"Examining the systemic impact of Internet pornography… is relatively uncharted territory and the body of systemically-focused research is limited."
Manning, J. C. (2006). The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13: 131-165.
This article is behind a paywall, but I have access to the full text as a Visiting Fellow at the LSE. So here are my notes.
to bear in mind: this is an article from 2006. That means this review does not consider the evolving ubiquity of web technology on devices like tablets and smartphones. Extremely unfortunately, there’s a one-year embargo on an article published in the same journal in a special issue on cybersex in April 2012 that updates this research, looking specifically at the impact on adolescents. For an abstract of that article, go here.
* Three points of methodological criticism. This is important when considering the validity of the reported results.
1) The most frequently cited studies about the negative impact of pornography in general (not specifically internet porn) have been criticised:
(a) for being limited to experimental situations, (b) for lacking real punishment or social controls, (c) for using college students as the normative group, and (d) for the ethical inability to produce real violence (Davies, 1997).
2) Meta-analyses looking at the effects of general porn on, “(a) increased callousness toward women; (b) trivialization of rape as a criminal offense; (c) distorted perceptions about sexuality; (d) increased appetite for more deviant and bizarre types of pornography (escalation and addiction); (e) devaluation of the importance of monogamy; (f) decreased satisfaction with partner’s sexual performance, affection, and physical appearance; (g) doubts about the value of marriage; (h) decreased desire to have children; and (i) viewing non-monogamous relationships as normal and natural behavior (Drake, 1994)” demonstrate positive correlations (CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION), but these are really very very small effects. Like really small effects, ranging from Pearson’s r’s of between -0.137 (pictorial nudity and aggressive behaviour) and 0.216 (violent sexual behaviour and consumption/aggression).
The strongest correlation you can get is +/- 1.0. The ones reported in this meta-analysis are very small (albeit significant) relationships.
3) The evidence of impact in most of the studies in this review come from clinical settings (a fact that Manning freely admits), but this is a common problem in this kind of research: as she says when making a concession for those couples and clinicians who describe porn as an “enriching aspect of marital intimacy” when “consumed, in a mutual, consensual, and open manner”:
couples who mutually beneﬁt from pornography are unlikely to seek treatment or encounter caregivers who are aware of related studies.
Thus the frame through which pornography research is often conducted problematises it de facto.
* “While I don’t think you can say the Internet is causing more divorces, it does make it easier to engage in the sorts of behaviors that traditionally lead to divorce” (Dedmon, 2002).
* offline research (supported by a qualitative study from 2002) indicates a decrease in emotional intimacy with with a partner when exposed to porn over time
* “women in relationships (married, engaged, or girlfriends) with men perceived as heavy (offline) pornography consumers, decreased and altered sexual intimacy is a common symptom.”
* online sexual content can be helpful in increasing intimacy when a user looks to it for education, community support and to meet new people, but when it’s an outlet for stress, it can have adverse effects on relationships - Cooper, Galbreath, and Becker (2004)
* why use it? Based on a sample of N=384 primarily heterosexual men, Cooper, Galbreath & Becker (2004 report:
1. 80.5% used online sexual activity (OSA) to distract themselves or take a break.
2. 56.5% used OSA to deal with stress.
3. 43.0% used OSA to engage in sexual activities they would not do in real life.
4. 25.3% used OSA to educate themselves.
5. 16.1% used OSA to meet people with whom to have ofﬂine sexual activities.
6. 11.7% used OSA to meet people to date.
7. And 9.1% used OSA to get support with sexual matters.
* on fidelity:
Internet pornography is associated with activities that can undermine marital exclusivity and ﬁdelity. What cannot be determined, however, is what comes ﬁrst—does Internet pornography inﬂuence unfaithful behavior or does unfaithful behavior coincide with preexisting traits that predispose someone to normalize Internet pornography viewing?
Monica Whitty from University of Leicester (the fantastic @cyberspy on twitter) is referenced in this paper (her 2003 paper, Logging onto Love: An examination of men and women’s flirting behaviour both offline and on the Internet); specifically, it’s her work on what’s considered (in)fidelity:
both men and women perceive online sexual activity as an act of betrayal that is as authentic and real as ofﬂine acts, and that Internet pornography use correlated signiﬁcantly with emotional inﬁdelity (N = 1, 117, 468 males and 649 females; r = .41, p < 0.001)
(now *that’s* what I call a Pearson’s r..)
Monica and her colleague Laura-Lee Quigley updated this study with a 2008 paper, Emotional and Sexual Infidelity Offline and in Cyberspace (abstract only).
* impact on adolescents/kids:
According to ﬁgures from Nielsen//NetRatings (2005), in the United States during the month of April 2005, 4,803 children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 17 were exposed to or sought out pornography online. This age group also represented 13.97% of all online pornography consumption.
It’s really difficult to draw conclusions about the impact of online pornographic material on adolescents based on the studies Manning reviews because so much of it is so old (between 2000 to 2005), and so much has changed. However, she summarises the research thus:
Research shows that exposure to pornography can make a lasting impression in young people and that this impression is most often described using emotions such as disgust, shock, embarrassment, anger, fear, and sadness.
The consumption of Internet pornography and/or involvement in sexualized chat can harm the social and sexual development of youth and undermine their success in future relationships.
Pornography consumption in youth has been associated with earlier onset of sexual intercourse, as well as increased likelihood of engaging in anal sex and sexual relations with people they are not romantically engaged with.
The emphasis here is on exposure, rather than specific content (as many levy accusations against the web for escalating more extreme activity).