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10 Negative Effects of Porn on Your Brain, Body, Relationships, and Society

Can porn negatively impact you or have negative side effects on your sexual and mental health, and the health of our society? The short answer is yes, and the longer answer requires an explanation of decades of studies.

FAQ-"Teen": Why Has This Porn Category Topped the Charts for 6+ Years?

Did you know that the average internet user spends over 40% of their waking hours online?DataReportal. (2020). Digital 2020 global digital overview. ( No. 1). Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/DataReportal/digital-2020-global-digital-overview-january-2020-v01-226017535Copy 

40%! That’s a lot of time on the internet.

Whether streaming a new Netflix series, scrolling through social media, or sending memes to friends, everything we consume communicates a message. So, does the media we consume online actually have an effect on us, or is it passively consumed and then quickly forgotten?

Countless researchers have been asking similar questions since the dawn of the internet, and according to their findings, yes—our internet consumption has an effect on the way we think and behave.

From poorer mental healthHökby, S., Hadlaczky, G., Westerlund, J., Wasserman, D., Balazs, J., Germanavicius, A., Machín, N., Meszaros, G., Sarchiapone, M., Värnik, A., Varnik, P., Westerlund, M., & Carli, V. (2016). Are Mental Health Effects of Internet Use Attributable to the Web-Based Content or Perceived Consequences of Usage? A Longitudinal Study of European Adolescents. JMIR mental health, 3(3), e31. https://doi.org/10.2196/mental.5925Copy  to more negative body image,Fardouly, J., & Vartanian, L. R. (2016). Social media and body image concerns: Current research and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 9, 1-5. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.09.005Copy Aparicio-Martinez, P., Perea-Moreno, A. J., Martinez-Jimenez, M. P., Redel-Macías, M. D., Pagliari, C., & Vaquero-Abellan, M. (2019). Social Media, Thin-Ideal, Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating Attitudes: An Exploratory Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(21), 4177. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16214177Copy  studies are increasingly clear that what people consume online has the potential to affect them—both positively, and negatively.

So, with that in mind, considering that an estimated 91.5% of men and 60.2% of women consume porn, let’s take a few moments to examine how porn may be affecting its consumers.Solano, I., Eaton, N. R., & O'Leary, K. D. (2020). Pornography Consumption, Modality and Function in a Large Internet Sample. Journal of sex research, 57(1), 92–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2018.1532488Copy  Is porn “bad” for you? Can porn negatively impact you or have negative side effects on your sexual health, mental health, and the health of our society?

The short answer is yes, and the longer answer requires a lot of research and explaining decades of studies.

Keep in mind that our organization, Fight the New Drug, is a non-religious and non-legislative nonprofit, so we’re not here to talk about how anything is “bad”—not even people who watch porn.

Let’s simply look at 10 of the many distinct ways that porn can impact consumers, relationships, and society.

1. Porn can negatively impact relationships.

According to study that tracked couples over time, porn consumption was the second strongest indicator that a relationship would suffer.Perry, S. (2017). Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence From Longitudinal Data. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. Doi: 10.1007/S10508-016-0770-YCopy 

Plus, research consistently shows that porn consumers are twice as likely to later report experiencing a divorce or breakup—even after controlling for marital happiness, sexual satisfaction, and other relevant factors.Perry, S. L. (2018). Pornography use and marital separation: Evidence from two-wave panel data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47(6), 1869-1880. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-1080-8Copy Perry, S. L., & Davis, J. T. (2017). Are pornography users more likely to experience a romantic breakup? Evidence from longitudinal data. Sexuality & Culture, 21(4), 1157-1176. doi:10.1007/s12119-017-9444-8Copy Perry, S. L., & Schleifer, C. (2018). Till porn do us part? A longitudinal examination of pornography use and divorce. 55(3), 284-296. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1317709Copy 

There is no substitute for real connection, and porn isn’t worth risking that.

2. Porn can become habit-forming.

Many porn consumers are surprised to find that porn can be incredibly difficult to quit.

While most porn consumers are not addicts in a clinically diagnosable sense,Willoughby, B. J., Young-Petersen, B., & Leonhardt, N. D. (2018). Exploring Trajectories of Pornography Use Through Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood. Journal of sex research, 55(3), 297–309. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2017.1368977Copy  many experts agree that pornography consumption is a behavior that can, in fact, qualify as an addiction in serious cases.Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 5(3), 388–433. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs5030388Copy Stark R., Klucken T. (2017) Neuroscientific Approaches to (Online) Pornography Addiction. In: Montag C., Reuter M. (eds) Internet Addiction. Studies in Neuroscience, Psychology and Behavioral Economics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-46276-9_7Copy De Sousa, A., & Lodha, P. (2017). Neurobiology of Pornography Addiction - A clinical review. Telangana Journal of Psychiatry, 3(2), 66-70. doi:10.18231/2455-8559.2017.0016Copy 

Regardless of whether someone’s porn consumption is classified as an addiction, compulsion, or simply an unhealthy habit, quitting porn can be a difficult process. Even if it feels daunting, there is support out there, making quitting more possible than ever!

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3. Porn can fuel violence and abuse.

So we know that porn glorifies violence, but research also indicates that porn’s sexually violent narratives can bleed into consumers’ attitudes and behaviors.

In fact, research indicates that porn consumers are more likely to sexually objectify and dehumanize others,Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058Copy Skorska, M.N., Hodson, G., & Hoffarth, M.R. (2018). Experimental effects of degrading versus erotic pornography exposure in men on reactions toward women (objectification, sexism, discrimination). The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 27, 261 - 276.Copy Zhou, Y., Liu, T., Yan, Y., & Paul, B. (2021). Pornography use, two forms of dehumanization, and sexual aggression: Attitudes vs. behaviors. Null, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2021.1923598Copy  more likely to express an intent to rape,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552Copy  less likely to intervene during a sexual assault,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault. 18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552Copy  Foubert, J. D., & Bridges, A. J. (2017). What Is the Attraction? Pornography Use Motives in Relation to Bystander Intervention. Journal of Adolescent Research, 32(20), 213–243. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558414547097Copy  more likely to victim-blame survivors of sexual assault,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552Copy Foubert, J. D., & Bridges, A. J. (2017). What Is the Attraction? Pornography Use Motives in Relation to Bystander Intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 32(20), 3071–3089. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515596538Copy  more likely to support violence against women,Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2016). Men's Objectifying Media Consumption, Objectification of Women, and Attitudes Supportive of Violence Against Women. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(4), 955–964. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0644-8Copy Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536-545. doi:10.1037/vio0000198Copy  more likely to forward sexts without consent,van Oosten, J., & Vandenbosch, L. (2020). Predicting the Willingness to Engage in Non-Consensual Forwarding of Sexts: The Role of Pornography and Instrumental Notions of Sex. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(4), 1121–1132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01580-2Copy  and more likely to commit actual acts of sexual violence.Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12201Copy Rostad, W. L., Gittins-Stone, D., Huntington, C., Rizzo, C. J., Pearlman, D., & Orchowski, L. (2019). The association between exposure to violent pornography and teen dating violence in grade 10 high school students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(7), 2137-2147. doi:10.1007/s10508-019-1435-4Copy Goodson, A., Franklin, C. A., & Bouffard, L. A. (2021). Male peer support and sexual assault: The relation between high-profile, high school sports participation and sexually predatory behaviour. 27(1), 64-80. doi:10.1080/13552600.2020.1733111Copy Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, Facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058Copy 

4. Porn perpetuates racism and toxic stereotypes.

For an industry that is often culturally thought of as being allied with the LGBTQ+ community, the mainstream porn industry’s depictions of LGBTQ+ individuals and relationships suggest that they are less interested in accurate representation and more interested in profiting at the expense of LGBTQ+ people.

Porn often fetishizes sexual orientation or gender identity, uses degrading terms to describe LGBTQ+ people, and misrepresents them through harmful and degrading stereotypes.

Likewise, stereotypes are used in content with Black performers, and promotes the idea that multicultural/multiracial relationships are taboo or fetishized. Porn often fetishizes many different races and ethnic groups.

Check out what Dr. Carolyn West, an expert in domestic violence and sexual assault from University of Washington Tacoma, has to say about racist stereotypes in porn:

“It doesn’t take long to stumble upon any number of racist titles that promote offensive and unwarranted racial stereotypes about Black women. Relegated to ‘gonzo’ porn, which are low budget films with little glamor, Black women most often play the role of prostitutes in videos entitled ‘Ebony Sex Workers’ and ‘Black Girls Working the Streets.’ Not satisfied to call them the usual gonzo terms of slut/whore/cumdumpster, the performers are called ‘Black Ghetto Freaks’ and ‘Inner City Sluts.’ To further smear them as lower class, Black women are featured in urban settings, rundown buildings, and trash-filled alleys.

So porn sexualizes everyone, but the combination of racism, sexism, and often classism, since Black women are often shown in distressed communities, leaves Black women both sexualized and dehumanized in different ways than other ethnic groups.”

5. Porn harms sexual function and makes people more sexually illiterate.

Interestingly enough, porn often leads to less sex and less satisfying sex.

Research routinely shows that compulsive pornography consumption is associated with sexual dysfunction for both men and women,Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Griffiths, M. D., Potenza, M. N., Orosz, G., & Demetrovics, Z. (2021). Are sexual functioning problems associated with frequent pornography use and/or problematic pornography use? results from a large community survey including males and females. Addictive Behaviors, 112, 106603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106603Copy  difficulties with arousal and sexual performance,Sun, C., Bridges, A., Johnson, J. A., & Ezzell, M. B. (2016). Pornography and the male sexual script: An analysis of consumption and sexual relations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(4), 983-994. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0391-2Copy  and decreased sexual satisfaction. Szymanski, D. M., & Stewart-Richardson, D. N. (2014). Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Correlates of Pornography Use on Young Adult Heterosexual Men in Romantic Relationships. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 22(1), 64–82. https://doi.org/10.3149/jms.2201.64Copy 

So, perhaps the biggest lie porn sells is that its fantasy world is filled with sex positivity: sexual education, more sex, better sex, etc. What it doesn’t mention, however, is that the fantasy world it sells can warp sexual expectations in unhealthy ways.

It’s no secret that porn is wildly unrealistic and often straight-up toxic, yet 1 in 4 young adults report believing that porn is the most helpful source to learn how to have sex, according to a 2021 study.Rothman, E. F., Beckmeyer, J. J., Herbenick, D., Fu, T. C., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2021). The Prevalence of Using Pornography for Information About How to Have Sex: Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey of U.S. Adolescents and Young Adults. Archives of sexual behavior, 50(2), 629–646. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01877-7Copy 

Another study indicated that young people often reported trying to copy porn in their own sexual encounters, and that the pressure to imitate porn was often an aspect of unhealthy relationships.Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). 'Without Porn … I Wouldn't Know Half the Things I Know Now: A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of sex research, 52(7), 736–746. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2014.960908Copy 

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6. Porn can change a consumer’s brain.

Did you know that thanks to a process called neuroplasticity, our brains are constantly changing?

When we engage in an activity—particularly a pleasurable activity, and particularly if it involves repetition and intense focus—our brains alter themselves so that they’ll be better and more efficient at doing that activity the next time.

But this brain process can also be overwhelmed by what’s referred to as a supernormal stimulus—an exaggerated form of what’s normal. Pornography, for example, can take our brains’ natural stimuli—our desire for intimacy and connection—and give us more quantity, more exaggerated, and more “supernormal” versions of that desire.Hilton D. L., Jr (2013). Pornography addiction - a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 3, 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767Copy  Through the neuroplastic process, porn can change what we perceive as normal, warp what we find exciting, and make real intimacy seem less interesting by comparison.Voon, V., et al. (2014). Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors, PLoS ONE, 9(7), e102419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419Copy 

These changes in our expectations can have tremendous implications for how we view others and how we view relationships.

7. Porn can normalize abuse.

According to a study that analyzed porn titles alone, 1 out of every 8 titles suggested to first-time users on porn sites described acts of sexual violence.Vera-Gray, F., McGlynn, C., Kureshi, I., & Butterby, K. (2021). Sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online pornography. The British Journal of Criminology, azab035. doi:10.1093/bjc/azab035Copy 

Research also suggests that as few as 1 in 3 and as many as 9 in 10 porn scenes contain physical violence or aggression.Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0Copy Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C. & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update. Violence Against Women, 16(10), 1065–1085. doi:10.1177/1077801210382866Copy  Even more concerning is that 95% of the time, the targets of violence and aggression in porn appear to respond either neutrally or with pleasure, sending the message that sexual aggression is normal or even desirable.Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C. & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update. Violence Against Women, 16(10), 1065–1085. doi:10.1177/1077801210382866Copy 

8. Porn can fuel mental health issues.

A number of peer-reviewed studies have found a link between pornography consumption and mental health outcomes like depression,Harper, C., & Hodgins, D. C. (2016). Examining Correlates of Problematic Internet Pornography Use Among University Students. Journal of behavioral addictions, 5(2), 179–191. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.5.2016.022Copy  anxiety,Wordecha, M., Wilk, M., Kowalewska, E., Skorko, M., Łapiński, A., & Gola, M. (2018). 'Pornographic binges' as a key characteristic of males seeking treatment for compulsive sexual behaviors: Qualitative and quantitative 10-week-long diary assessment. Journal of behavioral addictions, 7(2), 433–444. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.7.2018.33Copy  loneliness,Butler, M. H., Pereyra, S. A., Draper, T. W., Leonhardt, N. D., & Skinner, K. B. (2018). Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 44(2), 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601Copy  lower life satisfaction,Willoughby, B. J., Young-Petersen, B., & Leonhardt, N. D. (2018). Exploring trajectories of pornography use through adolescence and emerging adulthood.55(3), 297-309. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1368977Copy  and poorer self-esteem and overall mental health.Koletić G. (2017). Longitudinal associations between the use of sexually explicit material and adolescents' attitudes and behaviors: A narrative review of studies. Journal of adolescence, 57, 119–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.04.006Copy 

These studies have found that these links are particularly strong when pornography is consumed to try to escape negative emotions, and also when pornography consumption becomes heavy and compulsive.Levin, M. E., Lillis, J., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). When is online pornography viewing problematic among college males? Examining the moderating role of experiential avoidance.19(3), 168-180. doi:10.1080/10720162.2012.657150Copy 

Quitting porn can help interrupt the unhealthy cycle of escapism and mental health issues.

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9. Porn companies profit from nonconsensual content.

In the porn industry, there is virtually no way to guarantee that any piece of pornographic content is truly consensual, ethical, or even legal. The unfortunate truth is that the porn industry has an extensive history of profiting from nonconsensual content and abuse, even ignoring victims’ pleas to remove abusive content.Kristof, N. (2021). Why do we let corporations profit from rape videos? New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/opinion/sunday/companies-online-rape-videos.htmlCopy Kristof, N. (2020). The children of Pornhub. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.htmlCopy 

Virtually every major porn site has had issues with nonconsensual content, abuse, or child sexual abuse material (aka “child porn”). Kristof, N. (2021). Why do we let corporations profit from rape videos? New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/opinion/sunday/companies-online-rape-videos.htmlCopy Burgess, M. (2020). Deepfake porn is now mainstream. and major sites are cashing in. Retrieved from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/deepfake-porn-websites-videos-lawCopy Kristof, N. (2020). The children of Pornhub. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.htmlCopy Meineck, S., & Alfering, Y. (2020). We went undercover in xHamster's unpaid content moderation team. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en/article/akdzdp/inside-xhamsters-unpaid-content-moderation-teamCopy Titheradge, N., & Croxford, R. (2021). The children selling explicit videos on OnlyFans. BBC News Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-57255983Copy 

10. Porn fuels sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking shares a variety of symbiotic connections to pornography. Even in the production of mainstream porn, sex trafficking can still occur—and it happens more often than most people think.Cole, S., & Maiberg, E. (2020). Pornhub doesn't care. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en/article/9393zp/how-pornhub-moderation-works-girls-do-pornCopy BBC News. (2020). GirlsDoPorn: Young women win legal battle over video con. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50982051Copy 

Trafficking is legally defined as a situation in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106–386, Section 102(a), 114 Stat. 1464. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-106hr3244enr/pdf/BILLS-106hr3244enr.pdfCopy  Manipulation and coercion are unfortunately common in the porn industry, which legally qualifies as sex trafficking.

Again, there’s no viable way for a consumer to guarantee that the porn they’re watching is truly consensual and free of abuse or coercion. As long as there’s a demand for porn—especially porn that is extreme, abusive, or degrading—the porn industry will continue to exploit vulnerable people to meet that demand.

Click here to read real stories of people who have been trafficked in the porn industry.

Multiple research studies, similar conclusions

Ultimately, the research is clear: porn is harmful to consumers, relationships, and society at large.

If you’re interested in living a healthy, full life, free from contributing to sexual exploitation or an industry that profits from sexualizing abuse and exploitation, steer clear from porn.

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your unwanted porn habit, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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