The porn industry just got a nerdy endorsement—the science world.
According to new research released by Columbia University, men who watch sexually explicit material may actually be healthier than those who don’t. Published in the journal Plos One, the study surveyed 265 men who have sex with men, finding that those who watched porn were more likely to practice safe sex.
“Indeed, our finding that viewing pornography that contains condom use is associated with fewer condomless anal sex encounters suggests that pornography may have a potentially important protective function by encouraging men to use condoms,” the authors said in a press release.
The prevalence of pornography use among homosexual men has been widely studied, but the potential health benefits of such activities have not. To dive into the idea, researchers zeroed in on post-pornography sexual habits. Doing so required recruiting 265 participants, all above the age of 18 and living within 50 miles of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C.
Each participant in the study was questioned on the “amount, compulsivity, and proportion” of safe and unsafe anal sex they engaged in, specifically after watching porn. Among the 92 percent who reported watching condomless porn, nearly half admitted that the images had influenced them to have condomless sex. The men agreed that pornography depicting safe sex encouraged them to wear a condom as well.
Eric Schrimshaw, a lead author on the study and associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia, said the observation supports “greater availability” to sexually explicit images that promote safe sex. “The potentially negative consequences on behavior, therefore, has policy implications for pornography directors, producers, distributors, performers, and viewers,” says Schrimshaw.
If watching sex safe encourages gay men to engage it in it themselves, then it may be a powerful way to protect them against HIV. Martin J. Downing Jr., the study’s other author and a doctor at the nonprofit group Public Health Solutions, suggests that activists in the HIV world should consider it.
“These findings have important policy and HIV prevention implications,” says Downing.
Despite no longer being in the spotlight, HIV remains a major issue among American men. At the end of 2010—the most recent year for which there is data—there were 1.2 million people living with HIV in America, 76 percent of them male. Gay and bisexual men specifically make up a large portion of the population, with men who have sex with men accounting for 69 percent of HIV cases overalls.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 156,300 (12.8 percent) have yet discovered that they’re carrying the infection—making safe sex crucial to preventing spread of the disease. While both researchers are bold in their support of pornography’s potential benefits, they also suggest that more studies on its potential influence on behavior need to be done before ruling it healthy.
The idea that porn may be useful, rather than harmful, is controversial for more than just those in the science world. Just last week in Utah, Gov. Gary R. Herbert declared porn a “health hazard” in America, suggesting that it produces a “sexually toxic environment” which poses significant threats to those around it.
In revolt, Herbert signed S.C.R. 9 asking for “education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level.” In it, he declares pornography an “epidemic” and says it causes “a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” Among the negative effects: decreasing men’s desire to marry, hindering brain development, and increasing “deviant” sexual behavior.
Porn’s effect on the brain has long been fascinating to scientists, who studied it thoroughly in the 2014 Journal of American Medicine paper titled “The Brain on Porn.” While some were quick to call the study proof positive that porn is detrimental, a more thorough investigation in Psychology Today confirmed that the actual truth about how porn affects us is more nuanced.
In the study, researchers looked at the brains of 64 adult men who regularly watched porn. After analyzing their scans based on the amount the men watched per week, the researchers concluded “repeated exposure dulls the reward circuitry’s response to pleasure.” The researchers were unable to form a causal link between the two, leaving questions as to whether some men were predisposed.
As to the dangers, the study didn’t necessarily point one way or another. One of the most troubling theories on pornography— that it promotes violence against women— is similarly complicated. The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women says that after “two decades of research” on the question, there is “little consensus.”
Schrimshaw and Downing’s study is an unusually positive take on pornography—a topic that the science world desperately needs to keep studying.