they do need to be able to put what they see in porn in context. Numerous reports across the web talk about people having unrealistic expectations of what genitals can and should look like, what sex acts are common and to be expected, and all sorts of bad information about angles and techniques. Porn is a fantasy by paid professionals designed to look a certain way and showing things that look good on camera but may not be even remotely pleasurable in the real world. Unlike with movies or other obvious works of fiction, teenagers’ first exposure to porn comes without a warning that what they’re seeing is not real, normal sex. Using it as the exclusive guide to sexual interactions isn’t going to end well unless the porn in question is meant to be an educational replacement for the terrible, terrible sex ed too many students receive.

Perhaps this may be the next evolution of porn: adult videos designed to educate and do a public service instead of merely being graphic escapist entertainment. There will always be a market of people who really want to know how to have a better, more fulfilling sex life. Remember how badly archconservatives want to link porn usage to every sexual and social ill, from divorce, to impotence, to premature ejaculation with propaganda projects like Fight The New Drug and Your Brain On Porn? Well, almost every single one of these studies refuses to ask the question of whether a person with an unfulfilling sex life or a sexual problem is substituting the real thing for porn because he or she can’t just have fun, satisfying sex to help glue the relationship, and when the same studies are adjusted to take this into account, their findings disappear. So educational porn which will tackle these issues head on may actually help people consume less porn in general. And maybe it can also address one of the social problems for which porn is blamed by those biased, one-sided studies: sexual addiction…

see through hoodie

Sex addition, called nymphomania for women and satyromania for men at one point, sounds like a rather convenient excuse for anyone who wants a consequence free pass to have sex with whomever, whenever. Yeah buddy, the common refrain goes, we’re all addicted to sex, get in line. But in fact, it can absolutely be a real problem and incredibly hard to diagnose. Like every other kind of addiction, it makes the sufferer’s life revolve around sex to the point where he or she begins to make irrational, self-destructive choices just to have sex one more time. There is not a particular number of partners or a certain number of times a day someone has sex that signals a problem. It’s all based on the overall context. In a related example, one person might eat under 1,600 calories a day and another close to 5,000 calories. Obviously, a diet with more than twice the recommended calories for a healthy adult is a red flag, right? If that person is “eating his pain” then definitely. But if he’s an athlete who works out at least three hours a day? That’s perfectly normal and healthy, depending on the nuances of the diet and sport, of course.

The same logic applies to sex. If you have it three times a day with a partner but are keeping up with all your social and work obligations, and are happy in a relationship, that’s great. You just have a high sex drive. If you have it a few times a month but neither you or your partner mind, and you feel happy with this arrangement, that’s also great. However, if you’re unable to have a relationship, have sex with partners you don’t find attractive or don’t see as attractive, doing it for reasons that seem mysterious to you, constantly trying to push partners away after a short period of time also for reasons unknown to you, you may have a problem. And heavy porn consumption is associated with sexual compulsion as sufferers keep searching for some sort of sexual stimulation, so you might think that cutting down in that department would help? But as those biased studies I keep mentioning proved, having less sex and masturbating more was also linked to heavy porn consumption, so just watching less porn is not the answer here either because you can’t claim that the same thing in similar doses has self-contradictory effects.

It all comes back to the question of why the person is making the choices he or she is making. This is why legitimate clinical treatment for sex addiction looks at it much like an eating disorder. Sex is an important part of healthy lives and relationships, a little bit like the right balance of foods is crucial to survival. You don’t want people to just stop having sex because when they’ll start again, they won’t know how to manage their urges in healthy ways and may easily relapse into their problematic behavior. Before letting them loose into the world, you want to figure out what leads them to seek out sex to a pathological extent. It could be self-esteem issues. It could be trying to deal with abuse. It could be co-dependency. It could be a mental issue. But at no point can we claim that porn is the problem because the vast majority of the people consuming it don’t suffer from it, and studies link it to very different behaviors, so ascribing causation to this correlation would be wrong. Porn is a symptom in all these cases, not the disease.

Now, this is where you may encounter another frequent anti-porn twist. The excessive masturbation and lack of sexual enjoyment also correlated with an excess consumption of porn could also be factors in sex addiction and have a causative effect. What is it? Well, according to the lore, masturbation causes a drop in sperm production, and as it does, it lowers testosterone in men. So porn-induced or assisted orgasms are draining men of their virility and make sex less enjoyable, so they may refuse or have it, or try going from partner to partner to finally find some way to feel good. In turn, women can’t form any kind of bond with these afflicted men and also don’t enjoy the act which will lead them on their downward spirals, turning to porn as a surrogate which now lessens their enjoyment of sex and ability to stay in a relationship even further. This is pretty much the only train of thought anti-porn crusaders try to use to explain some sort of causative effect of porn’s malfeasance.

Those of us who actually studied sex ed can immediately tell that this is not even junk science, it’s a word salad with a medical term or two thrown in for good measure. Ejaculation does not affect testosterone levels, which can be easily boosted with simple light to medium exercise, so whatever evils porn would do to cause a drop in this hormone’s levels, a jog and some pushups will quickly undo. Likewise, it would take a 70% drop in testosterone levels for sexual function to be affected in any way. Again, the problem seems to be a lack of knowledge and education that’s not being helped by porn, which is just a substitute for the frustrated who find themselves unable to have a full and healthy sex life. And hasn’t this been the pattern so far? Poor education and real problems are immediately blamed on porn consumption by those in whose minds it’s an affront to decency, while society as a whole is far more affected by the budgets of services intended to help them with reproductive health than anything porn does. Shouldn’t we be worried about that much more than how much porn is on the web and how easy it is to access?

So what are we left with? Well, it seems that those seeking to limit access to porn or scapegoat it for social changes they don’t like aren’t really looking at the data for real answers but simple correlations that support their already predetermined conclusions. It’s far from a perfect industry and is little more than entertainment, but it’s not the cause for a myriad of self-contradictory personal and public health problems. It’s a symptom for those in unhealthy relationships or suffering from sexual problems, and could easily be enjoyed with partners without any ill effects, and by those who have proper context for what they’re seeing. If the anti-porn crusaders want to reduce divorces, lower STD rates, and help the sexually dysfunctional, they should invest in real, comprehensive sex education, public health clinics, and more research into better mental healthcare, and contraception options than we have today instead of playing to a judgmental base for easy votes and approval…

# sex // pornography / public health / sociology


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