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Move over, Netflix. You're not the only video streaming outfit to benefit from the COVID-19 lockdown.
In findings likely to surprise no one, new research shows Americans' pornography usage spiked dramatically in the early months of the pandemic, as stay-at-home orders limited other types of … outlets.
But the study, which was based on a nationwide survey and XXX website traffic reports, also found that by October, porn use had fallen to pre-pandemic levels. That was true, even for those who reported a big uptick in their erotica viewing habits at first.
What's more, researchers say they found no evidence the "porndemic" led to significant hikes in problematic behaviors, such as addictive, compulsive, risky, or unhealthy activities. They also uncovered no signs that depression or anxiety levels rose among avid porn users.
"The findings didn't really surprise us," says lead researcher Joshua Grubbs, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
"Yeah, people viewed a little bit of extra porn maybe there at the beginning of the pandemic, and then they kind of got back to their normal. That's exactly what I would have expected."
In the early months of the pandemic, some mental health experts warned that porn use would skyrocket, and they said that could lead to a rise in psychological and mental health problems already made worse by the coronavirus crisis.
But the new study found no signs those dire predictions were on target.
"There is no indication that people developed massive porn problems, or that porn addiction became a problem for more people," says Grubbs, a sexual science researcher and addiction specialist. "It just looks like people were bored at home, probably viewed porn initially, and then decided, 'All right, well, I've done enough of that, so now it's time to go bake some sourdough bread.'"
Justin Lehmiller, PhD, a sex research fellow with the Kinsey Institute who was not involved in the study, says the findings mirror his own work in the field.
"In early March last year, there were all of these predictions in the media that porn use and masturbation were going to skyrocket," says Lehmiller, who hosts a "Sex and Psychology" podcast. "But the data we collected really challenged that. We also found people were less active overall, they were masturbating less, and they were having less partnered sex for all kinds of reasons" unrelated to porn use.
1 in 5: Americans who say they have watched porn since the pandemic started
2 hours: How much time the average person reports watching porn
18.5 million: Pornhub.com searches that have included the word "corona" since the start of the pandemic; 11.8 million for "quarantine." Researchers say this suggests some Americans are "fetishizing" the coronavirus by viewing explicit content with participants wearing masks, gloves, and hazardous materials suits.
6.2%: Increase in Pornhub traffic reported on Aug. 24, 2020, when Zoom reported a 6-hour outage
Massive Spikes in Porn Site Traffic
Grubbs' research team found porn websites had huge boosts in online traffic in the early weeks of the pandemic, as Americans were forced to spend more time at home.
Pornhub, one of the world's biggest XXX websites, reported increases ranging from 38% to 61% — well above its astonishing 2019 average of 115 million unique visits per day (42 billion annually).
Regions with the most restrictive stay-at-home orders and lockdowns had the highest spikes in online visits, the study found.
But Grubbs noted that other, less steamy streaming services reported dramatic increases in traffic, too. Netflix and the BBC logged 16 million new subscribers in the first 3 months of 2020. That's nearly twice as many as in the last few months of 2019.
In addition, he says one other factor, above all others, was a likely driver of the higher Pornhub visits in 2020: The website decided to make its premium, subscription-only content available free early in the pandemic.
"So, the fact that Pornhub increased their viewership for a little bit there doesn't necessarily mean that a ton more people were watching a ton more porn," Grubbs says. "It probably just means that people were changing the outlets they were looking at because Pornhub was offering what was previously premium porn free for a few weeks."
Grubbs' study, which is now being peer-reviewed for publication in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, actually began before the COVID-19 crisis. But his team decided to continue its research to see what impact the pandemic might have -- if any -- on Americans' porn-viewing habits.
To reach their conclusions, pollsters analyzed porn site data and polled a nationally representative sample of 2,518 Americans over a 15-month period. Participants were surveyed about their porn use in August 2019 and at four times in 2020: in February, May, August, and October.
Those polled were asked about all types of sexually explicit material. But Grubbs noted studies have shown that 90%-95% of porn is consumed via the internet.
Among the survey's findings:
In May 2020, more people reported using pornography in the past month than at any other time point.
About 14% were viewing more porn in May than at the start of the pandemic, but by August, it was falling off; and by October, it had returned to pre-pandemic levels and those similar to all other users.
In general, pornography use trended downward over the course of the pandemic, for men and women.
Problematic porn use actually declined for men and remained low and unchanged in women.
"Collectively, these results suggest that fears about pornography use during the COVID-19 crisis were largely not supported by available data," the authors concluded.
Shane Kraus, PhD, a study co-author, says the big takeaway is that the stresses of the pandemic didn't cause Americans to become more voracious or out-of-control consumers of sexually explicit materials.
"If use did increase briefly, it could have been because of novelty, it could have been boredom, it could have been because some of these websites were offering free subscriptions," says Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and director of the Behavioral Addictions Lab there.
"But I think what we've generally seen is, for most people, there was a natural return to the way things were before."
From a public health standpoint, Kraus says the study of porn use in the age of the internet is a tricky but important area of psychological research. He says more should be done to examine the impacts on children of unlimited access to hardcore material online.
"There's reasonable concern about not wanting to over-pathologize sexual behavior because it varies across people, age, and place," he says. "What works for you might not work for somebody else, and that's totally fine, right? But when we think about problematic behavior, we're trying to see more objective signs that there's difficulty or it's impairing one's behavior or there's a loss of control."
Kraus suggests, for instance, that signs of problematic use might include viewing porn at work or calling in sick to view explicit material for many hours at a time. Other potential signs of trouble: Withdrawing from family or social situations to engage in porn use, or feeling like you can't stop doing it.
Grubbs agrees that out-of-control use of porn deserves more attention, with virtually unlimited access to explicit material online.
"I don't want to discount the possibility that someone out there might have developed such a problem during the pandemic," he says. "But looking at this big national sample, it wasn't like this was a common problem that came up at all."
Sex in the Time of COVID
Lehmiller says the greatest value of the new research is that it provides a glimpse into the connections between sexuality and mental health during a period of great national stress.
"It's a bi-directional relationship — our sex lives affect our mental health, and our mental health affects our sex lives — and so we really do need to spend more time exploring the complex interplay there," he says.
"But I think it's often not explored and addressed because sex is still somewhat of a taboo topic, and there's also very limited grant and research funding to study sexual behavior. Most of the grant funding that goes to sex research is specially focused on STD research and things like teen pregnancy prevention."
Lehmiller says that while Grubbs' study found "no broad, lasting changes" in porn use during the pandemic, his own research identified changes in Americans' sex lives in lockdown that provide an interesting comparison.
The Kinsey Institute surveyed Americans for 8 months last year about what was happening in their sex lives and found significant differences, depending on their relationship status.
"For singles, we saw that declines in [sexual activity] were steepest at the beginning," Lehmiller says. "But as the year went on, they were more likely to report having had casual sex or go on a date or to have tried online dating — so they started to get back out into the world as restrictions were lifted or relaxed."
For couples and Americans living with a partner, the pattern was similar, but for different reasons.
"They had to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic — being around each other 24/7 — and that increases the odds that you're going to get on each other's nerves, so you're going to be less interested in being intimate with one another," he says.
"So, for couples, there was this struggle of navigating that new kind of situation. But, again, as time went on, many people learned how to adapt to the new circumstances, so there was a rebound in sexual behavior."
"Porndemic? A longitudinal study of pornography use before and during the COVID-19 crisis in a nationally representative sample of Americans."
Joshua Grubbs, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Bowling Green State University, Ohio.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD, sex research fellow, Kinsey Institute.
Shane Kraus, PhD, assistant professor of psychology; director, Behavioral Addictions Lab, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Pornhub: "The 2019 Year in Review."
Frontiers in Psychiatry: "Internet and Pornography Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Presumed Impact and What Can Be Done."
Psychology Today: "How the Pandemic Is Changing Pornography."
Journal of Behavioral Addictions: "Pornography use in the setting of the COVID-19 pandemic."
Lx.com: "Porndemic! Porn Usage Has Risen Dramatically During the Pandemic."
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Cite this: Porn Use Spiked During the Pandemic - Medscape - May 27, 2021.