How much pornography are Americans consuming?

Pornography has been around for centuries. Ancient brothels contained images of sex acts etched on walls, creating a menu from which a curious customer could select a desired act. Today, the Internet allows people to view those same acts on any computer, and in high resolution. The combination of accessibility, affordability, and anonymity that Internet pornography offers has led to more porn produced and consumed than ever imagined. The changing nature of pornography necessitates an updated look at how many people use it and what compels them to do so.

Pornography use is a decidedly gendered behavior, even more so than masturbation. Men use pornography much more often than women and have done so for decades.44 The Relationships in America data reveal that 43 percent of men and 9 percent of women report watching pornography in the past week. On the flip side, far more women than men have not used pornography recently: 34 percent of men and 72 percent of women report not viewing pornography in at least a year, if at all.

Figure 10.1Past week pornography use, by age and gender
60-YEAR-OLD MEN ARE STILL ONLY SLIGHTLY LESS LIKELY TO HAVE VIEWED PORNOGRAPHY WITHIN THE PAST WEEK THAN MEN IN THEIR 20S AND 30S.

Many associate porn use with teenagers and young adults. Is that fair? Are pornography consumers mostly young, or are older adults just as likely to use pornography? To find out we calculated the percentage of respondents at each age that reported viewing pornography within the past week. Figure 10.1 shows that for men pornography viewing peaks in the 20s and 30s before beginning to diminish slowly among older men in the sample. Nevertheless, 60-year-old men are still only slightly less likely to have viewed pornography within the past week than men in their 20s and 30s. Among women, however, there is a more linear downward trend in pornography use with age. While 19 percent of women under age 30 report viewing pornography in the week prior to the survey, only three percent of women in their 50s report doing so, meaning that—unlike men, the youngest women are over six times as likely to have viewed pornography recently as the oldest women.

Figure 10.2Percent viewing pornography within past week, by religious affiliation (attend 3+ times per month)

Religious groups care about—and often seek to combat—the influence of pornographic material among congregants. Just how do religious groups fare with respect to the pornography consumption patterns of their parishioners? It would appear that religious affiliation itself is associated with moderately lower levels of pornography usage. While the religiously unaffiliated (“Nothing/Atheist/Agnostic”) report the highest rates of pornography usage within the previous week for both men and women, pornography use is far from absent among the faithful. Slightly less than 40 percent of male Protestants and Catholics report using pornography in the week prior to the survey. Those who attend religious services regularly view pornography at slightly lower rates, but pornography usage is still common among male churchgoers as 27 percent of Christian male attendees report pornography use in the week prior to the survey. Religiously conservative groups such as traditional Catholics, Mormons, and Pentecostals report the lowest rates of pornography viewing. Meanwhile, men self-identifying with less-conservative Christian affiliations have higher rates of pornography usage than those affiliated with more traditional or conservative groups, although the effect is much more pronounced among Protestants than it is among Catholics. (Unfortunately, for smaller religious groups like Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, sample sizes were not sufficient to yield reliable results.)

Figure 10.3Percentage using porn past week, by religious service attendance

Religious service attendance also matters for pornography use. Weekly church attenders are the least likely to report pornography use in the past week, while those who rarely or never attend do so at double the rate. Although some of the difference in pornography use between those who affiliate with and attend American churches may be due to users avoiding congregations that are perceived to be more anti-pornography (or simply more conservative about sex), difference in usage rates are fairly stark, and are not likely to be accounted for entirely by self-selection.

Pornography is a rapidly evolving part of American culture, and is fast becoming taken-for-granted. The effects of this have yet to be properly documented, and the debate in scholarly literature about the benefits and consequences of pornography use continues.


44 Patterson, Richard, and Price, Joseph. “Pornography, Religion, and the Happiness Gap: Does Pornography Impact the Actively Religious Differently?Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 1 (2012): 79-89.

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