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What Is Pornography Doing to Our Sex Lives?

In the last few decades, digital pornography has been blamed for—well, pick a noun and add the word “sex.” It’s been named as a culprit for both sex addiction and sex abstinence. It’s been blamed for poor sexual education, rampant sexual violence, and rising sexual dysfunction. Pornography is practically the Swiss Army Knife of social calamity.

In the latest episode of Crazy/Genius, produced by Jesse Brenneman and Patricia Yacob, we investigate the Internet’s original boogeyman and ask what, if anything, can be said about the effect of digital pornography on our lives after 20 years of online smut. (Subscribe here.)

“I think there’s no way that we could look at the dramatic increase in availability of porn and dismiss the idea that porn might play a role in the sex recession,” says Kate Julian, the Atlantic senior editor who wrote last year’s cover story on why young straight people seem to be having less sex around the world. “We are watching porn. Surely that is affecting us in some way. How?”

It’s a good question. But a surprisingly difficult one to answer.

The academic literature on pornography is not like climate change or gravity, where practically all researchers agree on the big picture. Instead, there is a broad group of academics and advocates who are deeply split on whether pornography amounts to a public health crisis, or whether it’s an often harmless outlet and a common scapegoat for dissatisfied couples.

“The problem with beginning any sentence with ‘porn is’ is you know right from the start that a person is about to generalize about all sexually explicit media, and that’s really a mistake,” says Emily Rothman, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. Rothman says porn use can be compulsive, but so can television. She says porn use might have contributed to the sharp rise in erectile dysfunction treatment. But there’s also rising anxiety, and rising obesity, and, most obviously, the proliferation of ED medication. In the last decade, Viagra has spent millions of dollars telling millions of American men to “ask your doctor” about the drug; presumably, a few of them did.

The truth, she argues, is that porn is like food. Much of it is harmless. And some of it is bad. But some of it is simply good. Younger people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, growing up in a small town without friends who share their sexual orientation, might discover in pornography a window into their own experience—and the message that there is nothing wrong with their feelings. “They might see pornography almost like a safe space,” Rothman said. “It can be inspiring and really helpful.”

Still, every academic I spoke to agreed that porn is generally a poor, and even harmful alternative to sexual education.

“When I look at a cooking show I know not only my own eating habits but I know everybody’s eating habits,” says Marty Klein, a well-known sex therapist in Palo Alto. “I have ways of calibrating what I see on the mass media when it comes to food. When it comes to sex, most people never ever ever get to watch one other person having sex.” But with digital pornography, young people discover a trove of tantalizing content that’s been utterly decontextualized from any real person’s sexual experience. “Porn is not meant to be sex education,” he says. But for many young people, it is—and that’s especially problematic if the porn is violent.

Just as extremism on social media platforms often spills over into the physical world, dreadful sex ed can lead to dreadful early sexual experiences. “In my own study that I did years ago, there were girls who said because their boyfriend had seen something in pornography they were then forced or coerced to do that thing,” Rothman said. “And they were unhappy about it.” Porn critics like Mary Anne Layden, a psychotherapist at the University of Pennsylvania, say this can have two parallel effects: More sexual violence for some, and a withdrawal from sexual experiences by others.

Everybody I spoke to noted that porn can offer vulnerable consumers an infinite buffet of false, decontextualized, and potentially harmful ideas about the world. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s precisely the claim against the dangers of extremist and falsely conspiratorial content on today’s social media platforms.

In both cases, there are top-down solutions and bottom-up solutions. This summer, the UK government will institute a novel “proof-of-age” technology across porn sites to prevent underage consumption. Meanwhile, some sexologists are experimenting with showing porn openly in public school classrooms, acknowledging that if it is going to be sex ed anyway, it might as well be taught. Both strategies have their parallels in the broader attempt to make the Internet safe for the world, as social media companies ban extremists from their sites, while other groups debate whether digital literacy can be taught in elementary school.

It’s ironic that porn has come to represent the broader challenge of life online. People used to say smut tainted the Web. But the dangers of porn turn out to be the dangers of the whole Internet. Once the Internet’s great shame, porn grew up to become a synecdoche of life online.

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