The first iteration of this post engendered quite a bit of discussion. Some of it within the scope of what I initially wrote about; much of it not.
I closed the comments and un-published the post while I considered what to do about it. I’ve decided to go ahead and re-publish the post, stripped of all editorializing. So what you have now is just description and explanation of the studies.
I had initially written:
Let’s make a few things clear: I am not taking sides in the issue of whether or not pornography should be censored or restricted (but most forms of censorship make me very uncomfortable). This is meant to review some of the research that’s been conducted on whether or not there is a reliable causal relationship between pornography and various Bad Things.
It is more clear to me know that perhaps it is naive to think that the question of the effects of a product can be separated from the question of the ethics of whether or not that product should be made in the first place. From a purely scientific point of view, I still believe these are two separable questions – similar to the questions of whether or not we should be drilling offshore for oil, and, since we ARE drilling offshore for oil, how does that affect the ecosystem? However complicated those questions are, these questions are, clearly, far more complicated and divisive. And I’ve walked into a major battlefield without, as Pal says, the proper flashlight.
I should further say that these are only 3 studies out of a much larger literature. As with any research, there are obviously limitations both theoretically and methodologically. And as with any blog post, it is impossible to capture an entire field of literature. It saddens me that this singular post, off-topic and off-the-cuff, has gotten the most attention out of any other post I’ve written. I only hope that some of those who have been following along through this whole debacle have learned a thing or two, as I have. And I hope that those who have found my blog because of the controversy surrounding this post will spend some time checking out of the other far more interesting (to me) posts on animal behavior, learning, and cognition.
So below the fold are the descriptions and explanations of the three initial studies I wrote about, stripped of speculation and editorializing. All the original comments have been preserved, but I’m keeping the comments thread here closed. The citations to the original research are at the bottom of the post, with links, as they always have been. As always, I encourage everyone to download and read the original research for themselves.
A couple of sexologists from Copenhagen distributed a survey including the Pornography Consumption Effect Scale to 688 heterosexual Danish men and women between the ages of 18 and 30. The sample was comparable to the general Danish population, with the exception of having slightly higher educational attainment.
The authors argue that asking consumers about their own beliefs is a method rarely used when studying the effects of pornography. They note that the popular media relies primarily on interviews with selected individuals and out of this emerges a series of adverse effects like “wrecking marriages,” negatively changing men’s perceptions of women and women’s perceptions of themselves, and sexual addiction.
Decades of survey research on the effects of media more generally describe a “third person effect.” First, people think that the media will influence others more than themselves. Second, people tend to act in accordance with that perceived discrepancy. The impact of the “third person effect” could therefore be reflected in various censorship efforts, including pornography. People consider themselves less likely to be influenced by pornography, in this case, than they do others.
So instead of just asking their survey respondents about their perceptions of the effects of pornography on themselves or others, they also collected information about their pornography consumption and looked for statistical relationships. The five types of effects they were interested in were:
(1) Sex life – e.g. sexual performance, sexual experimentation, frequency of sexual activity;
(2) Life in general;
(3) Perception of and attitudes toward the opposite gender – e.g. stereotypes, friendliness toward and respect for the opposite gender;
(4) Attitudes towards sex – e.g. opinions, views, outlook;
(5) Sexual knowledge – e.g. factual knowledge of sex and sexual desire
What did they find?
More men than women were found to have ever used pornography (97.8% for men; 79.5% for women), and men spent significantly more time per week on pornography consumption (80.8 minutes for men; 21.9 minutes for women).
Men reported significantly larger positive than negative effects overall as well as for each of the five variables described above.
Women also reported significantly larger positive than negative effects of pornography consumption overall, as well as for three of the individual variables: sex life, life in general, and attitudes towards sex.
Perceived positive effects of pornography were significantly correlated with: greater consumption, perception of pornography as portraying a realistic picture of sex, greater frequency of masturbation, a lower age of first porn exposure, and being male. Perceived negative effects of pornography was significantly correlated with being male, lower age of first exposure, less masturbation, lower frequency of intercourse, and a greater amount of consumption. Overall, the correlations for the negative effects while significant were an order of magnitude less significant than for the positive effects.
Okay, so several variables were correlated with BOTH positive and negative effects of porn, and in a regression analysis these were factored out. What was left were strong effects of consumption, perception of porn as portraying a realistic picture of sex, and greater frequency of masturbation for positive effects. And lower frequency of intercourse for negative effects.
Can Watching Porn Adversely Affect Sexual Socialization?
In other words, can it lead to unrealistic expectations? If so, you would expect lower sexual satisfaction among viewers of pornography.
To assess whether or not real-life data fit this theoretical model, an online questionnaire was administered to over 2000 Croatian men and women between the ages of 18 and 25. The questionnaire included sociodemographic questions, experience with porn, attitudes towards porn, sexual experience, and sex attitudes.
Also, the researchers created and administered the “Sexual Scripts Overlap Scale.” Forty-two items were presented, and the individual had to indicate the importance of each item to “great sex,” on a scale of 1 (not important) to 5 (exceptionally important).” Then, they repeated the task with the same forty-two items, but this time they were asked to rate them in terms of importance “for pornographic presentation of sex.”
Another important measure they included was the a series of questions regarding the content of their preferred genre of porn. If they preferred BDSM, fetishism, bestiality, or violence/coercion, they were coded as “paraphilic” users. If they answered “none of the above,” they were coded as “mainstream” users. I think this bifurcation leaves some things to be desired, but let’s see how their results turned out.
They found no group differences in terms of sociodemographics. Paraphilic porn users reported significantly higher masturbation frequency and a higher number of lifetime sexual partners. Paraphilic users consumed pornography more extensively as well: 44% reported using it three or more hours per week. They also reported higher levels of sexual boredom, greater acceptance of sexual myths, and a higher average score on the sexual compulsiveness scale.
The paraphilic group had a greater overlap between the scripts. That is, they thought that great sex and great porn were more similar than those with self-reported preference for vanilla porn.
I’ll spare you the complicated path models. Here’s the take-home message: pornography use impacted on sexual satisfaction only for the paraphilic porn users, but not for the users who preferred vanilla porn. That said, the observed effects were small or marginal.
Okay, so far we’ve reviewed some of the self-perceived effects of porn, and the effects of porn on sexual satisfaction. But we’ve skirted the main issue:
Are their reliable effects of pornography on sexual aggression?
Another study surveyed 2,972 men with a mean age of 21 from US college campuses. In addition to the standard questions and measures similar to the other studies I’ve described above, they gave a standard 10-item scale to measure sexual aggression. They measured sexual promiscuity. They also completed the “hostile masculinity” scale, which measured hostility towards women and self-perceived masculinity. They combined the sexual promiscuity variable with the hostile masculinity variable and called this the “confluence risk” variable (since previous research suggested that these two variables interact with eachother to create a risk factor for aggression).
Again, I will spare you the details of all the structural equation modeling. What they found was that there was an interaction between pornography use and the confluence risk variable in predicting aggression.
Notice that for at the lower levels of risk (based on the combined sexual promiscuity and hostile masculinity variables), there is no difference in, or only weak effects of, aggression between the four different levels of porn use. It is only once the confluence risk variables reach moderate risk (score of 6) is porn use adversely associated with sexual aggression. For the high-risk group (score of 9) the effect becomes especially evident. Note however, that even the individuals who “somewhat frequently” use pornography are only slightly more likely to become sexually aggressive, and not statistically so. Only the very frequent users were statistically different from the others for the high-risk group. The “somewhat frequent,” “seldom,” and “never” users were not statistically different from eachother.
What does it mean? High pornography use is not necessarily indicative of high risk for sexual aggression. Among men who are relatively low-risk for sexual aggression, the use of porn results in only a slight increase in aggression. In some circumstances, pornography use, however, is a very good indicator of higher sexual aggression levels. This is the case when considering men who were determined to previously be at high risk for sexual aggression. Those who are frequent users of pornography were more likely to have engaged in sexual aggression than others who consume porn less frequently.
As with the previous studies, this was also only correlational, and it is impossible to infer casuality. However, this data suggests that viewing pornography is not a direct cause of aggression against women; rather, viewing pornography moderates the relationship between sexual promiscuity/hostile masculinity and sexual aggression.
What have we learned?
1. These issues are very complicated.
2. Because of the “third person effect,” it is important to measure pornography consumption in addition to attitudes
3. When it comes to self-report, both men and women report larger positive effects than negative effects.
4. Nearly all men report viewing pornography (98%), but the vast majority of women (80%) do as well.
5. For some, viewing pornography can lead to reduced sexual satisfaction. This effect is most pronounced for those who prefer “paraphilic” content to “mainstream” content, though this distinction leaves something to be desired.
6. There are reliable relationships between pornography use and sexual aggression, but the story isn’t so straightforward. For individuals with relatively low risk for sexual aggression, porn consumption has only a slight relationship with sexual aggression. The relationship becomes significant and pronounced only when the individual is already at a high-risk for sexual aggression.
Hald, G., & Malamuth, N. (2007). Self-Perceived Effects of Pornography Consumption Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37 (4), 614-625. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-007-9212-1
Štulhofer, A., Buško, V., & Landripet, I. (2008). Pornography, Sexual Socialization, and Satisfaction Among Young Men Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39 (1), 168-178. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-008-9387-0
Malamuth NM, 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. PMID: 11351835