Connect with a U.S. licensed healthcare provider about ED, hair loss, skincare, and more. Start now.

Apr 21, 2021
7 min read

Pornography and depression: is there a connection?

There’s no strong scientific evidence that watching porn causes depression. It’s more likely that depression fuels porn-watching for some people. Porn can have notable effects, however, on your romantic relationships.

felix gussonerob roy britt

Reviewed by Felix Gussone, MD

Written by Robert Roy Britt

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

If you’re worried that a little porn might send you into a dark, depressing mood, here’s a happy thought: There’s no solid evidence indicating porn triggers or contributes to clinically diagnosed depression. 

Likewise, it’s unclear if depression leads to increased use of porn, though evidence suggests this is the more likely direction of any cause-and-effect. 

Who watches porn?

Pornography has no widely agreed-upon definition, but it has long been at the center of cultural, political, and religious debates.

Researchers commonly define pornography as “sexually explicit materials intended to arouse,” but they also note that the perception of porn can vary culturally, and there are no innate characteristics (McKee, 2019). 

It should be obvious that, if you view sexually explicit material pictures from time to time, you are certainly not alone. Various studies have indicated nearly all men have sought out porn at some time during their lives, and the lifetime proportion among women is somewhere between 30% and 60% (Weir, 2014). 

Frequency is even harder to assess. A review of existing studies came up with these figures: Among U.S. adults ages 18-39, 46% of men and 16% of women view porn in a given week (Regnerus, 2016).

Given the cultural stigma, and because people may not wish to divulge their innermost secrets in scientific surveys, it’s difficult to figure out how many people check out porn and how often they do so. 

Does porn cause depression?

Formal depression, which a psychiatrist can diagnose as a mental health disorder, is “a serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). 

Pornography consumption, even heavy use, is not classified as a disorder. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) “does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder” (AASECT, 2016).

Given the formal definitions and available evidence, it’s impossible to conclude that porn causes outright clinical depression. Very few studies make any firm connection between porn use and depression, and there are no overarching reviews of the literature that would support the single-study claims.

  • One study involving 1,031 male and female university students at a small private Catholic university in Ohio reported “compulsive pornography use significantly affecting” their levels of depression, anxiety, and stress (Camilleri, 2021). 
  • Another study indicated that depression was a “significant positive predictor” of porn use, at least for people who use it to escape negative emotions. But this study, based on an online survey, was also narrow, involving 757 students at one southwestern university. Also, the research established only a link, not whether porn use possibly caused depression or the other way around (Borgogna, 2018).
  • Yet one more study found men and women who consume porn excessively might be at increased risk of depression (Maddock, 2019).

Can depression fuel porn consumption?

Other research has indicated that depression might trigger or exacerbate porn use. But again, there’s really not much conclusive research to go on.

A study of young people in China, ages 10 to 23, found loneliness and depression were underlying mechanisms that led to negative outcomes from online activities, whether porn use, social networking, or shopping (Tian, 2018).

Another study finds that women around the world who report persistent anxiety or depression are more likely to use pornography during masturbation. The research suggests that rather than porn causing depression, ongoing depression/anxiety, as well as dissatisfaction with relationships, could cause some women to seek the erotic stimuli of porn (McNabney, 2020). 

The story gets more interesting when we consider other possible factors that drive people to seek erotic content and the varying effects it has on people.

The effects of pornography on Americans depend partly on a person’s moral and religious views and how much porn they consume. Men who watch porn but say they think it’s immoral are more likely to experience depressive symptoms than others whose moral views line up with their viewing preferences, but the difference is not large.

Interestingly, men who don’t have a moral problem with porn but watch a lot of it also have a higher instance of depressive symptoms. The study’s author writes that this suggests that some depressed men watch porn to cope with their depression (Perry, 2017). 

How porn can impact your relationship

According to one study, men’s use of porn has been linked to lower sexual quality for both men and their partners, but women’s use of porn is linked to improved sexual quality for women (Poulsen, 2013). However, a more recent study found no connection between porn use among women and improved sex with their partners (McNabney, 2020).

Researchers in Canada had participants keep daily diaries to reveal pornography’s effect on romantic couples, both mixed-sex and same-sex. Overall, the study found no relationship between either person’s porn use and relationship satisfaction. But it teased out some interesting details about desire and sexual activity (Vaillancourt-Morel, 2020): 

  • Women who used porn, regardless of the sex of their partner, experienced higher sexual desire and greater odds of having sex, as did their partners.
  • But men who used porn, again regardless of partner’s sex, found their partners to have lower sexual desire and, among those men whose partners were women, less sex (yet more sex if their partner was male).

Women who use porn during masturbation find arousal and orgasms easier to achieve and report greater pleasure, and porn use among women is linked to less arousal difficulty with partners. However, women’s porn use frequency doesn’t predict overall satisfaction with their relationships or sex lives (McNabney, 2020). 

A survey of college women found that when their male partners used porn excessively, the women lost self-esteem, and the quality of the sex and the relationship declined (Stewart, 2012). 

Other ways porn could affect your life

If eroticism has some benefits, there’s certainly a flip side. Porn may become more problematic if you obsess over it, become “addicted” to it.

Though heavy porn use is not scientifically considered an addiction, some of the behaviors and effects are said to be similar to other addictions: uncontrollable craving, risky use, and unsuccessful attempts to quit—which can lead to distress, feelings of shame, and psychological dysfunction.

But whether any of this, caused by porn consumption, might then lead to depression has not been established by science. (Alarcón, 2019).

How pornography might affect an individual goes well beyond depression, and it depends a lot on context—including a person’s state of mind and situation in life (Nelson, 2020). 

  • Porn might exacerbate risk for someone already predisposed to sexual violence, for example.
  • Porn in which actors don’t use condoms could make the viewer more likely to engage in riskier sex. 
  • But for some people, porn can increase intimacy and feelings of acceptance and even promote safer sexual behaviors like masturbation.

One possible reason for the differences in how porn impacts men and women: men tend to watch it alone, often for masturbation, while women are more likely to view it with their partner as part of a lovemaking ritual (Bridges, 2010). 

Porn can serve to enhance romance and sexual activity, the research finds, but because men often watch it alone, it can also lead to less intimacy, more secrecy, and depression.

Or, conversely, it could be that men turn to porn when their relationship isn’t going well, and women might be threatened or confused by it if they find out—further straining a relationship (Weir, 2014).

Porn used by young people

Whatever your views about porn, it’s clearly ubiquitous, popular, and in some cases—perhaps, unfortunately—a necessary ritual of coming of age. Some young people use pornography for sex education, which indicates a lack of helpful information about sex available to youth. 

A nationally represented survey asked people what sources they used in the past year to educate themselves about sex. Among adolescents ages 14-17 who say they’ve found at least one source of helpful information, 8.4% cited pornography. The most common sources were parents and friends (Rothman, 2021).

Among adults aged 18-24, 24.5% cited porn as the most common helpful source, exceeding all other helpful sources. Perhaps most intriguing, 43% of adolescents and 45% of young adults said they hadn’t gotten any helpful information about sex in the past year (Rothman, 2021).

If you’re worried whether pornography might lead to depression, there’s little evidence to support your concern. As with just about any behavior, too much of a thing, good or bad, can lead to problems. Where is that threshold? Hopefully, you’ll know it when you see it.

References

  1. American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) position statement. Retrieved from: https://www.aasect.org/position-sex-addiction
  2. American Psychiatric Association. What Is Depression? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression
  3. Bridges, Ana. Sexual media use and relational satisfaction in heterosexual couples. Personal Relationships Volume18, Issue4, Pages 562-585. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01328.x
  4. Camilleri, Christina. Compulsive Internet Pornography Use and Mental Health: A Cross-Sectional Study in a Sample of University Students in the United States, Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.613244/full
  5. De Alarcón, Rubén. Online Porn Addiction: What We Know and What We Don’t—A Systematic Review, Journal of Clinical Medicine. doi: 10.3390/jcm8010091. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6352245/
  6. Maddock, Meghan. What Is the Relationship Among Religiosity, Self-Perceived Problematic Pornography Use, and Depression Over Time?, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 26:3-4, 211-238, Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10720162.2019.1645061
  7. McNabney SM, Hevesi K, Rowland DL. Effects of Pornography Use and Demographic Parameters on Sexual Response during Masturbation and Partnered Sex in Women. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020; Retrieved from: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/9/3130#cite
  8. McKee, A. An Interdisciplinary Definition of Pornography: Results from a Global Delphi Panel. (2019). Archives of Sexual Behavior volume 49, pages 1085–1091. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-019-01554-4
  9. Nelson, Kimberly. Should Public Health Professionals Consider Pornography a Public Health Crisis? American Journal of Public Health, 2020 Retrieved from https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305498
  10. Nicholas Croft Borgogna, Jessica Duncan, Ryon Mcdermott (2019) Is Scrupulosity Behind the Relationship Between Problematic Pornography Viewing and Depression, Anxiety, and Stress? Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 25(1) DOI:10.1080/10720162.2019.1567410. Retrieved via https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330222606_Is_Scrupulosity_Behind_the_Relationship_Between_Problematic_Pornography_Viewing_and_Depression_Anxiety_and_Stress
  11. Poulsen FO, Busby DM, Galovan AM. Pornography use: who uses it and how it is associated with couple outcomes. J Sex Res. 201 Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22449010/
  12. Regnerus, M. Documenting Pornography Use in America: A Comparative Analysis of Methodological Approaches. Journal of Sex Research Sep;53(7):873-81. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2015.1096886. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26683998
  13. Rothman, Emily. The Prevalence of Using Pornography for Information About How to Have Sex: Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey of U.S. Adolescents and Young Adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior volume 50, (2021). Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-020-01877-7
  14. Perry, S. Pornography Use and Depressive Symptoms: Examining the Role of Moral Incongruence. Society and Mental Health, Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2156869317728373
  15. Stewart, Destin. Young Adult Women’s Reports of Their Male Romantic Partner’s Pornography Use as a Correlate of Their Self-Esteem, Relationship Quality, and Sexual Satisfaction. Sex Roles volume 67, 2012, pages257–271. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-012-0164-0
  16. Yu Tian, Shujie Zhang, Rui Wu, Peng Wang, Fengqiang Gao, and Yingmin Chen (2018) Association Between Specific Internet Activities and Life Satisfaction: The Mediating Effects of Loneliness and Depression. Frontiers in Psychology, Jul 11. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01181.Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6050461
  17. Vaillancourt-Morel, Marie-Pier. Pornography use and romantic relationships: A dyadic daily diary study. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Volume: 37 issue: 10-11, page(s): 2802-2821 https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520940048. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0265407520940048
  18. Weir, Kristen. Is pornography addictive? Monitor on Psychology, April 2014, Vol 45, No. 4 Print version: page 46. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/04/pornography