A recent article written by Bowling Green State University professor Dr. Joshua Grubbs for The Conversation rejects concerns about the long-term effects of a rise in online porn use during the coronavirus lockdown. The commentary dismisses the notion of “widespread problems” associated with porn use, and suggests that watching porn may have a public health benefit by offering quarantined people an internet-enabled, socially-distanced alternative to in-person sexual intimacy. It also predicts a return to pre-pandemic levels of porn use once lockdowns and social distancing measures end.
These contentions deserve further examination.
In the wake of coronavirus lockdowns confining millions to their homes, PornHub (flagship website of the porn juggernaut MindGeek) reported large increases in traffic to its site. PornHub undoubtedly juiced its own growth by offering free access to “premium” content to users in quarantined areas (the site has always offered vast amounts of “free” content). At any rate, the site claims traffic increased as much 24.4% over its daily average, representing tens of millions of additional page visits per day.
Grubbs’ article in The Conversation asks whether that marked rise (which, presumably, reflects an increase in porn consumption internet-wide, not just on PornHub) will lead to negative outcomes for porn users in the long-run. Citing his own and others’ research, Grubbs predicts it will not. In his view, pornography does not cause “widespread problems” such as addiction or sexual dysfunction, but rather, constitutes a harmless “distraction” for “most” users.
In that respect, the article contrasts porn use to the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the former does not constitute a public health crisis, whereas the latter undoubtedly does. While by-no-means do we equate contracting a deadly virus with consuming online porn, we nevertheless disagree with that proposed dichotomy.
If living through the pandemic to this point has taught us anything, it is the vital importance of measuring a problem in order to figure out how to manage it. COVID-19, in all of its horror, will likely cause severe health outcomes for a relatively small percentage of the world’s population. “Most” people will not end up intubated or dead. Yet, no one doubts the extreme threat of the potential outcomes of the virus, because as any scientist well knows, percentages require the context of raw numbers. And those, unfortunately, paint a terrifying picture of a disease that will cause destruction and suffering on a previously-unimaginable human scale.
That is why every coronavirus news report cites tallies of confirmed cases and deaths, not percentages of people afflicted. It might not sound like a lot to predict the virus will kill one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. population, until you do the math and realize that means losing 350,000 Americans and enduring unfathomable suffering in our families, communities, and economies.
The same logic must apply to assessing the potential impact of an increase in use of online pornography (or any other potentially problematic behavior, for that matter). Absent from the article in The Conversation is any discussion of the scale of problematic behaviors focused on porn consumption. Grubbs, however, implicitly acknowledges that the number of users who develop problematic behaviors involving porn consumption is not zero (extensive research confirms as much); in which case, back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest a potentially significant problem. Estimates gauge that about half of the world’s population has internet access. If ten percent of those users (roughly 350 million people) view pornography, and one percent of those develop problematic behaviors…you see where we are going. (PornHub's widely-touted reports of hosting tens of billions of user visits annually would seem to bear out those rough estimates.)
In light of the scale of worldwide porn use, we believe the article in The Conversation ought to give anyone familiar with addiction science more cause to worry, not less. Grubbs notes that people turn to online porn use to cope with negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, all in ample supply during the pandemic. That troubles us, because research has long observed that a motive to blunt or cope with negative emotions often lies at the heart of substance abuse and behavioral addiction. These disorders, writ-large, certainly constitute a legitimate public health concern with far-reaching social and economic impacts that we ignore at our peril.
By the same token, until we know just how many people’s porn use will turn problematic in the same manner as other disordered, addiction-like behaviors, we do not see how it is possible to say with any confidence that a sharp rise in that use will not lead to a volume of negative outcomes worthy of public attention and concern. One cannot argue that all is well just because “most” porn users do not report problems in their lives stemming from their consumption (and again, how many is “most”?). The same could be said of drinking alcohol, but that does nothing to diminish the real risk our current plight poses for anyone prone to alcoholism.
Let’s not forget, too, that PornHub undoubtedly aims not just to boost existing use, but also to capture and keep new users, by offering “free” content to the quarantined masses. Online pornography distribution is a business, after all. Big porn sites monetize their customers by selling subscriptions and ad space, and by hoovering up user data. They see the pandemic as an opportunity to grow customers and profits not just temporarily, but for the long-term. That is why, to anyone whose life has suffered tangible harm from problem porn use, PornHub’s giveaway smacks of a drug dealer offering a free taste.
The crass opportunism of mining a deadly health crisis for financial gain worries us all-the-more because, as Grubbs points out, another (arguably) negative emotion, boredom, may also play a key role in spurring PornHub’s boost in traffic. Who has the market more-or-less cornered on that particular state of mind? Young people, that’s who. Millions of them presently sit cooped-up at home, missing their friends, bored out of their minds, and capitalizing on rising screen time to find a “distraction.” Unfortunately, those same young people also happen to constitute the population most vulnerable to being misled, manipulated, or traumatized by hardcore porn content. In other words, if Grubbs is right that boredom fuels (new) online porn use, then PornHub’s new users could very-well consist disproportionately of the people least emotionally-prepared to consume its product.
We also beg to differ with Grubbs’s prediction that porn use will return to “pre-pandemic” levels after lockdowns lift. For one thing, the porn industry is a billion-dollar behemoth with a vested interest in making sure that does not happen. MindGeek and others will surely pull out the stops to lock-in their gains. For another, as of this writing, no one seems to have much certainty about when the coronavirus disruption will end. The uncertainty of that timeline must constitute an important variable in any analysis of whether rising porn use will cause long-term problems. Perhaps it is true that a week, even a month, of relying on porn as one’s sole sexual outlet might not lead to lasting problems. But how about three months? Six? Twelve? Plus, even after the world “reopens,” what are the odds that anyone will feel as liberal with their personal space as they did before? We can’t speak for others, but we suspect the anxiety and urgency we feel about maintaining a six-foot bubble is going to linger for quite a while. Which is why, having now witnessed a pandemic unfold, our nagging fear of a dystopian future in which people prefer the antiseptic thrill of virtual porn to the real thing suddenly doesn’t seem so unrealistic after all.
For these reasons, we disagree that anyone should feel sanguine about PornHub’s spike in traffic, as the article in The Conversation urges. As yet, we know little about what the “new normal” post-pandemic will look like. Assuming pre-pandemic research represents an accurate base-case for predicting future porn use patterns, however, what we do know is that a growth in porn use and users also means an increase the real numbers of people affected by unhealthy porn use behaviors, and in the collateral effects of those difficulties. As with the coronavirus, until we obtain an accurate measure of the scope of that problem, we cannot know how best manage it, much less feel reassured that it will manage itself.
[Ed. Note: In the spirit of open and vigorous debate, we invited Grubbs to comment on this article prior to publication. Quoted below is a portion of his response that he authorized us to share publicly.
“I do think that the base rate argument makes sense. Even if only 20% of Americans use pornography regularly and only 1% of those users ultimately develop problems, that still produces a large number (roughly 700,000 people) experiencing pornography related problems in the U.S. alone. If you examine the entire developed world (where pornography is widely distributed), this number would accelerate into the millions quite quickly. Ultimately, this is one of the major arguments we are trying to articulate in the addiction science and clinical psychology communities. It’s a fine line to tread, acknowledging these fields’ skepticism of compulsive sexual behavior disorder and pornography use problems, while also demonstrating that, for some users, the problems are real and warrant clinical attention.
I’ve been transparent with most folks who dialogue with me about these issues that my primary objective during the past decade of research has been to get addiction science and clinical psychology to take pornography use seriously. My approach to doing that has been to build a body of research that both validates skepticism of pornography addiction while also pointing to the notion that pornography related problems are very real and worthy of attention. It is my opinion that we have finally reached that point. We have work recently released in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and forthcoming in Clinical Psychological Science (both are top-tier clinical psychology journals) that do exactly this. Ultimately, I think that pornography addiction models will be widely accepted within clinical psychology and addiction science more broadly over the next decade, but the first step to getting to that point is to get the fields to talk about the issues in general. Which model of addiction will be accepted is still up for debate (I personally do not like the Brain Disease Model of Addiction for any addiction), but that’s where we are moving, and we finally have the traction to do so.”]
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.