Did you know that according to some estimates, 30 percent of all the Internet bandwidth in the world is used to transfer pornographic material? Pornographic sites get more visits than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined.

That’s a lot of porn.

And if you've ever watched porn, you probably know that all that smut streaming isn't as seedy as some people would have you believe; many couples enjoy porn once in a while to spice things up in the bedroom, or to broaden their sexual horizons (so to speak) or just for entertainment on a lonely night. Whether it’s for solo pleasure or to share between lovers, watching pornography can be fun and positive.

But pornography also has a dark side. Some critics say - and there's some evidence to support this - that watching pornography can increase the rate of sexual aggression against women. Others claim that pornography is demeaning to women; that it normalizes the "rape myth"; that it distorts body image; that it gives younger viewers an unrealistic impression of what "normal" sexual relations look like.

Yikes. That's a lot of baggage. So should you love porn or leave it?

What's Porn Anyway?

Part of the problem with the debate around pornography is determining exactly what pornography is. Some people would say "Fifty Shades of Grey" counts. Others point to nude photographs. (Heck, some people would say the unedited version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" counts.) But there's a difference between pornography and other erotic media: Pornography’s sole purpose is to arouse quickly by focusing on the physical act, mostly penetration. Basically, porn is meant to turn you on fast by displaying explicit images. Erotica, on the other hand, tends to have more artistic purposes. Yes, it might be arousing, but it also aims to be more than that.

Pornography and Women

One of the major feminist objections to pornography is that it demeans women by portraying them as sexual objects for male pleasure. As such, they argue, pornography contributes to sexism by showing women as passive and submissive to men’s desires.

In an interview with The Guardian, Catherine McKinnon, an important figure in contemporary feminism, argues that "pornography affects people's belief in rape myths. So for example if a woman says 'I didn't consent' and people have been viewing pornography, they believe rape myths and believe the woman did consent no matter what she said. That when she said no, she meant yes." (Feminists are sexy! Read more in Feminists Have More Fun: A Sex Manifesto.)

Although this might be the effect of some pornography, other feminists believe that this is not universally true. In fact, some pornography is designed as a vehicle for the subversion of traditional ideas about female sexuality. For example, pornography can show dominant women, women who enjoy sex, women who initiate sex, women with a variety of body types attracting men (and women!), and women who have sex outside of a traditional, monogamous relationship.
To sex-positive feminists, pornography gives women sexual agency that anti-pornography activists try to deny them.

Is pornography too degrading to women? Some is, and some isn’t. And even when you're talking about a specific piece of pornography, whether it's demeaning might depend on who you ask.

Pornography and Censorship

There's a pretty big group of people who will argue that pornography is always bad, no matter the content or the context. (Although the statistics on pornography use suggest many of them might be watching it anyway.) These anti-porn crusaders call for the censorship of all pornographic material, often on a religious basis. For them, all displays of sexuality should be banned from public view, no matter how benign.

This is a rather extreme attitude that even some anti-pornography feminists decry. Most recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a measure that would force Internet service providers to block pornographic websites automatically. Sure, customers can still opt in to receive that content, but the real issue with this kind of censorship is that it tends to lump violent pornography, child pornography, erotic art and even sexual education together, which means that in many cases, viewers might be losing access to a lot more than just straight-up smut.

Plus, who's to say that pornography can't have a positive impact? Loving couples watch it together to spice up their sex lives. Lonely people watch it to help them through a dry spell. And yes, kids watch it to learn things that no one has the guts the teach them. You may or may not agree with these uses, but many people would tell you that when used in controlled and positive way, pornography can actually be part of a healthy sex life (even bad porn can be great!).

Finding the Sunny Side of Smut

As with any kind of gratifying pleasure, the use of pornography carries the risk of addiction. While there is some debate among psychologists and doctors as to whether pornography can become a true addiction or simply a compulsion, it’s not hard to find examples of people whose pornography consumption can become problematic.

Of course, most people who rent a dirty movie or two don't become addicts. After all, a healthy interest in sex is normal, and for some people, watching it is part of that interest. Even so, it's important to keep a few things in mind (hard, I know) when you're watching.

It Isn't Real
First, always keep in mind that pornography is pure fantasy. In the real world, erections tend to be more volatile, explosive orgasms less frequent and women much harder to please. Check out this great article by Michael Castleman, where he asks a married porn star couple how their on-screen acts differ from what happens behind the scenes.

It Becomes Less Stimulating Over Time
The more porn you watch, the more it takes to turn you on. This effect of pornography is well documented. The same thing can happen with a vibrator. That doesn't mean it's bad, but it might mean you have to take a step back.

How It's Made Matters
One of the major objections to pornography is the potential for abuse (and even slavery) in the sex industry. It happens. So, educate yourself on how your pornography is made. Make sure that your source of pornography is legal in your country and that nobody was forced or abused into it. By ensuring that your porn was made ethically and according to the laws, you encourage pornographers to follow these laws.

The Good, the Bad and the Horny

Pornography, in the words of The Times columnist Caitlin Moran, is just "people having sex". Watching people have sex can be a big turn-on and an indulgent pleasure on a quiet Friday night. Is pornography always a good thing? No. Like most guilty pleasures, porn is one where you can certainly get too much of a good thing. But you can make sure it remains a good thing for you.