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Online Pornography and Twentysomethings

How concerned should you be as a parent?

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

For over a century, pornographic photographs and magazines have displayed naked women in sexual poses, and for decades pornographic movies have shown various sex acts. However, there’s no doubt that pornography has become much easier to obtain in the past 20 years, with the spread of Internet access, especially for twentysomethings.

In one study of college students at six sites around the country, nearly half of the young men reported watching porn weekly, compared to just 3 percent of women.
Should you — and all of us — be concerned? What are the effects on emerging adults, if any, of viewing pornography? How does it influence their perspectives on sexuality and relationships?
Studies on the topic consistently find regular pornography use to be related to several attitudes and beliefs about sex:

  • Overestimating the prevalence and pleasure of unusual forms of sexual behavior, such as anal intercourse
  • Believing that monogamy is unrealistic and uncommon
  • Holding cynical attitudes regarding love and marriage

However, correlations like this should be interpreted with caution. Does viewing pornography cause people to have these beliefs and attitudes about sex, or are people who view pornography already more likely to hold these beliefs and attitudes? It is impossible to tell, since people are not randomly sorted into “pornography viewing” and “no pornography viewing” groups. They make choices about how often to view pornography, based on beliefs and attitudes they already hold.

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Effects of Pornography
One way to test the effects of pornography on young people is to look at patterns of sexuality over time. Given the likelihood that viewing pornography has become more common among today’s emerging adults, if pornography actually causes changes in people’s sexual beliefs and attitudes, by now it could be expected that these changes would be evident in their behavior.
One could predict, for example, that today’s emerging adults would be less likely than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago to use condoms (which are rarely used in pornographic episodes) and less likely to have monogamous relationships. We could also predict that once they marry, they would be more likely to divorce, because staying sexually faithful would be harder for them after years of exposure to the decidedly unfaithful depictions of sex found in pornography.
But there is no evidence that this is what has resulted so far.


On the contrary, today’s emerging adults are somewhat more conservative and responsible in their sexual practices than their age-mates of a generation ago. They are more likely to use condoms, not less. Rates of divorce have gone down (slightly), not up, over the past 20 years — including rates of early divorce.

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Should You Be Concerned?
That said, parents still have understandable concerns about the explosion of online pornography. Young women often regard pornography as threatening, or at least foolish and stupid, and with good reason. There is no doubt, as many studies have shown, that pornography often dehumanizes women, exalts men’s dominance over them and portrays sex in a way that is loveless and exploitative.
No one who cares about emerging adults and how they view relationships could be unconcerned about their regular exposure to the brutish sex common in pornography. Emerging adults themselves are often ambivalent about watching online porn, even the young men who are frequent consumers. They see it as natural, normal and inevitable, but not really a good thing… but not quite a bad thing, either.
A useful analogy could be made to violent electronic games, which are also highly popular among emerging adult men, and which also arouse alarm and concern about the potential effects.
In the same way that Internet pornography has exploded during a period when sexual behavior among emerging adults has become somewhat more conservative, use of violent electronic games has exploded during an era when violent crime among young men has declined. Such patterns make it difficult to make a persuasive case against these types of media use, however distasteful or repellent they may be to outside observers.
With both pornography and violent electronic games, perhaps emerging adults are generally able to separate fantasy from reality and not allow their media use to corrupt the rest of their lives.

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They recognize that pornography is not a reflection of reality, it’s a holiday from reality, or perhaps a temporary substitute. It is something that may provide relief to young people who have intense sexual desires but are not yet having the regular sex that usually goes along with a committed relationship or marriage. But it is not satisfying in the long run as a substitute for sex, any more than watching lavish meals prepared on the Food Channel is an adequate substitute for a good meal.
Virtually all emerging adults hope eventually to find a three-dimensional soul mate to love and cherish for life.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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