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Reuters/ John Adkisson
The effects of porn aren’t the same on everyone/
USE RESPONSIBLY

Porn is like alcohol—whether it’s bad for you depends on who you are

By Olivia Goldhill

Porn is one of the contentious political issues today; get any group of people together, and it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll come to a consensus about pornography. Whether or not porn is abusive exploitation, a form of empowerment, or simply a good time, is subject to never-ending debate. And such divides are also reflected in the academic literature.

There are articles suggesting that pornography is linked to a reduction in sex crimes, impacts brain structure and functioning, that online porn addiction mirrors drug addiction and is associated with erectile difficulties, and that those who watch pornography report “an increased behavioral intent to rape” and are more likely to believe rape myths. The results of studies point in different directions, and a review of the literature found “slim” evidence that pornography causes sexual aggression.

A possible reason for such mixed data is that pornography doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. Neil Malamuth, professor at University of California, Los Angeles, has conducted extensive research on pornography, and believes that it is only linked with increased aggression for a distinct group of men. Malamuth tells Quartz that pornography is much like alcohol:

“If you asked me, ‘Is alcohol good or bad?’ the answer is, well it depends. For some people it’s really bad—people whose lives have been ruined by alcohol consumption. For other people it’s neutral or it might allow them to de-stress, and make their sex life more interesting. I think the research shows similar conclusions for pornography depending on the cultural context, the individual factors, the amount consumed, and other features of a person’s life.”

Malamuth has conducted research showing that, among men who are already at risk for sexual aggression, watching pornography is an added risk factor. He has identified two major clusters of characteristics that indicate whether someone is at risk of being sexually aggressive. The first cluster, “impersonal sexual orientation” (namely sex devoid of any emotions), is linked with growing up in a violent home (particularly sexually violent), and general anti-social tendencies during adolescence. The second cluster, “hostile masculinity,” is evident among men with attitudes accepting of violence toward women, hostility toward women, sexual arousal from dominance over women, and narcissistic personalities.

For men with both sets of characteristics, Malamuth believes porn will increase aggression. “Porn is more like a secondary risk factor,” he says. “Once you have those other risk factors, exposure to pornography will prime or activate the characteristics the person already has and make it more likely it will be expressed sexual aggression.”

The good news is that, for those who aren’t already at risk, it’s believed porn won’t create violent or sexist tendencies.

Taylor Kohut, a psychology postdoctoral fellow at Western University, published a study last year showing that those who watched porn had no less egalitarian views than non-users. However, Kohut tells Quartz that it’s “incredibly difficult” to definitively establish the effects of pornography.

Firstly, it can be difficult to recruit study participants, and to navigate research ethics boards. Then there’s the lack of methodological rigor, as researchers can’t seem to agree on what “pornography” is. “The nature of porn (whatever it is) changes with technology and social norms, which contributes to further conceptual and pragmatic difficulties,” says Kohut.

Furthermore, many pornography researchers seem to be at least partly driven by ideology. “I have doubts that any of us are truly unbiased,” he adds.

Of course, there are a host of problems associated with pornography other than whether it causes sexism and aggression (not least, serious concerns over how porn stars are treated). Plus there’s the possibility that the effects could change as people start to watch pornography at an ever-younger age.

But until there are more definitive answers, the alcohol analogy holds. Don’t binge, pay attention to provenance and quality, and keep an eye on your levels of consumption. And bear in mind that for some people, even a small amount can have negative consequences.