July 30, 2017

The topic of pornography has become one of the latest cultural wars brewing among academics and policy makers.  Debates regard the positive and negative correlates of pornography use, as well as the viability or existence of “pornography addiction,” have spurred numerous debates over the last several years.  Recently, Dr. David Ley has again weighed in on these issues at Psychology Today, claiming that recent research has suggested that “the effects of pornography on individuals vary based on moral and religious beliefs.” To make his claims, Dr. Ley cites a recently released study by Nathan Leonhardt and colleagues, published in the Journal of Sex Research.  In this simple conclusion about the connection between religiosity and varying outcomes correlated with pornography use, Dr. Ley seems very justified.  Several academic articles have now been published that suggest that the outcomes associated with pornography use do appear to vary based on a variety of personal and background factors, including religiosity (see Nelson, Padilla-Walker, & Carroll, 2010).  Unfortunately, Dr. Ley then extends this thinking to claim that religious cultures may be creating many of the “harms” associated with pornography use. A reading of the actual study shows that Dr. Ley, while accurately describing some of the findings from the study, extends them in ways that the authors of the study certainly never intended. 

Dr. Ley goes on in his review of the study to suggest that “The BYU study found further results which support the idea that it’s not porn use, but rather the belief in porn addiction and the conflict with religion, which predict porn-related problems.” Here Dr. Ley’s conclusions hold several errors.  First, Dr. Ley fails to mention that pornography use was actually a strong and significant predictor of the perception of addiction. Even if the perception of addiction was the main variable related to the outcomes of the study, increased use of pornography was one of the very factors that led to such a perception (importantly, this was independent of religiosity).  In other words, if Dr. Ley is going to claim that this study shows that religiosity is causing a harmful effect, by extension he must also conclude that pornography use itself leads to the same outcomes. 

But what are these so called problems related to pornography mentioned by Dr. Ley?  Another closer examination of the study under question suggests that the use of the term “porn-related problems” is a gross exaggeration of the outcomes from this particular study.  The authors did not in fact assess any sort of problems in terms of relationship or personal well-being.  They did not measure couple conflict, relational satisfaction, depression or any other traditional measure of mental or couple health.  The outcome measure was simply assessing increased anxiety talking about pornography to others and having what the authors coined “dating discomfort.”  This consisted of going on less dates or worrying about what dating partners might think of one’s pornography use.  This casts the findings in a much different light.  Rather than finding that religious individuals were having more problems in their lives regarding pornography, the study really suggest that religious people (and porn users!) are more likely to perceive themselves as having problems controlling their pornography use and this perception gave them more anxiety talking about or disclosing pornography use to others. 

Dr. Ley seemed intent on laying any and all blame for all potential harms related to pornography at the feet of religious faith.  He goes on to claim toward the end of his article that:

Take home message: If you are religious, you probably shouldn’t watch porn. It is likely to lead to you feeling that you’re addicted, and then developing shame around your identity and your porn use. 

Again, Dr. Ley conveniently forgets the fact that pornography use itself was one of the significant predictors of the perception of addiction.  While Dr. Ley is quick to point out how religious faiths may be creating social environments that promotes unhealthy perceptions regarding pornography, he continually neglected to mention that viewing pornography also appears to feed into these negative perceptions and feelings of compulsion.   

Beyond these specific issues with Dr. Ley’s conclusions from this single study, his writing also seems to disregard the mounting evidence suggesting that pornography use may in fact hold some harm for the user.  While it is difficult to draw broad conclusions from individual studies which are often hampered by methodological limitations, meta-analyses (studies of studies) have now begun to appear to attempt to summarize findings across dozens of studies at once. A recently released meta-analysis, based on fifty studies and 10 countries, suggested that male pornography use was linked to less relationship and sexual satisfaction (Wright, Tokunaga, Kraus, & Klann, 2017).  These authors concluded that:

Consuming pornography was associated with lower interpersonal satisfaction in results from published and unpublished studies, regardless of the year the study was circulated, and regardless of the method.

Further, an analysis of nine non-experimental studies found a consistent positive correlation between pornography use and positive attitudes of violence toward women (Hald, Malamuth, Yuen, 2010) while another meta-analysis of 22 studies across seven countries suggested that pornography use was linked to both greater verbal and physical sexual aggression (Wright, Tokunaga, & Kraus, 2015).

Despite these robust findings, it is of course important to keep in mind that pornography use is likely only one of several factors that can contribute to dissatisfaction or sexual aggression.  There are likely also several moderating factors such as gender, religiosity, and personality traits that may alter or exaggerate certain outcomes.  But acknowledging that some factors may change the effect of viewing pornography does not dismiss the fact that such effects seem to exist for most people.  While Dr. Ley’s original suggestion that pornography’s effect can vary by religiosity seems certainly valid, his extension to then claim that religiosity is the sole culprit in the emerging body of literature suggesting that consistent pornography consumption can have harmful effects is simply misleading.

Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., & Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and attitudes supporting violence against women: Revisiting the relationship in nonexperimental studies. Aggressive Behavior36(1), 14-20.

Nelson, L. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Carroll, J. S. (2010). “I believe it is wrong but I still do it”: A comparison of religious young men who do versus do not use pornography. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality2(3), 136.

Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2015). A metaanalysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66, 183-205.

Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., Kraus, A., & Klann, E. (2017). Pornography consumption and satisfaction: A metaanalysis. Human Communication Research. Advanced Online Publication available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hcre.12108/full

About the Author

Brian J. Willoughby, Ph.D. is currently an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Dr. Willoughby is considered an international expert in the field of couple and marital relationships, sexuality, and emerging adult development. His research generally focuses on how adolescents, young adults, and adults move toward and form long-term committed relationships.

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