In a world where discussions about sexuality are increasingly prevalent, have you ever wondered what people believe to be the average pornography consumption habits of others? A recent scientific study sought to answer just that, shedding light on the often private and nuanced topic of pornography use in the United States. The research reveals intriguing insights into how Americans perceive the viewing habits of the “average man” and the “average woman,” and how these perceptions compare to reality.
The findings have been published in The Journal of Sex Research.
Understanding how people perceive and judge others’ behaviors is a fundamental aspect of psychology. Researchers were intrigued by the idea of investigating whether Americans accurately estimate the frequency of pornography use in both men and women. With the prevalence of pornography in modern society, exploring these perceptions could provide valuable insights into human behavior and the impact of societal norms.
“I think it’s important to explore how people construct their ideas about ‘normal’ sexual behaviors,” said study author Elizabeth E. McElroy (@icecreamsoc), a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Oklahoma. “Most people don’t tell their acquaintances all the details (or even anything at all!) about their sex lives.”
“That means how we imagine other people’s private behaviors doesn’t usually come from direct knowledge, and we are generally left to fill in the gaps with projections from our personal experiences or broad cultural archetypes. So, if you think about it, what we believe other people are doing behind closed doors reveals something of our beliefs about human nature as well as how we think we stack up compared to others.”
To unravel these perceptions, the researchers conducted a comprehensive study involving a large and diverse group of participants. A total of 1,127 men and 1,382 women were surveyed, ensuring a broad representation of ages, backgrounds, and beliefs. The researchers asked participants a series of questions about their own pornography use and their estimations of how often the “average man” and the “average woman” engage in such activities. They could choose from response options ranging from “Never” to “Once a Day or More.”
The study defined pornography for participants as “any sexually explicit films, video clips, or pictures displaying the genital area, which intends to sexually arouse the viewer.”
The researchers found that both men and women held remarkably similar estimates for each gender. When asked about how often the “average man” engages with pornography, men and women’s mean scores were nearly identical, suggesting a consensus that men view it about “2–3 times a month.” Similarly, when inquired about the “average woman,” participants had a consensus of “Once a month.” However, these estimations were not entirely accurate.
In reality, men reported a mean usage frequency of “Once a month,” whereas women reported “Once or twice.” This disparity reveals that most Americans tend to overestimate the frequency of pornography use in both genders. Interestingly, this pattern held true regardless of whether individuals were estimating use in their own gender or the opposite gender. In essence, people expected others to consume pornography more frequently than they do themselves.
Additionally, personal pornography use strongly influenced perceptions of others’ use. For every increase in personal use, participants estimated higher average use among both men and women. This effect was particularly pronounced when projecting their personal use onto their own gender, emphasizing the role of personal experiences in shaping these perceptions.
“Most people think others are using pornography more frequently than themselves,” McElroy told PsyPost. “I find that so fascinating. Since pornography is often associated with social stigma, our findings show evidence of a self-enhancement effect where perhaps people view their own use frequency as lower or more moderate than other people. The key exception to this was men who self-identified as ‘addicted’ to pornography, who thought other men used less than themselves even when their own usage levels weren’t elevated.”
Surprisingly, women who considered themselves addicted estimated significantly lower average use for the “average man.” This suggests that their self-identification as addicted may be influenced by perceptions of what is “normal” for men.
“Less than 5% of people imagined that an average woman watches pornography more frequently than an average man, which is not surprising given the cultural tropes that primarily focus on men’s sexual interests,” McElroy said. “We might assume that women who fell into this minority would be more frequent users themselves, so it was a little surprising to find this was not the case. Instead, it was very strongly related to a woman labeling her own behavior as an addiction.”
“Unfortunately, women’s sexual interest is generally labeled as ‘too high’ or ‘too low’ in reference to their (male) partner’s levels or by vague social notions of what men and women are supposed to be like. In this case, because their own use wasn’t particularly high, I suspect it was because these women were more interested in pornography than their partners.”
Age and religious beliefs also played a significant role in shaping perceptions. Older participants tended to estimate lower pornography use among both men and women, reflecting the changing cultural norms over time. Moreover, religious affiliation and religiosity had varying effects on estimations, with some surprising differences between men and women.
Men who were more religious (compared to men who were less religious) tended to believe that women, on average, engaged in pornography consumption more often. In contrast, when it came to women’s perceptions, their religious affiliation had a stronger influence on their views. Women who identified with specific religious groups (e.g., Catholicism) were more likely to perceive that the “average man” watched pornography more frequently than themselves. This suggests that religious affiliation, rather than the level of religious devotion (religiosity), played a significant role in shaping women’s perceptions.
“Overall, we found that people’s ideas about ‘average’ porn use were not very accurate, but that these projections did relate to both their own behaviors and cultural factors,” McElroy told PsyPost. “Of course, how much a person uses pornography themselves shapes what they think an ‘average’ amount is quite a bit. But so does a person’s gender, the era they grew up in, certain subculture influences, and whether or not they use addiction language to describe their own pornography use.”
While this study provides valuable insights, it’s essential to acknowledge its limitations. The researchers relied on self-reported data, which may not always accurately represent reality. Furthermore, the study used a cross-sectional design, meaning it captured data at a single point in time. Future research could explore changes in perceptions over time and delve deeper into causal relationships.
“I think there’s tons more to explore in how social dynamics (rather than actual knowledge) shape people’s perception of ‘average’ sexual behaviors,” McElroy said. “I’d love to see future studies about other potentially important contributors that were outside of our scope here, like sexual orientation and their partners’ behaviors.”
“Social dynamics that shift what’s imagined as ‘normal’ in other types of sexual behaviors would be intriguing as well. For example, what factors change people’s assumptions about ‘average’ masturbation frequency, age of sexual debut, or the inclusion of partnered activities that specifically focus on women’s pleasure?”
“I suspect people take these assumptions about how their sexual tendencies relate to the norm and adopt them as facts, which is bound to shape all sorts of attitudes and behaviors—like personal feelings of self-confidence or shame, moral judgments of others, relationship conflict, or stances on public policies,” McElroy added.
The study, “How Much Pornography Use Do Americans Think Is “Average” for a Man and Woman? Findings from a National Survey“, was authored by Elizabeth E. McElroy, Samuel L. Perry, and Joshua B. Grubbs.