Is Watching Porn A Sin? Modern, Faith-Informed Ethical Considerations

Watching porn isn’t a sin. In fact, it can be really good for you (and your sex life with others).

Is Watching Porn A Sin? Modern, Faith-Informed Ethical Considerations

Is Watching Porn A Sin? Modern, Faith-Informed Ethical Considerations

Is Watching Porn A Sin? Modern, Faith-Informed Ethical Considerations

Updated
February 11, 2020
Medically Reviewed by
18 minute read

Porn can be a healthy way to express and explore one’s sexuality. At the same time, people have very different and very strong views about it. Here’s an overview of all the ethical considerations around watching porn to help you make thoughtful decisions about it based on health research, modern religious teachings, and insights from theologians and psychologists.

Is porn bad?

No. In general, watching and masturbating to ethically-produced porn is a harm-free safer sex practice with no direct negative effects on your physical or mental health. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a porn-free lifestyle if porn doesn’t align with your particular values, priorities, faith, relationship agreements, or personal needs. Both choices — enjoying porn regularly or choosing not to watch porn at all — can be perfectly healthy as long they’re informed, made without pressure or guilt, and not interfering with your day-to-day well-being.

“The main thing that I tell my clients is if your porn use isn’t harming anyone or yourself, then it’s fair game,” AASECT-certified sex therapist Dr. Janet Brito tells O.school. “Healthy porn is something that you use for sexual arousal, with purpose, and without harming yourself or others. It is best when there is an awareness that it is a form of entertainment and not necessarily the same IRL.”

Some religions — particularly Christianity and Islam — do view porn use as a sin or immoral act because it is seen as engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage and without the goal of procreation. However, there are varying philosophies regarding porn within these religious communities, and many people of faith do watch porn.

What the Bible says about pornography.

There are no biblical scriptures that directly address pornography.

There are several passages that teach against sex in general, including adultery (sex outside of marriage), lust (having sexual desire for others, particularly for people you’re not married to), debauchery (described in the dictionary as “extreme” indulgence in bodily pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure), and sexual immorality (never quite defined). Most notably, in Matthew 5:28, Jesus says that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Taken together with warnings in the Bible about temptation, some Christian teachers and scholars make the case that watching porn is a sin.

But not all Christians think that porn is bad.

Some Christians believe there can be such a thing as “Christian porn,” for example, that only shows married Christian people having sex. Others argue that, while watching porn may be sinful, it’s not any more egregious than, say, yelling at your wife.

“Christians often want to talk as though there’s a Christian way of thinking about things, but it’s actually really complicated to work out what a Christian way of thinking about things is,” Dr. Marika Rose, a Christian theologian and senior lecturer in philosophical theology at the University of Winchester, tells O.school. “It depends on what you want to emphasize. You might want to emphasize, for example, bits in the Bible that suggest that sex between people of the same sex is sinful. Or you might find ways of saying, actually, if we read that in context, we can understand it in a different way that makes it possible.”

All to say: There’s no one right answer! Particularly as social norms change, more and more Christians are reconsidering how to think about sexual ethics and how they apply Jesus’s teachings in modern life. As Dr. Rose points out, most Catholics use contraception, and most Christians of all denominations have sex outside of marriage. “That opens up the possibility of porn and thinking about porn in other ways,” she explains. “Generally I think you’ll find probably almost as many opinions about it as there are Christians.”

How to think about porn as a Christian.

When thinking about porn use — or any sexual activity — from a faith perspective, Dr. Rose cites the teachings of Ted Jennings, a theologian at the Chicago Theological Seminary. She explains:

“Christians often think... that there are rules. [But Jennings’] argument is, what happens if, with every situation, we go into it thinking not, is this bad or good? But [instead], what does it mean to practice justice and mercy in this situation?

“So the question is not, is it okay to watch pornography? But how is my decision to watch pornography affecting me? How is it affecting the people around me? The other people I have relationships with [and] the people involved in producing that pornography. When you’re worried about being a good person, you’re not really thinking so much about the ways that your actions impact people [and instead thinking], ’Can I feel good about myself?’ And I think that we get into much more interesting and useful conversations when we say, ’What impact is this having on people around me? Is it helping me to become more fulfilled as a human being?’” 

Ethical issues around pornography.

Okay, so let’s dive into the ethical issues around pornography that are relevant to all of us, no matter our religious beliefs or lack thereof.

1. Porn industry working conditions

Some people express concerns about the working conditions of the performers in porn films. However, porn is a regulated industry in the U.S.—there are regulations regarding pay, STI testing, and workplace conditions. Porn performers are professionals their jobs and get paid for it, just like workers in any other field. “Porn itself is a form of entertainment, and when the actors and actresses are treated ethically (i.e. ethical porn), it is a valuable occupation if that is what the person desires for themselves,” Dr. Brito says.

There is certainly some abuse that takes place in the production of porn, in addition to employers, agencies, and production companies that do not pay performers fair wages. That’s why it’s good to know where your porn is coming from and whether the production companies involved are known to have positive, healthy working conditions and fair wages for their performers. These are considered bare-minimum standards for consideration in what’s known as “ethical porn” or “feminist porn.”

Importantly, ethical porn consumption usually means paying for it—how else would performers get paid? “That would be the most responsible thing, and in essence it would be an act that you show that you respect the folks performing for you,” Dr. Brito says.

2. Degrading women

Some people argue that porn is inherently degrading to women because of the way it objectifies them. Indeed, there’s a lot of porn out there that’s explicitly geared toward straight men and does not grant a ton of agency or personhood to the female characters. That said, there’s also plenty of porn that’s respectful of its female cast and characters—in fact, for many people, porn can be one of the first places to witness women experiencing sexual pleasure and having orgasms during sex.

It’s also important to note that porn is intended to be a fantasy and a form of entertainment—not something that’s representative of reality. Porn can also be a way for people to explore sexual fantasies that excite them but that they may not be interested in exploring in real life—themes of dominance and submission, threesomes and orgies, sex involving pain, etc.

Jessa Zimmerman, an AASECT-certified sex therapist, notes that any person’s philosophy or decisions around watching porn shouldn’t be based around shame or rejection of their erotic selves: “It’s important not to pathologize what turns us on,” she explains. “We each have things we find erotic or arousing, and porn tends to tap into that. Instead of villainizing the porn, someone may need to understand and accept what they find erotic.”

3. Inaccurate portrayals of sex

Because porn depicts exaggerated, unrealistic sexual scenarios, porn can be problematic when it’s a person’s only form of sex education. That’s why it’s so important for schools, families, and the media to provide accurate, comprehensive, research-based sex education to young people. It should also be stated that porn does typically have a diversity problem (it typically displays white, straight, cis people), but the reality is that porn simply reflects popular culture. We should all be advocating for more diverse representation in all forms of media, from movies to TV shows to porn.

Like with many of the ethical issues around porn, ethical porn and feminist porn offer a great salve, taking care to produce sexual scenes featuring people with diverse races, genders, and sexual orientations.

4. Breaking relationship agreements

If you’re in a monogamous relationship, some people argue that watching porn inevitably harms your relationship and pushes you apart. But in the scientific literature, there’s conflicting research about the way porn use functions in our relationships. Some research has found watching porn is associated with no effects or even positive effects on couples’ sex lives, whereas other studies have shown watching porn is associated with lower sexual and relationship satisfaction among couples.

Dr. Brito says any such negative effects might be related to someone using porn instead of having sex with their partner or to avoid connecting with their partner, or using porn in secret because they believe (or know) their partner would be upset at them for using it. Any secrets between couples can push them apart. Additionally, couples who have different opinions about porn use can sometimes face negative relationship consequences when they’re unable to communicate openly about their feelings and make compromises.

“Distress in your relationship over porn consumption could cause stress and conflict,” Zimmerman says. “But plenty of people watch porn, alone or together, and have a thriving relationship and sex life. Again, it’s about the extent of viewing, the reasons for viewing, and how people feel about it that create any negative consequences.”

If you and your partner have monogamous agreements—i.e. have agreed not to have sexual relationships with others—it’s possible that one partner could view watching porn alone as a breach of that agreement. On the other hand, many people see porn as just a part of masturbation and don’t mind at all mind their partner watching it. For example, a 2015 survey found 76% of women say porn doesn’t affect their sex lives or relationships at all. If you’re in a monogamous relationship and aren’t sure how your partner feels about, you can gently broach that conversation. If you’re both cool with it, then there’s no issues here.

How porn affects your health.

Research is still emerging on other ways increased, long-term porn use affects us. One study, published in 2014, did find people who watch porn more regularly tend to have smaller striatums, a part of the brain associated with the reward system. But a 2015 study found porn users actually had stronger sexual responses and stronger sexual desire for IRL partners. It was also unrelated to men’s erectile functioning.

What we do know is that the simple act itself of watching porn does not negatively affect your health in any way. A person’s context, however, can alter the experience.

Shaming people for using porn can cause negative mental health effects.

Because some communities and cultures actively discourage porn use, some people experience shame, guilt, or distress around watching porn. For example, some studies have found porn use can lower people’s mental well-being.

“Porn use that feels chosen and in control would have no negative consequences. Shame and guilt around the viewing would be emotionally harmful,” Zimmerman explains. “It’s more about how someone feels about their viewing.”

In other words, these negative consequences are likely not a function of porn use itself but rather the negative context it’s in. For comparison, consider the fact that LGBTQ+ people are much more likely to struggle with their mental health than cis, heterosexual folks. This isn’t because being queer is bad for your mental health but rather because of the context: LGBTQ+ folks regularly deal with discrimination, bullying, physical violence, social isolation, and attacks on their rights and dignity. That context is what creates negative mental health consequences, not queer identity itself.

Many people are able to watch porn regularly with no negative emotional consequences and without any effects whatsoever on their romantic relationships. Context matters.

Being shamed causes distress, not porn. If you recognize that watching porn is just a fun form of entertainment and a way for you to get turned on, then it shouldn’t have any negative consequences for your mental health.

Compulsive behavior.

According to AASECT, the leading body governing sex therapists and other sexuality professionals, there’s no such thing as a “porn addiction” or “sex addiction.” There just isn’t enough empirical evidence to validate such concepts.

That said, anything can be used compulsively or as a way to distract one’s self from life’s problems. “If they are feeling bad about themselves for watching it or it is affecting their relationships, interfering with their job, they are causing harm to others or themselves, then it can be a problem,” Dr. Brito explains. “They are using it to escape or avoid work, life, relationships, themselves. In this case, they describe feeling down and detached.”

Again, the pornography itself isn’t the problem—it’s how it’s used that causing distress. If none of these apply to you and you’re just watching porn a few times a week without any effect on the rest of your life, you’re probably fine.

Healthy reasons for watching porn. 

- An aid for masturbating

- Getting in the mood for sex with a partner

- Exploring new sexual interests or fantasies

- Engage with sexual interests you wouldn’t want to experience in real life

- A sexy activity to do as a couple

- Showing a partner sexual activities or positions you might be interested in trying together

- A way to relax and pass the time

Watching porn is a personal decision, which can be informed by your personal values, your faith beliefs, and your sexual needs. If you’re struggling with the way you use porn or the feelings that come up when you do it, talk to a trusted professional or adult. In general, as long as it feels good to you and isn’t harming yourself or others, there’s nothing to worry about.

Kelly Gonsalves

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor whose work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Vice and many others. Right now she's facilitating relationship wellness education as the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen, and she also pens a monthly sex column called “Sex IRL” at HelloGiggles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with her latest reporting and other steamy escapades: @kellyagonsalves

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