There is no getting around the fact that a significant percentage of Americans watch pornography or have watched pornography in the past. But a large percentage also disapprove of pornography on the grounds that it is unhealthy or immoral. In fact, the percentage of people who say that they do not approve of porn is much higher than the percentage of people who say that they do not watch it, suggesting that a significant number of people continue to seek porn against their better judgment.
The question of whether porn is truly unhealthy is just as complex as the internal conflict that many individuals seem to face when it comes to porn. The simple fact that pornography use is so widespread (a study published in a 2013 edition of the Journal of Adolescent Research found that 87 percent of men and 31 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 26 watch porn) suggests that many people get away with porn use without too many detrimental effects. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine concerns surrounding the use of pornography.
Skewed Perceptions of Healthy Sexual Behavior
One of the major concerns when it comes to regular pornography use is that it can skew a person’s perceptions of what normal, healthy sex is like. This is particularly the case among adolescents who have not had many or any real-life sexual experiences on which to base their ideas about sex.
In particular, pornography can create unrealistic expectations about perfection when it comes to appearance and performance, both in terms of what adolescent porn watchers expect from their partners and what they expect from themselves. Pornography can also create unrealistic expectations about novelty and variety in sexual encounters.
Parents can help avert these risks by having open and nonjudgmental discussions with their teens and young adults about the realities of sex and porn. Many parents freak out when they discover that their child views or has viewed porn, which can make adolescents feel that they are part of a shameful minority and make them less likely to have frank discussions about what they are seeing and thinking.
Real Risk of Addiction, Particularly With a Family or Individual History
Pornography use also comes with a real risk of addiction. Although the vast majority of occasional or regular porn users will not become addicted, the pleasure response and escapism that pornography provides gives it genuine behavioral addiction potential.
The risk of pornography addiction is not associated with a certain type of porn or even with an escalation toward increasingly graphic content. Instead, porn poses the greatest risk for people who have a family or personal history of sex addiction, or a personal history of trauma or abuse. A compulsive porn habit can sometimes arise during recovery from a substance addiction, as patients seek something to provide the same sense of escape that their substance of choice used to provide. Or, it can be a tool for people with a traumatic history to numb their psychological distress.
People who are at-risk porn users will often engage in addiction-like bouts of porn use to the exclusion of other interests and even necessities. However, unlike people who have truly become addicted, these at-risk users will still be able to rein in their use when they start to see serious consequences from their behavior. However, if these people continue to return to problematic porn use, they may reach a point where they are no longer able to control their compulsive need to watch porn despite suffering physical, emotional, financial and interpersonal struggles.