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Is Pornography a Prisoner's Dilemma?

by Niklas Haas on January 2, 2021

Tagged as: life, philosophy, society, personal.

Update 2021-02-06: I’ve thought about this some more and I’m no longer happy with this blog post, but I’ll leave it up for the time being. I think that, in retrospect, I was severely overestimating the importance of the sex drive in dating. By my own hypothesis, I should cease desiring partnership after orgasm - but that is obviously not the case. If anything, it seems to be the opposite. So I don’t think the core assumption (d) is correct, and therefore the entire argument falls down.

I want to present an amusing thought experiment based on the following (not necessarily true) assumptions:

  1. Pornography is a weak substitute for real sex.
    1. Consumption of pornography reduces your sex drive.1
    2. Consumption of pornography is less satisfying than real sex.
    3. Consumption of pornography is more satisfying than sexual frustration.
  2. Having a higher sex drive leads to an increase in sexual activity.
    1. Specifically, having a higher sex drive makes you more likely to look past a potential partner’s shortcomings in exchange for the ability to have sex.
    2. This ability to look past a potential partner’s shortcomings (d) is instrumental in finding sexual partners and starting relationships with them.2

From this, we can reason:

  1. If everybody in a society consumes pornography regularly, …
    1. … people will be less strongly motivated to find sexual partners (a)
    2. … people will be less capable of finding people to have sex with (f)
    3. … people will be forced to consume pornography instead of having sex (g)
    4. … people will be less happy if they stop consuming pornography (c)

This forms a sort of Nash equilibrium: Everybody watches porn (i), therefore everybody is just sexually satisfied enough (f) to be unable to find other people to have sex with (g), thus perpetuating the cycle (h). From this conclusion, I raise the chilling argument that the normalization of pornography makes us, collectively, less happy as a species.

From an individual’s point of view, breaking the status quo seems impossible and/or not worth it. Subjecting yourself to abstinence makes no sense if it won’t increase your chances of finding other people to have sex with. Any change would have to be collective, for the categorical imperative to apply. On the other hand, in a hypothetical alternate scenario in which pornography doesn’t exist, I argue that people would be far more likely to satisfy their sexual needs by finding other people to have sex with. I strongly assume that such a society would be happier on average than the one we live in.3

This gives rise to a type of prisoner’s dilemma. Rationally, we might be all be happier if we decided to collectively stop watching porn and started having sex with each other. But individually, trying to break out of the current local optimum only makes sense if everybody else participates as well. And so we continue watching porn and becoming increasingly disconnected from each other. Since nobody seems to want to bother with real sex any more when pornography placates our sex drives for just long enough to, essentially, think clearly again.

In particular, I think it’s a type of unstable continuous prisoner’s dilemma where any significant amount of pornography consumption drives us down to the lowest common denominator in which everybody ends up consuming it. So, really, it’s less a dilemma and more a negative feedback loop with a fairly unstable global maximum.


This is an extremely oversimplified picture, focusing on one contributing variable alone, and giving it a lot of causal power in determining the rate at which people are having sex. Any rigorous study of these assumptions would need to investigate the claim of whether or not the consumption of pornography actually causes the current sex recession, or whether it might even be the other way around.

In particular, one damning piece of contrary evidence is that pornography has essentially been around forever. The only real counter-argument is that it’s being made more vivid (more realistic, more accessible, more fine-tunable), so maybe the effect only diminished in the past due to the comparatively low quality of pornography from those eras?

I also admit in being strongly biased in my reasoning due to being male, which makes me model the system from the point of view of male psychology. From my perspective, pornography plays a major role in modulating my sex drive, and my sex drive plays a major role in overcoming the hurdles required to try having sex with real people. I consider it an entirely reasonable objection to claim that these mechanisms are probably sufficiently different for women that the entire argument breaks down anyway.

And finally, you have a strong reason to distrust my reasoning because I’m a sexually frustrated male, therefore I have a strong reason to cope by finding retroactive rationalizations for my objectively undeniable failure as a human being.4

Update: I linked to this blog post online, generating a number of interesting observations, criticism and rebuttals. I highly urge you to read the thread on r/TheMotte to gain more insight.

  1. I think this is the most controversial assumption on this list. In particular, I also assume that consumption of pornography increases your sex drive, at least in the long term. But for this argument, I assume the short term placation of sexual urges is the dominant factor.↩︎

  2. Evolution provides a strong argument here. We know that the state of romantic attraction is, neurologically, equivalent to a psychotic episode. When you have a crush on somebody, your brain is uniquely powerful in rationalizing away any sign of them being less-than-optimal partners. I assume this ability was selected for due to it being instrumental in allowing us to desire each other enough to actually form relationships, to get over that initial hump of fear and uncertainty.↩︎

  3. An important note: Averages ignore outliers. Those who are truly at the bottom of the gene pool may have even worse lives in a society in which they can’t even use pornography as a cheap substitute for intimacy. Although, given the argument I made previously, being sexually frustrated may be more tolerable in the absence of pornography to reinforce the desire.

    In addition to this point, the dearth of sexual partners caused by pornography exacerbates existing imbalances in the system, leading to a society in which only the most genetically blessed among us are able to overcome the innate odds now stacked against them. It’s perhaps no wonder that more and more of our generation - of all genders - are increasingly sexless. The outliers are becoming the new norm.↩︎

  4. You might scoff at the idea of “successful copulation” defining my success as an organism, but then I would similarly counter-claim that “there’s more to life than sex” is either a cognitive denial mechanism that sexually frustrated people use to cope, or alternatively a way of people who do engage in sex of both minimizing other people’s struggles and humble-bragging their social dominance. Unto those I ask: Can you think of a single emotion as overwhelmingly powerful as reciprocated romantic attraction? Can you think of a single emotion as overwhelmingly depressive as a broken heart? To me, these are the most powerful emotions we experience, and they just so happen to be emotions based on the fulfillment of reproductive desire. Every other pleasure I can imagine pales in comparison to the unadulterated mania, the ceaseless bliss, the absolute ecstasy of pair bonding. Yes, there’s more to life, but it objectively sucks in comparison. Every utilitarian should conclude that maximizing our happiness hinges strongly on maximizing our ability to engage in it.↩︎