People have been finding ways to relieve the boredom of being stuck at home since varying degrees of lockdown have been imposed across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent research points to reduced sexual intimacy as a result of these restrictions, so it really should come as no surprise that porn viewing levels have increased. Our desire for social interaction and solace during the pandemic has driven the hyper-digitalisation and social media-isation of our daily lives.
Social distancing – no handshaking, hugging or kissing – poses obvious challenges for navigating sexual intimacy. Jennifer Powell and Andrea Walling note that technology has the potential to meet different sexual needs and desires. Brigid Delaney has highlighted skyrocketing sales of sex toys in Australia and New Zealand as more of us indulge in a little bit of “self-love”.
Joshua Grubbs has outlined why our interest in pornography has increased. Pleasure-seeking is the main reason. People also use pornography as a release to help with “stress, anxiety and negative emotions” – and the pandemic has provoked all of these.
In a Twitter poll in April, I asked: “Which of the following best describes ur online porn viewing habits as a result of the COVID19 pandemic?” Just over 60% of respondents (N=360) indicated their viewing had increased: “slightly more” (21.9%); “moderately more” (15.8%); and “significantly more” (22.5%).
Although not a representative poll, the results resonate with data from Pornhub, one of the world’s most popular porn websites. Globally, daily traffic to Pornhub started to rise in late February with above-average spikes in mid-March. Spikes in Australia started slightly sooner – March 4-6.
Read more: Porn use is up, thanks to the pandemic
Metro-sexuality and porn
A disproportionate number of porn viewers live in the capital cities.
Aggregated data from Pornhub for January 1 to March 31 show almost 80% of Australian traffic came from three states: New South Wales (31.6%), Victoria (27.1%) and Queensland (20.6%). This corresponds with their shares of estimated resident population – 31.9%, 26% and 20.1% respectively. Other states and territories, save Tasmania, had similar patterns in traffic share.
However, the largest capital cities – Sydney (29.2%), Melbourne (25.9%), Brisbane (16.3%), Perth (9.6%) and Adelaide (7.2%) – accounted for a disproportionate share of online traffic relative to population share – 20.9%, 19.9%, 9.9%, 8.2% and 5.4% respectively. The eight capital cities accounted for almost 91% of traffic despite having around 68% of Australia’s population.
The disparity in traffic volumes between metropolitan and regional areas appears to be due, in part, to relatively poorer internet infrastructure and speeds outside the major cities. Other non-technological factors are probably at play, but more social science research on porn viewing is needed.
The largest increase in traffic was in Brisbane. Here volumes in the last week of March were almost 20 indexed points higher than the first week of January. Perth had the second-highest growth, up 14 points over this period.
Traffic growth during March in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide was above the national trend. Although growth for Melbourne and Sydney was below the trend, this is explained by both cities already having high traffic volumes.
The surge in traffic during March coincided with more people working, studying and staying at home due to restrictions on social gatherings. The closure of bars, clubs, casinos and cinemas, plus the effective suspension of hook-up apps, has reduced opportunities for face-to-face flirtatious interactions that might lead to sexual intimacy. Ultimately, people have sought pleasure via online pornography.
How do cities’ porn preferences vary?
What types of porn have Australians been indulging in?
“Lesbian” porn retains the overall title of top-ranked category across capital cities. It ranked first for Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Sydney; second in Melbourne; fifth in Hobart and seventh in Darwin. The top-ranked categories in the latter two cities were “Anal” and “Bondage” respectively. “Anal” porn ranked seventh in overall capital city terms and was highest in Perth (fourth) and Canberra (fifth) after Darwin. Bondage porn does not rank in the top 10 of any other capital city.
Hobart and Darwin had notably more diverse porn interests than the larger capital cities where preferences tend to be more consistent.
Japanese-categorised porn made the top 10 of only three cities back in 2018: Canberra (sixth), Sydney (seventh) and Melbourne (ninth). During the pandemic this category of porn was in the top 10 of all capital cities. It is now the second-most-popular category overall.
MILF porn, which has long featured in the “top 3” categories of porn, appears to be losing some ground, ranking fourth overall in the cities.
In contrast, interest in “Amateur” porn has surged. It ranks second in Adelaide, Canberra and Perth, and third in Melbourne and Sydney.
The heightened interest in this category mirrors an increase in the number of people producing “Amateur” porn via platforms such as MyFreeCams, Chaturbate and OnlyFans. The pandemic has arguably played a role here, but so too has austerity and the rise of the gig economy.
The category “Popular with Women” made it into the overall top 10 list, driven by interest in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. This points to a wider trend of increasing female viewership of porn - females now account for about 30-35% of viewers in Australia.
The “top 10” categories for each capital city are shown below.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Australians to stay at home, the internet has become a lifeline for maintaining professional, social and personal relations. It has also been a medium for sexual exploration. Porn preferences across Australia’s major cities have shifted somewhat since 2018, which points to a dynamic (sub)urban cosmo-sexuality.
As long as social distancing restrictions prevail, we can expect more interest in online porn. We might even see more spikes in May, being International Masturbation Month.