I Looked at Porn (Studies) for Science

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In my last post, I wrote about my sexual repression while growing up as a Mormon. During that time, I was raised to believe different things about sexuality, what is called ‘The Law of Chastity.” As a part of observing that ‘law’, I was expected to practice sexual abstinence until marriage, and monogamous fidelity after marriage. Included in this law were prohibitions against pornography and masturbation.

As a boy, I was taught that pornography was wrong because it degraded God’s gift to us: our physical bodies. It also made a mockery of sex, which was supposed to be reserved to private relationships between husbands and their wives.

If I were to view pornography, I would open myself up to different temptations that would lead me down a path of self-destruction. I was lead to believe it could ruin my relationships, cause addictions as strong and destructive as cocaine or heroin addictions.

I was also told anecdotes about rapists and child molesters who started down their dark paths by simply viewing what seemed to be harmless pornographic or sexually explicit materials.

Pornography was the ‘gateway drug’ to sexual promiscuity, lewd or lascivious behavior, and even sexual assault.

Pornography was a very tempting and difficult for me to deal with as a teenage boy. What I was taught seemed to make sense in certain respects at the time. After all, if I was able to keep sex out of sight, it would be easier to keep it out of mind and I would be more likely to avoid those terrible consequences I was always warned about, which sounded good in theory (practice was a whole other matter).

After my departure from Mormonism, I came to believe that many of the things I was taught about pornography, like many other things I was taught, were simply not true. I no longer believed that pornography was like crack cocaine, and I certainly didn’t think it could likely turn people into child rapists. For a while, I thought that a lot of these notions were unique to conservative points of view. However, I was wrong about that.

Some collectivist feminists also believe pornography is dangerous, more specifically for women.

They believe that it degrades women, objectifies them, and can lead to more violence and sexual aggression against them. At the very least, they seem to claim, pornography warps men’s views of women and sexuality and that this can lead to unhealthy relationships between men and women.

Given the above, it behooves someone interested in the truth to ask, why should we believe that pornography causes, or at least contributes to, these bad things? In order to help come to a better understanding of this issue, I will examine four major claims from the anti-pornography crowd composed of collectivist feminists and religious conservatives: (1) pornography is addictive and causes brain damage; it (2) is harmful to the relationships of viewers; it (3) makes viewers more likely to commit sex crimes; and (4) it leads to misogyny, objectification, and abuse of women.

Claim #1: pornography is addictive and causes brain damage like other hard drugs

Opponents of pornography claim that pornographic materials are addictive, but is that the case? Researchers and other experts do not necessarily agree and whether or not ‘pornography addiction’ is a legitimate pathology is still debatable. Reid et al. (2011) explained “We believe that addiction models may limit our understanding…and likely offer too simplistic a view of the vast array of complex issues encountered by patients with hypersexuality and pornography problems…We see no reason to exaggerate the known risks by suggesting that excessive pornography consumption leads to brain damage or other neuropathology.”

Winters et al. (2010) argue that it is difficult to distinguish what people perceive as addiction from healthy sexual behavior and that the tendency to consider it a pathology is due to sociocultural norms. It is likely the case that social stigmas will continue to tend to affect people’s perceptions of pornography and that the conception of ‘pornography addiction’ is largely a result of a “moral crusade” (Voros, 2009).

Granted pornography can be compulsive to some people, but does that mean that there is such a thing as pornography addiction? Probably not. The evidence for such a notion isn’t clear cut like it is for pathologies like alcoholism, or other substance addictions. Rather, it seems likely that people believe in such thing not because of the scientific evidence, but because of their own beliefs about what qualifies as ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ behavior.

Claim #2: pornography (if not addictive) is harmful to the individual viewer’s sexuality

It is true that sometimes pornography viewers experience negative effects, e.g., women may experience issues with body image and men may experience fear about how it affects their intimate relationships, but it is also true that women and men report experiencing sexual liberation and empowerment through a willingness to explore their sexuality (Atwood, 2005; Weinberg 2010). Hald and Malamuth (2008) reported that many young Danish adults (men and women between 18 and 30 years of age) believed that pornography had a net positive effect in many areas of their lives.

It appears that contrary to the claims of the anti-pornography crowd, there are several benefits to viewing pornography that can most definitely outweigh the costs. Could it be the case that many of the negative consequences of consuming pornographic media in people’s relationships come from social stigmas and norms and not the actual pornography itself?

Thinking back on my personal experience, I remember that once I dropped the old conservative views of pornography I was raised with, I noticed that I became more comfortable with myself and my sexuality. Once I rid myself of the burden of guilt and shame I experienced, my own personal sense of empowerment and sexual liberation. Life certainly became more interesting and enjoyable.

Claim #3: pornography consumption can make viewers more likely to commit sex crimes

This claim is the most serious. It seems intuitive to many people that viewing pornography would make one more prone to becoming sexually deviant even to the point of victimizing other people. Is this claim true?

Diamond et al. (20011) studied the Czech Republic and its numbers regarding sex crimes both pre- and post-pornography prohibition. They found that, like in other countries studied, the number of sex crimes did not increase. They also found something else: like Denmark and Japan, the Czech Republic had a period of time when child pornography was not illegal and had a significant decrease in the incidence of child sex abuse.

In a review of the peer-reviewed literature, Diamond et al. (2009) reported wherever this subject has been scientifically investigated, it has been shown that as the availability of pornography increases, sex crimes have either not increased or decreased.

Seto et al. (2001) found that people who are already predisposed to commit acts of sexual aggression are the most likely to show an effect of pornography exposure. In other words, pornography does not appear to have any measurable impact on the incidence of sex crimes, except when it comes to child pornography which shows an actual decrease in the incidence of child sexual abuse, and that those criminals who were exposed to pornography were already inclined towards sexual violence to begin with.

More pornography and less sex crimes? Yes, indeed! Granted, correlation is not causation, but it would seem to be the case that if pornography were as dangerous as its opponents thought it was, we wouldn’t be observing these results. Could there still be a direct or indirect causal link between viewing pornography and acts of sexual aggression and these results might be explained by other causes? Perhaps, but in order for us to know if that is the case, a causal link would have to be established, which it has not. Even if there were a causal link, these results at least show that other variables can mitigate pornography’s ill effects on society.

Claim #4: pornography leads to misogyny, objectification and abuse of women

Diamond et al. (2009) also reported that (1) viewers of X-rated films have been shown to have more favorable and egalitarian views or attitudes toward women relative to non-viewers; (2) Male viewers in particular were more tolerant and accepting of women than their non-viewing male counterparts; (3) there is no association between the amount of pornography consumption and misogynist attitudes; (4) there is no causal link between exposure to pornography and negative feelings or actions toward women; and (5) there is no evidence that pornography causes abuse or harm to women.

Again, more counter-intuitive results! Pornography may actually encourage gender egalitarianism and more favorable perceptions of women in its viewers, the exact opposite of what the anti-pornography movement would have us believe. This was the result that surprised me the most, because at the time I read this review, I still thought pornography tended to have the opposite effect, though perhaps not as strongly.

Conclusion

In summary, it appears that opponents of pornography have very little to no evidence in supporting their common testable claims. Though the effects of pornography on the individual and social level are not always ‘good’, many of the more serious testable claims about the effects of pornography from collectivist feminists and the religious-right are not well supported, and in some cases contradicted, by the available evidence. It even appears that pornography can be a net good for both individuals and society. Pornography consumption, for better or worse, is ultimately a matter of personal choice and responsibility.

Chet Lake is a libertarian-feminist trying to take on the State and the patriarchy while not failing his undergraduate studies.

chet

References:

Atwood, F. (2005). What Do People Do With Porn? Qualitative Research Into the Consumption, Use, and Experience of Pornography and Other Sexually Explicit Media. Sexuality & Culture, 9(2), 65-86.

Diamond, M. (2009). Pornography, Public Acceptance And Sex Related Crime: A Review. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 32(5), 304-314.

Diamond, M., Jozifkova, E., & Weiss, P. (2011). Pornography and Sex Crimes in the Czech Republic. Archive of Sexual Behavior, 40, 1037-1043.

Hald, G. M., & Malamuth, N. M. (2008). Self-Perceived Effects Of Pornography Consumption. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(4), 614-625.

Reid, R. C., Carpenter, B. N., & Fong, T. W. (2011). Neuroscience research fails to support claims that excessive pornography consumption causes brain damage. Surgical neurology international,2, 64.

Seto, M. C., Maric, A., & Barbaree, H. E. (2001). The role of pornography in the etiology of sexual aggression. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 6, 35-53.

Voros, F. (2009). The Invention Of Addiction To Pornography?. Sexologies,18(4), 243-246.

Weinberg, M. S., Williams, C. J., Kleiner, S., & Irizarry, Y. (2010). Pornography, Normalization, and Empowerment. Archive of Sexual Behavior, 39, 1389-1401.

Winters, J., Christoff, K., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2010). Dysregulated Sexuality and High Sexual Desire: Distinct Constructs?. Archive of Sexual Behavior, 39, 1029-1043.

5 Comments

    • Chet Lake

      They typically have definitions that include a broad range of kinds of pornography.

      Milton Diamond’s research typically defines it from a typical porn site or magazine to child pornography. In other words, they tend to be fairly general and inclusive definitions.

      I believe Seto et al. (2001) noted that a lot of research results tend be equivocal because of different definitions of pornography.

      The best kinds of research, in my opinion, are the ones that cover a large body of research and evidence. That is why I chose most of my sources. A single study may be illuminating in some respects, but it’s results aren’t that powerful on their own.

      • York Luethje

        Thank you.

        “I believe Seto et al. (2001) noted that a lot of research results tend
        be equivocal because of different definitions of pornography.”

        This would be my takeaway as well. In discussions that are critical of pornography the definition often encompasses not only sex acts but also porno-chic and billboards depicting attractive women (not men though, hmm). It basically amounts to ‘I know it when I see it’.

        I find that such a thoroughly subjective approach renders any attempt at quantifying the effects of porn null and void.

  1. […] There are no good studies showing that porn causes men or boys to commit sexual assault. None even show that it is correlated with a rise in violence. There are numerous studies showing that rising porn usage correlates with fewer incidences of sexual violence. In fact, when child pornography was legal in Denmark, Japan and the Czech Republic the incidence of child sex abuse decreased significantly. […]

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