Does Pornography Have a Place in Public Health?

Samantha Cunningham

Monkey see, monkey do. It is a popular adage, one that quite accurately describes the progression of an Internet porn user. Internet pornography, like all media, might have an impact on the decisions and actions of its consumers. For males who have sex with males (MSM) especially, Internet pornography has been shown to play an important role in sexual development, which can be utilized to promote safe sexual practices in MSM.

Adolescents are in their formative years, and the acts they view in Internet pornography might set the framework for future sexual encounters throughout their adult lives. It seems fairly intuitive that an adolescent would have an easier time viewing pornography than asking a trusted adult when in search of information on sexuality. However, a great deal of research into Internet pornography use has shown that there might be risks involved (Flood). It is crucial to understand and explore its implications on public health measures.


Research – Use among adolescents


Studies seeking to evaluate the number of adolescents consuming SEM are marred by several logistical concerns. First, there is stigma associated with SEM. Adolescents are not likely to be entirely forthcoming in a discussion about their use of SEM, especially whether their exposure is intentional. Also, there is the bias that presents itself in the types of children who are willing to discuss SEM use. If a child is doing something he does not feel he should be, he might not be willing to answer questions about the topic.

Research into the topic is limited and the studies that have been conducted are far from consistent. An Australian study published in 2007 found that 75% of youth aged 16-17 had been exposed to pornographic websites accidentally, while 38% of males and 2% of females polled had accessed pornographic websites intentionally (Flood). A 2005 study of students in a Swedish high school found that 98% of male and 76% of female respondents had consumed pornography (Haggstrom-Nordin, Hansen, and Tyden). Other studies show similar variability, regardless of location or year of study. Studies seeking to quantify Internet pornography use among MSM specifically are even less common and less consistent.

SEM In the “Hook-Up Culture”
Most pornography does not promote the use of condoms or safe-sex. A 2013 study evaluated what professionals perceived to be the effect of SEM on Swedish adolescents. They found that professionals overwhelmingly felt that pornography conveyed a message contradictory to that of public health officials, and that adolescents use pornography as a source of information as well as stimulation (Magdalena et al.). Pornography often conveys sexual encounters as momentary acts of pleasure, not emphasizing the long-term physical and psychological effects. In contrast, public health officials focus on the spread of sexually transmitted infections and the psychosocial effects of sexual encounters.

That SEM use could be playing a role in increasing sexual risk-taking is a topic of current research. Use of SEM has been shown to increase the likelihood of an individual having a risky “hook-up.”6 A hook-up is defined as any sexual encounter, from kissing to intercourse, without the intentions of a long-term relationship. It is considered a risky hook-up if there is alcohol involved or if intercourse occurs without the use of a condom. Braithwaite et. al. found that for each unit increase in pornography viewing frequency, the odds of a hook-up reaching oral sex increased by 42% and the chance of intercourse, with or without a condom increased by 38%.

Use of SEM among MSM
The effects of the consumption of male-tomale SEM among MSM has been the subject of many studies. With 50,000 new human immunodeficiency virus diagnoses each year, the majority of which are MSM, it is important to understand all of the factors that potentially contribute to its spread, including SEM (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). A 2009 study by Traeen et. al. found that MSM who reported viewing SEM in which condoms were used have been shown to be less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors. This study also recommends the cooperation of public health authorities and actors in SEM to promote condom use among MSM (Traeen et al.).




Public health officials may be able to find a captive audience for their safe-sex campaigns in the viewers of pornography. Two of the groups most at-risk for sexual risk-taking, adolescents and MSM, are among the many audiences of Internet pornography. Here, public health officials have an opportunity to refine the message found in pornography and replace it with a message that is conducive to the prevention of sexual risk-taking. In cooperation with the pornography industry, public health officials may be able to use the content of pornography and its prominent actors to promote the use of condoms and reduce sexual risk taking.

It is clear that the content, not just the use, of pornography is correlated with sexual risk-taking. This means that public health efforts to increase condom use and safe sex practices in SEM are not in vain. Especially among adolescents, the content of the SEM is extremely important, as they often use SEM as a learning tool to understand their sexuality as well as what constitutes socially acceptable sexual behaviors. With Measure B, Los Angeles has recognized the importance of promoting safe sex, even in pornography, and has required any pornography filmed within its borders to show the use of condoms.

Considering that the majority of individuals within the United States have access to the Internet, it can be assumed that they also have access to pornography (Traeen et al.). If it is true that watching pornography makes an adolescent more likely to take a hook-up farther, public health measures must be put in place to mediate this behavior, such as showing adolescents that in every sexual encounter, condom use is a necessity. Likewise, if a MSM is having his opposition to condom use questioned by the use of condoms in the SEM he consumes, he may be less likely to have unprotected intercourse in the future. Public health officials should take advantage of Internet pornography, as through it, they are directly able to target a captive audience and demonstrate ways in which to make all sexual encounters safer.

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