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Impact of Pornography on Young Adults

Pornography Intervention - A Training Resource
By Jim Messina, Ph.D., CCMHC, NCC, DCMHS-T

In 2009, results of a survey of 29,000 individuals at North American universities were released (Leahy, 2009). The findings were:

  • 51% of male students and 32% of female students first viewed pornography before their teenage years (12 and younger)
  • 35% of all students’ first exposure was Internet or computer-based (compared to 32% from magazines, 13% from VHS or DVD, and 18% from Cable or pay-per-view)
  • 64% of college men and 18% of college women spend time online for Internet sex every week
  • 42% of male students and 20% of women said they regularly read romance novels, sexually explicit magazines, or regularly visited sexually explicit websites or chat rooms.

In 2012 a study of the role of exposure to pornography during adolescence in predicting intimacy among young adults was conducted with college students (aged 18–25 years) who were surveyed online. Respondents provided information about:

  • pornography use at ages 14 and 17
  • perceived realism of pornographic depictions of sexual activities
  • attitudes towards recreational sex and relationship intimacy
  • significant gender differences in pornography exposure
  • perceived realism of pornographic contents
  • attitudes towards recreational sex
  • No direct relationship was found between adolescent exposure to pornography and relationship intimacy in young adulthood.
  • As hypothesized, the realism of pornography was related both to exposure and intimacy, but only among female participants.
  • The association between the appraisal of pornographic realism and intimacy was shown to be mediated by attitudes towards recreational sex.

In light of contemporary concerns over the normalization of pornography use, particularly among young people, their findings did not support the view that adolescent exposure to sexually explicit materials is a determinant of relationship intimacy among young adults (Štulhofera, Buškob & Schmidtc, 2012).


Another report in 2012 found that:

  • Women’s reports of their male partner’s frequency of pornography use were negatively associated with their relationship quality
  • More perceptions of problematic use of pornography were negatively correlated with the women’s self-esteem, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction
  • Due to the lowered self-esteem issues, women would continue in the relationship even with the perceptions of partner’s problematic pornography use and relationship quality
  • Relationship length moderated the relationship between perceptions of partner’s problematic pornography use and sexual satisfaction, with significant dissatisfaction being associated with longer relationship length (Stewart & Szymanski, 2012).


A 2014 study examined, gender role conflict and attachment styles and consequences of poorer relationship quality and sexual satisfaction of men’s pornography use among adult heterosexual men. Findings revealed that:

Both frequency of pornography use and problematic pornography use were related to:

  • greater gender role conflict
  • more avoidant and anxious attachment styles
  • poorer relationship quality
  • less sexual satisfaction

In addition, the findings provided support for a theorized mediated model in which gender role conflict was linked to relational outcomes both directly and indirectly via attachment styles and pornography use (Szymanski & Stewart-Richardson, 2014).


In 2014 a study investigated how the sexist attitudes of young adult males were affected when they were inadvertently exposed to online pornography, and the role of the sense of anonymity in subsequent selection by these individuals of sexually explicit material. Results of this study showed that:

  • Participants were more likely to pursue extreme pornography when they felt anonymous, as compared with situations in which they did not feel anonymous.
  • This tendency was especially apparent for those exposed for 10 seconds to sexual online pop-up commercials that include pornographic content
  • The results also showed that inadvertent exposure to such sexual online pop-up commercials, coupled with feelings of anonymity, could increase participants’ sexist attitudes toward women (Shim & Paul, 2014).


A 2015 study examined how the notion of perceived addiction to Internet pornography might be related to other domains of psychological functioning. The study demonstrated that

  • the notion of perceived addiction to Internet pornography is very robustly related to various measures of psychological distress
  • The relation between psychological distress and perceived addiction to Internet pornography persisted, even when other potential contributors (neuroticism, self-control, amount of time, spent viewing pornography) were controlled for statistically (Grubbs, Volk, Exline & Pargament, 2015).


Friends with benefits (FWB) relationships integrate two types of relationships—friendship and a relationship that includes sexual intimacy but without an expectation of commitment. These relationships are often seen as less risky than other casual sexual behaviors, but they still pose a high risk of contracting a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI). Pornography consumption has been connected to increases in risky sexual behavior in other types of casual sex. A 2015 study into pornography use influencing FWB behaviors, specifically through the mechanism of sexual scripts. Results demonstrated:

More frequent viewing of pornography is associated with

  • a higher incidence of FWB relationships
  • a higher number of unique FWB partners
  • engagement in all types of risky sexual behaviors during FWB relationships
  • more permissive sexual scripts mediated the association between frequency of pornography use and FWB behaviors
A need for mitigating public health risks among emerging adults was established (Braithwaite, Aaron, Dowdle, Spjut & Fincham, 2015)
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