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Why Do So Many People Watch Porn At Work? A Psychologist Explains

10th May 2022

The resignation of Conservative MP Neil Parish has left many people wondering what could possibly lead someone to think it acceptable to watch pornography in their place of work.

After being reported by female colleagues who witnessed his actions, Parish admitted that he had twice looked at pornographic content on his phone in the House of Commons chamber.

As Parish found, using porn at work can be career-ending. It is almost universally deemed unacceptable and is typically viewed as gross misconduct. And not only can getting caught cost you your job, it can also have severe repercussions for your personal relationships.

Psychologists often see pornography along a spectrum, with some viewing it as being relatively harmless or even helpful. But too much use, for the wrong reasons and in inappropriate locations can result in harmful distortions to our perceptions and values. This is considered problematic pornography use. Accessing adult content at work falls into the latter category. And yet thousands of people do it.

Who does it?
A US survey of approximately 2,000 adults carried out in 2014 found 63% of men had viewed pornography at least once at work in the previous three months - and 38% had done so more than once. Among women, 36% had viewed pornography at work in the past three months and 13% more than once.

Some self-selection bias of research participants may be involved here, so it is reasonable to say we do not fully know the exact size of the problem of workplace pornograpy use. While not as taboo as it once was, one in ten participants usually opt out of sexual questions on surveys and, with younger respondents having more liberal attitudes towards pornography than older people, surveys of workforces may occasionally provide strangely skewed results.

Research into workplace viewing of pornography tends to focus on professions with daily routine access to the internet as part of their work. The US National Science Foundation uncovered an epidemic of rampant "repeated pornographic use" among its own staff in 2009. Official data released following a freedom of information request from the Press Association showed that 24,000 attempts had been made to access pornography in the British parliament between the general election in June 2017 and January 2018. Although that includes any attempt to access an adult site while on the estate among both staff and visitors - including on personal devices - the scale of the problem is still surprising.

Why risk it?
A three-part study of 2,500 men and women in Hungary found eight different motivations behind internet pornography use. The most common reason given was simply pleasure - a motivation for 45% of respondents. Another 12% cited curiosity and 10% said they were indulging fantasies about unobtainable sexual experiences.

None of the eight motivations were strongly associated with problematic pornography use but some people said they used porn at work to manage stress or when they needed an emotional distraction, such as dealing with being in a bad mood. These two reasons have closer associations with problematic pornography because they potentially reflect a tendency to use pornography to cope with other problems.

It's possible that some people would use porn in the workplace for other deviant reasons - making it an act of low-level rebellion or to prove they are smarter than their employers by getting around the rules. Having a secret that nobody knows could be a driver. People enjoy feeling that they are getting one over on oblivious colleagues or it could even be a form of self-preservation for the over-worked.

Despite a general attitude against pornography in workplaces, a small number of workers are brazen in sharing pornography. Data from the Trades Union Congress shows 10% of women workers have been exposed to pornography in the workplace. In many cases such images are weaponised for harassment, making women fearful of reporting it.

Wider repercussions for colleagues
When caught, Parish insisted that he was not watching porn with the intention of others seeing him. Whether or not that is true, he engaged in these activities in a place where he could be seen. The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission lists displaying graphic pictures or video as examples of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is not always intentional and, indeed, there have been cases of employers trying to excuse displays of pornography by staff as "eccentric parts of the employee's creative brilliance".

Some workers may have sinister motivations for viewing pornography so openly. It may be their misguided and hostile way of demonstrating their perceived status or importance within an organisation, and a way of trying to intimidate others.

Parish notably continues to insist that his first use of porn was an accident, having stumbled across an adult site while looking at tractors online. People caught using porn in the workplace typically won't confess to the full extent of their behaviour unless presented with incontrovertible evidence. But access logs often reveal a much larger history of viewing than they initially admit to. Users of pornography often feel guilt, disgust and embarrassment, which limits their willingness to discuss any association with explicit materials until presented with evidence. Even then, they often using pre-prepared excuses involving innocuous searches "gone wrong" or being hacked to avoid the issue.

Those viewing pornography in workplaces are a liability to their organisations. Research found links between problematic pornography use and deliberate unethical behaviours in business, contributing to various unsavoury activities including dishonesty, self-serving conduct, and even fraud. This was explained by increased moral disengagement aided by dehumanisation of other people due to PPU.

So while the use of pornography at work may be more common than we think, and the reasons for doing it complex, it's clear that there are all sorts of potentially serious repercussions for crossing this line, both for the user and their colleagues.

This article is from The Conversation web site published on 9th May 2022.
Author - Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology, Birmingham City University
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