This article is the first in a two-part series on pornography consumption in the LGBT community. Read on to learn more about how porn affects us, our health, and our relationships.

Pornography’s reception in American culture is like that of the class clown: everybody seems to enjoy it, but when a shakedown occurs, the truth of who is responsible for what is hard to pin down. For every study claiming porn affects viewers in a certain manner, another exists saying the exact opposite. What is the truth about pornography and how it affects our sex lives, our body image, and our mental health?

In order to get to the bottom line of porn’s effect on our well-being, it’s essential to set parameters around what it is and is not. This article will explore those boundaries through a sex-positive and queer-friendly framework. By understanding how porn affects our mental and physical health, we’re better equipped to choose when and how to engage with it, as well as to understand partners and loved ones who watch porn.

Pornography is Here to Stay

First things first: most adults watch porn, whether they admit it or not. A 2010 survey found that 70% of men ages 18-24 engage on a monthly basis, and one in three women view porn. As for porn viewership habits, a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that 55% of gay men watch straight porn, and 21% of straight men watch gay porn. Another study by Bustle found that women are 132% more likely to search for lesbian scenes than men, and have a “strong preference” for sadomasochistic adult video viewing.

Surprised lesbian woman sitting on sofa and watching porn on her laptop

In other words, porn is a well-integrated factor of the American lifestyle, as expected as nachos at a Super Bowl party. And yet, it’s often blamed for body dysmorphia, misogyny, unsafe sex practices, and more. Its ubiquity begs the question: if porn viewership truly correlates to negative outcomes, but most Americans watch it, wouldn’t most Americans suffer from viewership? Clearly, the equation for understanding porn’s effect on our lives needs a second once-over. So is porn really harmful? A closer look at the right research can address this gap between negative claims and the people who not only watch porn, but say it’s good for you.

Porn is Like Rock Climbing — Enjoyable When You Know Your Mountains

A lot of the bad rap on porn stems from research that focuses on its effect on adolescents, heterosexual relationships, and generally works beneath “the negative effects paradigm.” Sociologists Mark McCormack and Liam Wignall coined this term when investigating pornography’s influence on “young men with non-exclusive sexual orientations.” The negative effects paradigm operates under the assumption that pornography contains an inherent emotional or physical health risk. It’s the scientific equivalent of a framed suspect who is tried by a biased jury.

In pragmatic terms, this means that any discussion on porn should understand pornography as a “leisure activity,” say McCormack and Wignall. It’s similar to other forms of adult entertainment, such as rock climbing. Levels of exertion and devotion may vary. But ultimately, it’s there to help you explore your desires, understand yourself better, and develop some new techniques. Sure, some people may take it too far. But those people are akin to climbers who feel compelled to conquer Mount Everest: their obsession is not that of an average climber. Porn addiction is a real thing, but by no means is it the norm.

Indeed, “the effects of pornography—positive or negative—have little to do with the medium itself and everything to do with the person viewing it,” explains Dr. Michael P. Twohig, a psychologist at Utah State University. He says that the negative effects of pornography are often related to moral or religious beliefs that conflict with a person’s desire to view porn. If you believe that watching pornography is bad, you’re more likely to suffer from watching it. But those symptoms stem from an underlying sense of guilt or inner judgment that has next to nothing to do with the naked people on screen. People without internal hang-ups about watching porn are more likely to engage with it in a risk-free manner.

Porn is Adult Entertainment — Not Sex Education

Many studies conducted on pornography focus on its harmful effect on adolescents, eschewing the fact that most pornography is made by adults, for adults. “Pornography was not intended as a sex education program,” writes pornographer Stoya. “It was not intended to dictate sexual practices, or to be a how-to guide.” This truth is essential to understanding porn’s effect on our well-being. Porn should not act as a substitute for healthy conversations with your doctor or partner about sexual practices. When it is misused in this way, it can cause damage.

Two lesbians in lingerie in a porn

This study, for instance, found that gay men with a preference for watching porn that featured bareback sex were more likely to engage in risky behavior. Porn that explores a fantasy that goes unchecked by the reality of sexual health can, indeed, result in negative consequences. The takeaway? While you don’t need to curb your fantasies, you do need to make sure they don’t compromise your health.

Porn Can Help You Explore Fantasies and Make You Feel More Connected

When porn viewership is balanced with a healthy understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality, it can actually behoove the viewer. Rape fantasy porn, for instance, doesn’t perpetuate rape: quite the contrary. Neuroscientist Ogi Ogas explains that there is “an inverse correlation between the availability of pornography and rape: the more porn that’s available, the less rape.” That’s because a person who has rape fantasies can utilize porn as an outlet for that urge, without imparting actual harm.

Other people have niche fetishes that, due to the uncommon nature of their fantasy, can result in feelings of isolation. Porn that speaks to a person’s unique desires helps that person feel less alone. It normalizes their sexuality, assuaging feelings of alienation or guilt while connecting them to a greater community.

Indeed, porn can play a helpful role for LGBTQ individuals who live in rural areas and lack access to a larger community. Ogas found that “for homosexuals, bisexuals and transexuals living outside of urban areas, it was very difficult to access erotica with the result that many sexual minorities felt isolated, alienated and ashamed.” He continued: “Now, the internet allows these groups to explore their sexuality in safety and privacy and discover that many others share the same sexual interests that they do. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to sex.”

Porn Can Enrich and Enhance Your Sex Life

Porn can act as a great asset to your sexual health if you don’t substitute it for sex education or for a healthy, loving relationship with yourself and partners. “It is common with gay male couples to openly discuss their porn practices, and even view it together,” writes Huffington Post and Lighthouse Contributor Joe Kort. Healthy boundaries around porn’s function allow you to include it in your sex life the same way you would a sex toy. It can open up the door to new sexual experiences, and create intimacy between partners. In partnerships where two people have different sex drives, porn can go so far as to help even out the difference.

two hairy gay men share a bed

As for people who say that watching porn makes it harder to get hard? Not true, according to a number of studies cited in an article by VICE on porn dependency and erectile dysfunction. The argument, the article says, “goes something like this: guys are jerking off too much to unrealistic porn, ergo they can’t or won’t ‘perform’ in a ‘real life’ sexual experience. But the best research we have so far simply doesn’t support the claims.” It’s clear that porn isn’t the deviant culprit that some say it is.

Porn Can’t Be Used as a Substitute for Self Esteem

Porn’s effect on our self esteem exists in a grey area. Some studies say that it can hold negative sway. Others refute the claim. A recent study found that gay men in the United States who watch porn experience “more negative body attitude and both depressive and anxious symptomatology.” But the study also qualifies that these negative side effects may result from “broader mental health issues that gay men still grapple with on a daily basis: stigma, discrimination, stress from being part of a marginalized group.” the dysmorphia arises from cultural bias, not porn.

To wit: a study in Norway, a country with a high acceptance of LGBTQ culture, found that male porn viewers had high levels of sexual self-esteem and body positivity. Self-acceptance allows porn to influence our lives in a neutral or positive manner.

Porn is Best Consumed in Moderation

If pornography is a form of entertainment, it logically follows that it should be engaged in on a moderate basis. If you are unable to stop watching porn, and that habit interferes with your life, you may have a problem. The American Psychological Association says that 9% of all porn viewers fall into this category.

Lighthouse is proud to offer sex-positive health and wellness resources for people who find themselves in this situation. Even if you don’t view your porn consumption as a problem, but are curious about how it’s affecting you, it’s always a great idea to talk to a therapist who has experience with these issues. Click here if you’d like to connect with a sex-positive doctor or therapist near you.

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