Pornography is viewed by many young adults, particularly men, as one of the most helpful, not to mention accessible, sources of information about sex. Roughly one in four young adults turns to pornography to find information about how to have sex. This statistic comes from a study of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S.
“The bad news,” says the study’s first author, Emily Rothman, in a statement, “is that young adults are misunderstanding what porn is there for. Most free, online pornography is there for entertainment and to make money for the creators. It isn't there to teach you what you are supposed to do when you are having sex.”
About 25 percent of the young adults responding to the study, by researchers at Boston University and Indiana University, cited pornography as their most helpful source, with heterosexual men most likely to agree.
Young adults, particularly men, believe that it's possible to be good at sex independent of any feedback from a sex partner and overlook the value of talking to their partners about what is pleasurable.
Young men may feel that they too must put on an act and “perform” sexually, attempting to replicate what they’ve watched online as opposed to attuning to the body language of their partner and the shared experience of physical intimacy.
Young women, on the other hand, were much more likely to report that their partners were their top source of information about how to have sex. Young women who have sex with men may be affected by the attitudes and beliefs internalized by their male partners, to the detriment of their experience; data show that heterosexual women experience fewer orgasms during partnered sexual encounters than any other group by gender and sexual orientation.
The scenes depicted in pornography can easily create unrealistic expectations about what sex should look like, particularly for viewers who have little experience of their own with sexual encounters. Equally important is what porn doesn't show: discussions of STI status, contraceptive use, and communication around desires and boundaries. These are exactly the “sexual social skills,” as Rothman calls them, that young adults need to develop in order to enjoy consensual and safe sexual relationships.
Equally important is what porn doesn't show: discussions of STI status, contraceptive use, and communication around desires and boundaries.
One bright spot? The study found that parents are still cited as the most helpful sources of information about sex (31%). For younger adolescents aged 14-17, this result and similar findings from other studies strongly suggest that parents still have an essential role to play in shaping young teens’ attitudes about healthy sexual relationships.
This study did not delve further into why one quarter of young adults perceive pornography as a helpful source of information about sex and what they believe they are learning from it, insight which the study’s authors say will be key to helping health professionals’ and parents better understand how to support young people in developing safe, consensual and enjoyable sexual relationships for the rest of their lives.
The study is published in Archives of Sexual Behavior.