The question is porn a problem? is debated across social spaces. As governments consider regulating online porn, and you consider whether or not to click, there’s a debate within the academic community on if internet pornography is addictive and problematic. Some claim porn addiction is real, while others say there’s just no evidence for it.
Knowing that this isn’t going to be resolved soon, a team of scientists decided to take another approach: They examined exactly why some people felt that their porn-viewing harmful. In a meta-analysis published in the August edition of Archives of Sexual Behavior they argue that there’s a correlation between people who are religious and people who think they have a pornography problem.
Why some see their late-night viewing habits as bad is because of moral incongruence: Watching porn, they feel, goes against their morals — but they still watch it anyway.
“Pornography-related problems seem to be a complex issue that, in some cases, can be at least partially explained by issues of morals and or feelings that one is doing things that violate their belief system,” explains study co-author and Bowling Green State University professor Joshua Grubbs, Ph.D., to Inverse. “For clinicians, people in the community, and anyone else who might be dealing with pornography-related issues, we hope that our research can contribute to a better understanding of these behaviors.”
Before analyzing a number of studies previously examining porn use, religious ties, and emotions after watching porn, Grubbs and his colleagues reasoned that problems related to pornography use could arise from two distinct, but possibly related pathways. In pathway one, they hypothesized that distress from porn watching could be seen as a by-product of porn simply being bad for mental health. They write that “Compulsive or extreme use of pornography is well documented in various studies and, despite the controversies in the field on whether or not pornography addiction is a ‘real’ disorder, it is abundantly clear that some individuals do experience dysregulation in their use of pornography.”
That pathway, however, while still plausible, isn’t what emerged from the literature. In a systematic review of previously conducted studies, the team found that moral disapproval of pornography influences many religious people to perceive that they have problems associated with watching porn.
The idea that watching porn is bad is tied to what neuroscientist Nicole Prause, Ph.D., told Inverse in conversation about sex addiction: “The best predictor of believing you have problems with pornography is a conservative upbringing.”
Grubbs says that “in no way does our research suggest that pornography-related problems are not real or are only a function of morality” — only that there are multiple pathways by which people might find their use of pornography to be problematic. While this study focused on the relationship between being religious and feeling guilty about watching porn, Grubbs says “there is some evidence that people can be in both categories at the same time.”
“It is important to note that many people experience no problems whatsoever with their pornography use, and some people even report positive outcomes with pornography,” says Grubbs. “But pornography use is immensely common, and a lot of people do report problems. It is important to understand the different pathways by which someone might experience problems related to pornography use.”