Pornography isn’t always just some sexy slap and tickle in the name of fun. There’s a potential dark side lurking beyond the eroticism. But does watching it cause depression? Or does depression make you watch it more?

Just how you likely forget there’s also a camera operator in the room, it’s just not that simple.

The idea that porn can lead to mental health concerns — such as depression — is definitely roaming the wild. In fact, maybe you’ve personally encountered cultural or spiritual rhetoric that relate the two.

(Then again, you’ve probably also heard the myth that masturbating can turn you blind. Yet there’s also porn for visually impaired people. So where does that leave naysayers?)

Is there any basis in science that proves that peeping pornos causes psychological issues? Or that mental health problems drive you to consume more porn?

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) says a firm no. They state that the available data doesn’t support these claims and maintain that there’s not enough evidence to:

  • classify porn addiction or use as a standalone mental health disorder
  • associate porn consumption with negative health outcomes like depression

Keep reading to learn more about the connection between porn use and depression. We also look at the possible of effects of porn on its on-cam participants. There’s humans on both sides of the screen. And we all feel stuff.

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Design by Viviana Quevedo; Photographs by Pixel Stories/Stocksy United, Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United, Ronnie Comeau/Stocksy United

It’s true that you could experience negative side effects due to watching porn. Sexual urges, thoughts, and behaviors — like pornography use — can manifest real physical, mental, or spiritual consequences.

Depression is deeper-rooted, however. And its development is complex. To claim a causal relationship willy-nilly is irresponsible. We plunge deep into the research.

The porn ↔ depression link

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: According to professionals in the field of sexuality education, counseling, and therapy, current evidence does not support the claim that porn causes depression.

But that’s not to say there’s no correlation at all. Some research shows connections between pornography and depression.

For example, a person’s risk of depression alongside or related to porn use also seems to depend on how often they use it and how long they’ve had exposure to it.

In a 2017 study, male students who used porn several times per week reported experiencing depression more than five times as much as individuals who used pornography less than once a week.

Moreover, rates of depression correlated to the age at which their porn consumption began:

  • grade school (11.7 percent)
  • middle school (7.1 percent)
  • high school (4.9 percent)
  • university (5.9 percent)

A 2019 study suggests that, in certain cases, depression can increase the risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with porn. And according to another 2019 study, consuming too much pornography can increase a person’s risk for depression in both men and women.

(“Increasing the risk,” however, is not the same as “causes.” Crossing roads every day “increases your risk” of being hit by a car, but it’s not the direct cause. Doing it blindfolded, however? That’s more direct.)

If you’re ethically against — but still watch — pornography, you’re also more susceptible to having a troubled relationship with it.

In this scenario, a person is more likely to deem their porn usage an addiction, which can lead to feelings of sexual shame. And that can lead to a greater chance of depression. It’s your classic snowball effect.

But while these studies suggest a correlation, they’re careful not to suggest a causal relationship.

Other possible risks of porn

There are other possible disadvantages of watching porn to consider besides depression. Unhealthy porn consumption is linked to a wide variety of physical, mental, and emotional problems such as:

Okay, so porn doesn’t cause depression. But what about the other way around?

Again, the research on the topic simply doesn’t support this. There’s no broad-based, decisive evidence showing that having depression puts you on a road to porn addiction. That’s some good news!

Porn, addiction, and mental health

Pornography addiction isn’t considered a mental health disorder. The American Psychological Association (APA) decided against adding it as a type of hypersexual disorder to the 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5).

The truth of the matter is that behavior-related addictions are largely missing from the DSM-5. In fact, internet or online gaming is the only one listed.

This doesn’t mean that addictive behaviors linked to porn use aren’t real or won’t mess with your day-to-day living.

Some research suggests that the ways in which your mind and body respond to internet porn addiction may be similar to substance addiction.

In one study, researchers showed erotic pictures to people who compulsively watch porn. Their brain scans showed comparable patterns of neural activity to those of folks with problematic alcohol use when they watch alcohol ads.

Despite her early findings, the study author says it’s probably too early to put compulsive porn users in a box with people who live with drug or alcohol use disorders. They recommend further research before they can clearly state that compulsive porn use is an addiction.

Other studies point to different conclusions, though. For example, the results of one small study indicate that porn addiction may be tied to sexual desire rather than hypersexuality.

Depression, porn addiction, and mental health

Depression probably doesn’t cause a pornography addiction. But it can influence your porn habits.

A growing body of research suggests that depression, especially in men, may result in more pornography consumption. Depression may also skew one’s perception of these pornographic encounters.

Based on recent media reports, the porn industry can take a devastating toll on adult film actors (the story of August Ames, a porn actor who took her own life in 2017, drives home how messed up that world can be).

Many report suffering from depression, substance abuse, and other harmful mental disorders.

Is there the same fallout for the average person who participates in porn? Can being in a pornographic video or image lead to depression?

These are really important questions, especially in this day and age of so-called “revenge porn” and sites like OnlyFans. Technology makes it easy to capture footage or pictures and share them — and the subject of the pics/clips may not even be aware.

So what gives?

Revenge porn

Revenge porn is a massive problem, and it seems to be on the rise in this time of pandemic-induced physical distancing.

Survivors liken the experience to sexual assault. They report significant emotional and mental health effects as a result of revenge porn. A 2016 study revealed that participants experienced, among other effects:

Several states have enacted legislation outlawing revenge porn. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a blog post on what to do if you were the target of it. And private companies are pulling unverified content from their platforms.

These are steps in the right direction. But, for many unwitting subjects of revenge porn, the damage is already done — and very difficult to undo.

Casual “porn”

Passive (i.e., not consensual, but not revenge porn) or active engagement in pornographic behavior is a mixed bag.

Active participants in consensual porn — ranging from sexting flirty nudes to full-on, on-cam action — might feel awesome about their endeavors. It can be an empowering or confidence-building. And feeling good about yourself is awesome!

Plus, you can stay sexually connected with others in a long-distance or physically distanced relationship.

On the flip side, passive involvement with porn — like receiving an unwanted dick pic — can have damaging effects on a person.

It gets worse if the sexually explicit material exceeds its intended reach, like that flesh flick (accidentally or otherwise) making its way around your office.

One study contends that the impact is more severe for females than males. Other research suggests that sexting can be a gateway to risky behaviors, sextortion, online grooming, or cyberbullying.

Believe it or not, porn isn’t necessarily all bad. (Is anything in life ever really cut-and-dry?)

Many pornography consumers report positive outcomes from using porn. They claim that it can be a way to:

Obviously, what qualifies as “porn,” “sexy,” or “beneficial” is super personal. But, it can be helpful to take a more holistic approach to thinking about how pornography relates your well-being.

However, most existing research focuses on the perspectives of white, heterosexual males. Needless to say, more diverse studies could certainly yield additional perks to porn.

Health experts do not believe there’s compelling evidence to:

  • classify porn addiction as a mental health disorder
  • support the claim that porn consumption causes depression
  • support the idea that depression leads to porn addiction

However, there are many associations, mostly negative, between porn usage and mental health. Despite all its bad aspects, porn can also have benefits for individuals and those in relationships.

Participating in porn can be a positive, empowering experience if consensual. Being in nonconsensual or revenge porn is likely to be detrimental or traumatic for the unwilling participant.

More research is needed on porn-related topics. Current research is mostly from the POV of heterosexual white men — so the jury’s still out on how porn really affects most people.