Russell Brand is worried you're watching too much porn.

The British actor and comedian made news last week for making the video above, in which he discusses the impact of porn in his own life and asks whether the current ubiquity of lurid content -- running the gamut from literal porn to lingerie billboards -- might be having some negative consequences for our interpersonal relationships.

"Our attitudes toward sex have warped and perverted and have deviated from its true function as an expression of love and a means of procreation," Brand says. "I heard a quote from a priest who said: 'Pornography is not a problem because it shows us too much. It's a problem because it shows us too little.'" Meaning, in Brand's view, that it takes the experience of intimacy between two people and reduces it to a physical act and nothing more.

There may be something to this notion. You don't have to dig far online to find stories of men who spend so much time on the fantasyland of online porn that they have trouble with real-world intimacy. Porn may be changing the sexual expectations of women, too. A recent study suggested a link between online porn consumption and declining marriage rates, although given that the study also found similar links with finance, news and sports sites, some skepticism is warranted here.

Much of the concern around porn is predicated on the notion that we've seen an explosion of adult content in the past decade or so. It's undoubtedly true that with the Internet, the adult entertainment industry has become more visible, more mainstream and easier to access than ever before. But are more people watching more porn than previously? That's tougher to say.


New data from the General Social Survey suggests that porn consumption has been essentially flat over the past 20 years. Since 1987, the percentage of women who say they've watched an X-rated movie in the last year has declined, while the share of men has risen slightly. In 2014, more than twice as many men (34 percent) as women (15 percent) said they'd seen an X-rated movie in the past year. But taken on their own, these numbers don't necessarily suggest we've entered a brave new world of porn consumption.

Of course, the question may also be starting to show its age: Does anybody actually watch "X-rated movies" anymore, or do they just look at porn online? How would a person who only watches short porn clips on their computer answer this question?

And any time a survey asks questions like this, you have to worry about social desirability bias, or the tendency of people to not 'fess up to things that they think others may judge negatively. How would you respond if a stranger with a clipboard knocked on your door and asked you how much porn you watch?

 

The Pew Research Center has looked more specifically at the question of whether people are viewing porn online. They found that between 2007 and 2013, the share of online adults who say they watch adult videos doubled from 6 percent to 12 percent. But similar rates of increase were seen for several other types of video content -- politics, education, sports -- over that same period. Among adults who watched videos online, men were about three times as likely (25 percent) as women (8 percent) to watch porn videos.


American attitudes toward porn are evolving, as well. Since 1973, the percent of adults who say that all pornography should be illegal has fallen from 41 percent to 34 percent, while the share saying it should be legal, but only for those over 18, has risen from 48 percent to 62 percent. That shift has been far more pronounced among men than among women.

The past two years have seen that gap widen. In 2012, women were 12 percentage points more likely (38 percent) than men (26 percent) to say that all porn should be illegal. In 2014 the share of women saying that rose to 44 percent, while the share of men declined to 21 percent, leaving a gap of 23 points -- nearly twice as big as before.

There was a time when for most people, porn was a category distinct from everything else in your life. In order to see titillating images you had to buy a magazine, or go to a special theater. Now you can see much of the same stuff simply by looking at billboards along a highway, or watching the commercials during a football game.

Porn is now fully mainstream -- the blockbuster release of "50 Shades of Grey" a few weeks ago should leave no doubts about that. But it's less clear whether that means more people are actually seeking it out and watching it, or whether it's simply become part of the fabric of everyday life.