Along with real-time news, cat videos, and pop-up ads, the internet has given us greater access than ever before to a decried — but certainly desired — product: pornography.
It's widely assumed that the number of people watching sexually explicit material has increased as a result of its widespread availability. But is this really true? And if so, has it substantially changed public attitudes toward porn?
Newly published research suggests the answers are yes, and no, respectively.
"A look at shifting attitudes and behaviors from 1973 to 2012 finds porn viewership has increased substantially among young adults," a research team led by Brigham Young University economist Joseph Price writes in the Journal of Sex Research.
Nevertheless, the researchers found those same youthful Americans' views on whether porn should be illegal "have not remarkably changed over this period."
Clearly, we're conflicted.
Traditionally, as people age, their consumption of porn decreases, while disapproval of the viewing practice increases. This complicates any attempt to determine whether attitudes have changed from one generation to the next.
Altogether, they examined 27,284 responses, focusing on two survey questions: Have you seen an X-rated movie in the past year? And do you think pornography should be legal for all, illegal for all, or legal only for adults 18 and older?
The researchers found "a big jump" in pornography viewing over time, with the largest increase occurring between people born in the 1970s and those born in the 1980s. While they note this increase is "smaller than conventional wisdom might predict," it's still quite significant.
Comparing "the current rates of pornography consumption among young adults to the rates of their parents' generation when that generation was the same age, we find ... a rather substantial change over time, with an increase in pornography consumption of 16 percentage points between young men in the 1970s and young men in the 2000s, and an increase of 8 percentage points between young women in the 1970s and young women in the 2000s," Price and his colleagues write.
"However, when we compare the two generations when they are both 18-26, we find no statistically significant change in their attitudes towards (the legality of) pornography, and this is true for both men and women," they add.
Why haven't attitudes loosened as viewership has risen? Price and his colleagues note that "the overall content of pornography has arguably become more objectionable over time. A more appropriate interpretation may be that later generations find their version of pornography more objectionable than earlier generations found their respective version of pornography."
Nevertheless, while the content of today's pornography may make us queasy, more people are clearly watching it, and the reason why isn't mysterious.
"Children born in the 1980s onward are the first to grow up in a world where they have access to the internet beginning in their teenage years," the researchers write, "and this early exposure and access to internet pornography may be the primary driver" of this increase.
An analysis at those same participants' responses as they grew older supports that interpretation — and suggests the traditional decline in porn viewing as people age may not occur in the future.
"Since 1999, consumption among the 1972 and 1961 male cohorts has stayed at about the same levels," the researchers note. "This finding provides a counterexample to the general trend that as cohorts get older, they view less pornography. The likely reason for this exception is that since about 15 years ago, most adults have had access to internet pornography."
This suggests that, in future years, as "the proportion of the population who has had access to internet pornography their entire lives increases, pornography consumption rates may be significantly higher than they are today."
Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.