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Porn, like many other things, might be normalized in our society today, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
As numerous scientific findings and research studies are showing, porn can become a compulsion or—in extreme cases—even addictive. Not only are the harmful effects of pornography overlooked, but there are also many misconceptions about the issue. Most notably, many people believe that porn is just a “guy thing.”
Consider how so much mainstream porn contains men using women as objects, and objectifying and humiliating them. Likewise, you never really see movies that show girls stuffing stacks of porn magazines under their mattresses or locking their doors as they power up their laptops.
The internet has made pornography easier for anyone and everyone to access. It’s no secret that nearly every kid growing up today will likely see hardcore porn well before the legal age.
While porn is often called “adult material,” many of its consumers are well under the legal age.Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). Adolescents and pornography: A review of 20 years of research.53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441Copy Studies show that most young people are exposed to porn by age 13,British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCopy and according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens, 84.4% of 14 to 18-year-old males and 57% of 14 to 18-year-old females have viewed pornography.Wright, P. J., Paul, B., & Herbenick, D. (2021). Preliminary insights from a U.S. probability sample on adolescents’ pornography exposure, media psychology, and sexual aggression. J.Health Commun., 1-8. doi:10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980Copy
That means that most young people are getting at least some of their education about sex from porn, whether they mean to or not. In fact, one study shows that approximately 45% of teens who consumed porn did so in part to learn about sex.British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCopy Similarly, survey results also show one in four 18 to 24-year-olds (24.5%) listed pornography as the most helpful source to learn how to have sex.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
Porn is increasingly more normalized, not only because it is easier to access, but because of the lack of information people have had on the negative and harmful effects associated with compulsion, and sometimes addiction.
But here’s the thing—guys aren’t the only ones who consume porn regularly. Women watch porn, too. According to this 2018 study, an estimated 91.5% of men and 60.2% of women watch pornography.
Women watch porn
Before we continue, let’s clear something up about pornography addiction.
To start, we want to be clear that not everyone who consumes pornography is “addicted.” In fact, experts have pointed out that while some individuals can become addicted to porn, the majority of porn consumers are not addicted.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 While this article focuses on the science behind pornography addiction, keep in mind that many of the negative effects of pornography consumption can still affect consumers, regardless of whether their habits qualify as diagnosable addictions.
To read more about the science of porn addiction and compulsion, read this article.
For an increasing number of people, including women, pornography has become a normalized personal habit. But the harms of pornography do not discriminate based on sex, gender, age, or any other diversifying factor, which means that anyone, even women, can experience its negative effects.
Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who has worked with people struggling with unwanted porn habits for the last 30 years, explains that, “Anytime [a person] spends much time with the usual pornography usage cycle, it can’t help but be a depressing, demeaning, self-loathing kind of experience.”Interview with Dr. Gary Brooks, Oct. 23, 2013.Copy
Studies have found that when people engage in an ongoing pattern of “self-concealment,” which is when they do things they’re not proud of and keep them a secret, it can not only hurt their relationships and leave them feeling lonely, but can also make them more vulnerable to mental health issues.Laird, R. D., Marrero, M. D., Melching, J. A., and Kuhn, E. S. (2013). Information Management Strategies in Early Adolescence: Developmental Change in Use and Transactional Associations with Psychological Adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 49(5), 928–937. doi:10.1037/a0028845Copy Luoma, J. B., et. al. (2013). Self-Stigma in Substance Abuse: Development of a New Measure. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 35, 223–234. doi:10.1007/s10862-012-9323-4Copy Rotenberg, K. J., Bharathi, C., Davies, H., and Finch, T. (2013). Bulimic Symptoms and the Social Withdrawal Syndrome. Eating Behaviors, 14, 281–284. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2013.05.003Copy
In fact, 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
According to another study performed in the United States, researchers found a significant bi-directional association between pornography and loneliness, prompting them to conclude:
“Results revealed that the association between loneliness and viewing pornography was positive and significant…those who viewed pornography were more likely to experience loneliness, and those who were experiencing loneliness were more likely to view pornography. These findings are consistent with research linking pornography use to negative affect.”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, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601Copy
Although it’s fairly common for consumers to use porn as an escape mechanism or self-soothing technique, research indicates that those who consumed pornography to avoid uncomfortable emotions had some of the lowest reports of emotional and mental well-being.Brown, C. C., Durtschi, J. A., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2017). Understanding and predicting classes of college students who use pornography. Computers in Human Behavior, 66, 114-121.Copy Another study examined the relationship between the frequency of online pornography consumption and mental health problems, particularly in the context of “experiential avoidance” or trying to avoid negative emotions. The study found that frequent pornography consumption was significantly related to greater depression, anxiety, and stress as well as poorer social functioning.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. Journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 19 (3), 168-180.Copy
And in yet another study, researchers at Columbia University, Yale University, and UCLA, found a link between compulsive pornography consumption and poorer mental health, low self-esteem, and poor attachment in relationships.
In the end, no amount of pornography will take away life’s problems. In fact, it will just become one of them.
Want to hear more? Let’s hear some real experiences that illustrate what the research is saying. Below, we have stories from two young women who experienced real-life negative effects of porn.
Women watch porn: our stories
Kelsie’s obsession began just like most. She was only 11 years old when it started.
“I just discovered it by chance, although, at the time I had no idea what I was doing and no idea it was wrong. It became my main coping mechanism for when I was happy, sad, bored, excited, angry, or lonely. I told myself that my thoughts/fantasies weren’t dangerous, that I wasn’t hurting myself and that since I wasn’t out there having sex, it was OK. I lived with this in secrecy for 16 years before seeking help.”
Now, doesn’t that sound exactly like the stories we hear from guys who become hooked to porn as teenagers?
This story is the same one we hear over and over again from girls who are going through the same thing.
When we asked Kelsie how she feels about porn being largely viewed as a guy problem, she replied, “I lived in shame and secrecy for so many years. I told myself that no one would understand because this isn’t something that any other girl struggles with. And if anyone ever found out, they would think I was so gross and disgusting.”
She added that if she would have known that it was a human issue and not a man issue, “I think I may have come clean…and sought help much earlier.”
“In our culture, it is acceptable for men to view pornography. It’s even expected. We see it in almost every TV show or sitcom. It is so ‘normal’ in our culture. But rarely do people mention women. I don’t understand why people would assume that women don’t have any sexual drive or desires or why they wouldn’t be sexual beings just as men are. We all have eyes. We all have brains. We are all wired to desire sex at some point. I think women can be just as visual as men.”
Nicole’s obsession and compulsion began developing at age 13. It continued off and on as she grew older, and then intensified when she went through a difficult breakup. She’s now working through a healthy recovery, but it took a long time for her to get there.
“I didn’t seek help for my addiction because I felt I was a freak of nature, because I was sure that I was the ONLY woman who struggled with a man’s disease. I remember looking up articles and blogs about recovering from pornography addiction, and everything I found was about men, for men, written by men. So, clearly, I was the only one.”
No one should feel shamed because of this issue. Regardless of your gender, you should never be shamed simply because of your struggle.
When we asked Nicole what she would say to other girls who are going through this, specifically teen girls, she said, “Understand that you are not the only one. Not by a long shot. Your worth is neither defined nor altered by this addiction. Please, reach out. Find someone you can trust. I promise, you can be free of it.”
We’re showing you a different story
Porn has become mainstream and casually accepted as a part of normal sexual expression.
But science and research are showing a much different story: in extreme cases, can become addictive, but even aside from habit-forming potential, it is a rampant problem among everyone, regardless of gender. It’s time we took another step to remove shame and isolation from those who struggle. Watching or struggling with porn does not make you a “bad” person, and there is hope for recovery if you want it.
It’s time to speak up about the harmful effects of porn that can impact anyone, regardless of who they are.
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.
Fight the New Drug may receive financial support from purchases made using affiliate links.