Most People Think Watching Porn Is Morally Wrong

In debates about the industry, it's easy to forget that most people think erotica isn't for them. 
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"All men look at porn .… The handful of men who claim they don’t look at porn are liars or castrates." That's what Dan Savage, a Seattle-based sex columnist, wrote a few years ago in response to a reader who was fretting about her boyfriend's affinity for erotica. By this point, his argument seems like a trope: All red-blooded men have watched porn. It's just part of life. Get used to it.

Whether or not Savage is right about how often people watch porn, they don't seem to be "getting used to it." According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, only 29 percent of Americans think watching porn is morally acceptable. Somewhat predictably, men and women have very different opinions on the issue: Only 23 percent of women approve, while 35 percent of men think it's okay.

These statistics suggest something wildly different from the Dan Savage view of the sex world. Even if it were true that all men watch porn at some point—which it probably isn't—65 percent of them feel bad about it.

One striking thing about these findings is the incredible variation in how people think about porn on a personal level and how they think about it on a legal level. Overall, 39 percent said they'd oppose legal restrictions on pornography, compared to the 29 percent who consider it morally acceptable. That means roughly ten percent of people disapprove of porn but don't think it should be illegal. The demographic breakdown reveals some unanticipated nuance. A twentysomething and her grandma are just as likely to think access to porn shouldn't be restricted on the Internet (42 percent), but the Millennial is five times as likely to think watching it is morally okay (45 percent versus 9 percent). Democrats and Tea Partiers have similar attitudes about legal restrictions against porn (41 and 40 percent opposed, respectively), and Tea Partiers are much more morally forgiving of erotica than those on the right who just call themselves Republicans: 27 percent versus 19 percent say it's okay. (Earlier this week, I noted a similar divide in the PRRI survey between Americans who support a right to gay marriage while still disapproving of gay sex.)

Recent debates about the porn industry haven't seemed to take this ambivalence into account. A Duke University freshman starred in hardcore porn videos and took to the blogs to defend her right to do so. Editorials about Britain's new Internet porn filter have focused on the government's right to regulate the web. Both of these are compelling and understandable points of concern, but they hinge on this issue of rights: The right to voluntarily work in the erotica industry without harassment, the right to enjoy sex work, the right to watch porn without interrogation from your government.

These are all valid issues. But even if 18-year-olds are free to make sex tapes and middle-aged men are free to watch them without Big Brother's scrutiny, there is a lingering moral question: Is watching porn a good thing to do? 

Different groups have very different ways of answering this question. Some were predictable. White evangelicals and people over 68 are the least likely to approve of watching smut: 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Millennials and people who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated approve of porn the most: 45 percent and 53 percent, respectively. 

But some trends are more surprising. White Catholics are twice as likely as Hispanic Catholics to find watching porn morally acceptable—28 versus 14 percent. People with an advanced degree are somewhat less likely than college graduates to think it's morally acceptable to watch (34 versus 40 percent). But both of those groups are significantly more likely than high-school grads to approve—only 23 percent of that group told PRRI it was okay. 

There were especially curious trends in how some groups saw the legal question versus the moral question. Roughly the same percentage of Generation X-ers (in this survey, people aged 34 to 48) feel like it's wrong and think it should be legally restricted, with 33 percent approving morally and 34 percent saying they'd oppose legal restrictions. Among Hispanic Catholics, on the other hand, only 14 percent approve morally, but 66 percent say they'd oppose legal restrictions. 

Most Americans simply don't approve of porn, in any sense.

There could be a shame factor at work. Just because people disapprove of something doesn't mean they don't do it—almost certainly, at least a few of the people who said they think watching porn is wrong still indulge once in a while. Respondents might have been ashamed to say they approve of porn on a poll question, or they might have been answering on behalf of their "better selves"—yes, maybe they watch it, but no, they don't think it's right. 

But even accounting for this, the data points to one major conclusion: Most Americans simply don't approve of porn, in any sense. Importantly, this isn't necessarily a call to action, especially because it's unclear what legal regulation of porn would look like, exactly: A government-imposed filter on certain websites? A system of Internet users opting in or opting out of the ability to see hardcore pornography, like Britain has created? Greater regulation of porn production in general?

But the sentiment still matters. Most people favor legal restrictions on porn, and an even greater number are morally uncomfortable with watching it. As emotionally charged discussions about erotica continue, it's worth remembering that most people fall somewhere between pro-porn feminists and the misogynist frat boys who made death threats against the student sex worker at Duke. Americans may understand the right to make and watch porn, but they still don't think it's a good thing.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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