Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 48, Issue 2, pp 449–453 | Cite as

Stuck in the Porn Box

  • Brian J. WilloughbyEmail author

While the viewing of sexually explicit content is by no means a new phenomenon, the digital age and availability of online pornography has led to a surge in scholarship seeking to understand the nature of modern pornography use and its effects. Scholars who study the predictors, correlates, and outcomes associated with pornography use have often stuck themselves into a box that continues to limit not only our understanding of how individuals and couples consume sexually explicit content, but what effect such viewing may have on individual and relational well-being. This box represents both the narrow view that many scholars, clinicians, and policy makers take regarding pornography (pornography is either always bad or always good), as well as the methodological limitations of this area that keep our scholarly understanding limited and incomplete. Like many related issues in the field of sexuality and media consumption, pornography is a broad term applied to varied types of media that are often utilized in an assortment of settings by a wide array of people and couples. Pornography is not one thing, and its effects are likely varied and nuanced depending on a range of contextual factors. The varied nature of pornography use lends itself to scholarship focused on specific elements of such use rather than broad generalizations.

Grubbs, Perry, Wilt, and Reid (2018) focus their review and proposed model on an important element of pornography use, the moral incongruence that can arise among some individuals who consume pornography but have strong moral disapproval of such use. As these scholars point out, there is strong supporting evidence that such moral incongruence is linked to negative individual well-being and perceived problems with pornography (Grubbs, Exline, Pargament, Volk, & Lindberg, 2017; Grubbs & Perry, 2018). Yet in their effort to understand a small part of the pornography puzzle, the authors of the target article fall into many of the pitfalls of previous work, overextending and overgeneralizing ideas that otherwise might have important utility if applied in the proper context. The question raised by the target article boils down to if moral incongruence truly is the “primary driving force in the experience of perceived problematic pornography use or pornography addiction.” The assertion made is that moral incongruence is not only a factor but the primary factor in understanding the effects of pornography. This claim is problematic in that it asserts that the proposed model has more prominence in the study of pornography use than it likely does.

Let me start with some of the positive elements of the proposed model in the target article. First, Grubbs et al. (2018) have highlighted an important element of pornography related research, the elevated and often exaggerated negative reaction of those who view pornography but morally oppose it, often stemming from religious beliefs. As noted by Grubbs et al., there is now considerable evidence that religious individuals are more at risk for dysfunction related to pornography use due to the moral incongruence suggested by Grubbs et al. and others (Grubbs et al., 2017; Nelson, Padilla-Walker, & Carroll, 2010; Perry & Whitehead, 2018). This has important clinical and educational importance. It suggests that clinicians need to consider religious and cultural beliefs in their interventions as such perceptions may be influencing reactions to on-going or compulsive pornography use. It also suggests that educational efforts within religious communities should focus on the actual risks of pornography, the true nature of addiction, and common cultural myths related to pornography use. All of this is perhaps best articulated at the end of the target article where Grubbs et al. note that their review of evidence suggests that pornography problems due to moral incongruence (PPMI) is an important clinical consideration that may be meaningful in addition to assessments of true compulsion or addiction. More broadly, the target article provides additional evidence that contextual factors and personal perceptions do matter when it comes to pornography use. This direct call for incorporating perceptions of pornography into both scholarship and clinical work in this area is vital and something I have called for in my own work (Willoughby & Busby, 2016). Whether it be personal beliefs or other internal or external factors, attempting to claim that pornography use will always have one type of effect is likely shortsighted by both scholars and those who advocate for or against the use of pornography.

Despite these important contributions, the proposed model of PPMI falls into many of the same traps as other attempts at neatly summarizing pornography use into one theoretical model. Such attempts at generalized theory are likely futile given the nascent state in which this area of scholarship remains, and suggests a level of caution be taken by scholars or anyone else before making any conclusions on how relevant or important moral incongruence is. Policy makers around the world appear eager to suggest that viewing pornographic content either does or does not do something to all the people that view it. Scholars appear to largely be content to oblige, as the vast majority of scholarly research connected to pornography has attempted to show that pornography use is related to negative individual and couple outcomes or that such associations are spurious. The target article often fell into this trap, as Grubbs et al. often appeared to want their PPMI model to help explain the majority of effects found in previous scholarship. However, such claims reminded me of another contentious area of scholarship: the effects of playing video games. Broad claims like those made in the target article and in many other related studies about pornography use would be akin to attempting to claim that playing video games always lead to positive or negative effects. Similar to inconsistent associations between pornography use, well-being, and moral beliefs, if one were to simply correlate video game use with various aspects of health, controlling for individual factors for good measure, outcomes would naturally be varied. After all, one individual who frequently plays violent games alone for hours each day will likely have vastly differing outcomes compared to another individual who regularly plays social-based games with friends and family members. Research even bares such differences out, suggesting that violent gaming may have detrimental effects (Anderson et al., 2017), while social gaming with others may have benefits (Coyne, Padilla-Walker, Stockdale, & Day, 2011; Wang, Taylor, & Sun, 2018). In a similar manner to studying pornography, attempting to make broad generalizations about video games misses the mark because it dismisses the inherent variation and complexity of the very thing under study.

The proposed model of PPMI by its nature seems ill-suited to be a broad and applicable model of general pornography use. To be clear, the focus of the present model is fairly narrow. The outcome of interest is perceived problems due to pornography (as opposed to more objective clinical criteria that might be developed around compulsive pornography use or other objective assessments of well-being). The proposed model is also only focused on those individuals who have a moral objection to the use of pornography. This likely narrows the focus of the model even more. How prevalent is PPMI and how relevant is the model to the general public? It is difficult to say. In their argument for PPMI, Grubbs et al. (2018) included almost no discussion regarding what proportion of pornography users this model would apply to. Instead, Grubbs et al. appear content with overgeneralizing their model by repeatedly referencing the “many people” for which moral incongruence is relevant for. This language appears almost a dozen times within the article but is never connected to an actual proportion of the population that has strong enough beliefs against pornography use that moral incongruence may occur. To my knowledge, and certainly never cited by Grubbs et al. (2018), there is little information on what percentage of pornography users may actually have strong enough moral disapproval of pornography to create the type of moral incongruence that Grubbs et al. suggest. This is not a new problem: the arguments for and against hypersexuality (Halpern, 2011; Reid & Kafka, 2014) and problematic pornography use have often neglected the prevalence of such issues and led to a dearth of studies that have explored what percent of pornography users even have problematic or compulsive use patterns to begin with. Indeed, evidence suggests that when it comes to the approval of pornography use, most individuals are quite accepting of it. Carroll et al. (2008) found that almost 70% of young adult men in their sample agreed that the use of pornography was acceptable, while nearly half of young adult women also agreed with this sentiment. More recently, Price, Patterson, Regnerus, and Walley (2016) found in the General Social Survey that only a minority of men and women believe that pornography should be illegal. While evidence is certainly limited, such studies suggest that disapproval of pornography appears to be non-normative among modern young adults and adults. It is certainly difficult to argue that moral incongruence is a common issue for many people if most people lack a key perception that might lead to such incongruence.

While the proportion of the pornography using population that encounters moral incongruence may be the minority, an even smaller proportion appear to self-report perceived problems with their use. Previous work by Grubbs, Volk, Exline, and Pargament (2015) seems to confirm this. For example, in their development of the CPUI-9, three studies by Grubbs et al. (2015) were utilized that accounted for a little more than 600 individuals. On a scale from one to seven where one represented the lowest amount of perceived problems, the averages across the three studies were 2.1, 1.7, and 1.8. This suggests that most people in the sample were reporting little to no level of perceived problems associated with their use. Other scholars have noted a similar phenomenon, with Hald and Malamuth (2008) noting that both men and women tend to report more positive rather than negative effects from their own pornography use. In the realm of perceived effects, it would appear that perceptions of negative effects appear to also be in the minority.

Taken together, the proposed PPMI model would appear to be quite focused, limited to only the minority of pornography users who have the moral disapproval needed to created moral incongruence and the even smaller proportion of that group who report perceived problems. This narrow focus is not inherently problematic. Grubbs et al.’s (2018) focus appears to be squarely on what Hald and Malamuth (2008) have coined “self-perceived effects” and such effects are meaningful and important to consider. Such models can have important utility in guiding clinical and educational efforts with the specific populations for which they are relevant. As I have already noted, in this way the proposed model offers an important contribution that may be useful in certain contexts. Curiously, rather than embrace this contribution, Grubbs et al. appeared eager to overgeneralize their model and apply their narrow focus more broadly by making both moral incongruence and perceived problems related to pornography use appear to be something neither one is: common. The authors were quick to contend that not only is moral congruence a major factor when studying the use of pornography, but that “much of this [pornography] literature documenting negative effects of pornography use may actually be documenting negative effects of moral incongruence.” Claiming that most negative effects associated with pornography use are simply the byproduct of moral incongruence is bold but does not appear likely given the evidence noted above and such a claim would seem unlikely to hold up under closer investigation.

Perhaps one conceptual issue leading to such broad statements is that Grubbs et al. (2018) appear to confuse statistical significance or effect size with sample size. While the two may be related, they certainly do not go hand in hand. While moral incongruence may have a strong statistical effect in several studies, this may simply be due to a minority of the sample where such an effect is large driving the numerical significance, masking the larger proportion of the sample where such incongruence is less relevant. Several studies certainly suggest that moral incongruence, when present, is an important component of perceived problems, but again, rarely speak to how common such issues are. If anything, this is a call for additional research, including the study of basic trends and patterns when it comes to pornography use. As noted in Fig. 1 of the target article, after their careful review of the literature, the meta-analysis reported in the target article included only 12 studies. For comparison, a recent meta-analysis on just the longitudinal effect of substance use on attachment security utilized 54 studies (Fairbairn et al., 2018), while a recent meta-analysis on parenting and externalizing behaviors in children utilized well over 1000 studies (Pinquart, 2017). To be fair, the more one narrows their empirical focus, the less literature any meta-analyses will have to draw on. Yet, this does provide one more piece of evidence that broad conclusions about the proposed model should be restrained.

Another example of problematic attempts to overgeneralizing an area with insufficient data is the last contention of the literature review within the target article. Here, Grubbs et al. (2018) attempt to argue that “moral incongruence is the strongest predictor of self-perceived problems associated with pornography use.” I find several limitations with this thinking that again keeps pornography scholarship in a rather narrow and limiting box. First, it again contracts the focus of such scholarship. Self-perceived problems are certainly important to consider but are not the only outcomes of importance when it comes to pornography. Indeed, this focus ignores where perhaps the most fruitful research has been in relation to the pornography use literature: relational outcomes. As demonstrated by the recent meta-analysis by Wright, Tokunaga, Kraus, and Klann (2017), the small but consistent link between pornography use and relational or sexual satisfaction is perhaps the most consistent link between the viewing of pornography and outcomes in the current literature. A large and growing body of studies have suggested that the viewing of pornography by one or both partners is associated with both positive and negative outcomes, including variations in relationship satisfaction (Bridges & Morokoff, 2011), sexual quality (Poulsen, Busby, & Galovan, 2013), relationship adjustment (Muusses, Kerkhof, & Finkenauer, 2015), infidelity (Maddox, Rhoades, & Markman, 2011), and engagement with sex workers (Wright, 2013).

Like the research focused on individuals, this relational research is not without its problems (for a review, see Campbell & Kohut, 2017) and results appear to be sensitive to a number of contextual factors. For example, whether pornography is viewed alone or together appears to have an important influence on how such viewing is related to couple dynamics (Maddox et al., 2011). Gender also appears to be a vital moderator with individual use by male partners appearing to be the type of viewing associated with the most negative outcomes (Poulsen et al., 2013). This dyadic scholarship suggests that relational contexts are yet another important aspect of understanding how pornography consumption is related to individual well-being. Relational dynamics are also likely key in both the development and effect of moral incongruence for those in a relationship. The incongruence of one partner likely impacts outcomes of the other as pornography use is discovered, negotiated, or withheld. Such a context or discussion is absent in the PPMI model that instead seems fixated on self-perceived problems as the sole outcome of interest.

There are yet other ways in which the model proposed by Grubbs et al. (2018) keeps researchers in this box of overgeneralization and methodological limitations. Like many others, Grubbs et al. use of the term “pornography use” in ways that disregards the inherent problems of using such a general term to study the viewing of sexually explicit material. My own work (Willoughby & Busby, 2016) has noted that the term “pornography” has vastly different meanings depending on who you ask and that simply using the term pornography in self-assessment surveys is inherently problematic (for a recent alternative approach to measurement, see Busby, Chiu, Olsen, & Willoughby, 2017). Married individuals, women, and those who are religious often have broader definitions of pornography and label some types of sexual media pornographic where others simply see regular media (or advertisements) with no sexually explicit content to speak of. This overreliance on categorizing all sexually explicit material under one label runs counter to a small but growing body of literature that suggests that the content of pornography viewed is important to consider (Fritz & Paul, 2017; Leonhardt & Willoughby, 2017; Willoughby & Busby, 2016). Rather than assuming that PPMI is simply a component of all pornography use, it is important for scholars to consider how moral incongruence may exist only for certain types of sexual content or how moral incongruence may be related to different types of sexual media for different types of people.

Beyond such generalization issues, there are other considerations to be had before PPMI can be anointed as the explanation for problems associated with pornography use. Another important issue to note about Grubbs et al.’s (2018) model is that even if moral incongruence is an issue for some pornography users, moral incongruence or the religiosity often behind it does not erases many of the links between pornography and health or well-being. Several studies have shown that associations between pornography use and well-being remain, even after controlling for religiosity or other underlying values (Perry & Snawder, 2017; Willoughby, Carroll, Busby, & Brown, 2016; Wright, 2013). For example, while Perry and Snawder (2017) found that the association between pornography use and lower parenting quality was higher among religious individuals, the effect persisted for all people even when controlling for religiosity. Pornography use has also been found to be associated with shifts in sexual attitudes, even when controlling for underlying attitudes and beliefs (Wright, 2013). Perhaps the best evidence of this underling effect that appears consistent regardless of underlying religiosity or morals lies within the relational scholarship literature where pornography has been consistently linked with some negative relationship outcomes even after controlling for underlying values or religiosity (Doran & Price, 2014; Maas, Vasilenko, & Willoughby, 2018; Poulsen et al., 2013; Willoughby et al., 2016).

Put together, the focus in Grubbs et al. (2018) seems too specific and too narrow to be an effective model for all or even most consumers of pornography. The model also falls into the same limitations that plague too much of the pornography scholarship in that its application attempts to cover too much ground and too many contexts. The small box that too much of the pornography scholarship seems content to remain in, a conceptual box where pornography is a simple activity that should lead to only a small variety of outcomes, persists. Yes, moral incongruence is an important concept to consider and examine when exploring pornography use and its consequences. However, without considering how such incongruence relates to the content of sexually explicit material being viewed, the individual and relational context of such use, or acknowledging the perhaps smaller proportion of pornography consumers who actually experience some level of moral incongruence, the PPMI model is stuck in the same limited conceptual box as much of the pornography literature. Grubbs et al. claim their model might help solve the puzzle of pornography use, noting that “regardless of time spent viewing pornography, it is likely that self-perceived problems, such as the belief one has a pornography addiction, are key to accurately understanding the true impact that pornography use has on health and well-being and therefore a key focus of continued research.” This “true impact” likely expands well beyond the narrow and specific focus on both self-perceived effects and moral incongruence. As Grubbs et al. noted, several studies have suggested that self-perceived problems are often not even associated with pornography use, suggesting that other markers of well-being that have consistently been linked with pornography use may be better focal points of study. Generally, there are some individuals who have strong moral disapproval of pornography use and such disapproval influences the correlates of their use as they grapple with inconsistency in their behaviors and cognitions. Such a contention is rooted in the same cognitive dissonance theories that have long been a part of the field of social psychology (Festinger, 1962). While the proposed model might have utility when applied appropriately, scholars should be careful in assuming that such a model applies to the broad array of contexts in which pornography is used.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Family LifeBrigham Young UniversityProvoUSA

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