Many workers would admit to taking a break from work to scroll through Instagram, shop for a new pair of sneakers or even browse a new dating app. But what about watching pornography? It’s certainly taboo, but psychologists, adult-content platforms and cyber security experts alike believe it’s become more prevalent, as online porn has become easier and more popular to access.
There is little academic research available on the proliferation of porn consumption during the workday, but some surveys throughout the past few years suggest it is not uncommon – which may surprise some workers. One global survey of 2,000 people for Sugarcookie, a digital lifestyle magazine, revealed more than 60% of people questioned had watched porn at work. And more than half of remote workers admitted watching adult content on devices they also used for work-related tasks, in a 2020 survey for security giant Kaspersky.
Global research last year for Pornhub, the world’s largest adult-entertainment site, supports the idea that people are watching content during working hours. According to the data, while 2200 to 0100 was the most common time to watch porn, 1600 was the second most popular slot. While some believe daytime viewing may be connected to the remote-working trend (more on that later), the site’s data suggested a similar mid-afternoon spike even before the pandemic.
High-profile media reports about people caught watching porn during working hours have highlighted awareness of its prevalence. These range from British MP Neil Parish stepping down in April after viewing adult content on his phone in parliament, to a Swedish prison guard having his salary docked for looking at porn at work, and an Australian airline engineer getting fired for accessing adult content on a tablet owned by his employer.
Given the high risk of punishment if they are seen, it's fair to wonder why exactly people might choose to watch porn at work or on company devices. Plus, experts and bosses alike are asking questions about whether remote working is affecting the trend, and what impact it’s having on employees and businesses.
Psychological research suggests the most common reasons people watch porn are because they’re bored or want to distract themselves from other emotions. Adult content is also used for fantasy (experiencing or witnessing things that aren’t available in your own sex life); curiosity and self-exploration (understanding your own personal desires); and, of course, for personal sexual pleasure.
According to Craig Jackson, a professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University, UK, almost all these factors influence people accessing porn in the workplace. But Jackson says it’s important to be aware that most people who view adult material in physical workspaces don’t tend to use it in the same way they might at home.
“I think we have this view that if someone's accessing porn at work, they are somehow secretly masturbating at the desk or they're disappearing off to the toilets to masturbate,” he says. “It's more of a distraction.”
In particular, he says, disgruntled employees may use porn as a form of “stress relief or a coping mechanism”. “Many workers in organisations feel faceless. In the absence of good leadership, they feel overlooked, underutilised, under-challenged, under-promoted … and [porn] becomes a way of coping with how mundane and unpleasant the reality of their work is.”
For some, choosing to watch pornography at work may also be about chasing a sense of victory or rebellion against an unsatisfactory employer. In analogue times, recalls Jackson, it wasn’t uncommon for unhappy staff to sneak off to read horse-racing predictions in the newspaper for half an hour. Viewing porn, he says, “is sort of a digital version of that, because not only are you stealing work time, you’re also doing something online that’s taboo and that [you know] you’re not allowed to do”.
But even staff who enjoy their jobs might be tempted to access porn, adds Paula Hall, an addiction therapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy. She says porn is sometimes used as a “reward system” by high-performing employees. “They’ve just got a sale, had a win, they’ve just finished a piece of work online and it’s a treat,” she explains. “We might have a cup of coffee and a cake… somebody else might watch pornography.”
Finally, despite many companies stepping up IT security in recent years, office-based porn habits can develop simply because work computers and servers aren’t clever enough to spot them, says Jackson. “Many workers have found that their organisation’s IT system for monitoring and blocking adult material content is not very sophisticated at all,” he says. “Like many things in psychology, if you do it and it makes you feel good and there are no immediate negative consequences, you're going to do it again and again and again and again.”
Of course, swapping a spreadsheet for a scroll through adult content is much easier to do if you’re working from home, rather than a factory floor or open-plan office. There is no risk of a colleague getting a glimpse of your browser, and you can access it on your own devices via a private wi-fi network, disconnected from any work servers.
Unsurprisingly, global traffic to porn sites rocketed when many workers switched to home working during the start of the pandemic, with academic research concluding this was partly driven by high levels of stress and boredom, alongside social isolation. Yet by October 2020, according to a study based on a self-reported survey, porn usage had largely returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Today, while there's no new data on porn consumption linked to remote working, Hall believes the ability to watch porn at home during regular working hours may have affected some people’s porn-viewing habits, thanks to the ongoing blurred boundaries between work and leisure time.
Hall reports seeing increasing numbers of clients who have developed porn addictions while working from home since the pandemic, often with a damaging impact. “It’s so commonplace in my client group… people struggling to complete assignments on time due to watching porn, or finding they’re working till 2 a.m. to meet a deadline because they’d spent the day online in sex-chat rooms.”
Wendy L Patrick, a San Diego-based career trial attorney who writes about workplace crimes and violence agrees. “Watching pornography is much easier behind closed doors, and much easier at home than at the office,” she says. “Remote work has provided more time, space and unaccountability for employees.”
But others are unconvinced the pandemic has significantly changed people’s daytime browsing. Jackson points to research which suggests many remote and hybrid workers overcompensate for increased flexibility, taking fewer breaks than when they were in the office full-time. “I don't think working from home suddenly turned us all into a bunch of opportunistic porn merchants, because we’re too busy working,” he argues. “The one difference is, of course, that what I do on my Internet service provider at home is none of my employer's business. So, there's always the temptation there.”
Most employers are still likely to classify viewing porn at work or on company devices as gross misconduct, says Jackson. In most instances, he says people will likely be fired or asked to leave quietly. In fact, after studying copious employment tribunal cases in the UK and attending global conferences discussing porn use at work, he says he has “never known a case where someone has accessed adult material at a workplace and it has ended well”.
The best scenario for those who are found out, he says, is if they can prove a dependency that their employer is sympathetic to, and be offered counselling or therapy as a prerequisite for keeping their job.
Patrick argues that employees’ porn consumption during office hours can also have a wider impact on organisations, such as contributing to toxic work cultures. “Pornography often includes dehumanising sexual scripts,” she says. “Internalising this orientation through repeated exposure can decrease the enjoyment and productivity of workplace relationships, sometimes leading to insensitive, inappropriate interactions.”
In the worst cases, she says, this could lead to sexual harassment, particularly towards women. Jackson says his research into employment tribunals also indicates there are growing numbers of cases in which women’s workplace experiences have been affected by “male attitudes to porn, sharing porn or accidentally letting porn ‘slip’ so that other people see it”.
Some even believe that that output and profits could be impacted by employees’ porn-watching habits. There is already a body of psychological research indicating that engaging in unethical behaviour at work can be a slippery slope that leads to increasingly risky habits.
Jackson also points to a recent peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Business Ethics, by researchers from Brigham Young University, a church-affiliated education centre in Utah. The academics’ experiments even suggested a direct link between workplace porn usage and other intentional unethical business behaviours, such as employees “shirking and lying” about the amount of work they’ve done.However, Jackson’s research indicates that some of those who use porn at work actually over-compensate for their habits, rather than becoming less productive. “They kind of do more work to justify the pornography use. It's quite interesting. There is a moral trade-off.”
While using porn during working hours rarely seems to be without risk, Hall argues there is a need for a more nuanced acceptance of the trend. Rather than simply “demonising” those who watch porn at work, she’s calling for greater openness about its potential impact, in a similar vein to historic information campaigns about the dangers of drinking during working hours.
Today, some workers might still choose to have an occasional glass of wine at lunchtime, but most people are aware that doing this too often could impact performance, and that things have gone too far if they’re hiding bottles under desks. With porn, it’s also “about educating people about the risks, so that people can make an educated choice”, says Hall. This, she argues, should help people to recognise if their porn use is turning into the kind of dependency that might affect work deadlines or relationships.
Meanwhile, Jackson says managers of businesses where porn-watching is known to be prevalent would be advised to take a wider look at company culture and benefits. “If workplaces were engaging and staff were used more broadly, we might find that people might not need to use pornography as a problematic way to cope with the world of work.”
When it comes to remote working, Hall believes the blurred boundaries between our home and private lives mean that there’s probably a growing tolerance for workers taking time out to view adult content. And as long as it’s done using a personal device and isn’t affecting staff performance or interactions, she sees this as much less problematic compared to viewing porn in physical workspaces. “What someone does in their coffee break in the privacy of their own home is surely up to them.”
But, she adds, it’s certainly different in a shared workspace – and as recent events have shown, viewing porn at work is still very much a taboo.