SEX

Study: Porn Might Influence Viewers’ Condom Use

Researchers find men who watch more adult content featuring condoms are likelier to use rubbers

SEX
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Apr 28, 2016 at 3:34 PM ET

Activists fighting to require condom use in pornography have long argued that doing so would encourage viewers to have safer sex. Now, a new study out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health seems to support that theory. The authors found that men who watch more porn featuring condoms are less likely to engage in sex without condoms. As co-author Martin J. Downing, Jr. of the nonprofit the Public Health Solutions, put it in a press release, “These findings have important policy and HIV prevention implications.”

But adult industry insiders argue the study is flawed, and that porn shouldn’t be expected to make up for failures in sex education.

This research comes at a time when the debate over mandating condoms in porn has reached a fever pitch. Earlier this year, a California regulatory board considered a proposal that opponents argued would have required condoms, dental dams and even goggles in porn—but, ultimately, it failed to pass. In 2012, a Los Angeles County law was passed requiring condoms during vaginal and anal sex scenes in porn. Amid this public policy debate, researchers have undertaken the question of whether porn influences real-world safer sex practices. A study in 2014 of 1,170 men who have sex with men (MSM) found that participants who watched more porn featuring condomless anal sex were more likely to engage in condomless anal sex. The year before, a study of 1,391 MSM had similar results.

The current study, published in the journal PLOS One, is based on an online survey of 265 MSM who had watched pornography in the past three months. The participants were asked about the porn—or “sexually explicit media,” as the study puts it—they watched and the percentage that did or did not include condoms. They were also asked to estimate the amount of sex they themselves had with and without condoms. It turned out that watching more porn featuring condomless anal sex was associated with having more condomless anal sex. The reverse was also true: Watching more porn featuring anal sex with condoms was associated with having more anal sex with condoms.

Of course, that doesn’t tell us that condomless porn causes men to have unprotected sex. It could very well be that men who have condomless sex simply like to watch more condomless porn. (The same is true of the earlier studies on the topic which had similar findings.) The authors attempted to address this causation problem by asking the participants themselves to speculate on how porn influenced their behavior. They found that 48 percent felt porn had contributed to their engaging in “riskier sex” and 91 percent believed it was a factor in other men engaging in “riskier sex.”

That doesn’t reveal whether porn did or didn’t contribute to condomless sex, it simply tells us that many perceived that it did.

It’s also worth noting the small sample size, and that the data is based on self-reports and involves estimates that are awfully difficult to make. Can you accurately recall how much of the porn you’ve watched in the last three months featured rubbers?

AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the primary organization behind recent efforts to mandate condoms in porn, did not respond to a request for comment by press time. But several adult industry insiders were quick to take issue with the study, and the general argument that porn should set safe sex standards for the general public.

“Pornography is a form of entertainment, not a tool to impart knowledge where public education has failed,” said Eric Paul Leue, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the porn industry’s trade association, in a press release. “The adult entertainment industry is not responsible to make up for the 35-year-long failure of the public education system to provide adequate sexual health education in schools, as much as it isn’t [director] Roland Emmerich’s responsibility to educate the public on how to survive an alien attack á la ‘Independence Day.'”

Similarly, Cindy Gallop, creator of MakeLoveNotPorn, a website that encourages viewers to share homemade videos of “#realworldsex,” told Vocativ, “It is not porn’s role to educate people about sex and safe sex. It’s society’s.” She says efforts around enforcing condoms in porn would be better spent on “making society open up to honest, healthy education and discussion around sex.”

Some see the question at the heart of this study as linked to recent events in Utah, where the governor signed into law a bill declaring pornography a “health hazard.” “We’ve seen a rise in moral panics about porn, and they’re almost always couched these days as public health interventions,” said Mike Stabile, spokesperson for the porn company Kink.com and director of “Seed Money,” a documentary about legendary gay porn producer Chuck Holmes. “What we should be focusing on is increasing sexual health awareness and sex ed, two things that really do make a difference in people’s sexual health.”