When it comes to discussing the effects of pornography, one popular criticism is that so-called “porn problems” are more perceived than they are real.
The argument is that porn is only a problem for people whose values, worldviews, or religious beliefs make it a problem. The common assertion is that porn itself is harmless, but people end up feeling badly about their consumption, and then end up feeling badly about themselves, because some religious groups and others say pornography is “morally wrong.” In short, the claim is that a struggle with porn, or a porn addiction are nothing more than shame that stems from those religious or moral beliefs.
Does this sound familiar? Taken further, some claim that people who are struggling with compulsive porn consumption aren’t really struggling with or addicted to porn, rather they just think that they are.
Supporting this line of thought, a handful of media articles in recent years have highlighted a couple of studies that claim to prove that porn addiction is simply a “perceived addiction” of religiously devout people who simply feel badly about their consumption of porn because it goes against their value or belief system.
So What’s Really Going On?
An important fact to consider is that if moral disapproval stemming from religious beliefs is truly the root of the harms of porn, then we should expect to see no struggles with porn among atheists, agnostics, and individuals with no religious affiliations. But, this is simply not the case. It turns out that people who don’t believe in religious doctrine or teachings of any kind or report no moral objections to porn at all also frequently report unwanted compulsive patterns with porn.
A good example of this is the extensive NoFap online porn recovery community. NoFap reports that 42% of their international community identifies as atheist and another 20% are agnostic or apathetic towards religion. They also report that 52% of the NoFap community reported that they never attend religious services, and another 8% attend less than once a year. Only 17% of users report attending church service weekly or more often.
Doesn’t sound like only religious consumers are prone to struggle with compulsive issues, does it?
What About the Research?
Let’s look at the research for a minute. In recent years, there have been attempts by researchers to measure compulsive porn use. These studies typically use questionnaires to assess three factors of internet porn consumption: (1) Perceived Compulsivity—this is how much a person feels he or she is unable to stop consuming online pornography, (2) Access Efforts—this is how much a person puts off important priorities to consume pornography, and (3) Emotional Distress—this is how emotionally upset a person feels about consuming pornography. Researchers ask questions about these factors because they are trying to evaluate the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional dimensions of addiction.
Using these questionnaires, researchers have started to do studies on what factors predict if someone is likely to report that they have a compulsive problem with porn. These studies typically examine whether or not factors like frequency of porn consumption, religiosity, and moral disapproval of porn predict reported compulsion to porn.
These studies have made two main discoveries:
First, these studies have shown that people who “morally disapprove” of porn tend to report higher emotional distress about consuming it. This makes sense—people who feel consuming porn goes against their value systems feel worse about using it. That’s not much of a surprise, and is likely the same result one would find regarding participation in any issue an individual felt went against their value systems.
However, the second main finding from these studies is perhaps more surprising. These studies also found that moral disapproval has little to do with how much people report having a compulsive habit with porn that they are unable to stop, should they have the desire to. This means that religiosity, moral belief, or other value systems have almost nothing to do with actual porn addiction. Both religious and nonreligious people report that they feel they cannot stop consuming porn and that they are putting off important priorities because of their porn habit. To say it another way, the participants in these studies who are most addicted to porn do not score higher in religiosity.
One of the main researchers you will see people point to trying to backup their claim that pornography addiction is just a religious problem is Dr. Joshua Grubbs at Bowling Green State University. However, Dr. Grubb’s recently made public the findings of his newest study that he admits contradict some of the findings in his previous studies. In a refreshingly honest appraisal of his new data, he says, “in contrast to this prior work and to our pre-registered hypotheses, the present work consistently found that male gender and average daily use were the best predictors of self-identification as a pornography addict…among those who actually self-identify as addicted to pornography, pornography use was indeed quite elevated” (see the full study at https://psyarxiv.com/s6jzf/).
So what’s the bottom line with these studies? Basically, moral disapproval of porn has been shown to be connected to the emotional factor of porn consumption, but it’s not a strong factor in the cognitive and behavioral factors of compulsive use.
By pointing out that the harms of pornography cannot be simply explained by religious expectations, we don’t mean to suggest that context and meaning don’t influence how pornography impacts individuals and couples.
Our surrounding cultures, contexts, and expectations play a substantial role in how we make sense of all aspects of our lives. But, the evidence continues to show that the harmful effects of porn do not discriminate based on diversifying factors such as belief systems, and people in a variety of contexts with a variety of beliefs—and none at all—are coming forward, struggling with porn in their lives.