Boys and Porn Use: Understanding the (Potential) Downside

Do boys use porn? You bet they do. Nowadays more so than ever, thanks to the 24/7 mostly free access that digital technology provides. No longer do boys have to sneak into their dad’s stash of nudie magazines, borrow VHS tapes from an older brother, steal a Playboy from the local gas station or try to obtain a credit card to pay for an online subscription. Instead, they just visit a free online porn site — there are more than 2.5 million to choose from — and click on whatever it is that looks interesting. And it’s not just some boys who use pornography; it’s pretty much all of them.

If you’re skeptical about that last statement, consider the tribulations of Canadian sex researcher Simon Lajeunesse. When Lajeunesse tried to conduct research on the effects of porn use on young males, he couldn’t because he was unable to locate any potential test subjects who weren’t already using porn at least occasionally. (Without a control group, there wasn’t a way for him to make comparisons.) Admittedly, Lajeunesse was primarily searching for older adolescents who hadn’t used porn, and there are probably a few younger boys who’ve not yet typed “sex” or “nude” into a search engine, but it’s nonetheless clear that nearly all boys get there sooner or later. And usually sooner. In fact, most estimates place the average age of first porn use at 11.

Boys and Porn Use: Understanding the (Potential) DownsideNote that I used the word “estimates” when talking about age of first porn use. In truth, questions about when boys start using porn, how often they use it and the ways in which it affects them are incredibly difficult to answer. After all, who wants to intentionally subject underage boys to pornography to see if there are any negative effects? Nobody, that’s who. To even attempt such a study would be highly unethical, not to mention illegal. Thus, the only way to know what’s going on with boys and pornography is to rely on after-the-fact self-reports. And since most kids aren’t exactly forthright about things like porn use, even that research must be deemed at least moderately unreliable. In short, there just isn’t a way to effectively conduct the research that is needed if we hope to fully understand what porn use is doing to young males in today’s world.

That said, it is abundantly clear that some boys are experiencing consequences related to porn use, in much the same way that some boys experience consequences related to alcohol and drug use. The popular Website, YourBrainOnPorn.com (YBOP), an educational forum specifically created for guys who are struggling with pornography, presents a plethora of anecdotal evidence supporting this idea. On YBOP, young males routinely post comments like:

  • “I started watching porn at 10 and fapping [masturbating] soon after, several times a day for the last four years until I decided to quit. I had many reasons for starting nofap [abstinence from masturbation]: girls, anxiety, depression and I couldn’t figure out why I felt so dead inside.
  • “I had weird fetishes and could not stay hard during sex.”
  • “What was worse than the PIED [Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction] was the desensitization to the world. I found it hard to enjoy anything at all.”

Based on nothing more than the extensive anecdotal evidence on YBOP, it is relatively easy to conclude that some boys (we have no idea how many) are currently dealing with a variety of negative consequences related to porn use — relationship issues, trouble in school or at work, loss of interest in real-world romance, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, depression, diminished self-esteem and more. (It is important to note that YBOP represents a limited and highly skewed population sample. In other words, boys and men who are not struggling with porn use don’t go looking for Websites that can help them understand that issue, while boys and men who are struggling do.)

Unsurprisingly, the small amount of credible research that currently exists on boys and porn use rather strongly supports the conclusions drawn from postings on YBOP. In one study of 16-year-old Swedish boys, 96% admitted they were porn users, with 10% saying they looked at porn every day. The boys who used porn daily self-reported higher levels of risky sexual behavior, relationship problems, truancy, smoking, drinking and illicit drug use. Furthermore, approximately one-third of the daily users said they sometimes watched more porn that they wanted – a possible indicator of pornography addiction.

In sum, it seems clear that the use of pornography is problematic for some (but probably not most) boys. In fact, the majority of boys are likely to experiment with and recreationally use pornography as a normal and healthy part of their adolescent sexual development. As an analogy, think about alcohol and drugs. Most boys who experiment with and recreationally use these substances do so as part of their normal adolescent development, and they don’t become addicts or experience significant consequences as a result. Porn use is likely the same in this respect.

Nevertheless, boys who are vulnerable to addictions and other psychological challenges — usually thanks to genetics and/or a family history of abuse/neglect — are absolutely at risk for porn-related problems, just as they are at risk for alcohol and drug-related problems. It is possible that even boys without genetic predispositions or troubling family histories may be at risk, particularly if they begin their porn use early. This is without doubt the case with alcohol and drug addiction, where numerous studies find a direct correlation between age of first use and an increased likelihood of addiction later in life. If we extend these findings to the use of pornography, which does not seem unreasonable, the fact that most boys are using porn by age 11 looks a bit more ominous. However, the full effects of this early exposure are not yet known, and likely won’t be for some time to come.

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