Self-perceived effects of Internet pornography use, genital appearance satisfaction, and sexual self-esteem among young Scandinavian adultsIngela Lundin Kvalem1, Bente Træen2, Bo Lewin3, Aleksandar Štulhofer4
3 Uppsala University, Sweden
4 University of Zagreb, Croatia
Keywords: Internet pornography; genital appearance; sexual self-esteem
During the past two decades, there seems to have been a mainstreaming of pornography in the mass culture, for instance, in music videos and women’s literature (Comella, 2013). Continuous advancements in technology have made Internet pornography increasingly more accessible to young adults worldwide. In the past decade, Swedish and Norwegian researchers have concluded that the majority of young adults have been exposed to pornography and report positive effects of using it (Daneback, Cooper, & Månsson, 2005; Knudsen, Løfgren-Mårtenson, & Månsson, 2007; Træen, Nilsen, & Stigum, 2006; Træen, Spitznogle, & Beverfjord, 2004). Nevertheless, research on the impact of Internet pornography use continues to be deficient in several areas. Štulhofer et al. (2007) suggested that a new research agenda should have a greater focus on individuals’ well-being and avoid ideological framing as much as possible. In addition, the role of the genre (type of pornographic content) should be included in the design of research on pornography. This recommendation involves a shift from the traditional focus on the relationship between watching pornography and sexual risk behavior to the potential for positive outcomes of using mainstream and non-mainstream pornography. Wright, Bae, and Funk (2013) also recommended that future research on pornography broaden its scope to include women in general, and more specifically, to include individuals’ perceptions of pornography’s realism and the role of pornography in sexual learning.
Figure 1. The conceptual model to be tested.
This study proposed a theoretical model (Figure 1) that addresses the relationships between Internet pornography use, beliefs about the realism portrayed in pornography, the self-perceived effects of one’s own pornography use, genital appearance satisfaction, and positive sexual self-esteem in young adults in Scandinavia.
Gagnon and Simon (2005) claimed that people's sexuality develops through a social process of continuous interaction with significant and generalized others. Through social processes, sexuality is conferred through the expressions and meanings that society imposes. Sexuality is “scripted” on three distinct levels: cultural scenarios, interpersonal scripts, and intrapsychic scripts (Simon & Gagnon, 1986). Cultural scenarios are historical, culturally shared guidelines for sexuality that “…specify appropriate objects, aims, and desirable qualities of self-other relations,..” sequencing of events, and what the actors are assumed to be feeling (Simon & Gagnon, 1986, p. 105). In addition to learning what is viewed as appropriate sexual conduct, the individual also learns what is considered as deviant patterns of behavior (Laumann & Gagnon, 1995). The interpersonal script deals with the organization of context-specific behavior with shared social conventions and expectations that allow the involved actors to negotiate and participate in a complex dyadic process. Thus, the interpersonal script enables individuals to find mutuality in sexuality. The intrapsychic script comprises factors that motivate the individual to become sexually aroused, and to commit to, and engage in, sexual activities. The individual adaption and transformation of local cultural scenarios can serve as “private sexual cultures” within the shared public sexual culture, and thus can be the basis for sexual diversity in a society (Simon & Gagnon, 1986, p. 106). The prevailing sexual script in the Nordic context is one that connects sexual activity to love. “The Love Ideology” forms an important theme that legitimizes sex in a normative fashion, particularly when it concerns legitimizing partner sexuality among young people (Lewin, Fugl-Meyer, Helmius, Lalos, & Månsson, 2000; Træen, 1993). However, this does not rule out at least a partial acceptance of recreational sex among consenting adults.
Sexual conduct seldom is learned by observing parents or other persons having sex in real life, and adults do not teach the young how to have sex. In this context, sexually explicit media (SEM) represent an exception, as they show the young individual possible sexual acts and arousal stimuli. Much of the existing SEM, particularly the media targeting men, deviate to some extent from the prevailing sexual script and show a hedonistic sexuality detached from the love script (Kutchinsky, 1988). In SEM, sexual acts are the center of attention. Few studies on Internet pornography have operationalized the form, content, or genre of pornography (Short, Black, Smith, Wetterneck, & Wells, 2012). When operationalized, the definition of Internet pornography has a range of broader descriptions, such as softcore vs. hardcore, mainstream vs. paraphilia/deviant (Seigfried-Spellar & Rogers, 2013; Štuhlhofer, Buško, & Landripet, 2008), types of sexual behavior (e.g., intercourse, anal, group sex), sexual orientation preferences, and media format (e.g., amateur, animation) (Hald, 2006; Short et al., 2012). What is considered common or mainstream will be highly subjective on the individual level, but also changes relative to the social acceptability and accessibility of pornography (Hald, 2006; Paul, 2009). However, there is support for making a distinction between a mainstream and non-mainstream genre. Previous research has found that groups with a preference for paraphilia or deviant pornography had higher sexual activity and an earlier age of onset for viewing pornography (Seigfried-Spellar & Rogers, 2013; Štuhlhofer et al., 2007). Although the SEM industry has an offering for nearly every sexual preference, people tend to watch mainstream pornography (Paul, 2009). Thus, it appears that most people prefer watching a pornography genre that mirrors their prevailing intrapsychic script.
Using sexual script theory (Gagnon & Simon, 2005) as a point of reference, four hypotheses were tested, described in the following sections.
Consumption and Self-Perceived Positive Effects of Pornography
Changes in accessibility and privatization of Internet pornography use may change the sexual scripts that guide sexual behavior, both interpersonally and privately (Daneback, Månsson, & Ross, 2012; Daneback, Træen, & Månsson, 2009). Cultural and sub-cultural differences in the consumption of Internet pornography in the younger generation may reflect variations in their accessibility to technology, and in the degree of normalization of pornography and thus the sexual scripts.
In 2013, young men reported using SEM more frequently; and as compared to women, they regarded the effects of their SEM use as more positive and uncomplicated (Træen & Štulhofer, 2013). Most of them reported that SEM had motivated them to try out new sexual positions and acts, increased their understanding of their sexual orientation, and made them more aware of what they like to do sexually. A recent study of men who have sex with men (MSM) in Norway, also concluded that the frequent consumption of gay SEM seemed to play a positive role in MSM’s sexuality in a similar way (Hald, Smolenski, & Rosser, 2013). In a Swedish study of women’s pornography use (Rogala & Tyden, 2003), 65% of the women reported generally positive effects and increased lust, and felt that pornography influenced their sexual behavior by giving them tips on new positions. However, it is possible that frequent users of SEM also assess the effects more positively to avoid cognitive dissonance between their attitudes and behaviors (Festinger, Carlsmith, & Bem, 2007). This tendency may be more common among women because of a need to justify their use of SEM in a society where the majority of young women have ambivalent or negative attitudes towards pornography (Johansson & Hammare, 2007).
H1: Higher consumption of Internet pornography is associated with self-perceived positive effects of one’s own pornography use.
Viewing Pornography as Realistic and Self-Perceived Positive Effects of Pornography
The sexual communication model (Goldstein, 1984, p. 32) advocates that, on a psychological level, the average pornography user is cognitively and perceptually capable of recognizing that a large portion of pornography content is composed of fictional or exaggerated representations of sexuality (Gagnon, 1977; Hald, 2006). This claim may be true if the consumer has similar sexual interaction experiences in real life as those seen on film. In this context, the recognition of exaggerated or fictional representations may be more difficult if the viewed pornography has non-mainstream rather than mainstream content. Young adults with non-mainstream preferences most likely will have fewer real life arenas in which to experiment with their desires. Therefore, they will not have as many opportunities to adjust their beliefs based on their own experiences, and SEM may become the central arena within which they live out their desires. Those who prefer mainstream pornography may have adjusted their opinions about the realism of SEM because they have more opportunities to experiment with their desires in real life. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that a higher frequency of pornography use, type of pornographic content, and the degree to which one thinks pornography realistically portrays sex may influence an individual’s self-evaluation of the effects of pornography.
H2: The extent to which one thinks of pornography as a realistic and educational medium is associated with self-perceived positive effects of one’s own pornography use.
Self-Perceived Positive Effects of Pornography and Sexual Self-Esteem
Štulhofer et al. (2007) found that the exposure to pornography affected sexual scripts as well as sexual experiences, which had a positive effect on sexual satisfaction, particularly in young men. This finding reflects the positive outcomes of pornography use, as described by young Norwegian adults (Træen & Štulhofer, 2013), and generates a new hypothesis involving a link between the use of pornography and sexual self-esteem. Sexual self-esteem is associated with sexual satisfaction, and represents “one’s affective reactions to one’s sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (Zeanah & Schwarz, 1996, p. 3). Positive sexual self-esteem includes feelings of pride, satisfaction, and security associated with sexual conduct. If people believe that the use of pornography makes them try out new sexual positions and acts and helps them to find out what they desire sexually, the self-perceived effects of pornography use could transfer to a positive evaluation of oneself as a good lover. However, some individuals perceive their pornography use negatively, which may be related to negative sexual self-esteem, including disappointment, dissatisfaction, or a sense of vulnerability or insecurity.
H3: Self-perceived positive effects of one’s own pornography use are associated with higher sexual self-esteem.
The Role of Genital Appearance Satisfaction
The portrayal of idealized bodies by the media is often regarded as one of the most important sources of an individual’s body image (Blond, 2008; Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008). Body dissatisfaction, specifically, genital appearance dissatisfaction among women, has been associated with lower sexual self-esteem. This association is often due to increased body self-consciousness (Schick, Calabrese, Rima, & Zucker, 2010). Negative beliefs about penis size for men are associated with shame, lack of masculinity, and lack of sexual prowess (Veale et al., 2014). A common belief in the popular media is that the SEM industry has influenced opinion regarding the ideal body in general and the ideal genital appearance in particular. The increase in the removal of pubic hair among women has been linked to the media effects of pornography (Braun, Tricklebank, & Clarke, 2013; Labre, 2002). The low variability in the appearance of genitals in traditional pornography has been reported to be a source of many men’s opinions that their penis is too small (Veale et al., 2014). However, the belief that the frequent use of SEM leads to genital appearance dissatisfaction has not been confirmed in the research literature, which is sparse. In fact, a study of MSM found no association between frequent pornography use and dissatisfaction with their own genital appearance (Morrison, Morrison, & Bradley, 2007). One can also argue that the diversity of SEM on the Internet can provide users with the chance to see a larger variety of genitals, which may lead to an increased sense of normality and acceptance of one’s own genitals. This feature could be important for women in particular, because they cannot see their own genitals directly without using a mirror. Female sexuality is subject to social restraint, and in general, women are not socialized to perceive their own genitals as acceptable (Braun et al., 2013). Therefore, SEM may contribute to women’s perceptions of the appearance of their genitals as more acceptable.
From the perspective of social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954), the context in which the idealized media image is presented can influence the body image of the perceiver (Häfner et al., 2008). The self-perceived effects of one’s own pornography use may be related to the degree of satisfaction one experiences with the appearance of one’s own genitals. A person watching SEM with a focus on the similarities between themselves and the actor, or on the positive aspects of the situation depicted, may develop a more positive self-image and alleviate the pressure exerted by idealized standards of appearance in SEM (Häfner et al., 2008). In addition to contextual differences, there are individual differences in the tendency to compare oneself with others (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999). Doubts about oneself, a higher level of self-consciousness, and an orientation towards others are related to a greater tendency to engage in social comparisons; for some MSM, these comparisons result in body dissatisfaction and lowered self-esteem (Schwartz, 2010).
H4: An association between self-perceived positive effects of one’s own pornography use and higher sexual self-esteem can be explained partially by genital appearance satisfaction.
In previous research differences have been identified between men and women in relation to consumption patterns as well as in relation to social norms concerning the use of pornography. In the present article additional differences between the sexes, such as use of mainstream or non-mainstream is discussed as being expressions not only of gender differences but also related to differences in social context and individual differences in sexual experience. Use of sexually explicit material available over the Internet among young adults in Scandinavia will also be discussed in relation to perceived realism of pornography, self-perceived effects of own use of sexually explicit material as well as satisfaction with the appearance of one's own genitals and general sexual self-esteem. It is, based on the findings reported here, suggested that future research should take into account how gender differences as well as variations in preferences for different types of pornography interact in order to understand the mechanisms related to use of sexually explicit material.
Convenience samples of psychology students from the University of Oslo in Norway (n = 387), sociology students from Uppsala University in Sweden (n = 217), members of a Norwegian queer youth organization (n = 183), and readers of the erotic magazine Cupido in Norway (n = 487) completed an online survey in the spring of 2013. The four subsamples in the study were treated as one convenience sample (N = 1,274) for the following reasons. First, the number of participants in each group was too small to conduct statistical analyses on the separate groups of men and women with differing pornographic genre experiences. Second, studies have found substantial cultural similarities in sexual behavior, sexual norms, and pornography use in the Scandinavian countries (Daneback et al., 2005; Lewin et al., 2000). Finally, the purpose of this study was to examine the strength of the relationships between the selected variables and not to focus on the prevalence of the different variables. Due to the socio-demographic differences between the four groups, the bivariate correlations between all of the variables that were to be included in the structural model were analyzed beforehand, for each of the groups. The magnitude and pattern of the bivariate associations were similar among the groups, justifying pooling their data to form one sample. Thus, the aim was to detect meaningful relationships that could be tested in future studies rather than generalize percentages and means to a specific population.
The socio-demographic characteristics of the total sample and each of the four sub-samples are presented in Table 1.
The majority of the participants in the total sample (62.5%) were women, 36.0% were men, and 1.5% reported having an “other” gender identity. There were slightly more respondents in the group consisting of those who were 18–24 years old (52.6%) than in the 25 years or older (47.4%) group. The mean age of the sample was 24.7 years (SD = 3.5, range = 18–31 years). The mean age of the female respondents was slightly lower than the mean age of the male respondents (24.3 years and 25.3 years, respectively). Ninety-two percent of the sample was born in Norway or Sweden. The majority of respondents identified their main occupation as either student (68.6%) or worker (24.6%). Respondents who claimed that they were in a committed relationship comprised 54.9% of the sample; 30.0% were single but had been in a relationship previously; and 15.2% were single and had never been in a committed relationship.
Invitations to participate in the survey, with a direct link to the questionnaire on www.surveymonkey.no, were sent to e-mail lists of students and members of a queer youth organization. All of the participants received one reminder to complete the survey. Cupido readers were invited to participate on a banner on the magazine’s web site www.cupido.no.
The survey consisted of 166 questions related to socio-demographic background, attitudes towards different expressions of sexuality, sexual activity and experiences, sexual self-esteem, body image, beliefs about pornography use, and actual pornography use.
Sexual self-esteem. The scale, developed by Snell, Fisher, and Walters (1993), consists of ten items with the following instructions: “Please indicate how much the following items describe how you have felt about yourself in the three last months.” Examples of the items are, “I am better at sex than most other people” and “My sexual relationship(s) is very good compared to most.” Each item is rated from 1 = not at all like me to 5 = exactly like me. A mean score for the ten items was calculated (M = 3.4, SD = 0.9), with higher scores indicating positive sexual self-esteem. The Cronbach’s α in this sample was .93.
Pornography use. The participants were asked, “Have you ever seen pornographic material?” and all of the remaining questions on pornography use were asked only of those individuals who responded “Yes” to this question. The frequency of pornography use in general was assessed by asking, “How often have you used pornography in the last 12 months?” with response options ranging from 1 = never to 8 = daily (M = 4.5, SD = 2.1).
Internet pornography use. Exposure to Internet pornography was measured using two questions under the heading, “Please state how often you have used pornography during the past 3 months” for 1) “Internet porn on a computer” and 2) “Internet porn on a mobile phone or tablet.” The response categories ranged from 1 = have not used to 6 = more than once per day. Internet pornography use was computed as the summed score of the two questions (M = 4.2, SD = 2.2, range 2–12).
Pornography genre. Respondents’ experiences were measured using the question “Have you sought any of the following types of pornography in the past 12 months?” The response alternatives were 1 = BDSM, 2 = fetishism, 3 = bestiality, 4 = sexual activities that include violence or coercion, 5 = common or mainstream pornography, and 6 = something else, which was followed by a request for respondents to indicate a specific genre = “What?” A new dichotomous variable called pornography genre experience was created where 1 = mainstream pornography, and 2 = non-mainstream pornography. Some of the respondents who chose “Something else” wrote “gay porn” or “lesbian porn.” This response was interpreted as mainstream pornography among the gay/lesbian respondents, and non-mainstream among the heterosexuals. The categorization of sexual orientation was based on a single question where the respondents indicated whether they were gay/lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, or none of these three alternatives.
Realistic depiction of sex in pornography. Four items from a scale developed by Buselle (2001) and adapted for SEM by Peter and Valkenburg (2006) were used to measure respondents’ opinions: “I think pornographic depictions of sex are realistic,” “One can learn a lot about sex when watching pornography,” “Pornography helps me learn how to act when I have sex with someone,” and “Pornographic sex is like sex in real life.” Each item was rated on a scale ranging from 1 = completely disagree to 5 = completely agree. A mean score variable was created based on the response to the items (M = 2.1, SD = 0.8). The Cronbach’s α was .78.
Self-perceived effects of own pornography use. The self-assessment scale, by Rosser (Hald, Træen, Noor, Iantaffi, & Rosser, in press), consisted of nine items, rated on a response scale ranging from 1 = very bad to 5 = very good, under the heading, “To what degree has pornography influenced the following in a good or bad way?” The items were as follows: “Your understanding of what you like to do sexually,” “Your attitude about sex,” “Your knowledge of sexual acts,” “Your pleasure when you have sex with your partner (s),” “Your interest in trying new sexual acts or positions,” “Your masturbation frequency,” “Your understanding of your sexual orientation,” “Your relationship with your own body,” and “How frequently you look for sex partners.” The mean score of the nine items was calculated with a higher score indicating self-perceived positive effects of pornography use (M = 3.5, SD = 0.7). The Cronbach’s α was .90.
Genital appearance satisfaction. This variable was measured using a single question: “I like the looks of my genitals,” with response categories ranging from 1 = completely disagree to 5 = completely agree (M = 3.5, SD = 1.1).
Cases with missing values on fewer than 10% of the items on the measures of interest were replaced with the mean value of the variable. To assess the bivariate-level associations between the selected variables, we conducted a cross-tabulation analysis. Multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used to test gender differences on the combination of the dependent variables. Because of the gender-specific sexual socialization and related body image issues (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Moradi, 2010), path analysis using the maximum likelihood estimation method was performed separately for female and male participants with AMOS 18.0 statistical software package (Byrne, 2001). A multi-group model approach was used to compare mainstream and non-mainstream pornography users by gender. We assessed whether the two groups were different with respect to the relationships between the variables of interest by comparing a path model in which the structural parameters were left to vary freely (unconstrained model) to a model in which the structural parameters were invariant across groups (constrained model). A significant statistical difference between the two models indicated a substantial between-group difference. To test the hypothesized mediation within the model, bootstrapping procedure with 2,000 resamples was applied to provide a 95% confidence interval around the estimated indirect (or mediating) effects (Preacher & Hayes, 2004). Only participants without missing information on the variables of interest were included in the path analyses.
The habits of pornography users are presented in Table 2. A total of 91.4% of the sample reported having ever seen pornographic material: 97.4% of the men and 88.1% of the women (p < 0.001). Pornography was watched most often on the Internet.
Of those having an experience with pornographic material, 5% reported daily use of pornography, while 13.3% had not used pornography for the past 12 months. There were large gender differences in the frequency of pornography use. Over half of the men reported pornography use several times per week or daily for the past 12 months, while only 7.0% of the women had the same pattern. Only 1.0% of the men and 20.3% of the women had not watched pornography in the past year. The majority of the men (80.0%) reported weekly or more frequent use of Internet pornography on their personal computers (PCs) in the past 3 months, while the majority of women (81.9%) watched it less than once a month or not at all. Use of a mobile phone or tablet to watch Internet pornography at least once during the previous 3 months was less common for both men (49.6%) and women (18.7%). The total mean score for watching Internet pornography was 5.8 for men (SD = 2.1) and 3.3 for women (SD = 1.7, df = 471, t = 16.9, p < .001).
in Young Adults (percent).
Which particular genre of pornography the respondents had sought during the previous 12 months is presented in Table 3. The majority of participants reported that they had watched mainstream sex. More women (21.4%) than men (17.0%) reported looking up BDSM, and this difference was significant. Watching fetishism was more common among men, while bestiality and sexual activities that included violence or coercion had been watched by a very small minority. On the other hand, 15.3% of all respondents reported watching “something else,” and the specified categories under this alternative are listed in Table 3. Approximately 2% indicated seeking more than one of the given categories besides mainstream pornography. Within the “something else” category, experiencing lesbian/gay porn also was reported, mostly by the respondents that identified themselves as being gay, lesbian, or bisexual (this was later categorized as mainstream). Women sought out soft, erotic, or feminist porn more than men did, while more men watched "futanari" (female anime characters that show both primary sexual characteristics) or transperson porn than women did. A total of 62.2% of the men and 61.6% of the women had experienced watching common or mainstream pornography, while 37.8% of the men and 38.4% of the women chose alternatives that they considered to be non-mainstream pornography.
The MANOVA revealed a statistically significant difference between men and women across the dependent variables, F (4, 714) = 16.9, p < .001). Although there were no gender differences in the degree of sexual self-esteem, men scored higher than women did on the other three study variables when the dependent variables were analyzed separately: Realistic depiction of sex in pornography (men: M = 2.4, SD = 0.8; women: M = 2.0, SD = 0.7, F (1, 717) = 46.7, p < .001), self-perceived effects of pornography use (men: M = 3.7, SD = 0.7; women: M = 3.4, SD = 0.7, F (1, 717) = 14.9, p < .001), and genital appearance satisfaction (men: M = 3.8, SD = 1.0; women: M = 3.4, SD = 1.1, F (1, 717),= 16.7 p < .001).
Finally, path analysis was used to test the validity of the proposed structural model (cf. Figure 1) and assess the hypothesized mediating role of genital appearance satisfaction on self-perceived effects of pornography use and sexual self-esteem, separately for women and men. Multi-group analyses were performed to explore possible moderating effects of the experienced pornography genre (mainstream vs. non-mainstream). Figure 2 shows the structure of the relationships between beliefs about the realistic depiction of sex in pornography, frequency of Internet pornography use, self-perceived effects of own pornography use, genital appearance satisfaction, and sexual self-esteem among women. The model (χ2 (8) = 6.80, p > .62; GFI = .99, TLI = 1.0, RMSEA (95% CI) =.0–.06) did not confirm the hypothesized association between self-perceived effects of pornography use and sexual self-esteem in either group, nor, consequently, the mediating role of self-perceived effects of pornography use. The differences between the multi-group model in which structural elements were allowed to vary between the two groups and the model in which they were made invariant were not statistically significant, indicating that the observed findings were equally valid for women who watched mainstream pornography and those who reported seeking non-mainstream material (Δχ2 = 11.70, Δdf = 11, p > .08).
Figure 2. The structure of the relationships between use of Internet pornography, beliefs about the realism portrayed in pornography, self-perceived effects of own pornography use, genital appearance satisfaction, and sexual self-esteem among women who sought mainstream pornography (Main: n = 201) and those who had experience with non-mainstream pornography (Non-Main: n = 127). *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
The findings of the multi-group path analysis for men are presented in Figure 3. The model explained 28% of the variance in sexual self-esteem in men with mainstream pornography experiences, and 12% in men with non-mainstream experiences. The path analysis model had a good fit with the data (χ2 (8) = 7.85, p > .41; GFI = .99, TLI = 1.0, RMSEA (95% CI) = .0 –.08). Not all of the path coefficients were significant in the non-mainstream pornography users, in contrast to the mainstream pornography user group. This finding probably was due to the small size of the group. Among the non-mainstream pornography users, the paths between the self-perceived effects of pornography use and satisfaction with one’s genital appearance, as well as between genital appearance satisfaction and sexual self-esteem, did not reach statistical significance.
The structure of the constructs of interest was similar in the mainstream and non-mainstream male pornography users. The model in which structural parameters were allowed to vary between the groups (the unconstrained parameters model) did not differ significantly from the model in which the structural weights, covariance, and residuals were made invariant across the groups (Δχ2 = 18.49, Δdf = 8, p > .07). The hypothesized mediating role of genital appearance satisfaction in the association between self-perceived effects of pornography use and sexual self-esteem was significant only among the mainstream pornography users (95% CI for the indirect effect = .02–.18 p < .05).
Figure 3. The structure of the relationships between the use of Internet pornography, beliefs about the realism portrayed in pornography, self-perceived effects of own pornography use, genital appearance satisfaction, and sexual self-esteem among men who sought mainstream pornography (Main: n = 146), and those who had experience with non-mainstream pornography (Non-Main: n = 92). *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
The purpose of this study was to test a model of the relationships between the use of pornography and sexual self-esteem in men and women watching different genres of Internet pornography. The model did not fit for women, as there was no link between perceived effects of pornography and sexual self-esteem, either directly or indirectly. The theoretical model had a good fit with the data for men watching mainstream pornography, although some of the pathways were not significant for the non-mainstream group. There was no difference in the structure of the constructs according to the type of pornography experienced among the women or men.
The first hypotheses was confirmed in men and women who sought mainstream pornography in that individuals with a higher consumption of Internet pornography also indicated that it provided them with a more positive view of their own sexuality. The second hypothesis was supported in both men and women in that there was a relationship between the extent to which one thinks that pornographic depictions of sex are realistic and the educational and self-perceived positive effects of pornography use. The third hypothesis was only confirmed in men. Men who thought that Internet pornography use had a positive impact on their sexuality also tended to report a higher level of sexual self-esteem. This was, to some degree, due to being satisfied with their genital appearance, as stated in the fourth hypothesis, but only among the men who sought mainstream pornography. There was no link between the self-perceived effects of pornography use and sexual self-esteem among women. For both mainstream and non-mainstream groups, women who were more satisfied with their genital appearance also had higher sexual self-esteem, but their genital appearance satisfaction was not associated with having a positive view of watching Internet pornography.
The majority of the male participants in this study were frequent pornography users. Although most of the women had watched pornography during the past year, their viewing pattern was more infrequent than the men’s pattern, which corresponds to previous research findings (Træen & Štulhofer, 2013). In Norway, 96% of the adult population below 45 years of age used the Internet on an average day in 2013 ("Norwegian media barometer, 2013," 2014, March). In this study, 80.1% of the men and 10.3% of the women had watched Internet pornography at least weekly during the past three months. The high percentage for Nordic men is in agreement with other findings from self-selected online samples (Hald, 2006). In a recent study (Štulhofer, Træen, & Carvalheira, 2013) with 5,255 men aged 18 years and older from Norway, Croatia, and Portugal, the following proportions of men aged 18–29 years reported weekly or more frequent use of pornography: Norway = 83%, Croatia = 80.2%, and Portugal = 63.7%. Most Norwegians have access to a PC at home (96%), while fewer have access to smart phones (73%) and tablets (61%) ("Norwegian media barometer, 2013," 2014, March). This difference might be one of the reasons why fewer people (50% of men and 19% of women) watched Internet pornography on smart phones/tablets than on PCs in the previous three months. Another possible reason for this finding is that smart phones and tablets more often are used in public places. On the other hand, the mobility of this technology makes it easier to access online SEM in new contexts, such as vacations, bedrooms, and wherever cable/wireless access is unavailable.
Self-Perceived Positive Effects of Pornography
In the present study, the self-perceived positive effects of using pornography were examined in relation to its influence on the discovery of sexual preferences, pleasure, sexual orientation, knowledge of and interest in different sexual acts, attitudes towards sex and the body, and the frequency of masturbation and seeking sexual partners. All of these facets may be regarded as representations of the ways in which pornography is expanding people’s sexual repertoire or, to put it another way, their interpersonal and intrapsychic sexual scripts. It is logical that watching pornography more often will broaden an individual’s knowledge of sex, not only in general, but also for specific types of sexual behavior. There are few other social arenas where this is a possibility, and the Internet has increased accessibility to both mainstream and non-mainstream pornography. Although men watch pornography much more frequently than women do, the relationship of its frequency of use with the degree of self- perceived effects of pornography for men seeking mainstream pornography was not that different from women with the same type of experience. This finding is consistent with the results of a study on arousal-oriented online sexual activities conducted by Shaughnessy, Byers, Clowater, and Kalinowski (2013). The men in that study reported engaging in online sexual activity more frequently, including watching pornography. However, the overall impact was small, and there were no gender or sexual orientation-based differences in the mainly positive outcomes of solitary arousal. There may be a threshold effect for how much change in sexual scripts can be made outside of real life experiences. It is possible that the learning and inspiration curves from watching pornography have the greatest increases in the beginning, and then level off as the content becomes repetitive. In the present study, the lack of association found in the female non-mainstream group may be due to the seemingly larger diversity in the listed experienced genres (spanning from soft erotica to paraphilia) than in the male non-mainstream group. The degree of internalization may also vary. The similar pattern of findings for each gender in the mainstream groups does not imply the absence of qualitative differences in the pornographic subject matter, which may be influential, or that certain aspects of the sexual scripts may have affected men and women differently. Hardy (2004, p. 16) argues that pornography can be a “common currency of images and meanings” for both men and women, but that the source of sexual scripts also can be transformed and elaborated, depending on the subjective fantasy and reality of the viewer. The somewhat stronger association between the perceived realism of pornography and a more elaborate intrapsychic script for women may be an indication of such qualitative differences. As most women do not watch pornography very often, it is possible that pornography with sex acts and situations that are easier to relate to will increase social comparison and further the internalization process. Parallel to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, light BDSM has become closer to mainstream pornography for women (Deller & Smith, 2013). The books attracted readers with and without previous knowledge of erotica and/or BDSM (Deller & Smith, 2013) and gave women permission to explore new things sexually, besides the fantasy of giving up control (Comella, 2013; Kutchinsky, 1988). In the same way that rape fantasies were common in the erotic literature of the 1980s, light BDSM has become a source of both romantic and sexual fantasies in the female audience during the last decade (Morley, 2012). This explanation is consistent with the findings of Carvalho et al. (2013), which indicate that women experienced more subjective sexual arousal in response to explicit material than men did, when they were asked to imagine the viewed sex acts in a romantic/relational context.
Sexual self-esteem is about satisfaction with one's own sexual competence, performance as a sexual partner, and the positive effects that sexual relationships have on satisfaction. We found no gender differences in sexual self-esteem, in contrast to the original findings, in which men scored higher on sexual self-esteem when this subscale was tested (Snell et al., 1993). In line with extant research (Johansson & Hammare, 2007; Træen & Štulhofer, 2013), compared to the women, the men in the current study reported that pornography provided more realistic and educational depictions of sex; they viewed the effects of pornography use to be more positive; and they were more satisfied with their genital appearance. Watching pornography seemed to add to the participants’ interpersonal and intrapsychic sexual scripts, but this association was moderately related to the men’s satisfaction with their sexual competence and sexual relationships, and it was not related to women’s satisfaction. In all probability, real life experiences, rather than watching pornography, more readily influence sexual self-esteem; however, a positive interpretation of what a person sees, seems to play a small part for men in viewing oneself in a more positive light as a sexual partner. Internet pornography production is characterized by the fragmentation of images, compilations, short video clips, and “teasers” side by side, with a focus on decontextualized sexual activity and less reliance on the narrative conventions of traditional pornographic films (including hardcore films) or erotic literature (Garlick, 2010). The Internet also invites a viewing pattern of jumping quickly between sites and watching snippets of stories (Jacobs, 2004). Whether it is easier to identify with and be influenced by non-fictional characters in depictions of the “real world” or fictional characters in a narrative story line is debatable (Keen, 2013). The arousal component of Internet pornography is strong due to close-ups and the focus on the sex act. It provides little or no narrative or fantasies, which are factors that appeal to women, but maintains its educational potential for instruction regarding various sex acts (and bodies). If women’s sexual self-esteem is more strongly influenced by relational aspects (also in relation to sexual acts), it makes sense that an expanded, but instrumental, sexual repertoire does not necessarily have a significant effect on women.
Body image more often is linked to performance and function of the body in men compared to a more static objectified image in women (Grogan, 2008). Therefore, it is reasonable to presume that this also applies to genital appearance. This difference in body image may explain why genital appearance was a partial link for the male viewers of mainstream pornography, but not for the women. For men, there is a more logical path from the self–perceived effects of watching pornography on their sexual repertoire by viewing their genital appearance with a focus on sexual function or penis size (length/girth/form) to sexual self-esteem as a competent lover. For example, in a qualitative study of Swedish adolescents, boys expressed their opinions of how Internet pornography use led to feelings of insecurity about their sexual performance, while frequent users among the girls described feeling insecure about their bodies (Löfgren-Mårtenson & Månsson, 2009). For women, genital appearance satisfaction was associated only with sexual-self-esteem, and not the self-perceived effect of pornography. This finding is partly supported by Peter and Valkenburg (2014), who in a recent study found no relationship between Internet SEM use and body image (including genital appearance) among women. Previous research has revealed that women’s dissatisfaction with body parts leads to shame about their bodies, which is related to a lower frequency of sexual behavior, low sexual self-esteem, and less satisfaction with sexual relationships (Pujols, Meston, & Seal, 2010). According to self-objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), self-consciousness and shame about their bodies is a result of women’s socialization and internalization of being sexually objectified. Therefore, it is possible that the evaluation of genital appearance among women is more likely to be a result of a general objectified body image, and less likely to be influenced by pornographic images or the self-perceived positive effects of watching pornography.
There are several limitations to this study. First, although most people in Scandinavia use the Internet on a daily basis, there is still a selection problem in using convenience samples when studying the self–perceived positive effects of pornography. The need to justify watching pornography by over-estimating the positive aspects, especially among women, was mentioned earlier. However, a positive attitude about pornography may also be a basis for becoming involved with pornography in the first place. The second limitation is the combination of four separate convenience samples with somewhat different pornography-use profiles. Although the recruitment of participants from separate arenas may have influenced the relationships among the variables, we found only minor variations in the bivariate associations between the study variables when the samples were compared. Small variations between types of samples also have been found in other studies; for example, Byers and Shaughnessy (2014) found similar attitudes toward online sexual activity between a student sample and a community sample with sexual minority individuals.
Another limitation is how mainstream and non-mainstream pornography was operationalized. The largest group within the non-mainstream category is the "something else" group, and those who chose this alternative did not view their choices as mainstream. On the other hand, some of the answers given under this alternative (listed in Table 3) would be interpreted by many as mainstream (e.g., group sex, erotic or amateur porn). What is considered mainstream is, to some degree, relative to the viewer, and even if the researcher provided explicit definitions of the types of porn, there would still be a large overlap between the categories and their interpretations.
Finally, the length of the questionnaire may have affected the response rate and quality (McColl, Jacoby, Thomas, Soutter, & Bamford, 2001). The pornography questions were located in the last section and it is possible that both motivation and response accuracy declined towards the end. The impact is difficult to assess since the number of questions varied for each respondent, depending on the answer they gave on the many branching questions.
The purpose of this study was to examine the association between Internet pornography use and sexual self-esteem by exploring the mediating role of young adults’ self-perceived effects of pornography use. Being positively, albeit weakly, associated with sexual self-esteem, pornography may serve as an arena for expanding personal (and possibly interpersonal) sexual scripts, particularly among young men. Although definitive conclusions should be avoided due to the sample characteristics of the study, our findings suggest that the association between pornography use and sexual self-esteem is complex, partially gender-specific, and most likely dynamic. It is important that future studies attempt to analyze the association in more detail and use a prospective design. In addition, this study raised other questions that deserve further exploration. For example, while new technology may not substantially change the frequency of pornography use, will the ability to watch pornography at any time, using smart phones or tablets, change current patterns of use and their correlates? It remains an open question to what extent increasingly popular online amateur pornography will affect the distinction between reality (real life) and fiction (staged action), and the current "pornification" of the body and gendered sexual roles.
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Ingela Lundin Kvalem, PhD
University of Oslo, Department of Psychology,
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