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There Are Three Types of Porn Watchers

Which one are you?

Justin Lehmiller

Justin Lehmiller

Joel Addams/Getty Images

Trying to keep up with media reports about the effects of watching porn is confusing to say the least. On the one hand, you see headlines like this: "Why porn is the death knell for a happy marriage: Married couples who view adult material double the risk of divorce." On the other, you see headlines like this: "Why couples who confess to watching porn are happier and have better relationships." 

So porn both kills and saves marriages? It's a dizzying mess of contradictions from one day to the next. How do we make sense of it? A recent study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine offers some insight. It suggests that there are really three different kinds of porn users among us, each of whom is affected by porn in very different ways. As such, it makes sense that different studies involving different samples are going to come to very different—and sometimes inconsistent—conclusions.

In this study, researchers recruited 830 male and female adults online to complete a survey about their porn habits and sex lives, which included reporting on their sexual satisfaction as well as any sexual difficulties they might be experiencing. On average, participants were 25 years old, the vast majority were heterosexual, and most were either dating or in a committed relationship.

The researchers performed a statistical procedure called a "cluster analysis," which is exactly what it sounds like: It clustered participants into groups based on how similar they were in terms of their survey responses. These are the three groups that emerged: 

Recreational Users
Three-quarters of participants were deemed "recreational users." They averaged about 24 minutes of viewing time per week and reported high levels of sexual satisfaction, low levels of sexual compulsivity (meaning they weren't experiencing difficulties controlling their sexual thoughts and behaviors), and few sexual problems. They don't go out of their way to watch porn and, when they do view it, they don't feel ashamed or guilty. Women and people who say they watch porn with their partners were overrepresented in this group.

Highly Distressed, but Non-Compulsive Users
This group, which made up 13 percent of the sample, actually watched the least porn, averaging about 17 minutes per week; however, they were the most likely to feel guilty, ashamed, disgusted, and depressed about their porn use. Compared to the recreational users, these folks did not differ in sexual compulsivity, but they were less sexually satisfied and reported having more sexual problems. People who said they only ever watch porn alone—not with a partner—were overrepresented in this group.

Compulsive Porn Users
The remaining 12 percent of the sample scored the highest on the sexual compulsivity scale, meaning that they were the most likely to say they had difficulties managing their sexual urges. This group reported watching the most porn, averaging close to two hours per week, and they were the most likely to say they go out of their way to make time for porn, such as by rearranging their schedules to do so. Compared to the recreational users, these viewers were more distressed about their porn use and less sexually satisfied. Perhaps not surprisingly, men were overrepresented in this group.

What It All Means: Putting all of this together, it seems that most people are fairly light porn users who aren't bothered by it and who seem to be pretty happy with their sex lives. About one-quarter of porn viewers, however, seem to be struggling—evenly divided between those who find their porn use distressing (likely because they have moral qualms about it) and those who use porn compulsively.

That said, there are some important limitations to the study. For one thing, it didn't involve a representative sample. We also don't know how accurate participants were at reporting their porn use. It's also worth highlighting that even the compulsive users in this study were only using porn about 16 minutes per day on average, which doesn't really sound like their porn use was spiraling out of control.

I spoke to psychologist David Ley, author of the book Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, who urged us to put that number in context:

"'Compulsive' use is 16 minutes a day?" he says, "Remember, Americans consume an average of five hours of television a day."

Ley also questioned whether the behaviors the authors of this study labeled "compulsive" reflect an actual disorder: "I think many people suffering from true compulsive disorders would be thankful to only feel compelled to engage in the behavior for 16 minutes a day." This isn't to say that compulsive porn users don't exist, but rather, that we need to be more carful in how we label and define what is problematic when it comes to porn use.

Limitations aside, what we can take away from this study is that the mass of seemingly contradictory studies and media reports on the effects of pornography stems, in part, from the fact that there's actually a lot of diversity among porn users in terms of how often they use it, how they feel about their behavior, and how it affects their sex lives. The proportion of porn users who fall into each of the three subgroups will naturally vary from one study to the next and that, in turn, will lead the results and conclusions of these studies to vary as well.

All of this is to say is that you should probably ignore sensational black and white claims about the effects of porn use. Porn is neither inherently good nor bad. How it's likely to affect you, however, depends on what kind of user you are.

Related:

Six Things People Still Get Wrong About Sex

Five Things Porn Tricks Us Into Thinking Everyone Does

Why Don't Men Have Multiple Orgasms?

Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.