A study has just come out in the Journal of Sex Research comparing various psychological and lifestyle measures of women who act in pornographic films with matched sets of women who do not.

ResearchBlogging.orgThere is a pretty clear association between negative attitudes towards pornography and negative assessments of the quality of life for actresses in the pornography genre. Studies have shown that those who regarded pornography as harmful to society also believed that those acting in the films must not like their work. Studies have also shown that people tend to believe that porn stars have sexual and physical abuse in their backgrounds at a higher rate than the general population. Conversely, people who have more positive attitudes towards pornography also seem to have a more positive attitude about porn actresses. As a whole, the research that involved asking people what they thought about pornography and those who participated on the stage in making it painted a picture that has become known as the “Damaged Goods Hypothesis.”

The damaged goods hypothesis posits that female performers in the adult entertainment industry have higher rates of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), psychological problems, and drug use compared to the typical woman.

The purpose of the study at hand was to test this hypothesis. Among the numerous data collected for each participant, the following especially salient questions were asked:

  • What is your sexual orientation?
  • What was the age of the first time you had sexual
  • Were you a victim of childhood sexual abuse?
  • How many different sexual partners have you had in your lifetime? [The porn actresses were instructed not to count partners within the industry, unless it occurred outside of their work.]
  • How many different sexual partners have you had during the past 12 months? [The porn actresses were instructed not count partners within the indus- try, unless it occurred outside of their work.]
  • Assume that you are considering a relationship with someone and the topic of their ‘‘sexual his- tory’’ comes up. What is the ideal number of sexual partners they should have had?
  • On a 10-point scale (1 1⁄4 not concerned at all and 10 1⁄4 very concerned), how concerned are you about catching an STD?
  • On a 100-point scale (0 1⁄4 none and 100 1⁄4 definite), if a person had unprotected sex with someone whom they just met, what would you estimate the prob- ability that they might catch an STD?
  • On a 10-point scale (1 1⁄4 not at all and 10 1⁄4 very much), how much do you enjoy sex?
  • On a 100-point scale (0 1⁄4 not likely at all and 100 1⁄4 definitely), estimate the likelihood that you would use a condom if having heterosexual sex with someone for the first time.

The study included 177 porn actresses and a sample of age, ethnicity, and marital status matched women. The results were pretty straight forward:

Porn actresses were more likely to identify as bisexual, first had sex at an earlier age, had more sexual partners, were more concerned about contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and enjoyed sex more than the matched sample, although there were no differences in incidence of CSA. … porn actresses had higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality compared to the matched group. … female performers were more likely to have ever used 10 different types of drugs compared to the comparison group.

Discriminant function analysis is a method of testing a set of classification criteria to see if a model derived from statistics is useful. Such an analysis done on the sample of data classified 83% of the study participants correctly into the category “porn actress” vs. “not porn actress.” By standards of psychology and social research, this is a good result. In essence, this study fails to support the “Damaged Goods Hypothesis.”

I know some of you are wondering about the “spirituality” variable. I think the authors considered this to be a positive value, where more spirituality is better. Obviously, this is not true. Non-religious and non-spiritual people may well be better adjusted to many aspects of life than those who do harbor untenable and incorrect beliefs. Nonetheless this result is interesting because it sort of ruins the idea that atheists are as hedonistic as many think they are, if hedonism is equated with relatively liberal sexual values that we see both in this study and assume from the nature of the porn industry.

I also know that some of you will be very interested in the finding that porn actresses are more likely bisexual than the matched sample, given our discussions on sex and gender. From the paper:

… The literature on sexual fluidity (Diamond, 2008) suggests that it is common for women who initially identified as heterosexual to develop same-sex sexual attractions and interests as they grow older and are exposed to situational factors that may facilitate same-sex attraction. … There is evidence that women’s attraction has a capacity for change over time and situations … It has also been reported that some women engage in sexual behavior that is counter to their stated attractions and identities … In other words, some women who identified as heterosexual had sex with women. … Given that pornography offers many opportunities for same-sex experimentation for female performers, it is possible that the adult entertainment industry acts as a facilitator of sexual fluidity by providing a supportive culture of same-gender sexual interactions and offers financial rewards for engaging in those behaviors. It is not clear if porn actresses who indicated they were bisexual actually identified as bisexual or indicated that they were bisexual because they engaged in bisexual behavior. It may be the case that some performers engaged in bisexual behavior for work and in their private lives, whereas others may have only engaged in bisexual or same-gender sex for work and maintained heterosexual relationships in their private lives. … the study did not address whether actresses self-identified as bisexual prior to entering the pornography business.

For these reasons, I would be cautious in attributing much meaning to the finding regarding the relative level of bisexuality among the study subjects, and I’m not sure if the study tells us anything new about sexual orientation and preference.

One criticism I would have of this study is that the matched sample did not control for “being an actress.” It is possible that some of the comparisons would have been affected by this. Perhaps most actresses, or perhaps actors in general, differ from the general population in some of the ways that porn actresses do. This would not affect the key result (the apparent falsification of the “Damaged Goods Hypothesis”) but it should be kept in mind when drawing broader conclusions from the study.

Griffith, J., Mitchell, S., Hart, C., Adams, L., & Gu, L. (2012). Pornography Actresses: An Assessment of the Damaged Goods Hypothesis Journal of Sex Research, 1–12 DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719168


  1. #1 Marnie
    December 3, 2012

    I, too, was wondering how women in pornography compare to women in other acting professions. Having lived in Los Angeles for a few years, I found that drugs were fairly commonly used by people in the industry (I knew a lot of teamsters and other behind the scenes people, not so many actors/actresses). I would also guess the reports of bi-sexuality would be higher amongst actors in general than the public at large.

    On the other hand, I would guess that mainstream actors might report more body image issue.

  2. #2 Lindsay Beyerstein
    December 3, 2012

    I’m skeptical of the damaged goods hypothesis, but I’m not impressed with this study.

    For one thing, the study used convenience samples. I would have been a lot more impressed if they’d sent the questionnaire by mail to a random subset of patients at the Adult Industry Medical Health Foundation, instead of having the researchers recruit walk-ins on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

    Sharon Mitchell, one of the co-authors of this study, is a de facto lobbyist for the adult entertainment industry. She used to run AIM, the industry-funded mandatory STD testing service. She has a very personal stake in making the industry look good. The stereotype that adult entertainers are victims of childhood abuse is a PR nightmare for the industry.

    The adult industry in southern California is a very small world and the staff at AIM know their regular customers very well. The clinic used to provide counseling and other medical services in addition to STD testing. It would be all to easy for experimenters to steer certain people towards or away from taking the test.

  3. #3 John
    December 4, 2012

    As a child sex abuse survivor who for many years denied that I was abused, I’m a little skeptical on the findings in this study regarding childhood sex abuse.

    With the proclivity of child sex abuse survivors denying or suppressing memories of their abuse, or being embarrassed to tell someone (even an anonymous survey — I know I would have been reluctant to do so in the past [and I don’t think it says in this article, but if these questions were asked in person, whether anonymously or not, that makes the answers even more suspect]), how many actual abuse survivors may have lied, either knowingly or unknowingly, on the survey?

    Many victims of childhood sexual abuse twist the abuse around in their head, convincing themselves “it wasn’t REALLY abuse” because they liked it, or it was “only oral sex, not intercourse,” or whatever.

    I’m not saying the study isn’t possibly accurate, but I don’t think it’s nearly thorough enough to reach any definitive conclusion.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    December 5, 2012

    John, self reported data is always a problem, as you say. Here, it maybe OK because they asked women in two groups the same questions and got a different set of results, so if the biases are the same across groups the data may be useful.

    Lindsay, I know about Sharon Mitchell’s involvement in the industry. Lots of research papers are written by people involved in the industry, thus the bio (as minimialistic as it is) information required on papers in peer reviewed journals.

    I looked into the history here, including her role in a famous trial a few years back, but in the end I decided that her involvement isn’t anything special or interesting vis-a-vis the typical research paper.

    Having said that yes, there may well be an interest in making the industry look gook, or at least, in some ways look bad. But, I would guess that this is manifest, if it is a factor at all, in the file drawer effect more than in a biased study.

  5. #5 Paul Chen
    Bentonville, AR
    March 30, 2013

    As a person who ran a porn distribution company when I lived in Los Angeles (now in Arkansas), I am quite aware of the perceptions of porn actresses. Upon hearing of my career choices, many assume that I was with some of the women, as though they would be intimate with any male in the industry (which is untrue.) Paul Chen

  6. […] Porn Stars As 'Damaged Goods' With Sexual Abuse As A Child Is Inaccurate Stereotype, Study Says Pornography Actresses: Testing the Damaged Goods Hypothesis – Greg Laden's Blog __________________ Comprehension cannot be explained. Just […]

  7. #7 Janice Greenburg
    May 14, 2014

    I too am very skeptical about the study, the study seems pretty clumsy and poorly implemented. Not just the sample but also the questions used to gauge the responses. With all the cultural stigma surrounding pornography and porn actresses, it wouldn’t surprise me that the answers given would be intended to “PROVE EVERYONE WRONG”, where an actress would feel they need to vindicate their decisions which they themselves are trying to rationalize. How does this study address the potential influence in such a case? They don’t. This study only demonstrates that performers answered positively; not that the actresses/performers actually were more positive in life. If I were someone with something to prove to the world, I’d probably answer everything positively too.

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