IS IT POSSIBLE to have sex with a computer? Well, not exactly, but people can use their computers to engage in a variety of online sexual activities, including hooking up with partners (both virtually and in the flesh) and finding fodder for kinky obsessions.

Online porn is accessible, affordable and often anonymous, and viewing it has become a popular pastime. A survey of college students in 2008 by psychologist Chiara Sabina of Penn State Harrisburg and her colleagues found that more than 90 percent of the men and 60 percent of the women had watched Internet pornography before age 18. In a separate study the rate of use was less than half as frequent among those between the ages of 40 and 49, suggesting that Internet porn consumption may decline with age—although that statistic could reflect generational differences in computer use. Studies have revealed a gender difference in online sexual activities: men are more likely to watch pornography, whereas women are more apt to participate in sexual chat rooms, suggesting that they prefer sexual stimulation in the context of interaction.

Most people who watch porn seem to be occasional dabblers, but a small percentage of users indulge excessively in online sexual content. In 1998 Alvin Cooper, then at the Marital and Sexuality Center in San Jose, Calif., and his associates conducted an online study of more than 9,000 people who used the Internet for sexual purposes. Slightly fewer than half the respondents—most of them men who were married or in a committed relationship—indulged for an hour or less a week. Forty-five percent reported engaging in online sexual activity between one and 10 hours a week. Eight percent used the Internet for such purposes for 11 or more hours weekly, and a small but distinctive 0.5 percent reported more than 70 hours a week.
Emerging evidence suggests that such heavy use may be associated with harmful effects on the psyche and on relationships. Some experts even contend that Internet porn can be addictive, but the use of the term in this context is controversial.

The Price of Consumption
Although occasional use of pornography sites and other online sexual activities does not appear to be associated with serious problems—at least according to reports from users—even relatively light use may have a negative effect on one’s partner or spouse. What is more, heavy consumption of porn, including the Internet variety, may contribute to relationship strains and sexually aggressive attitudes and behaviors toward women.

Numerous studies have found associations between the amount of exposure to pornography and sexually belligerent attitudes such as endorsing coercive sex and sexually aggressive behaviors—say, forcibly holding a woman down. These associations are strongest for men who watch violent pornography and for those who already tend to be sexually aggressive.

Other findings have tied frequent porn use to attitudes such as assigning blame to victims of sexual assault, justifying the actions of sexual perpetrators and discounting the violence of rape. Enthusiasm for porn often accompanies callousness toward women, dissatisfaction with a partner’s sexual performance and appearance, and doubts about the value of marriage. Such attitudes are clearly detrimental to relationships with women and could conceivably be linked to crimes against them.

But should we conclude that watching pornography causes these misogynistic beliefs and actions, as many social commentators assume? Most of the studies merely show a statistical association between pornography use and such traits. They do not reveal whether watching pornography begets them. For example, although heavy porn use may indeed cause callousness toward women, an existing callousness toward women may instead lead to pornography use. Alternatively, a third factor, such as personal problems of the user, may lead to both pornography use and callousness toward women.

Researchers have also asked the female partners of men who are heavy consumers of pornography how they feel about their partner’s habits. Psychologist Ana Bridges of the University of Arkansas and her colleagues found that although most of the women received low overall scores on a measure of distress about their partner’s porn use, most of them also endorsed some statements indicative of anguish. For example, 42 percent agreed that their partner’s porn consumption made them feel insecure, 39 percent that the partner’s porn use had a negative effect on their relationship and 32 percent that it adversely affected their lovemaking, hinting that the habit may have downsides.

Addicted to Porn?
Even if porn proves detrimental to its users and, in some cases, their partners, it may or may not be addictive. Scientists debate whether addiction is an appropriate term for behaviors such as excessive gambling, shopping, Internet use, sexual activity and viewing of Internet pornography. Those in favor of recognizing so-called behavioral addictions argue that some immoderate actions share core characteristics with alcohol and drug addiction. These include extreme indulgence and continued use despite a negative effect on the user.

Skeptics counter, however, that although people may partake excessively in certain activities and sometimes suffer detrimental life consequences, they rarely develop tolerance or obvious withdrawal symptoms—two hallmarks of addiction. Some critics further maintain that the label of “addict” adds unnecessary stigma to the problem. Others contend that this description lets people “off the hook” for socially problematic behaviors that are at least partly under their control.

Although researchers have just begun to explore the possible downsides of pornography use in general and Internet pornography in particular, the results of many studies of exposure to pornography suggest that excessive viewing of such material could sometimes be harmful. As a result, psychotherapists need to be alert to such behavior in their clients, especially when it impinges on their romantic relationships. A better understanding of how watching Internet pornography affects the men and women drawn to it may ultimately lead to meaningful treatments for those with a pornography habit that has hurt them and their loved ones.