Effects of pornography

Social scientists since the 1970s have been interested in the possible negative effects of pornography, particularly whether pornography causes rape, or causes its users to have negative attitudes towards women.

Some researchers have compared how much pornography is available in a given country with its reported levels of sex crimes – particularly rape – to see if there are correlations. Most have given up doing these kind of studies because of confusion over what they do or do not prove. Some studies suggest that there is a correlation between the availability of pornography and increased rape rates[243] while others suggest that in societies where pornographic material is more readily available, rates of reported rape drop or rise less quickly than other forms of crime[244]. There are problems with the basic assumption of this research: that the people consuming pornography are the same people as those committing sex crimes. Additionally it is likely that other factors are responsible for any changes in pornography consumption and crime rates.

Researchers have also interviewed subjects who have committed sex crimes to find out about their exposure to pornographic materials. These studies have consistently shown that rapists tend to use less pornography than control groups, and that, on average, they come from more sexually repressed backgrounds and are exposed to pornography at a later age[245].

Most researchers agree that viewing non-violent pornography does not produce negative effects, although a couple disagree about this[246]. In experimental studies, researchers expose subjects in a laboratory to violent pornography and then measure changes in their aggressiveness and attitudes towards women. Some studies suggest that these changes include increased tendencies to aggression against women; an increased acceptance of violence against women, especially rape; an acceptance of ‘rape myths’; the production of rape fantasies; an increase in selfnominated likelihood to commit rape; and decreased support for women’s rights[247]. But other researchers have found that when they show the same kinds of pornography to the same kinds of people, they have not produced the same negative effects[248].

There are problems with the way that this kind of research is carried out[249]. In laboratory experiments the participants who are shown pornography are not necessarily consumers of pornography. They do not watch it as people do in everyday life, but instead are shown, without knowing what they are going to see, material that they have not chosen and that some of them may find upsetting. They watch this in public, surrounded by other test subjects. They may have to watch it for extended periods, up to an hour sometimes. They are not allowed to masturbate. In the real world, consumers of pornography choose what kinds of pornography they are going to watch and research suggests that they do not enjoy violent pornography[250]. They tend to watch pornography in situations where they are either alone, or with people they feel comfortable with. They may ‘fast forward’ to the bits they like, and only watch short segments and they may masturbate. Even the researchers who have managed to produce negative effects from exposure to pornography say that this only works with people who don’t usually watch pornography. People who are familiar with and enjoy pornography do not get upset or aggressive when they are exposed to it[251].

It has been argued that there is a correlation between people consuming pornography and having liberal sexual attitudes. There are two key problems with this work. The first is that it establishes correlation – not causality. Saying that two things at happen at the same time is not the same as saying that one causes the other. It would be more reasonable to conclude that the kinds of people who like pornography are also the kinds of people who have more liberal attitudes towards sexual practices.

Surveys of consumers of pornography suggest that people who consume more pornography are more sexually adventurous than non-consumers – they are interested in less heteronormative forms of sex, including casual sex and anal sex[252]. They also tend to have attitudes towards women that are the same as – or better than – the population generally[253]. They report that pornography can be valuable in promoting some of these aspects of healthy sexual development[254] . For example, pornography consumers report that pornography helps them to learn about what they might enjoy, to communicate openly with partners (‘I saw this and thought I’d like to try it…’), and to feel that sex can be pleasurable and should be joyful rather than aggressive and coercive.

Regulation and sexually explicit media

243. Baron, L & Straus, M.A. (1989). Four Theories of Rape in American Society. New Haven, Conneticut: Yale University Press.
244. Abramson, P.R. & Hayashi, H. (1984). Pornography in Japan: cross-cultural and theoretical considerations in Malamuth, N.M. & Donnerstein, E. (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 173-183; Kutchinsky, B. (1991). Pornography and rape: theory and practice? Evidence from crime data in four countries where pornography is easily available. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 14(1-2), 47-64; Kimmel, M. & Linders, A. (1996) Does censorship make a difference? An aggregate empirical analysis of pornography and rape. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 8, 1-20.
245. Gebhard, P., Gagnon, J.H. Pomeroy, W.B. & Christenson, C.V. (1965). Sex Offenders. New York: Harper and Row; Goldstein, M.J. & Kant, H. (1973). Pornography and Sexual Deviance. Berkeley: University of California Press.
246. Zillmann, D. & Weaver, J.B. (1989). Pornography and men’s sexual callousness toward women in Zillmann, D. & Bryant, J. (Eds.) Pornography: research advances and policy considerations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 95-125.
247. Donnerstein, E. & Berkowitz, L. (1981). Victim reactions in aggressive erotic films as a factor in violence against women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 710 724; Malamuth, N.M. (1981). Rape fantasies as a function of exposure to violent sexual stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 10, 33-47; Zillman, D. & Bryant, J. (1984). Effects of massive exposure to pornography in Malamuth, N.M. & Donnerstein, E. (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. New York: Academic Press, 115-138.
248. Fisher, W.A. & Grenier, G. (1994). Violent pornography, anti-woman thoughts, and anti-woman acts: in search of reliable effects. The Journal of Sex Research, 31, 23-38; Malamuth, N.M. & Centi, J. (1986). Repeated exposure to violent and nonviolent pornography. Likelihood of raping ratings and laboratory aggression against women. Aggressive Behaviour, 12, 129-137; Padgett, V.R., Brislin Slutz, J. & Neal, J.A. (1989) Pornography, erotica and attitudes towards women: the effects of repeated exposure. The Journal of Sex Research, 26, 479-491. Donnerstein, E. Linz, D. & Penrod, S. (1987). The Question of Pornography: Research Findings and Policy Implications. New York: Macmillan; Ferguson, C. J. & Hartley, R. D. (2009). The pleasure is momentary…the expense damnable? Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(5), 323-329.
249. See for example Fisher, W.A & Barak, A. (1991). Pornography, erotica and behaviour: more questions than answers. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 14, 65-83; Brannigan, A. (1991). Obscenity and social harm: a contested terrain. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 14, 1-12; Segal, L. (1990). Pornography and Violence: What the ‘Experts’ Really Say. Feminist Review, 36, 29-41.
250. McKee, A. (2006). Censorship of sexually explicit materials in Australia: what do consumers of pornography have to say about it? Media International Australia, 120, 35-50; Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence of unrestrained access to erotica on adolescents’ and young adults’ dispositions toward sexuality, Journal of Adolescent Health, 27, 41-42.
251. Effects of massive exposure to pornography in Malamuth, N.M. & Donnerstein, E. (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. New York: Academic Press, 115-138; Donnerstein, E. (1984). Pornography: its effect on violence against women in Malamuth N. M. & Donnerstein, E. (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. New York: Academic Press, 53-84.
252. See Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence of unrestrained access to erotica on adolescents’ and young adults’ dispositions toward sexuality, Journal of Adolescent Health, 27, 41-44.
253. Davies, K.A. (1997). Voluntary exposure to pornography and men’s attitudes towards feminism and rape. The Journal of Sex Research, 34, 131-138; Malamuth, N.M., Addison, T. & Koss, M. (2000). Pornography and sexual aggression: are there reliable effects and can we understand them? Annual Review of Sex Research, 11, 26-91.
254. McKee, A., Albury, K., Dunne, M., Grieshaber, S., Hartley, J., Lumby, C. & Mathews, B. (2010). Healthy Sexual Development: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Research. International Journal of Sexual Health, 22(1), 14-19.

Regulation and sexually explicit media

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