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The above figure displays results from males in the General Social Survey who answer yes to the proposition that they’ve watched a pornographic film over the past year. This fact was cited in my post Porn, rape, and a ‘natural experiment’, to disabuse people of the notion that porn consumption has increased radically the past generation. I was aware of this finding, and so generally am careful to focus on the quantity of porn consumed, rather than the social penetration of porn consumption. No matter what the “survey says,” the IT sector is quite aware of the fact that pornographic material is a very high fraction of internet traffic (e.g., more people check Pornhub than BBC).

But I am not sure sure we should trust the GSS results any more at this point. I did some cursory poking around and last month there was a large sample size survey of Dutch youth to investigate the effects of porn consumption, Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association Between Sexually Explicit Materials Use and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults:

The study found that 88% of men and 45% of women had consumed SEM [“sexually explicit material”] in the past 12 months. Using hierarchical multiple regression analyses to control for other factors, the association between SEM consumption and a variety of sexual behaviors was found to be significant, accounting for between 0.3% and 4% of the total explained variance in investigated sexual behaviors.

How the sample was collected is important for generalization, so I want to reproduce that part of the method in case you don’t have access:

Data were collected as part of the “Speak up now!” survey, a comprehensive online sexuality study among a large and diverse, self-referred sample of adolescents and young adults in The Netherlands…To be eligible for participation, individuals had to be between 15 and 25 years of age and have had any sexual experience as self-defined, with sex indicated to encompass a broad range of behaviors other than sexual intercourse, including having kissed someone or having engaged in any other type of sexual behavior. Participants were recruited between November 2008 and June 2009 through advertisements in various online and offline youth media and on electronic blackboards at schools. Ads were strategically published to promote the inclusion of lower educated, ethnic minority, and same-sex-attracted young people. The ads invited young people to express their views about sexuality and share their sexual experiences by completing a series of online questionnaires and routed them to the study website that also provided further participant information research details, and referral information for participants wanting to seek counseling.

I’ll put the study’s demographics below. The key for me is that 30% of young male Dutch nationals looked at porn less than once a month, or never. Feel free to find other citations and drop them in the comments. If you don’t have access I’ll check out the descriptive results.


Men % Women %
Gender 30.5 (1,402) 69.5 (3,198)
Age (years)
15–17 29.9 (419) 46.9 (1,501)
18–20 390 (547) 36.0 (1,152)
21–23 22.2 (311) 12.6 (404)
24–25 8.9 (125) 4.4 (141)
Lower education level 65.7 (921) 60.1 (1,922)
Higher educational level 33.6 (467) 38.9 (1,226)
Western ethnicity 77.2 (1,082) 80.7 (2,581)
Non-Western ethnicity 22.8 (320) 19.3 (617)
Religion not important in life 85.5 (1,199) 85.8 (2,743)
Religion important in life 14.5 (203) 14.2 (455)
Current relationship status
Not in a relationship 50.4 (706) 38.6 (1,233)
In a relationship 49.6 (696) 61.4 (1,965)
Used SEM in the past 12 months
No 11.8 (166) 55.2 (1,766)
Yes 88.2 (1,236) 44.8 (1,432)
Frequency of SEM use in the past 12 months
Never 11.8 (166) 55.2 (1,766)
Less than once a month 19.1 (268) 27.3 (872)
Few times a month 30.4 (426) 12.7 (406)
Few times a week 25.6 (359) 3.3 (107)
Daily 13.1 (183) 1.5 (47)
Applies only to those who used SEM

Types of SEM used in the past 12 months
Soft 34.5 (426) 44.4 (636)
Hardcore 84.3 (1,042) 69.6 (997)
Violent/forced 8.1 (100) 8.1 (116)
SM/bondage/fetish 9.3 (115) 10.4 (149)
Other 6.6 (81) 5.9 (85)
Types of outlets in past 12 months
Online 89.1 (1,101) 69.6 (997)
Magazine/book 12.7 (157) 9.1 (131)
DVD/video 24.3 (300) 19.8 (283)
TV 31.1 (387) 42.4 (607)
Other 2.7 (33) 2.2 (31)
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Porn, Pornography 
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Credit: Plp

Update: To be explicit, I’m not claiming that the correlation is causal. Rather, I’m pointing out that the explosion in porn use does not seem to have led to a concomitant explosion in sex crimes, which would have been the prediction by social conservatives and radical feminists if they could have known of the extent of penetration of pornography into culture and private lives over the next 20 years in 1990.

I am almost literally one of the last of the generation of young men for whom the quest for pornography was an adventure. One could say that I had the misfortune of my adolescence overlapping almost perfectly with the last few years prior to the ‘pornographic singularity.’ I speak here of the internet, circa 1995 and later. Prior to this era of the ‘pornographic explosion’ one often had to rely upon a lax or absentee father of a friend, from whom the porn was ‘borrowed,’ and then returned with the owner none the wiser. My youngest brother, who is 15 years my junior, would no doubt find my escapades as a 15 year old bizarre in the extreme (though I believe I did not view video pornography until I was 16). In fact, I recall realizing that something radical had occurred when visiting my family and observing my brother, who was 8 at the time, deleting porn spam from his Hotmail account. Porn as nuisance rather than treasure would have amazed my adolescent self.

It seems plausible that the generation after 1995 has witnessed levels of aggregate porn consumption orders of magnitude greater than that before 1995. This is a massive natural social experiment. As with any social experiment you have anecdata-driven ‘moral panic’ pieces in the press which don’t seem to align well with what you see in the world at large. Mo Costandi pointed me today to one such piece about porn ‘re-wiring’ the brains of young boys and making them sexually dysfunctional. Standard stuff. On Twitter I pointed out to Mo semi-seriously that actually crime had declined since widespread pornographic consumption in the mid-1990s. Quite reasonably Mo inquired specifically about sex crimes. Fair enough. As it happens the FBI has records of ‘forcible rapes’ reported to the police in the USA going back to 1960.

Here they are in absolute numbers:

And now standardized by the populations of the decennial Census (and per 1,000,000):

The problem, from what I can see, is that the only young males who talk at length about their porn consumption to professionals and the media are those who have problems with that consumption. In contrast, for most men the consumption of porn isn’t a major issue, it’s just part of their life, or not, depending on the situation, and at most it comes up in a humorous manner. Additionally, my own suspicion is that the perversity of online pornography is driven by the fact that perverts are disproportionately represented among the small minority of men who pay for porn in this day and age.

On a more scientific note, some of the fears of porn destroying the male ability and inclination to have sex with women* could be alleviated if people were more aware of the concept of an alief. One can illustrate the relationship of an alief to sex rather easily. Imagine that you, a heterosexual male (if you aren’t a heterosexual male, just put yourself in that individual’s position), meet a very attractive woman at a party, and kiss her and touch her breasts. You are likely rather aroused and excited at this point. You then reach down and feel a penis. Now you are probably quite turned off. Can you appreciate that you were excited literally the moment before? Would you wish to repeat the experience of initial pleasure, and then shock?

The key takeaway is that a major part of the pleasure of an experience is the broader contextual framework in which the pleasure is occurring. Kissing a woman is preferable for a heterosexual man not just because a woman has smooth skin, and attractive facial features, but because the target of their affections is a woman. If that woman turns out to be a very feminine “ladyboy,” then all the pleasure disappears, even if in an objective and reductionist sense nothing has changed about the previous experiences (if you want a deeper exploration of this topic, I recommend Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like).

Obviously sex is a somewhat mechanical operation for many males. Ergo, the ease with which males can relieve themselves with masturbation. But you can’t just transpose the mechanics of consuming pornography to the mechanics of sex with a real woman. Porn exists to facilitate masturbation, but so does your hand. Ultimately a woman is preferable to your hand because a woman is a woman, and your hand is just your hand.**

In other words, the modern male, porn-consuming though he might be, still generally prefers sex with real live women. We’re born that way.

* From what I can tell pornography has more mainstream acceptance in the gay male community. And yet to my knowledge gay males are no less interested in sex than straight males.

** I’m stripping away the reality that sex within a relationship is more than arousal and climax, but an essential part of the relationship being more than just a friendship.

• Category: Science • Tags: Pornography, Social Science, Sociology 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"