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Ask A Sex Therapist: Is porn bad for you?

WORDS BY LAURA MIANO

Strap in, there’s a lot to unpack here.

Laura Miano is a sex and relationship writer and sex therapist based in Melbourne. Her mission is to help those with sexual concerns as well as support individuals who might like to enhance their sex lives beyond cultural norms. To learn more about her, follow @lauramianosexology or contact her here.

“Is porn bad for you?” – Pondering Porn

Thanks for your question. Porn is an interesting one. However, before we get into things, it’s important to highlight that porn is a huge umbrella statement. It refers to a lot of different things.

It includes erotic literature, audiobooks, photos, videos, live chats and more. The content of these can range from sensual naked eye-gazing between two lovers to super explicit videos that might involve degrading sexual acts, inaccurate gender depictions, and some of the more unconventional kinks or fetishes.


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Despite what you might think, if the actors have consented, everything that sits under this umbrella is totally fine. It’s totally fine based on one thing – how you feel towards it. For some, the more extreme stuff is too much, and it crosses their moral boundaries. For others, the softer stuff is not enough, and it doesn’t excite them.

So firstly, whether porn is good or bad for you can depend on what kind of porn you like to begin with. Then there’s the other aspect to consider – how much porn interferes with your life and shapes your real-world expectations of sex. This is the side of porn you might be a little more familiar with. The ‘bad’ side. While there is a good side of porn too (more on this later), the bad side can be quite problematic.

This is because porn is a super stimulus. It floods the reward pathways of your brain to a degree that is unattainable in the natural world. As our brains are wired to seek out rewards – food, sex, social interaction etc – porn is like getting a five-course meal when you could only afford a main. It’s mega pleasurable and watching it releases a heap of dopamine.

Each time someone sees a new video with different sexual acts playing out, more dopamine is released. Our reward pathways love new and novel content, just like experiencing a honeymoon period with a lover. At the start it’s exciting, but over time the excitement fades. A similar process, however with porn this process happens rapidly. When you scroll through a porn site, you see hundreds of videos within minutes. You can see how it can be addictive, right?

For those whose porn use is becoming out of control, it’s only a bad thing if it’s causing them distress and impacting their broader life in a negative way. These last two points are super important. Some people view porn as bad from the get-go and might think their partner (or themselves) has a problem just by using or relying on it. It’s okay to rely on, but when it’s causing other problems, and you dislike these other problems, that’s when things become more problematic.

So, what might these broader problems be? Porn has been linked with a number of sexual issues such as erectile dysfunction, inability to orgasm/ejaculate and low sexual desire, all of which occur in relation to partnered sex. What happens is, your sexual responses such as arousal and orgasm become conditioned to your experience with porn.

Meaning, the laptop on your belly, the hard and fast hand or finger movements on your genitals, the screen in your face, and of course the content of the porn, all become essential components to achieve sexual arousal and orgasm. And as our brain loves rewards, it associates all of these things with that huge reward that porn delivers.

For many, porn can be so tied up with their ability to get horny and orgasm that when partnered sex rolls around, it’s difficult to feel desire, achieve arousal or have an orgasm. As I said, the natural world doesn’t stimulate your reward pathway like porn can.

On top of this, as we seriously lack solid sex education on pleasure and sex itself, many people learn about sex from porn, forgetting that porn is entertainment and not real-world sex. There is often no process of consent depicted, a lack of body diversity, a focus on male pleasure, gender stereotyping and no consideration of safe sex.

People who use porn to shape their understanding of what sex should look like are at risk of putting incredibly unrealistic expectations on themselves and their sexual partners. So, it’s important to differentiate between real sex and entertainment sex.

This is the dark side of porn. It can lead to shame over failing to meet one’s expectations, less satisfaction from partnered sex, conflict within relationships, and an array of sexual dysfunctions. It’s no coincidence that the prevalence of sexual dysfunctions took a sharp increase with the proliferation of the internet.   

So, you might be totally freaked out at this point. Despite what you might be thinking though, there is also a good side of porn.  If you are careful and knowledgeable about how you let it influence your lifestyle and sexual expectations, you can actually gain a lot from it!

You can use porn with your partner to get you both in the mood, to try something a bit different or to prompt communication around sexual desires. You can also use it on your own as an erotic resource and it can be a great way to normalise sexual desires as watching other people have sex can remove shame around oneself being a sexual being.

To a degree, it can also be an educational resource as people can learn about kinks and fetishes, new positions, and other sexual skills. There is also a new and long overdue sub-culture of porn called feminist porn. This depicts more evenly distributed pleasure and assures that the actors involved were paid and consented to every sexual act in the video. If this sounds like your thing, give Bellesa or XXConfessions a try.

So moral of the story, whether porn is good or bad for you will depend on how you use it, what you take from it and how it impacts you. If you think yourself, a friend or your partner might be dabbling with the more problematic side of it, have a browse of resources like Your Brain on Porn or book in for a session with a sex therapist. You might either be reassured that there is no issue, or you can start taking steps to adapt your porn habits to a level that helps, and not harms, you.

Every porn user has a different experience. There’ll never be a one size fits all. So, to answer your question, porn could be good for you. It might also be bad for you. Like most of my responses, the answer is… it depends.

See the other instalments in our Ask A Sex Therapist series here.

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