Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 48, Issue 2, pp 425–429 | Cite as

Pornography Problems Due to Moral Incongruence

  • William A. Fisher
  • Stephanie Montgomery-GrahamEmail author
  • Taylor Kohut

Pornography is incongruent with the moral perspective of many persons and groups who view the consumption of sexually explicit material as likely to cause significant problems for individuals, couples, and society at large. Sexual scientists have reflected the view that pornography is morally unacceptable and individually and socially pathogenic as early as Ivan Bloch’s report, in 1902, that “There is no sexual aberration, no perverse act, however frightful, that is not photographically represented today” (Bloch, 1902, p. 204) and as recently as Wright, Tokunaga, and Kraus’s (2016) conclusion that “…the accumulated data leave little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression…” (p. 201).

The moral unacceptability of pornography and the assumption that use of such material provokes individual, relationship, and societal difficulties is also common in media portrayals that date from the Cold War view that pornography is a communist plot designed to weaken the morals of Americans (Perversion for Profit, 1961) to statements that pornography is a social ill that is controlled by organized crime (Gage, 1975) to Internet sites that insist that pornography physically harms the human brain (Your Brain on Porn, 2018). Currently, political party platforms and state governments declare that pornography represents a public health crisis (Chen, 2016; Kopan, 2016) that in some cases requires more urgent attention than gun violence and mass killings in high schools (Anapol, 2018). Currently as well, professional opinion asserts that pornography is addictive (Love, Laier, Brand, Hatch, & Hajela, 2015, but see Ley, Prause, & Finn, 2014), that it destroys relationships, love, and marriage (Kendrick, Gutierres, & Goldberg, 1989; Lambert, Negash, Stillman, Olmstead & Fincham, 2012; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006; Weaver, Masland, & Zillmann, 1984; Wright, Tokunaga, & Bae, 2014; Zillmann & Bryant, 1988; but see Kohut, Fisher, & Campbell, 2017, and Montgomery-Graham, Kohut, Fisher, & Campbell, 2015), and that it is the cause of a widespread increase in erectile dysfunction in otherwise healthy young men, termed “pornography-induced erectile dysfunction” or PIED for short (Park et al., 2016, but see Prause & Pfaus, 2015).

The moral incongruence narrative, involving the moral unacceptability of pornography and asserting its problematic personal and social sequelae, may be considered within the wider context of current interest in the construct of hypersexuality and its close relative, pornography addiction. Hypersexuality is a term used in the research and clinical literature to describe a persistent preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors that are experienced by an individual as dysfunctional (Montgomery-Graham, 2017). Hypersexuality is described in the popular media as “sex addiction” and often as “pornography addiction,” currently perhaps the most significant subclass of “sex addiction” under discussion (Ley et al., 2014; Montgomery-Graham et al., 2015). The use of the terms “sex addiction” and “pornography addiction” links the experience of out-of-control sexual feelings, urges, and behaviors to the intense cycle of cravings, increasing tolerance, and relapse events experienced by an individual with a substance use disorder. Invoking concepts like “sex addiction” and “pornography addiction” has the added benefit of apparently freeing the individual of responsibility for his or her behavior and its outcomes and making the individual eligible to enter an addiction rehabilitation setting rather than experience punitive sanctions.

The research and clinical discussion has framed the hypersexuality cluster of out-of-control sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors using several different theoretical and diagnostic explanations, characterizing it variously as a disorder along the obsessive–compulsive spectrum (Schwartz & Abramowitz, 2003), as an impulse control disorder (Bancroft & Vukadinovic, 2004; Barth & Kinder, 1987), or as a disorder of behavioral or executive cognitive dysfunction (Reid, Garos, Carpenter, & Coleman, 2011). More recently, neurological (Prause, Steele, Staley, Sabatinelli, & Hajcak, 2015) and biological correlates of out-of-control sexual behavior (including hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis dysregulation; see Chatzittofis et al., 2016) have been considered as explanatory frameworks for these sexual symptoms causing distress. Inconsistent measurement, lack of construct validation, and a concomitant lack of reliable epidemiological data combine to thwart a precise prevalence estimate of hypersexuality, or its related constructs, sex addiction and pornography addiction (Montgomery-Graham, 2017).

The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013 [DSM-5]) excluded the proposed diagnosis of hypersexual disorder, citing a lack of empirical evidence of a clinically distinct syndrome. A specific interest in compulsive and distressing pornography use, akin to pornography addiction, was also rejected as a specifier of the proposed hypersexual disorder diagnosis within DSM-5. The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases [ICD] included compulsive sexual behavior disorder within its eleventh version, to be submitted to the World Health Assembly in January 2019 (World Health Organization, 2018). The ICD-11 includes compulsive sexual behavior disorder within the family of impulse control disorders (like kleptomania or pyromania), rather than within the family of substance use or addictive disorders. The etiology, clinical presentation, and treatment of an impulse control disorder differ from that of a substance use disorder.

Despite rejection of the concept of sex addiction and pornography addiction in DSM-5 and ICD-11, sex and pornography addiction treatment has become an industry in North America that includes widespread advertising, therapist training and referral networks, and costly private sex addiction treatment recovery facilities, none of which has yet demonstrated a firm grounding in empirical science (Ley, 2018; Ley et al., 2014; Montgomery-Graham et al., 2015). It is plausible that basic personality variables, including individual differences in sex drive, sexual sensation seeking, sociosexual orientation, erotophilia, and sexual inhibition and sexual excitation are better explanations for hypersexuality and pornography addiction than the constructs currently under discussion. Nonetheless, it is very clear that some individuals experience distress resulting from their sexual behavior and seek help for intrusive and compulsive pornography use that has disadvantageous personal and social outcomes.

It is within the context of current interest in out-of-control sexual behavior and pornography addiction that Grubbs, Perry, Wilt, and Reid (2018) have proposed a conceptual model of pornography-induced problems. On the one hand, individual differences that include impulsivity, sensation seeking, and coping deficits may incline an individual who uses pornography to do so in a dysregulated fashion. Dysregulated pornography use may lead directly to disadvantageous personal and social consequences, and the individual may perceive that they have pornography-related problems. A more unique focus of the Grubbs et al. model, however, concerns the possibility that religiosity or any other form of personal moral disapproval may incline the individual who uses pornography—even minimally—to experience the moral incongruence of their anti-pornography beliefs and their pornography consumption behavior. This will trigger the self-perception of a “pornography-related problem” and significant accompanying distress. Hypotheses flowing from this facet of the Grubbs et al. model include the expectation that while religiosity and pornography use will be linked with the experience of moral incongruence, and with the self-perception of pornography-related problems, the strongest and most meaningful links should be seen between the experience of moral incongruence and the report of pornography-related problems.

While the Grubbs et al. (2018) conceptualization essentially specifies pornography-related cognitive and behavioral contingencies that reflect classical cognitive dissonance (Festigner, 1957) and cognitive balance theory (Abelson, 1968) postulates, the application of this approach to the self-perception of pornography problems is interesting and has both research and clinical implications. Questions related to the Grubbs et al. model flow from the cognitive dissonance perspective and involve identification of the conditions, if any, that determine when one’s moral reservations, or one’s pornography use behavior, or even one’s self-perceived pornography problem, may change in motivated efforts to restore moral congruence. Other issues related to the Grubbs et al. model involve the fact that support for it derives from correlational observations. The possibility of experimental manipulation of the salience of one’s moral position concerning pornography (or the salience of one’s pornography use), and assessment of the experience of moral incongruence and distress, or the alteration of one’s moral perspective or pornography use, would provide interesting additional evidence related to this conceptualization. It is also of considerable interest to identify moral perspectives other than religiosity (e.g., anti-pornography streams of feminism) that may contribute to the experience of moral incongruence with one’s pornography use.

Grubbs et al. (2018) present both a narrative review and a meta-analysis of correlational data that generally support the model’s hypothesized relations between pornography use, moral incongruence, and self-perceived pornography problems, though we are aware of empirical evidence that is inconsistent with these hypotheses as well. For example, Kohut and Štulhofer (2018) reported that “[c]ontrary to our expectations, which were based on recent literature (Grubbs & Perry, 2018), this study did not find consistently low levels of pornography use among highly religious users who also scored high on compulsive pornography use” (p. 14). Similarly, Rasmussen and Kohut (2017) found that, overall, individuals who reported consuming pornography had more egalitarian attitudes toward women than those who did not, and this difference was stronger among religious individuals. Such individuals are most likely to be experiencing what Grubbs et al. (2018) term moral incongruence and what Rasmussen and Kohut (2017) identify as cognitive dissonance. In Rasmussen and Kohut’s (2017) view, this dissonance—or moral incongruence—is resolved via attitude change in the direction of more liberal views toward pornography and women’s rights in society. Consequently, it appears possible that “moral incongruence” may cause the self-perception of a “pornography problem” or it may be resolved via movement toward “moral congruence” between altered beliefs and ongoing behavior.

Beyond Personal Experience of Moral Incongruence and Perception of Pornography-Related Problems

We see value in the concept of moral incongruence and the associated perception of pornography-related harm among individuals who have moral qualms about their own, even minimal, pornography use. We also believe that there is a significant affective component to the experience of pornography-related moral incongruence and the perception of pornography-related problems. Extensive research has established that individuals differ in their trait-like negative-to-positive affective responses to pornography and that such affective responses influence self-justificatory evaluations of pornography including the attribution of pornography-related harms (see, for example, Byrne, Fisher, Lamberth, & Mitchell, 1974; Byrne & Lamberth, 1971; Fisher & Byrne, 1978; Fisher, White, Byrne, & Kelley, 1988).

Going beyond the individual level, we think the concept of moral incongruence concerning pornography and the experience or expectation of pornography-induced harm has broad explanatory power. While Grubbs et al. (2018) focus on the incongruence of one’s moral perspective and one’s personal pornography use, we believe that moral incongruence may result from the lack of fit of one’s moral perspective concerning pornography and the simple fact of its widespread use by other individuals. We would like to suggest that just as individuals may experience moral incongruence and perceive that they have a pornography-related problem, partners of individuals who use pornography, scientists who study pornography, media contributors to discussions of pornography, and political figures weighing in on pornography may possess moral reservations about pornography use by others that can only be balanced by expectations of pornography-induced harm and by supporting an entrenched narrative concerning pornography-induced damage to individuals and society (e.g., Wright et al., 2016).

According to this extension of Grubbs et al.’s (2018) reasoning, the partner of an individual who uses pornography, however minimally, may possess a moral perspective that views the partner’s use of pornography as a form of relationship infidelity, they may experience moral incongruence stemming from the conflict between their belief and their partner’s behavior, and they may perceive a “pornography problem” that they, their partner, and their relationship possess (Olmstead, Negash, Pasley, & Fincham, 2013; Zitzman & Butler, 2009). Media and political figures opining on pornography may have moral perspectives that are acutely sensitive to the terrible burden of sexual violence women endure and may experience moral incongruence about the availability and the use of Internet pornography and the possibility that it contributes to women’s sexual victimization. Moral incongruence of this nature may motivate the development of media opinion and political platforms that address the moral incongruence by adopting an emphatic anti-pornography position, as seen in media reports, political party platforms, and state declarations that pornography constitutes a public health crisis (Anapol, 2018; Chen, 2016; Kopan, 2016).

The role of moral incongruence in sexual science research concerning pornography is especially interesting to contemplate. While we all insist on “following the data” and pride ourselves on being a transparent, replicable, evidence-based endeavor, it would not be unreasonable to state that despite decades of research, sexual science is more or less deadlocked when it comes to conclusions concerning whether or not we have a “pornography problem.” While many assert unequivocally that pornography use is associated with “…attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and…actual acts of sexual aggression” (Wright et al., 2016; see also Kingston, Malmauth, Fedoroff, & Marshall, 2009), others contest this view just as strongly (e.g., Ferguson & Hartley, 2009; Fisher & Barak, 1991), and active surveillance victimization findings show that rates of sexual assault have declined steeply since the onset of availability of all forms of pornography on the Internet in both the U.S. (US Department of Justice, 2018) and Canada (Statistics Canada, 2014). Similarly, while a great many have reported research findings to suggest that pornography contributes to devaluing romantic partners and damaging romantic relationships (Kendrick et al., 1989; Lambert et al., 2012; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006; Weaver et al., 1984; Wright et al., 2014; Zillmann & Bryant, 1988), “bottom up,” participant informed research (Kohut et al., 2017) and large-scale surveys (Grov, Gillespie, Royce, & Lever, 2011) suggest that this is far from uniformly the case. Furthermore, the rate of divorce per 1000 marriages has declined substantially during the era of unrestricted access to all forms of Internet pornography in both Canada (Kelly, 2012) and the U.S. (Swanson, 2015; Wilcox & Marquardt, 2011). And while it has been asserted that adolescent exposure to online pornography will model and incentivize early onset of coital activity, multiplicity of partners, and risky sexual behavior (e.g., Collins et al., 2017; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006; Zillmann, 2000), evidence is quite mixed (Koletić, Kohut, & Štulhofer, 2018) and population level data from the US Centers for Disease Control (2015) bear out none of these concerns. While these are aggregate patterns that do not identify individual impacts, these patterns are nonetheless inconsistent with the view that we have a widespread “pornography problem.”

It is also interesting to speculate whether moral incongruence has helped shape research designs and interpretation of findings that aid in balancing moral reservations about pornography with scientific evidence that supports one’s moral position on pornography, as has been discussed over time in this ongoing debate (Fisher & Barak, 1991; Fisher, 2017). We hasten to add, as emphatically as possible, that moral incongruence and potentially selective scientific pronouncements cut both ways. Moral unease concerning restrictive sexuality, sex negativity, and censorship can be just as easily influence biased research designs, interpretation of data, and pronouncements of “no harm” (for which two of the authors of this Commentary could potentially be faulted; see Fisher & Barak, 1991; Fisher, 2017; Fisher & Grenier, 1994; Kohut et al., 2017). Perhaps it is time for all of us to recognize our own moral incongruence concerning pornography, pornography harm, and pornography restriction, and to set it more or less aside in the passionate pursuit of dispassionate science.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWestern UniversityLondonCanada

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