A keystroke; some clicks; maybe a scroll or a swipe.
These days, it doesn’t take much effort to find a kaleidoscopic array of ever-more shocking pornographic material online. And, during the recent months of social isolation, plenty of people did just that. Web traffic at major pornography websites soared. Profits, according to at least one estimate, almost doubled.
There are plenty of reasons to be worried about increases in porn consumption: exploitation, sex-trafficking, or children stumbling across dark content categories such as “rape,” “slavery,” or “nonconsensual” found on top pornography websites. Utah’s attorney general’s office recently noted a dramatic uptick “in file sharing of child sexual abuse imagery, with an increase of almost 50% more than last year.”
But, even when porn is portrayed as simply innocuous entertainment among consenting adults, there are other foundational reasons for concern, including the way pornography warps natural sexual reward and attachment systems critical to human well-being.
We’re all familiar with popular portrayals of no-strings-attached sex — for example, the sitcom with a new paramour almost every episode.
But human sexual systems don’t actually work that way. And there are sound evolutionary reasons why.
For starters, humans have relatively large brains. This is a significant evolutionary advantage, but to fully leverage those brains, humans require a much longer period of dependency for development.
A strong maternal-child bond, or attachment, supports this extended development. That bond is most solid when complemented by a strong relationship between father and mother as well as father and child. In other words, reciprocal familial bonds in all directions undergird the long-term developmental processes that foster a child’s well-being.
So, what does this have to do with pornography?
Well, natural sexual reward systems promote attachments that are essential to fortifying these bonds. Pornography, however, short circuits these systems, distorting the processes and sexual scripts most helpful to fostering the kind of attachment that supports long-term development and well-being.
For some, it might appear that humans, especially men, are oriented more toward promiscuity than attachment. But, for evolutionary purposes, this would actually be contrary to the overall interests of human development and the success of the human species.
Thus, sexual strategies that focus narrowly on maximizing short-term pleasure with few “strings attached,” are actually not in the end as beneficial, speaking evolutionarily.
For the overall well-being of parents and children, evolution-designed sex has lots of strings attached, weaving threads of couple attachment that keep their children safe and secure. They create pair-bonding that supports family life.
Sex, in other words, promotes adult partners’ and their children’s well-being when embedded in long-term committed relationships. In bonds of love and reciprocity.
Pornography, on the other hand, tends to teach young people and adults anti-attachment sexual scripts. More often than not, porn emphasizes noncommittal pleasure, sometimes at the expense of behaviors that do in fact lead to pair-bonding.
Pornographic images and narratives are often at odds with the natural attachment functions of human sexual systems. And, as such, porn may have consequences for how emerging adults choose to approach sex and relationships.
For example, in a recent meta-analysis, a team of scholars analyzed 40 years of research pertaining to pornography and impersonal sex and found that “pornography consumption was a robust predictor of both impersonal sexual attitudes and impersonal sexual behavior.”
In other words, pornography is most often anti-attachment, portraying sex as uncommitted physical gratification. This in turn can influence the sexual attitudes, behaviors and norms surrounding our most intimate relationships, usually to the detriment of critical familial relationships.
During the recent months of increased social isolation, in the absence of opportunities for human intimacy, it may have seemed enticing to some to turn to pornography. But, the true emotional healing humans need during these times is relational wellness, which for married couples comes from a healthy and authentic sexuality rooted in the genuine connection of a committed and caring long-term relationship.
Mark Butler is a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy in the School of Family Life at BYU and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. Kaylin Cash is a student researcher at Brigham Young University.