Viewing sexually explicit programs or content on websites may not truly influence whether a young adult will have risky sex or lots of partners, a new study from the Netherlands shows.
Watching porn only affects sexual behavior a little bit. It can prompt someone to be more likely to have a one-night stand or have sex for money, according to the report released Thursday in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. But other influences such as personality type, educational and family background, and poverty hold more sway than viewing sexually explicit material. The study, led by Gert Martin Hald of the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen, surveyed 4,600 young people between the ages of 15 and 25 living in the Netherlands during 2008-2009.
They found that 88 percent of the young men and 45 percent of young women had viewed sexually explicit media over the past 12 months. All kinds of porn, including bondage, soft core, and violent images were included, but the influence of that porn on behavior, though scientifically significant, was small.
The sexual behaviors were classified into three broad areas: adventurous sex such as threesomes or sex with someone met online; partner experience, such as one-night stands; and transactional sex, involving payment.
More porn viewing was associated with a greater likelihood that young adults would say “yes” to one or more of these behaviors.
But that’s not the end of the story. Importantly, Hald and his team also asked questions gauging traits like sexual sensation-seeking -- how driven a person is to seek new experiences -- as well as gender, age, education, religious belief, relationship status and ethnicity, self-esteem and others.
Few studies have tried to incorporate these other factors, but, Hald told NBCNews.com “associations between porn and sexual behavior or attitudes really always should be studied in conjunction with other relevant factors, such as personality.”
When all those variables were taken into account, it turned out that all those behaviors were also highly associated with the personality type of sexual sensation-seeking.
For example, Hald explained, “only 2-3 percent of our sample engaged in transactional behaviors, and the proportion of these behaviors explained by porn viewing was only 1 percent for men and 2 percent for women.” Other factors, he said, such as poverty and culture, were more important.
That was true across the board. The frequency of looking at porn explained only about .3 to 4 percent of behavior.
“This suggests that frequency of [porn] consumption is just one factor among many that may influence the sexual behaviors of young people,” the study concluded.
It’s not that porn has no effect. But many other factors are in play. For example, Hald said his Netherlands sample may differ somewhat from an American one given the Netherlands somewhat more liberal sexual cultures where, for example, prostitution is legal."I think that the social and sexual context of viewing pornography impacts the association between pornography and the sexual behavioral outcomes studied," Hald said.
Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies the adult entertainment industry, agreed.
She pointed out that watching porn is illegal for those under 18 and that younger people who have not had much sexual experience, nor solid much sexual education, may turn to porn for sex clues. “If you did not already know about this in real life, or have sex education, or experience it with a peer, and you see it in porn, you may think, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’”
But she agreed with Hald that watching porn was only one small influence among other, larger influences.
It comes down to what’s driving the train. Hald suggested that things like age at which one first has sex, oral sex behaviors, and porn consumption are really the passengers on a train driven by personality, family, education and economic status.
“I would say that it may likely be that personal dispositions such as sensation seeking may be what is essential,” he said.
It’s not that watching porn has no effect. It’s that porn doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “Pornography adds to increases in the sexual behaviors and attitudes we studied, but this contribution is modest.”