College student attitudes toward pornography use

College student attitudes toward pornography use

Sarah O’Reilly

Data from 305 confidential anonymous 50-item questionnaires on pornography were completed by students at East Carolina University and analyzed to provide the basis for this study. Over 90 percent (92.4%) reported ever having looked at pornography with over forty percent (43.1%) reporting doing so between one and two times a week. Significant gender differences included that men viewed pornography more than women, that men approved of pornography more than women, that women who viewed pornography were viewed as “loose,” that women were more threatened by pornography than men and that women were more likely to agree that looking at pornography was OK if one was not fantasizing about others while doing so. Limitations and implications of the data are suggested.


Pornography (defined here as sexually explicit material designed to arouse) permeates American society. Examples of the pervasiveness of pornography include pornographic magazines at the local 7-11, X rated videos in the back room of neighborhood video stores as well as sex toy “novelty” shops, cable TV (Cinemax has been dubbed “Skinamax”), and unlimited pornographic downloads from the Internet. Recent research on pornography has included demographic factors associated with using pornography (Stack, Wassermann, and Kern, 2004), definitions of online infidelity (Whitty, 2003), and the effect of pornography use by one’s partner on one’s self concept and intimate relationship (Bridges, 2003; Parker and Wampler, 2003; Schneider, 2000). This study examined gender differences in viewing pornography and attitudes about doing so among a sample of college students.


A fifty-item questionnaire was developed and subsequently approved by the Institutional Review Board at East Carolina University. To assess attitudes, the respondents were asked to indicate their beliefs (e.g. “Women are against pornography because they feel threatened by it”) about pornography on a Likert scale from “strongly disagree” (1), to “disagree” (2 ), to “agree” (4), to “strongly agree” (5). The category of “neither agree nor disagree” response was removed from the analysis with the difference of means tests utilized to identify significant differences. Chi square tests were also confirmatory and resulted in the same outcomes when comparative levels of measurement were used.


A nonrandom sample of 318 undergraduates at East Carolina University “completed” the questionnaire anonymously (the researcher was not in the room when the questionnaire was completed and no identifying information or codes allowed the researcher to know the identity of the respondents). The term “completed” is in quotation marks since some did not respond to all questions. The result was 305 usable questionnaires on which the data analysis was conducted.

Among the respondents in the usable sample, 58.7% were women; 41.3% were men. Their ages ranged from 18 to 45 with a median age of 20. Ninety-seven percent reported that they were heterosexual. In regard to current relationship, about half (49%) were not dating anyone or dating different people casually and about half (51%) were emotionally committed or involved. Three-quarters (74.5%) reported that they were sexually active with 38% reporting intercourse once or twice a week.

Regarding pornography use, 92.4% reported ever having looked at pornography with 7.6% reporting that they had never done so. In terms of frequency, over forty percent (43.1%) reported looking at pornography between one and two times a week. The most frequent type of pornography the respondents reported viewing was over the Internet (45.5%) followed by rented video (24.5%), TV (21.4%), and magazines (8.6%).

In terms of being conservative/liberal, the sample split (almost 50/50 exactly). Regarding religion, 70% saw themselves as religious with 30% seeing themselves as not very religious or not religious at all.

Findings and Discussion

Analysis of the data revealed several significant findings.

1. Men viewed pornography more than women. Over ninety percent (99.2%) of men in contrast to 88% percent of women reported having ever looked at pornography (p < .001). Their frequency of viewing pornography was also higher with 31.7% % of men and 3.8% of women reporting that they view pornography three to five times a week (p < .001). This finding is consistent with previous research which has documented that men are more likely than women to view pornography (Goodson et al. 2001; Michael et al. 1994). The source of viewing pornography was also different with 64% of men viewing pornography via the Internet (in contrast to 31.2% of women) (p < .001). Women were more likely than men to view pornography via television (31.2%) or rented video (29.8%) (in contrast to men- 9.6%. 17.5%), a statistically significant difference (p <. 001).

2. Men approved more of pornography than women. As might be expected, when the respondents were asked if pornography was “OK” or were they “completely against it”, men were significantly more likely (p < .05) than women (93.5% vs. 86.3%) to report approval. Parker and Wampler (2003) also found that women were less approving of pornography (in a variety of contexts) than men.

3. Double standard of pornography use. Although a higher percentage of men than women not only viewed but also approved of pornography, men were more likely than women to believe women who looked at pornography were “loose.” The respective percentages for men and women were 19.4% and 4.5% respectively. The difference was statistically significant (p < .001). That women have been viewed differently for engaging in the same sexual behavior as men is not new. Kimmel (2000) emphasized that the double standard continues to be reflected in today's sexual norms:

The double standard persists

today–perhaps less in what we

actually do, and more in the way we

think about it. Men still stand to gain

status and women to lose it from sexual

experience: he’s a stud who

scores; she’s a slut who “gives it up.”

Boys are taught to try to get sex; girls

are taught strategies to foil the boys’

attempts. “The whole game was to

get a girl to give out,” one man told

sociologist Lillian Rubin. “You

expected her to resist; she had to if

she wasn’t going to ruin her reputation.

But you kept pushing (p. 222)

4. Women were more threatened by pornography than men. In regard to the statement, “Women are against pornography because they feel threatened by it,” the respective percentages of agreement for men and women were 41.3% and 56.5% respectively. The difference was statistically significant (p < .04).

Schneider (2000) surveyed 91 women who were partners of sex addicts and found that they (the women) were devastated by their partners’ behavior. Two of her respondents wrote of their partners:

He put the porn and masturbation as

a priority to sexual relations with

me. I felt totally degraded, not much

of a woman, not “good enough” for

him. I felt betrayed, that he conned

me into marrying him.

His watching porn all the time has

left me feeling alone, isolated, rejected

and feeling “less than.” His

behavior hangs a sign on the door

that says, “You are not needed, I can

take care of myself, thank you very


5. Women less likely to approve of fantasizing about another while looking at pornography. In regard to the statement, “It’s okay to look at pornographic material while in a relationship as long as you aren’t fantasizing about the men/women depicted in the pornography,” the respective percentages of agreement for women and men were 72.8% and 32.8% respectively. The difference was statistically significant (p <. 001) suggesting that women were more threatened by their partner's viewing pornography if fantasizing about another was involved. A respondent in Schneider's study mentioned above said:

He does not have an actual human

mistress from the Internet, but the

Internet pornography is his “mistress”

that is becoming between us.

The idealized images of the perfect

woman make me feel inadequate.

Clearly, this woman (and she was not alone) was upset by her partner’s viewing pornography and felt that she could not compete with the perfect bodies being presented online. Our female respondents mirrored her feelings.

This study confirms much of what is already known about gender differences between men and women in regard to pornography. We were not surprised to find that men view pornography more and approve of it more. Similarly, it comes as little surprise that women are more threatened (than are men by their partner’s use) by their partners who use pornography, particularly when they feel they have been replaced by a fantasy object. What this study reveals as new to the literature is the fact that the double standard of sexual behavior also applies to pornography use, that women who view pornography are viewed as “loose.” Hence, while men might say publicly to their buddies that they are happy that their partners view pornography, privately they may view this behavior negatively.


The data should be interpreted cautiously. The convenience sample of 305 respondents is hardly representative of the 16 million college students throughout the United States (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003 Table 217). An item or two on the annual survey of college freshmen throughout the U.S. conducted by the American Council on Education and the University of Southern California would be insightful.

These data are also quantitative with no qualitative interviews to provide insights on the raw statistics. Subsequent research might include interviews with college men and women to elicit information not revealed in the survey. For example, an interesting focus might be the degree to which a woman’s self-concept and perception of her body/sexual self was related to her feeling threatened. Might women with lower self concepts and bodies more distant from the cultural ideal feel more threatened by their partner’s pornographic use? In addition, to what degree do partners look at pornography together and is this a source of relationship enhancement?

Finally, this study is an exploratory analysis that should be followed up with multi-variate analysis to develop a more complete and accurate understanding of the relationships.


The data suggest implications for students and faculty. Students might be aware that the double standard is operative with men being allowed to view pornography with impunity while women who do so are viewed as sluts. Similarly, faculty might be aware that most of their students have had exposure to pornography, some frequently, and that the Internet is their primary source. Faculty sometimes underestimate the degree to which their students are computer literate and may not be aware of the degree to which their computer time is spent looking at sexually explicit images. Furthermore, doing so may have an effect on their respective relationships.


Bridges, A. J. 2003. Romantic partners’ use of pornography: Its significance for women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 29: 1-14

Goodson, P., D. McCormick and A. Evans. 2001. Searching for sexually explicit materials on the Internet: An exploratory study of college students’ behavior and attitudes. Archives of Sexual Behavior 30: 101-109.

Kimmel, M.S. 2000. The gendered society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Michael, R. T., J. H. Gagnon, E. O. Laumann and G. Kolata. 1994. Sex in America: A definitive survey. Boston: Little, Brown.

Parker, T. S. and K. S. Wampler. 2003. How bad is it? Perceptions of the relationship impact of different types of Internet sexual activities. Contemporary Family Therapy 25: 415-430.

Schneider, J. P. 2000. Effects of cybersex addiction on the family: Results of a survey. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 7: 31-58.

Stack, S., I. Wasserman, and R. Kern. 2004. Adult social bonds and use of Internet pornography. Social Science Quarterly 85: 75-89.

Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003 123nd ed. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of the Census.

Whitty, M. T. 2003. Pushing the wrong buttons: Men’s and women’s attitudes toward online and offline infidelity. CyberPsychology & Behavior 6: 569-80



East Carolina University


Indiana University Northwest

COPYRIGHT 2007 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning