Skip to content

We are NOT a nation addicted to Internet porn

May 29th, 2006

Dr Petra

A few weeks before Easter earlier this year, a journalist called me from the Independent on Sunday. They were working on a story about the ‘increase in internet porn use’ and wanted some quotes and background for their piece.

As usual I wanted to hear about the data they were working from. They said they’d been sent a snapshot of who was accessing porn sites from an Internet monitoring company. They were going to use the data to ‘prove’ a ‘dramatic increase in porn use’. They said that ‘millions’ of men were downloading porn.

But when we started to discuss this issue it seemed it wasn’t as straightforward. The data they’d obtained was the first snapshot the monitoring company had collected, in effect it was ‘baseline’ data. So future figures can be compared back with the data they’d got, but anything they were currently comparing this with was really only guesswork. And that meant they couldn’t really prove any dramatic increase since they didn’t know what porn usage existed previously. It could have been more, less or the same.

The data they’d got was also fairly limited. It simply recorded that people had been accessing porn sites. It didn’t appear to identify crucial information that you’d need to make sense of such data. Things like:
What sort of porn was being accessed?
When was the porn accessed? Did they count visits to sites as a one-off login, or every time someone visited a site?
Had they measured people’s porn use as separate visits to individual sites, repeat visits to the same site, or repeat visits to multiple sites?
Were the people accessing the porn gay, straight or bi?
Were they in a relationship or single?
Were they watching porn alone or with a partner?
How do those who do access porn sites compare with those who don’t?
What is the overall percentage of porn site use compared with accessing other sites?

The journalist said they’d not thought of those issues, although admitted they did make a difference to understanding the data they’d been given. They said they thought the Internet monitoring company found 9million men had used porn, but that didn’t make it clear if they’d counted 9 million individual men who’d visited porn sites, or 9 million visits to websites by a number of men. It also wasn’t clear if repeat visits were included in this 9 million, and who was actually accessing sites. They also hadn’t considered reporting that not everyone has access to the Internet, and of those who do, not everyone seeks out porn.

As well as discussing the quality of the data, I was also asked by the journalist to discuss the idea of ‘porn addiction’ that they claimed the web monitoring data revealed. Since they already couldn’t demonstrate an increase in porn site use nor clearly indicate exactly what their measure of site access was, I pointed out that they couldn’t infer from this any porn addiction. Particularly since there was no supporting data from the participants in the study to indicate problematic (or pleasurable) porn use.

I referred the journalist to the Royal College of Psychiatrists for a discussion about the concept of porn addiction, as well as discussing with them about the history of porn research and the problems of flawed porn studies (of which their story was looking like becoming an example). I also linked them to a number of researchers in the UK and US who had studied porn use and media effects since they wanted more information about how people use porn sites.

At that time the focus of the story was ‘use of adult internet sites’ and they were going with an angle of how porn usage had dramatically increased, an ‘epidemic of porn use’ angle which, as I outlined to them (and here for you) their data just didn’t support.

It seemed as though they’d killed the story, since just before the Easter weekend when the story was due to run, the journalist wrote to those they’d interviewed telling us that the story had been held over for the week and might run the following week.

It didn’t run. And I forgot all about it, until yesterday when I saw their headline ‘Sex.com: we’re a nation addicted to Internet porn’.

We might be using porn, true, but we are not a nation of Internet porn addicts (or if we are, this is not the study that proves it). The Independent on Sunday had a second report ‘Porn UK’ that claimed they’d conducted “the first major study of online pornography”. That’s simply not true. There are countless existing studies of Internet porn, many of which the journalist researching the story was directed to. None of these appear to have been consulted for the piece.

The Indy was given some limited data about accessing porn websites. And they span it to a ‘sex addiction’ story. That’s all.

Despite speaking to many people who had researched porn use (myself included), none of those people were quoted in the final Independent reports. So the reader wasn’t to know how people had questioned the data the Indy was working with, their story angle, and their conclusions. Instead the journalists quoted at length a number of counsellors, sex therapists and sexperts who were mostly all cited as saying porn destroys relationships, it makes men selfish in bed, and it’s an indicator that your relationship is in trouble if you and/or your partner use porn.

Whilst there is evidence that some people do have problematic relationships with porn, this Independent report neither indicates we are ‘addicted’ to porn, nor that those who use porn in relationships automatically are in crisis. All they did was take a number of people who use porn and went way beyond that data to suggest a negative message.

It’s not that they can say they didn’t have the facts on this occasion. Those who’d researched this area pointed out the flaws in the research, and very early on tried to put the findings into context and tell the Independent’s journalists that the data they had didn’t support an increase in porn use or sex addiction angle. Those who were counsellors and therapists were directed by the journalists towards only discussing porn addiction, so their quotes were really about that – not really about the data the Independent had obtained.

As a consequence papers in the rest of the UK and other parts of the world are now running with the story of our ‘problem’ with sex addiction.

For the sake of a headline and a story to sell more papers, we’re being conned that we’ve a clinical crisis in the UK. And it’s all because journalists couldn’t understand data, and didn’t care either.

Comments are closed.