Those who decry pornography claim that in men of all ages, but particularly in young adult men, XXX-rated videos increase risk of erectile dysfunction (ED). For example, here’s what the anti-porn site, YourBrainOnPorn, says: “There is a correlation between pornography consumption and erectile dysfunction that suggests causation.”
YourBrainOnPorn is wrong. The best research shows no cause-and-effect relationship between porn watching, per se, and ED.
The Most Cited Study Claiming That Porn Causes ED
This is a 2016 U.S. military report that blames porn for “an unprecedented increase” in ED among American soldiers. The researchers based this assertion on a quick literature review and all of three case studies of young soldiers who watched porn and reported ED.
From such a small sample, no scientifically valid conclusions are possible. In addition, the armed forces researchers were remarkably myopic. They assert that before the mid-1990s when porn began migrating to the Internet, only 5 percent of men under 40 reported ED, but that today, with porn just a tap away on phones, the figure has risen as high in some studies as 33 percent. They blamed porn without considering any other possible explanations. There are several:
- Viagra. Yes, porn exploded on the Internet during the late 1990s, but something else happened as well. In 1998, the FDA approved Viagra. Erection drugs changed the terminology of erection trouble from the stigmatized label, “impotence,” to the less demeaning ED. Thanks to Viagra and the other erection drugs, medical and media discussion of ED increased substantially. Since the 1990s, whether or not they view porn, men of all ages have become more willing to admit erection difficulties. It’s quite possible this greater openness—not porn—explains the purported increase in ED.
- Erection insurance. Erection drugs were developed for men over 50. But today, the majority of men who use them are younger—often substantially younger. Young men use the drugs not because they have ED, but as erection insurance so they don’t have to worry about staying hard during sex. Many men, from young adults through middle-aged men, tell doctors they sometimes have iffy erections and are worried about it. Most physicians are quick to prescribe erection drugs even though the men don’t have clinical ED. As erection-drug prescriptions have risen for men under 50, it’s created the bogus impression that ED has become more prevalent among young men.
- Soliders’ emotional stressors. ED has two major causes: cardiovascular disease and severe emotional stress. Both trigger physiological reactions that narrow the arteries that carry blood into the penis. Less blood, more ED. Few young adult soldiers have cardiovascular disease, but some do. It’s usually associated with smoking and obesity, both of which are associated with ED. On the other hand, many young soldiers feel severely stressed by deep, daily fears of facing combat in Iraq or Afghanistan where they might possibly get maimed or killed. That kind of stress can cause ED. The military researchers never mentioned this.
- How soldiers cope with stress. Soldiers stressed by combat or by the fear of being sent to war zones often cope by smoking or by drinking alcohol and/or taking anti-anxiety medication. Alcohol is the world’s top erection-killing drug and anti-anxiety medications are also associated with sex problems. But the military researchers ignored this. All they saw was porn.
The military researchers were not just myopic—in my opinion, their analysis is scientifically irresponsible.
The Best Study Showing That Porn Doesn’t Cause ED
It’s a 2019 study by Bowling Green (Ohio) State University investigators. They analyzed porn watching and ED risk among a reasonably representative sample of 877 American men age 18 to 60. They surveyed the men’s erection capacities using standard validated scales, and also assessed their moral feelings and religious beliefs.
A few porn-watching men reported ED, but overall, there was no link between the two. The researchers found “no evidence that mere pornography use is associated with changes in erection function. Sexually active men who also consume pornography showed very high levels of erection function. ED was rare. Our findings run counter to the popular narrative suggesting that pornography is driving an epidemic of ED.”
The Religion-Stress Connection
In the Bowling Green study, a small number of men reported both frequent porn watching and ED. They had one thing in common. They all held the most fundamentalist, conservative views about sex, and considered porn wrong, immoral, and/or sinful.
Thus, it seems that it’s not porn, per se, that causes ED. The real cause may be the substantial distress some young men feel when they masturbate to porn while believing that both porn and self-sexing are tickets to Hell. That distress releases the stress hormone cortisol, which narrows the penile arteries and reduces blood flow into the penis. Less blood, bye-bye erections.
When sex therapists reassure these men that virtually all men masturbate to porn, that it’s perfectly normal and won’t harm them, men with stress-related ED usually relax. Their penile blood flow returns to normal. And they recover their erection function—even as they continue to stroke to porn.
Porn, ED, and Men’s Refractory Periods
Since the millennium, the site I publish, GreatSexGuidance, has received hundreds of inquiries from men that go something like this: “I masturbate to orgasm watching porn, then afterwards, I can’t get it up. Porn is killing my erections. Help!”
Gentlemen, after orgasm/ejaculation—whether partnered or solo, with or without porn—you experience what sexologists call the “refractory period” (RP), an inability to raise another erection for a certain period of time. RPs increase with age. It may take teenage boys only a few minutes to raise new wood. But as men grow older, RPs extend to several hours, and among men over 60, sometimes 12 hours or longer. It’s neither masturbation nor porn that causes this, but the physiology of the sexual response cycle.
I tell these men: It’s not porn that’s killing your erections. You’re just trying to raise new ones before your refractory period has ended. Try this: After masturbating to orgasm, self-sex every hour or so to see how long it takes to raise a subsequent erection. That tells you how long your refractory period lasts. Don’t expect new erections until you’re past your RP. Repeat this exercise every couple of years. With age, RP increases, so it’s a good idea to recalibrate your expectations.
Porn Does Not Cause ED
Those who trumpet an epidemic of porn-fueled ED are mistaken. The best evidence shows that by itself, pornography does not cause erection impairment. The two causes of seemingly porn-related ED are:
- Moral or religious convictions that porn is reprehensible or sinful. Such beliefs cause a physiological stress reaction that reduces blood flow into the penis.
- No appreciation for the post-orgasm refractory period. Attempting to raise erections when it’s physiologically impossible.