Porn on the Brain: Why is there so little scientific research about porn?

For a subject of acute public concern, the dearth of evidence on its effects is startling

Share
Related Topics

Online pornography has appeared in the 2013 news agenda like an invasive internet popup. That child killers Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell both accessed pornography was regularly mentioned during their trials, while David Cameron has called on Internet Service Providers to have default porn filters in place by the end of 2014. The media has been awash with shrill cries to purge the web of smut, and liberal agonising over how to balance people’s freedom to watch what they want with the potentially detrimental effects of unprecedented access to explicit imagery.

There does appear to be cause for concern about the effect on young people, as highlighted by a report by forensic psychologists at Middlesex University which brought into focus the extent to which porn permeates their lives. But with public fear around such a highly moralised subject there is a real danger of the debate being dominated by the loudest voices with the evidence either being ignored or worse misrepresented to bolster arguments by both sides.

At arm’s length from ideological battlegrounds, scientific evidence is a good place to find answers to whether online porn is harming developing minds. Unfortunately the message from scientists at a recent Science Media Centre press briefing was clear: we don’t know very much. We do know watching porn can effect attitudes about sex and gender amongst young people; we also know there is a correlation between exposure to porn and risky sexual behaviour but it is unclear whether one causes the other; and there is no evidence about the long-term effects of frequent exposure to porn in adolescence.

For a subject of such acute public concern the dearth of evidence is startling, especially when compared to the rich literature on factors like smoking, drug use or diet. Yet exposure to explicit imagery has been a legitimate field of study since before broadband internet and if the past 15 years has transformed the sexual saturation of young people’s lives, why is there still so little research?

Across the UK’s top universities there are only a handful of psychologists, neuroscientists and public health researchers for whom pornography has featured tangentially in their studies. Many of those writing grant proposals are told that unless an effective intervention can be found the money won’t come. With the field still at a descriptive phase, interventions aren’t just round the corner.

This is not to say that evidence and expertise should be all that matters. Studies don’t happen overnight, and it is important to weigh up differing values in deciding what is acceptable for young people to access. But nor should the fact that the science only plays one part in the debate excuse unsubstantiated claims being stated as fact. When Melanie Phillips writes “people have claimed there is no evidence that pornographic images have any effect on behaviour… common-sense would suggest, however, that at least some measure of cause and effect is involved” she misses the point that common sense can only be a starting point from which the evidence can prove you right or wrong.

People have made equally reasonable hypotheses that the availability of online porn may help explain falling rates of violent sex crimes. We don’t have to wait for the science before making decisions about what young people can access. Surely we should wait for the science to prove hypotheses about what impact that access has.

Crucially, the modest amount of scientific research that exists should not be overinterpreted to back up pre-existing positions. All too often preliminary research is used to make claims that go way beyond what the study shows. Findings that compulsive porn users show similar brain activity to those with other addictions, to be presented tonight in a Channel 4 documentary ‘Porn on the brain’, has already been used as a jumping off point for comment pieces suggesting “Porn is making addicts of our sons”. It is telling that the line taken by scientists involved in the programme is far more tempered that that of any other commentator.

Both ignoring and distorting the importance of scientific evidence dangerously devalues it and makes it harder to produce a clear picture of the situation. In the end this only does a disservice to the young people we are so keen to protect.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam