Porn is a problem, but it’s not the problem anti-porn activists would have you believe.
In a recent Washington Post article, Gail Dines writes about the “public health hazard” of pornography, citing some of research correlations that I myself found back in 2010 when I did my own literature review of the effects of pornography on adolescents.
However, the article, like my own review, was flawed.
It’s true that adolescents exposed to pornography are more likely to engage in aggressive sexual behavior (Brown & L’Engle, 2009); however, even in the study which found this correlation, the authors acknowledged the limitations of not being able to differentiate between violent and non-violent forms of pornography in the study.
And there’s the first major flaw. Not all pornography is equal. At the time of my literature review, I hadn’t ever seen porn. I was basing my judgments off of statistics about which I had no personal knowledge. And research either failed to describe precisely what was happening in pornography and why the researchers thought that content was particularly nefarious, or it focused on the violent components of certain types of sexually explicit material.
The Washington Post article does the same.
The truth is that pornography is as varied as any form of entertainment. Yes, there is the underbelly of unethical or illegal porn, violent porn, non-consensual porn, and misogynistic porn, which I am fully on board with fighting and dismantling because fuck that shit!
However there is also feminist porn, ethical porn, porn from a woman’s point of view, educational “porn” used by sex educators (I call it porn because you actually watch people perform the thing being taught and it is *ahem* very explicit), and porn that demonstrates consent, safer sex, and mutual pleasure (even when there is choking or bondage involved).
Concerns about pornography tend to include a belief that porn is teaching people to degrade women and desensitizing people to sexual assault. To some extent, that is true. In one study that still stands out in my memory, 17% of men exposed to a suggestive date-rape scenario after viewing degrading sexual material reported a higher likelihood to commit date-rapey activities (Milburn et al., 2000). Yikes! Others have found that exposure to porn for adolescent boys contributes to a higher likelihood of viewing women as sex objects (Peter & Valkenburg, 2007).
However, one must take into account the reciprocal relationship of influence. Media often mirrors pre-existing attitudes because…capitalism 101. Producers produce what sells.
Moreover, pre-existing beliefs often influence what types of media people seek out (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006; Peter & Valkenburg, 2010). And, I probably don’t need to mention (or maybe I do) that parents and other aspects of culture can heavily influence children’s pre-existing beliefs.
In turn, media teaches us what to believe.
(Side note: PG movies, I’ve often found, can be far more sexist and misogynistic than R-rate movies. Rape still gets a lower rating than same-sex, consensual activity. WTF?!)
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to this influence with regard to pornography because we, as a nation, don’t give them anything else to act as a reality check. Our sex ed is deplorable. Often, children learn about sex first through pornography exposure (Brown & L’Engle, 2009).
And yes, teaching kids what sex is through a form of fantasy and entertainment is bad. We don’t show General Hospital to med students expecting them to walk away knowing how to be doctors and surgeons.
However, the answer to me seems infinitely obvious. Children need better sex ed. They need to know that porn isn’t reality and to think about it critically, the way we are teaching them to critically think about advertising and other forms of media.
In fact, it is my hope that the reason that sex ed now begins at age four in the Netherlands is because of the very research I used in my literature review. They want to create a foundation of respect and consent before children get sucked into the Internet world where that barely exists in discussion itself.
In my review, I focused on adolescents because there were substantial sources indicating the adverse effects of early exposure to porn. At the time I was on an anti-porn rampage. I had planned to do the review on porn’s influence on adults, but I couldn’t find enough articles that actually found adverse effects for adults.
I thought it was because the research was biased. Now, after having learned more about pornography and realizing that seeing it doesn’t turn me into a raging, woman-hating, unthinking, sexually assaultive animal, I think it’s because there actually aren’t that many consistent adverse effects (as in aside from other factors such as pre-existing beliefs and wider culture)…if you’re not focusing on the type of porn that is violent and degrading.
I can never pretend that porn is benign. I’ve read too many studies showing that porn does indeed influence. Just as with other areas of entertainment, prejudice and stereotypes need to be addressed. Better representation of women and minorities is needed. Consent needs to be apparent as much in our sexually explicit material as in our daily lives.
And sex workers’ rights desperately need to be addressed so that vulnerable people aren’t exploited or forced into work they don’t want to do.
But the answer isn’t to continue to demonize all porn.
We need nuanced discussion about how different types of porn reflect and influence attitudes. Erika Lust gave a brilliant Ted Talk about the importance of feminists getting involved in making porn so that they can change porn. “Mainstream” shouldn’t refer to degrading, violent, and illegal porn. That should be the fringe, not the majority.
Feminist porn makers have the capacity to change the conversation.
One aspect of the reciprocal relationship of porn that doesn’t get mentioned is that people can’t consume what doesn’t exist. Erika Lust and other feminist porn producers and actors realize this and have worked hard to create sex-positive feminist porn.
Today, porn that respects women’s agency and pleasure and that emphasizes the importance of consensual encounters (and I would include BDSM porn that demonstrates consent) does exist, but where are the studies exploring how that kind of porn influences people?
It is just as oppressive for research to erase the efforts of sex-positive feminists in the porn industry as it would be to pretend that sexist and violent displays of women’s sexuality are okay.
Since writing my literature review on the negative effects of porn, I’ve actually exposed myself to porn in a conscious way and have experienced some of the positive influences that I think a more nuanced exploration of porn might find—such as feeling better about my body image by seeing realistic women, exploring my sexual orientation, learning to value my own sexual pleasure more in my sexual activities by seeing women enthusiastically participate, and learning about sexual empowerment through porn activists like Tristan Taormino, Erika Lust, and Nina Hartley.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that much of what I am refuting (and thus the literature I’m citing) focuses on heterosexual porn, failing to take into account the role of porn for LGBTQ individuals. I could probably write a whole other paper about the good and bad of non-straight porn, but suffice it to say that this is another area where representation is important and potentially empowering or degrading. I hate to make this the footnote on my piece because I have found porn just as important to my sexual identity as it has been to my feminist identity; unfortunately, I can’t pretend to have done nearly as much research on the importance of queer porn. For a recommended read on the topic of queer and feminist porn, check out Autostraddle’s post.
Non-linked References (Not all of the ones I used in my literature review, just the ones I cited today):
Brown, J. D., & L’Engle, K. L. (2009). X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with U.S. early adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit media. Communication Research 36, 129-151.
Milburn, M. A., Mather, R. & Conrad, S. D. (2000). The effects of viewing r-rated movie scenes that objectify women on perceptions of date rape. Sex Roles 43(9/10), 645-664.
Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2006). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit material on the internet. Communication Research 33, 178-204.
Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2007). Adolescents’ exposure to a sexualized media environment and their notions of women as sex objects. Sex Roles 56, 381-395.
Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2010). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit internet material, sexual uncertainty, and attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration: Is there a link? Communication Research 35, 579-601.