Is online porn really “damaging” young people’s health?

The impact of online pornography on sex and relationships is still underexamined.

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The top story at BBC Newsbeat (the BBC’s flagship news programme for Radio 1) today is a shocking headline: “Watching porn is damaging men’s health”. The story is published on the day that Newsbeat releases a new documentary, Brought Up On Porn, on iPlayer, presumably in order to promote it. It says that sexual health problems have “surged” as a result of online pornography, a claim which was quickly picked up by the Sun, the Telegraph and many others.

A top psychosexual therapist is warning about a surge in the number of young men suffering sexual health problems because of online pornography.

Angela Gregory says more and more men in their late teens and early 20s are suffering from erectile dysfunction.

She puts the blame on people becoming addicted to watching online porn.

This story is built around the opinions and anecdotal evidence of one psychosexual therapist, and the accompanying documentary is a series of talking heads. In it, anonymous and semi-anonymous young people discussing their own experiences of porn, porn addiction, and the impact of widespread pornography usage on their sex lives.

The BBC admits there is little scientific evidence to back up the claims that porn is adversely effecting young men’s health:

There are no official figures but she says a lot of the time it is via smartphones and laptops.

Part of the reason there are no official statistics on porn addiction’s impact on health is because any official medical diagnosis is hard to come by. The latest edition of the World Heath Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), used by the NHS, lists “excessive sexual drive” and “excessive masturbation” as behavioural disorders, but unlike, say, gambling, pyromania or kleptomania, compulsively watching porn is not listed as an addictive impulse disorder in its own right. America’s medical diagnostic manual does not accept hypersexuality or sex addiction as a disorder at all.

A 2013 study from the journal of Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology noted that “hypersexual” brains don’t exhibit the same signs of addiction as other kinds of addicts do. While people with higher libidos had more active brain reactions to the sexual images than people with lower libidos, this was the only real difference in brain activity found by the study.

In fact, participants who had self-identified as experiencing problems regulating their viewing of sexual images, and who scored highly on the Sexual Compulsivity and Pornography Consumption Effects Scales, did not exhibit different brain responses at all. This could challenge the notion that pornography can be “addictive” in any traditional medical sense, as it is not consistent with drug or other behavioural addictions.

Studies suggesting that the UK is struggling with a mass porn addiction problem, like one last year suggesting that 1 in 10 of 12-13-year-olds experience porn addiction, have been questioned.

Angela Gregory’s anecdotal evidence may be proved right in time – but at the moment, there is little medical evidence at all that watching porn could cause erectile dysfunction. There could be a number of factors leading Gregory to see a correlational relationship between erectile dysfunction and watching porn. It’s thought that the most common causes of erectile dysfunction for young men are anxiety, stress and depression.

Regardless of the veracity of these claims, the BBC’s documentary – and online coverage – does suggest that the impact of online pornography on sex and relationships is still underexamined and not yet understood. Ultimately, the only way to know more is to have more research into sex, porn, health and consent, and more open conversations surrounding these issues.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.