It’s no secret that a massive amount of internet traffic is associated with pornography. While many statistics come loaded with social agendas, reasonable estimates say that around 10 percent of the internet is adult material. According to PornHub, a site that has so many users it’s become the go-to site for internet porn analytics, users viewed 191,625,000 days worth of adult videos in 2016. And that’s just on one site.

With so many people devoting so much time and energy to creating and consuming sexually explicit content on the internet, it’s no wonder that psychologists are trying to understand what motivates frequent viewers.

In a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, scientists surveyed viewers of internet porn and identified that these individuals cluster in three distinct behavioral patterns: recreational, highly distressed non-compulsive, and compulsive.

The researchers established these clusters after analyzing survey responses from 830 people aged 18 to 78. 71.8 percent of respondents were women, and 28.2 were men. The survey asked people about their cyberpornography viewing habits, as well as three dimensions of pornography use: sexual satisfaction, sexual avoidance, and sexual dysfunction.

They found that 75.5 percent of users fit a “recreational” profile, which meant that they rated low on the three measures of pornography use.

The researchers defined the second cluster, constituting 12.7 percent of survey respondents, as “highly distressed non-compulsive.” This meant they reported high levels of emotional distress associated with porn viewing habits, but they aren’t compulsive users and don’t spend a lot of time hunting for porn.

The third profile, “compulsive,” included 11.8 percent of respondents. This group is the reverse of the second group, spending lots of time seeking out explicit content and indulging in it compulsively, but reporting low levels of emotional distress associated with it.

The researchers explain that they undertook this study to add a new dimension to society’s understanding of how people use adult materials.

“Contemporary views of cyberpornography are often polarized,” the authors write, “sometimes referring to self-centered activities that impair sexuality with a partner and foster unhealthy sexual attitudes and other times to a modern digital way to expand one’s sexual repertoire and fulfill sexual needs.” The researchers wanted to gain a more nuanced view than this polar one.

Patricia D.M. Pascoal, a psychologist in Portugal, published an editorial comment on this study in which she praised the researchers for looking beyond the addiction model of pornography, which she says has been called into question. She also called for further research into the highly distressed non-compulsive cluster of users.

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“This research opens the doors for further clarification of this specific cluster of users, because variables that were neglected in this study (eg, time spent using the internet, psychopathology or neuroticism, distress tolerance, sexual beliefs or attitudes, categories of pornography seen) could be helpful to better understand this clinically relevant group.”

Abstract:

Introduction: Although findings concerning sexual outcomes associated with cyberpornography use are mixed, viewing explicit sexual content online is becoming a common activity for an increasing number of individuals.

Aim: To investigate heterogeneity in cyberpornography-related sexual outcomes by examining a theoretically and clinically based model suggesting that individuals who spend time viewing online pornography form three distinct profiles (recreational, at-risk, and compulsive) and to examine whether these profiles were associated with sexual well-being, sex, and interpersonal context of pornography use.

Methods: The present cluster-analytic study was conducted using a convenience sample of 830 adults who completed online self-reported measurements of cyberpornography use and sexual well-being, which included sexual satisfaction, compulsivity, avoidance, and dysfunction.

Main Outcomes Measures: Dimensions of cyberpornography use were assessed using the Cyber Pornography Use Inventory. Sexual well-being measurements included the Global Measure of Sexual Satisfaction, the Sexual Compulsivity Scale, the Sexual Avoidance Subscale, and the Arizona Sexual Experiences Scale.

Results: Cluster analyses indicated three distinct profiles: recreational (75.5%), highly distressed non-compulsive (12.7%), and compulsive (11.8%). Recreational users reported higher sexual satisfaction and lower sexual compulsivity, avoidance, and dysfunction, whereas users with a compulsive profile presented lower sexual satisfaction and dysfunction and higher sexual compulsivity and avoidance. Highly distressed less active users were sexually less satisfied and reported less sexual compulsivity and more sexual dysfunction and avoidance. A larger proportion of women and of dyadic users was found among recreational users, whereas solitary users were more likely to be in the highly distressed less active profile and men were more likely to be in the compulsive profile.

Conclusion: This pattern of results confirms the existence of recreational and compulsive profiles but also demonstrates the existence of an important subgroup of not particularly active, yet highly distressed consumers. Cyberpornography users represent a heterogeneous population, in which each subgroup is associated with specific sexual outcomes.

Photos via Flickr / girl_onthe_les

Peter is a writer living in New York. He is preoccupied with Star Wars and memes, but he writes about climate change, chatbots and ants. You may have seen his work in Popular Science, New Scientist and Motherboard.