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What’s the relationship between pornography consumption and healthy sexual development?

Is consuming pornography good or bad for healthy sexual development?

This might seem like a strange question. Of course everybody knows that porn is bad for you. It’s common sense.

Well, yes, it’s common sense. But is it true? The media constantly reports on politicians, activists and journalists making the claim, but is there evidence to back it up?

Our team recently completed a four-year project reviewing hundreds of academic articles on the effects of pornography to find out the truth. The answer might surprise you. In short – we don’t know. The evidence is partial and contradictory. 

Why is that? Well, firstly, although we can identify hundreds of pieces of academic research about pornography’s effects, surprisingly little of it explores relationships between aspects of healthy sexual development and consumption of pornography. As I wrote in my last blog [URL LINK], we have to start investigating these questions by defining healthy sexual development. There’s a LOT of academic research about pornography that investigates things that aren’t actually about healthy sexual development. For example – are people who consume pornography more likely to stay in long-term monogamous relationships? Well, that might be interesting, but it’s nothing to do with healthy sexual development – you can be in a long-term monogamous relationship and have a terrible sex life. You might be having lots of sex with your partner, but it’s boring. Or you can be single and have a brilliant sex life.

Some other research looks at whether people who consume pornography are more likely to practice consensual rough sex or BDSM. Again, interesting, but nothing to do with healthy sexuality. You can be vanilla or BDSM and have a terrible sex life; or a great sex life. Being vanilla/BDSM isn’t the key variable.

Yet more research looks at whether people who consume pornography are more or less likely to partake in “risky” sex practices, like casual sex or anal sex. And again, that’s unrelated to healthy sexuality – casual sex and anal sex can be just as healthy as vaginal sex with a long-term monogamous partner.

But when it comes to the elements of healthy sexual development – sexual communication, sexual pleasure, ability to practice sexual consent, acceptance of your sexual identity, and so forth – there’s remarkably little academic research. There’s a whole world of vital knowledge out there just waiting to be discovered.

We also discovered another important thing in this project – the academic research on pornography consistently confuses correlation and causality. To explain this jargon – correlation means that two variables are linked; causality means that one variable causes the other. So, for example, we might find that people who are more sexually adventurous are also more likely to consume pornography. Too much academic research then goes on to claim – without evidence – that consuming pornography makes you more sexually adventurous. The data doesn’t show that. It could just as well be the other way around – that being more sexually adventurous makes you consume more pornography.

The question of the relationship between consuming pornography and healthy sexual development is a vitally important one for lots of people – young people, their parents, politicians, sexual health practitioners and sex educators to name just a few. It’s a shame that after all this time we have so little academic insight into these questions. Let’s get out there and starting finding out more about this important topic.