The Relationship between Frequent Pornography Consumption, Behaviors, and Sexual Preoccupancy among Male Adolescents in Sweden (2017)

Printer-friendly version

Interesting findings from the full study:

Porn use in 18-year old males was almost universal, with the study dividing users into 3 groups - frequent (daily), average (weekly or more) and infrequent:

Nearly all respondents (98%) had watched pornography, although to different extents. Eleven percent were found to be frequent users, 69 percent average users, and 20 percent infrequent users.

The frequent porn users preferred hard-core porn. Does this indicate escalation of porn use?

Among frequent users, the most common type of pornography consumed was hard core pornography (71%) followed by lesbian pornography (64%), while soft core pornography was the most commonly selected genre for average (73%) and infrequent users (36%). There was also a difference between the groups in the proportion who watched hard core pornography (71%, 48%, 10%) and violent pornography (14%, 9%, 0%).

Frequent porn users were more likely to have engaged in a wider variety of sexual acts:

Frequent users were more likely to have participated in a wider range of sexual activities, such as giving oral sex (76%, 61%, 49%) and receiving oral sex (76%, 66%, 53%).

50% of frequent users had engaged in anal sex, while only 10% on infrequent had, which aligns with the finding that frequent users liked to copy what they saw in porn:

Table 4 shows that there was also a significant difference for whether or not a participant had participated in anal sex or not (29%, 20%, 10%). Frequent users were also more likely to have tried sexual acts seen in pornographic films (50%, 39%, 17%).

In summary frequent porn use appears to shape sexuality:

Our findings show that frequent users more often report behaviours associated with sexual risk taking including earlier age at sexual debut, anal sex, and having tried acts seen in pornography. Sexual debut is “important because it affects the duration of exposure to STIs and evidence suggests that individuals who have sex at younger ages may have riskier behaviour over a lifetime. Although anal sex is not necessarily a risky behaviour if adequate protection is utilized, the higher instance of anal sex found among frequent users of pornography is concerning when considering the prevalence of unprotected sex presented in pornography. Based on the 3AM, if frequent users are more likely to test out sexual acts seen in pornography, it is not far-fetched to presume that the risky manner in which they have seen the acts performed might also be internalized (acquired) and applied (application) in real-life scenarios.

The results point to some porn users conditioning their sexual templates and developing a porn addiction:

We also found that frequent users were more likely to consider themselves having a greater interest in sex and pornography compared to their peers, fantasize trying acts seen in pornography several times a week, think about sex almost all the time, and watch pornography more than they wanted. These results offer compelling insights about sexual preoccupancy and compulsive pornography consumption. The fact that frequent users on average consider themselves more interested in sex and pornography compared to peers does not in itself indicate a problem. However, in lieu of the 44 percent of frequent users having fantasies about trying sexual activities seen in pornography several times a week and the 53 percent that think about sex almost all the time, these findings together provide stronger evidence for sexual preoccupancy. It is difficult to determine the direction of causality: are people consuming pornography because they were more interested in the first place, or is it because they watch pornography that they end up thinking more about sex? Peter and Valkenburg’s findings suggest that there could be a cyclical relationship: these individuals are more interested in sex in the first place, but pornography triggers an even greater, potentially problematic cognitive engagement in sex.

The authors suggest that frequent porn use leads to a preference for hard-core or violent pornography;

It is also noteworthy that a statistically significant relationship was found between fantasizing about pornography several times a week and watching hard core pornography. Since verbal and physical sexual aggression is so commonplace in pornography, what most adolescents considered hard core pornography could likely be defined as violent pornography. If this is the case, and in light of the suggested cyclical nature of sexual preoccupancy in Peter and Valkenburg, it may be that rather than ‘purging’ individuals of their fantasies and inclinations of sexual aggression, watching hard core pornography perpetuates them, thereby increasing the likelihood of manifested sexual aggression.

The authors say that their findings align with the addiction model:

With regards to compulsive pornography consumption, it is striking that one-third of frequent users admitted they watch pornography more than they want to. As stated above, a growing body of empirical research considers pornography potentially addictive. Since adolescents’ brains are still in their development phase, young people may be especially vulnerable to problematic pornography use. “Unlike adults, adolescents are believed to lack sufficient maturation and integrity in frontal cortices necessary to exert cognitive control required to suppress sexual cravings, thoughts, and behaviours elicited by pornographic content.” This, combined with the notion that adolescents process and retain images far better than written or spoken words, means that the development of relevant, effective sexual education becomes all the more crucial to counterbalance the messages in the pornography ‘script’.

Results indicate that frequent users of pornography have sexual debuts at younger ages, engage in a broader range of sexual encounters, and are more likely to struggle with sexual preoccupancy and problematic pornography use. This study contributes to a growing body of research providing evidence that pornography may have negative effects on adolescents.


Donevan, M., & Mattebo, M. (2017).

Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.srhc.2017.03.002

Highlights

Data collection was completed among 18-year-old, third-year high school students in a medium and large sized Swedish town in 2013. The total  population of third-year students in both towns was 946 students (510 girls and 436 boys).

  • Frequent users watched hard core pornography and violent pornography to a higher extent.
  • Frequent users were more likely to have engaged in a wider range of sexual activities.
  • Frequent users fantasised about trying sexual activities seen in hard core pornography.
  • Frequent users showed signs of sexual preoccupancy and problematic pornography use.

Pornography consumption

Nearly all respondents (98%, n = 361) had watched pornography, although to different extents. Eleven percent were found to be frequent users (n = 42), 69 percent average users (n = 256), and 20 percent infrequent users (n = 72). When they watched pornography, the majority took the initiative to watch it (89%, n = 332) and watched it alone (90%, n = 336). Among frequent users, the most common type of pornography consumed was hard core pornography (71%, n = 30) followed by lesbian pornography (64%, n = 27), while soft core pornography was the most commonly selected genre for average (73%, n = 186) and infrequent users (36%, n = 26). There was also a difference between the groups in the proportion who watched hard core pornography (71%, n = 30; 48%, n = 122; 10%, n = 7; p < 0.001) and violent pornography (14%, n = 6; 9%, n = 26; 0%, n = 0; p = 0.011)

Sexual behaviours

The sexual behaviours reported by the respondents are shown in Table 3. Frequent users were more likely to have participated in a wider range of sexual activities, such as giving oral sex (76%, n = 31; 61%, n = 156; 49%, n = 34; p = 0.017) and receiving oral sex (76%, n = 32; 66%, n = 165; 53%, n = 37; p = 0.032). Table 4 shows that there was also a significant difference for whether or not a participant had participated in anal sex or not (29%, n = 12; 20%, n = 50; 10%, n =7; p = 0.039). Frequent users were also more likely to have tried sexual acts seen in pornographic films (50%, n = 20; 39%, n = 100; 17%, n = 17; p < 0.001). These acts included: oral sex (33%, n = 14; 21%, n = 53; 3%, n = 2; p < 0.001), vaginal intercourse (45%, n = 19; 30%, n = 77; 8%, n = 6; p < 0.001), and anal sex (17%, n = 7; 10%, n = 26; 0%, n = 0; p = 0.005). Results for sexual debut are presented in Table 4. Mean age of first oral sex received (F(2, 228) = 3.99), p = 0.020) and mean age at first vaginal sex (F(2, 250) = 7.59, p = 0.001) differed significantly between frequent, average and infrequent users. Post hoc comparisons using the Tukey HSD test indicate that the mean age of first oral sex received (M = -0.38, SD = 0.31) and the mean age at first vaginal intercourse (M = -0.36, SD = 0.29) for frequent users were significantly different from average users but not from infrequent users.

Indicators of sexual preoccupancy and compulsivity

Several responses may be associated with sexual preoccupancy and compulsive pornography consumption. Referring to Table 5, frequent users considered themselves more interested in both sex (19%, n = 8; 8%, n = 17; 1%, n = 1; p = 0.002) and pornography (19%, n = 8; 4%, n = 10; 0%, n = 0; p < 0.001) compared to peers. Frequent users were more likely to think about sex almost all the time (53%, n = 21; 50%, n = 123; 25%, n = 18; p = 0.001), and much more likely to have fantasies about trying sexual activities seen in pornography several times a week (44%, n = 18; 9%, n = 23; 6%, n = 3; p < 0.001). A higher proportion of frequent users who had watched hard pornography, stated more pornography consumption than wanted compared with peers (Table 6). Only one respondent of all (n=1, average user) stated experience from having watched violent pornography and stating more pornography consumption than wanted. It was equally uncommon among frequent and average users to have experience of watching violent pornography and state thinking about sex all the time (60%, n=3; 42%, n=10; p=0.520). However, a higher proportion frequent users stated experience from having watched violent pornography and stating fantasies about trying sexual activities seen in pornography several times a week (n=3, 50%; 25%, n=6, p=0.012). No infrequent user stated experience from having watched violent pornography.

DISCUSSION

Our findings show that frequent users more often report behaviours associated with sexual risk taking including earlier age at sexual debut, anal sex, and having tried acts seen in pornography. Sexual debut is “important because it affects the duration of exposure to STIs”,9(p1207) and evidence suggests that individuals who have sex at younger ages may have riskier behaviour over a lifetime.9 Although anal sex is not necessarily a risky behaviour if adequate protection is utilized, the higher instance of anal sex found among frequent users of pornography is concerning when considering the prevalence of unprotected sex presented in pornography. Based on the 3AM, if frequent users are more likely to test out sexual acts seen in pornography, it is not far-fetched to presume that the risky manner in which they have seen the acts performed might also be internalized (acquired) and applied (application) in real-life scenarios.

We also found that frequent users were more likely to consider themselves having a greater interest in sex and pornography compared to their peers, fantasize trying acts seen in pornography several times a week, think about sex almost all the time, and watch pornography more than they wanted. These results offer compelling insights about sexual preoccupancy and compulsive pornography consumption. The fact that frequent users on average consider themselves more interested in sex and pornography compared to peers does not in itself indicate a problem. However, in lieu of the 44 percent of frequent users having fantasies about trying sexual activities seen in pornography several times a week and the 53 percent that think about sex almost all the time, these findings together provide stronger evidence for sexual preoccupancy. It is difficult to determine the direction of causality: are people consuming pornography because they were more interested in the first place, or is it because they watch pornography that they end up thinking more about sex? Peter and Valkenburg’s15 findings suggest that there could be a cyclical relationship: these individuals are more interested in sex in the first place, but pornography triggers an even greater, potentially problematic cognitive engagement in sex.

It is also noteworthy that a statistically significant relationship was found between fantasizing about pornography several times a week and watching hard core pornography. Since verbal and physical sexual aggression is so commonplace in pornography, what most adolescents considered hard core pornography could likely be defined as violent pornography.24 If this is the case, and in light of the suggested cyclical nature of sexual preoccupancy in Peter and Valkenburg,15 it may be that rather than ‘purging’ individuals of their fantasies and inclinations of sexual aggression, watching hard core pornography perpetuates them, thereby increasing the likelihood of manifested sexual aggression.

With regards to compulsive pornography consumption, it is striking that one-third of frequent users admitted they watch pornography more than they want to. As stated above, a growing body of empirical research considers pornography potentially addictive. Since adolescents’ brains are still in their development phase, young people may be especially vulnerable to problematic pornography use. “Unlike adults, adolescents are believed to lack sufficient maturation and integrity in frontal cortices necessary to exert cognitive control required to suppress sexual cravings, thoughts, and behaviours elicited by pornographic content.”2(p114) This, combined with the notion that adolescents process and retain images far better than written or spoken words,2 means that the development of relevant, effective sexual education becomes all the more crucial to counterbalance the messages in the pornography ‘script’.

The classrooms were randomly selected so the results should be representative of the two towns included. Results are however not necessarily representative of Sweden in general, or to other   12 countries. Future research could be conducted in areas with different demographics. The cross sectional nature of the data places a limit on the possible conclusions drawn from this study, since it prevents any causal interpretations being drawn. For example, it is unclear whether pornography usage results in earlier sexual debut, or if earlier sexual debut is associated with other confounding variables related to social and behavioural factors. The body of literature would benefit from quasiexperimental designs that deal with these confounding variables. Further, this study would benefit from longitudinal measures, since this would enable an examination of how pornography consumption affects individuals over time. Still, the strength of this study rests in its convergence with theory and support from similar studies using alternative methodologies.

A further limitation in the present study was that pornography was not clearly defined. In other words, the participants could define pornography as naked images of women/men or as images depicting individuals engaging in sexual activities. Consequently, certain categories of participants may have more likely embraced one definition over the other. However, asking the participants to rate to what extent different genres of pornography were consumed provided the participants an opportunity to reflect over the prevalent types of pornography.

Despite pornography acting as a first ‘sex educator’ for many young people, there is a general lack of critical discussions about pornography, in part due to inconclusive research on pornography’s effects. However, research among adolescents appears substantially less ambiguous than research on adults, with this study among a plethora of others indicating that frequent pornography consumption is associated with negative outcomes. When it comes to prevention and ways forward, the 3AM maps out the importance of pre-existing scripts: the more incompatible a consumer’s pre-existing scripts are to the pornography script, the less the pornography script will dictate their future script upon exposure.28 Accordingly, robust sexual education at relevant ages is crucial, complemented by efforts to minimize children’s access to pornography. The model further locates ‘audience criticality’ as a key moderator to the pornography script. 28 In this sense, educational strategies such as media literacy would help to equip young people with the critical thinking skills necessary to minimize the harms of pornography. Finally, since the results of the present study are consistent with the argument that pornography has addictive properties, appropriate support to young people struggling with problematic pornography consumption must be made more readily available.

Results indicate that frequent users of pornography have sexual debuts at younger ages, engage in a broader range of sexual encounters, and are more likely to struggle with sexual preoccupancy and problematic pornography use. This study contributes to a growing body of research providing evidence that pornography may have negative effects on adolescents.