Pornography (with Joshua Grubbs)

What makes porn, porn? Why is a Playboy centerfold porn when the Venus de Milo isn’t? How long have we been making porn? And importantly, is porn addictive?

Today’s guest is Dr. Joshua Grubbs, professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University.

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Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music. Quotations read by Jonathan Pritchard of the podcast Mind Reader University.


Ashley: I was a really goofy 17 year old. I was a massive band geek, for one thing, and to make sure everyone knew this, I made a necklace out of my old saxophone reeds that I’d wear to school every day. And when I was a nominee for homecoming queen –and, okay, before you say anything, this is not a brag. Every single school club had to nominate someone, and I didn’t even get nominated for band.

I just convinced the all male media club that they should nominate me so I could wear a pretty dress. Okay, cool. Anyway, they told all the nominees to record their own intro audio for the big day. So I did mine to the theme of Shaft. Like deep baritone, driving high hat, the whole bit.

And for my 18th birthday, I had the cake decorator write “Yay! Porn and Cigarettes!” on my birthday cake. I say all this to make sure you understand that it was in this spirit when, on the night of my 18th birthday, my friend Morgana and I went to a seedy gas station and legally purchased a Playgirl. It’s like Playboy, but you know, full of men. We were so nervous and we could not stop giggling, but we bought it.

And afterward, feeling victorious, we went back to Morgana’s car, peeled off the censored plastic wrap, and opened it to find, uh, how do I put this? The men were very muscular and very oily and very not happy to be there, if you catch my drift. It kind of felt like if I’d bought an issue of Flags Monthly and all the flags were folded up and ready for storage.

Anyway, Morgana and I giggled and we joked, but neither of us got in the spirit that the magazine intended.

And I don’t think we were alone in that. So-called porn for women, specifically straight women, has been the adult industry’s white whale for decades. And they never really have cracked the code. But lots and lots of men of all orientations really like porn.

Porn statistics are kind of slippery, but on the very high end, the porn industry is estimated to make 97 billion a year globally. That’s just shy of what the entire entertainment industry makes in a year. On the low end, the porn industry is closer in value to the N B A, which is still nothing to sneeze at, and a lot of that entertainment can easily be found on the internet.

That’s alarming to some people. Critics say that porn is harmful. It ruins relationships. It leads people to treat women like objects, and it can cause addictions that upend people’s lives. Are they right? Is porn taboo for a reason?

That’s what we’re gonna find out today. I’m Ashley Hamer and this is Taboo Science. The show that answers the questions you’re not allowed to ask.

Ask someone the definition of pornography and they’re likely to answer like it’s the punchline of a joke. I know it when I see it. This famous line comes from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 in an opinion for a First Amendment case dealing with a movie theater manager in Ohio named Nico Jacobellis.

He had shown a French film that local authorities deemed obscene. Jacobellis was charged and convicted, and his conviction was upheld throughout the Ohio State Court system until it reached the Supreme Court. So it was up to nine white men in robes to decide whether a sex scene in an art film rose to the level of obscenity.

The most interesting part of this case to me is that while six of the nine justices voted to overturn the obscenity conviction, it was all for different reasons. Some said that the First Amendment doesn’t allow for censorship at all full stop. Some said that the film had to be judged based on whether most people would consider its dominant theme to be of a sexual nature.

Justice Stewart’s famous opinion basically came down to the idea that only hardcore pornography should qualify as obscenity. The quote in context went like this:

Quotation: I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description. And perhaps I could never succeed in Intelligibly doing so, but I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

Ashley: As famous as this line is, it was less than 10 years later that the Supreme Court settled on an actual definition of obscenity. The 1973 Miller versus California decision laid out what is now known as the Miller Test. It says that for something to reach the level of obscenity, it has to check three boxes.

One, whether the average person applying contemporary community standards would find that the work taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest. Two, whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct, specifically defined by the applicable state. And three, whether the work taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

This is still a really vague definition, and despite the fact that it’s been clarified and tightened in cases since, it’s still really hard to know what is and isn’t obscenity. That’s also why pornography still has a lot of legal leeway today. Obscenity is still technically illegal, but it has to be taken on a case by case basis.

In order for the government to ban the sale or distribution of a specific video, it has to prove that it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Otherwise, it’s protected by the first amendment. Of course, science doesn’t operate on such loosey goosey definitions. When researchers study pornography, they specify exactly what they’re looking at, right?

Joshua Grubbs: You know, we did this big review last year, a couple of other researchers and myself. It was led by a researcher out of Western University in Ontario by the name of Taylor Kohut that looked at, well, how are people defining and measuring pornography in the literature? And what we actually find is that people don’t often actually define it, which sounds ridiculous, but is actually true.

We just typically assume that people know what’s going on.

Ashley: That’s Dr. Joshua Grubbs. He’s a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who studies compulsive sexual behavior and pornography use among other things.

Joshua Grubbs: Now, having said that, we have been pushing, and in my own research, I define pornography for my participants so that there’s no confusion and we just say it’s pictures, uh, displaying nudity, typically involving the genital area, with a goal of emoting sexual arousal. So we typically try to define it as pictures of nudity involving genitals. And the goal of the picture is to make you sexually aroused. Theoretically fine art, things like that would not fall under that same category.

Ashley: We’ll come back to Dr. Grubbs in a second, but first I wanna dive into the history of pornography, which it turns out is really hard to do because of how pornography is defined. How do you know that an ancient depiction of nudity, or even if sex was designed to promote sexual arousal? Like for instance, take the artifact that many people consider to be the oldest known example of pornography, the Venus of Willendorf.

This little 11 centimeter limestone figurine of a voluptuous female body is dated to between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE. Because of her large breasts and ample curves, she’s considered by some to be the earliest surviving piece of prehistoric porn. But there are more interpretations, many with a lot more evidence.

The figurine may have been a goddess symbol, a fertility figure, or a good luck totem. My personal favorite theory is that it’s a woman’s self-portrait. If you were a woman who had never seen a mirror and could only judge your proportions by looking down at yourself, that foreshortened perspective would probably result in an impossibly curvaceous bod, not unlike the Venus of Willendorf.

Another popular example of early porn comes from the Ancient Greeks and Romans. They decorated a ton of stuff with penises, sex scenes, even entire orgies. Definitely ancient porn, right? Well, phalluses were actually an important religious symbol, and the sex scenes may have been religious depictions, brothel advertisements, or just attempts at humor.

We don’t really know. Around the same time in India, the Kama Sutra was being written. Despite the extreme, often superhuman sex positions it contains, it’s more of a self-help book, full of philosophy and advice for wealthy men. Fast forward thousands of years to the 17th century and Japan develops a culture of visual erotica that was so widespread, it’s actually hard to call a lot of it pornographic. Like the Kama Sutra, it may have been designed more for instruction than for arousal.

Because remember, pornography has to be intended for arousal. You can use the Sears catalog off-label, but that doesn’t make it porn. In that sense, the earliest pornographic media, at least in the West, probably didn’t come around until the invention of the printing press.

So we’re talking sexy prose, more than sexy pictures. Erotic media really got going around the Enlightenment in the 18th Century. Especially with a publication of a two-volume erotic novel entitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or just Fanny Hill. The book detailed the affairs of a London prostitute in impressive detail.

It was immediately suppressed, but it continued to be published in secret for centuries afterward. The link between porn and the printing press is no surprise. Porn has a reputation for being on the cutting edge of new technology, so it’s also no wonder that the daguerrotype, an early form of photography, led to pornographic imagery almost as soon as it was invented.

That happened in 1839 and the earliest pornographic daguerrotype we have dates to 1846. They did not waste time. This was during the Victorian era, which is famous for its prudishness, but also had an intense sexual undercurrent. There were more than 50 porn shops in London when Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837.

This era saw the publication of things like Lady Bumtickler’s Revels, which was a spoof opera about flagellation, and My Secret Life, an anonymous autobiography that recounts the male author’s lifelong pursuit of sexual gratification.

This is even the era when we get the word pornography. It first appeared in a medical dictionary in 1857. It comes from the Greek pornographos, which means something depicting prostitutes. Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, which is when we get the first calendar girls. Then during World War I, American GIs see French pornography for the first time when they return stateside, there’s a big demand for something similar made in America.

So along came Esquire Magazine in 1933, which yeah, began as a men’s magazine. This is where you see all those classic illustrations of scantily clad pinup girls. Still it was tasteful, artistic. You read it for the articles. And then in 1953, everything changed. Playboy came on the scene. They dropped the tasteful ruse, and they published photographs of undressed women for the express purpose of titillating male readers.

That’s considered by many to be the turning point in modern pornography. At least until the advent of the internet. And yes, the internet has led to an increase in porn use. At least we’re pretty sure it has.

Joshua Grubbs: So it appears that way, yes. It actually took us a long time to establish whether or not that was the case.

Ashley: That’s Dr. Joshua Grubbs again.

Joshua Grubbs: It’s not necessarily clear that the internet has led to more men using, although we could argue that it has, but it has certainly led to men, uh, in particular, and women as well — um, there’s actually been more dramatic increases for women — uh, with regards to frequency of use and variety of use, right? So historically, if we went back 30 years, people had pretty regular access to adult videos and magazines if they wanted them, but they didn’t have access to basically infinite variety of pornography within the context of their home. And so we have seen increases in the variety of use, uh, differences in genres being used, things like that.

Ashley: Like I mentioned, not everybody thinks that increase is a good thing. In fact, groups like this are all over the internet. You know how you can’t search for a questionable phrase without finding porn of it? Well, I have discovered that you can’t search for porn statistics without finding anti-porn websites.

Literally nine out of 10 results on the first page of Google for the search term “porn statistics” are for porn addiction recovery or the like. These groups say that pornography is addictive and harmful to individuals and relationships, but then you have another camp that says porn addiction doesn’t exist at all, and in fact, porn is a healthy outlet for a person’s natural sexual drives.

So, which is it? Dr. Grubbs studies this exact question. And it seems the answer is both.

Joshua Grubbs: What I like to study is what makes people think that their sexual behaviors are out of control? And I word it very specifically as in what makes people think their behaviors are out of control rather than just studying whether or not their behaviors are out of control or what leads someone to be out of control.

Because a lot of my research has kind of delved into, why might someone think they’re out of control even when their behaviors don’t really seem like they’re out of control? So that’s the broad interest area. I mean, I’ve been into this for over a decade now and it’s, I mean, there’s the long story and the short story, but the short story is that I grew up in and attended a very evangelical university.

And I grew up in a very evangelical culture. And you know, from 2002 to about 2010, there was a constant barrage of information from folks talking about how everyone’s addicted to pornography, and it’s the new addiction, it’s the new cocaine, it’s the new heroin, blah, blah, blah. And I just remember thinking, well, this doesn’t make any sense.

Why, why do they think everyone’s addicted? And then I started studying it and, you know, a decade later, uh, that’s kind of my expertise area.

Ashley: Yeah, let’s talk about what leads someone to consider their porn use problematic.

Joshua Grubbs: Right. So this is a a big, complicated area, and this is where most of my research actually has been.

And we know for a fact that some people do become excessive, compulsive, or even addictive, if you will, in their use of pornography, which is a fancy way of saying some people can’t seem to stop using it when they want to stop. Some people can’t seem to control it. Some people spend hours and hours a day and experience very serious consequences in their relationships, in their employment, and in other areas of their life because they’re using too much.

So one reason that some people do feel out of control in their use is they’re, they are out of control in their use. That’s pretty well established. Now, having said that, there is also evidence that we’ve repeatedly seen across multiple samples — and not just in the US, we’ve seen it in European countries, we’ve seen it in some countries in the South Pacific as well — where some people report feeling out of control. Some people report feeling addicted to pornography, but their use is quite infrequent.

You know, I’ve, I’ve done a lot of work in the past as a clinical psychologist treating people with problematic gambling behaviors. I have never once met someone that’s like, well, I, I use slot machines once or twice a month. I lost about $10 last month. I must have a gambling addiction.

In an addiction context, I’ve never seen someone say, you know, I, I have one drink a month. I’ve only ever had one drink a month. I’m probably an alcoholic. But with pornography use, I have seen lots of patients, and then in our studies we’ve seen, it’s like people saying, yeah, I, I used pornography twice last month for about 20 minutes and each time, and I have a porn addiction and I can’t shake it.

And it’s this fascinating interpretation. And, frankly, I mean, the spoiler on this of what seems to drive this is conservative, sexual ethics typically associated with religiousness. In, in theory it could be not associated with religiousness, but it almost always is that people that think pornography is morally wrong who still use pornography experience a lot of distress. They’re, they’re not living up to their values or their morals.

They experience a lot of distress, um, and they find themselves continuing to do so even infrequently. And if they can’t stop it even when they want to, even if it’s only once or twice a month, well they begin to think maybe something’s wrong with me, maybe it’s out of control, maybe I have an addiction.

You know, saying that pornography is an addiction is not the same as saying heroin is an addiction. And what I mean by that is, is everyone has an innate sexual drive of some sort. Some people have very low sexual drive. Some people, um, identify, you know, as being asexual or just not having that drive. But at a biological level, humans have a sex drive, right? Just like we have a hunger drive.

It’s necessary for the survival of the species. And so to say that this, this drive is inherently addictive, it’s problematic, it’s pathologizing a very normal behavior. And so what we see oftentimes, yes, some people are completely out of control in those behaviors, but oftentimes it’s how we think about the behaviors that leads to distress, not the behavior itself.

Ashley: And there are some positives to porn use. It’s not all objectification and loose morals. We just don’t know that much about what they are because most of the research is on the harms of pornography. Like I said, this is a slippery subject.

Joshua Grubbs: So it is a big complicated and controversial research field. And what I mean by that is that we know that, um, there are potentially negatives that associate with pornography use, but there’s been very little research into what sorts of positives might happen.

So we actually have written a couple of papers that are, we’re hoping to get out in the next year or so that really look at the fact that, you know, we’re talking probably 90% of research looking at pornography use has tried to find negative effects, not positive, so we don’t know as much about the positive.

What we do know is that for some people, they report pornography is associated with greater sexual knowledge, with greater sexual openness. Now, it depends on who you talk to, whether or not sexual openness is considered a positive or a negative. If you have a very conservative, maybe traditional or puritanical kind of sexual ethic, um, sexual openness, being open to new ideas, you know, different kinds of sexual scenarios or different kinds of sexual behaviors is maybe not a good thing. But in general, if you take a more sex positive approach to it, sexual openness is, is generally regarded as a positive. And we also know that, um, people that use pornography within the context of a relationship, as a couple — so lemme be very clear on this. Uh, when the couple uses pornography together, those couples tend to report higher levels of sexual satisfaction. Now, if the man or the woman is just, or, or in the male and the man, the woman, the woman, depending on whatever configuration or relationship you’re looking at, right?

If one of the partners is using alone, it may not necessarily be a positive influence on the relationship, particularly if it’s secretive. So in any situ, any couple, if a partner is secretly using pornography by themselves, that tends to be associated with lower sexual satisfaction. But if they’re using it together, it tends to be associated with higher sexual satisfaction.

Ashley: All right. and yeah. And again, that, that makes total sense. Like anything you’re doing in secret is probably gonna be less satisfying for the relationship. Cool. Yes. Yeah. And you mentioned homosexual relationships. How much of this research is on homosexual sex?

Joshua Grubbs: Yeah. We have a ton of research on gay men and pornography use and bisexual men and pornography use. Um, and it’s, there’s some similarities to what you would see in heterosexual men, some differences, but on the whole, there, there’s quite a lot of research there that shows, I would say it’s more similar than not, whether it’s heterosexual men versus, um, gay men or bisexual men. There’s, there’s much consistency whichever group you’re looking at. There’s very little research on gay men in committed relationships and pornography use. But among the research that is there, we see pretty similar ideas. If they’re using as a couple, it tends to be associated with higher sexual satisfaction. If they’re using secretly, it tends to be associated with lower.

Virtually no research that I am familiar with on lesbian or bisexual women and pornography use, and I don’t know of any research at all that specifically targets couples that, uh, one or both partners are transgender, so.

Ashley: That bit about using it in secret, though, that can harm a relationship. But even still, it’s not clear whether it’s the porn or just, you know, the secrets.

Joshua Grubbs: It could be a mismatch of sexual desires. In fact, in at least one study, a researcher by the name of Sam Perry found that if you controlled for solitary masturbation, the effects of pornography on the relationship, the negative effects on sexual satisfaction completely disappeared, which is a fancy way of saying it really seems like it’s a sexual desire mismatch, and that when one partner is masturbating alone, frequently in secret, it’s not really about the pornography use, it’s about the fact that there’s unmet sexual needs or that there’s an unclear sexual communication there where one partner feels like they can’t talk about their sexual desires or their sexual drive with their other partner.

There are other concerning outcomes as well, though we, we know that people that use pornography more frequently tend to report viewing potential sexual partners, uh, in a more objectifying terms. Which is a fancy way of saying that pornography seems to be associated with sexual objectification of potential sexual partners.

This is not universal. Some people use pornography and still when they’re with a real life partner, don’t take an objectifying view of them. Um, but people that — on the whole we do see that association. Uh, and what I mean by objectification there is just the idea that the partner that’s you’re with is more of a means to an end and less of a mutually engaged kind of relational or mutual kind of endeavor, even in, in a casual kind of hookup.

Ashley: But again, does the porn cause the objectification or does the objectification make people more likely to use porn?

Joshua Grubbs: We’re not clear that it’s causal. We see the association, so we could say that maybe people that have a higher tendency to engage in objectification of sexual partners are more likely to consume porn. And I think that, that, that pathway makes a ton of sense. Like porn by nature is viewing people doing things on a screen, typically as an object for you to use for your sexual pleasure. And I don’t mean that with any value judgment, good, one way or another.

It, it’s just literally, that’s how porn works. You’re looking — the, the whole purpose of the person on the screen is to provide sexual stimulation to you. So perhaps people that do that in general are more likely to use porn. Um, there has been one study of adolescents that I’m aware of that found that adolescents that reported more pornography at baseline reported more sexual objectification in the future.

So in, maybe that suggests a causal pathway, but it, it’s not that straightforward. Just causality is a lot more complicated than just one thing in the past, predicting something else in the future, there could be other variables we didn’t measure. So it’s just not clear.

Ashley: Porn may also lead to a kind of monkey see, monkey do situation, which isn’t always bad.

I mean, sex education in the United States barely gives a passing mention of how to actually have sex. So it makes sense that people would use porn to, you know, fill that hole.

But porn isn’t really designed for that. I mean, you wouldn’t learn how to drive from a Fast and the Furious movie. And you wouldn’t take etiquette lessons from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It’s all human behavior turned up to 11.

Joshua Grubbs: It seems that both young adult men and young adult women often do use pornography as a source of sexual education for sexual ideas, to learn about different sexual techniques, um, and that that actually could be one of those things that people would argue is problematic.

You know, because if you talk to anyone that regularly produces pornography or anyone that’s a professional pornographic actor, they will tell you that porn sex and real sex are not really the same thing most often.

Ashley: Right. It’s like the Hollywood version.

Joshua Grubbs: Yes. It’s the, the Hollywood version. You don’t typically have pizza delivery men and plumbers coming to your house for sexual encounters and things like


Ashley: Right.

This is related to a phenomenon in social psychology research called Script Theory, which basically says that we internalize narratives about how a given situation is supposed to happen. So like if you’re raised in the US your script for a wedding ceremony says that the bride wears a white dress and the groom wears a tux and the bride walks down the aisle.

There’s a version of this called sexual script theory, and that’s the thing that porn might be messing with.

Joshua Grubbs: So sexual script theory is the notion that we also have these approaches to sexuality. We develop and internalize scripts that inform how we approach sexual encounters as it relates to pornography.

There is some thought that pornography may be how people learn to develop those scripts, and if they are only using pornography, they may be developing wildly unrealistic scripts for how sexuality is supposed to look.

Ashley: But enough with the harms of porn. It’s time for a really obvious question. Who consumes the most porn?

Joshua Grubbs: Well, I mean, it, it depends on how you want to ask that. Men in developed nations though, is probably the best answer, right? So, and I say developed nations simply because, uh, we’re talking about people who have access to the internet and access to internet pornography.

But, by almost every available metric, it appears that men use pornography at at much higher rates than women. It’s not to say that women don’t use, it’s not to even say that a lot of women don’t use that. We actually know that quite a few women use pornography, a substantial portion, but both in terms of sheer quantity of people and amount of time spent viewing, men are using more.

Ashley: What do you think the reasons are? Is it, is it something inherent to women? Is it about how it’s marketed, is it about who makes it?

Joshua Grubbs: I think the answer is probably all of the above. Right. So we, there are certainly probably biological differences in sexual drive that come to play here. And I don’t mean all men are more sex crazed than women, blah, blah.

I mean that the way that men approach sexuality on the whole as a general collective, not every individual man, there’s huge variability here. But we do know that across mammalian species, even, that the way that males approach sexuality versus females is a little bit different, so that’s probably part of it.

There’s also undoubtedly cultural norms around it. Men are conditioned starting at a pretty young age in the Western world, at least, to believe that yeah, you’re gonna wanna look at porn and have sex with lots of people. That’s just how being, what being a man is. And so if some of that is cultural norms and whether or not they’re true or not is kind of irrelevant.

If that’s the norm, people will make them true. And then, yes, the marketing’s a huge piece. You know, pornography is inherently all, not always, but the vast majority, I mean, we’re probably talking 90 plus percent of pornography is produced for the male gaze, if you will. It’s produced for the types of scenarios that men would want to see, whether that’s heterosexual men or bisexual or gay men, but it tends to be produced with that focus.

Ashley: Porn has a long, confusing history, but the research suggests that it isn’t inherently harmful as long as you treat people like. Find a relationship where you can be your full, honest self and do your best to ensure the media you consume was made with the full consent of all parties. Then, hey, you, do you.

Thanks for listening. Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer. The theme was by Danny Latka of DLC Music. The Justice Potter and Miller Test quotes were read by Jonathan Pritchard of the podcast, Mind Reader University. You can follow the show on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Just search for Taboo Science, all one word.

Or if you can just visit the website to find it all. That’s If you liked this episode, it would really help out for you to leave a review on Apple Podcasts. If you wanna suggest a topic for me to cover on a future taboo episode, email I am super excited about the next episode.

It’s all about penises. Ah, you can expect that to hit your feed in two weeks, so please make sure you’re subscribed. That’s all for now. Catch you later.