Effects of Pornography on Perceptions of Women & Sexual Violence

[Contributed by guest blogger Katherine Broendel]

Before I begin writing about what my research has found regarding the framing of sexual violence in the media, I'd like to take a moment to define some of the parameters of my research. I focused my attention on sexual violence committed against women. I recognize that approximately 10% of sexual violence victims and survivors are male, and I do not discount their experiences. However, considering the vast majority of the violence is aimed at women and girls, I chose to focus my study on women. In addition, I'd like to note that I did not include any news articles in my qualitative review that described prison rape, sex crimes against children, or sexual assault committed as a hate crime against GLBT individuals. I hypothesize that the study of male victims/survivors, as well as child and GLBT victims/survivors, would be vastly different regarding the news media frames in use.

Given more time and resources, I would like to pursue the studies listed above, and perhaps even a study on the different frames that exist in coverage of sexual violence in developing countries. My feminist & gender theory course briefly discussed this latter topic in class one evening. I will try to remember to post some points from class discussion as well as some resources and further reading.

When I first started out in my research, I was interested in exploring the arguments surrounding the effects pornography has on society. There are some feminists, among others, who argue that viewing pornography has negative effects on women, including societal perceptions of women. These effects can contribute to the disconnect that exists between media coverage of sexual violence and the social problem in reality.

The studies regarding sexually violent media that I reviewed for my research had mixed findings. Interestingly, the types of effects found and the varying degrees of their severity depended on factors such as the level of violence shown and the amount of education and/or debriefing subjects had prior to or after viewing.

Research in this area by Intons-Peterson in 1989 found that audiences viewing pornographic films tend to feel more aggressive toward women; however, if the audiences are debriefed afterward, their likelihood of aggression toward women decreases. This is an interesting finding because educating people about the emotions this type of media may instill is a tool for individuals or organizations working to stop sexual violence.

A later study in 1997 by Krafka, et al. found that viewers of sexually violent material were more likely to become desensitized to violence and even feel ambivalent toward the victims. However, the study conducted by Linz et al. in 1988 found that while audiences remain aware of the sexual violence that exists and is present in the film, they are more likely to be sympathetic and sensitive toward perceived victims.

These studies show that one of the things needed to help mitigate sexual violence in society is to educate and provide more context for it. In addition, the numerous effects sex crimes can have on the survivor as well as a citizen reading about it in the newspaper need to be addressed in this larger context. Deeper understanding and awareness of the issue, especially its status as a violent trend in society, may have its effects on public perceptions and policies. The findings of my research do not focus purely on re-framing or counter-framing sexual violence, but on the shift that's needed in sex crime coverage to provide more information and context to audiences.

For a list of further readings -- including the full citations for the studies noted here -- please leave a comment below.

-- Katherine Broendel, Guest Blogger

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Twenty-some odd years ago, I looked at this issue in a psychology of women class. Granted, the information I had was different (by twenty years), and the internet and the over-arching media had not yet made a dent.

It was a toss up. Lots of studies, variable results. There was some indication that pornography offered an OUTLET for sexual aggression, making perpetration of a crime less likely.

I thought of that when reading the studies on violence in video games and it's influence on teens. Some suggest that these games do provide an outlet and lessen the chances that a child will actually, say, join a gang in real life.

It's an interesting topic. I hope you will give us more.

By Leslie Haber (not verified) on 09 Jun 2009 #permalink

In terms of the Intons-Peterson study, what exactly do you mean by the audience being debriefed? Does this mean the audience was given context, or just told that what they saw was wrong and why?

This is indeed an interesting topic. You have given an excellent introduction here and I also hope you will give us more.

I would be interested in receiving your list of readings and citations.

This is interesting, but I have a couple of questions.

- Why address sexually violent imagery and porn in the same context? As a woman who has watched a fair amount of porn, I don't think those two things (or the people who view them) necessarily fit together. If what you're trying to evaluate is the impact of standard pornography, using data from studies of violent pornography is going to skew what you learn about porn as a whole.

- If the reactions vary by the amount of violence shown (and, I'm assuming, the less violence = the less aggression toward women), does that mean that standard non-violent porn really isn't that big of problem?

- What criteria are being used to separate violent porn and regular porn?

I'd like to second what Maggie says - conflating sexually violent imagery with pornography is a classic position taken by those who seek to suppress porn. Similarly you don't indicate if the "violence" was consensual BDSM play or non consensual (as can be found on TV most weeknights under the cover of police procedurals).

I'd like to know more and if you're interested have a joint interview with one of our columnists (we have several PhD's writing for us who I know would be happy to argue that access porn actually reduces violence overall)

Getting back to the data - how do you factor the propensity of subjects to give the politically correct answer in this subject area? We know from studies of credit card usage that some of the biggest porn consumers are also in areas where the anti-porn lobby is strongest (aka red states). How do you get real data on porn use to compare to crime stats. How do you control for other factors like the overall crime rate? Drug use?

John Pettitt
Publisher CarnalNation.com

John Pettitt's claim about red state porn consumption was critiqued in multiple places, including on science blogs--the study shows credit card returns from one online processor. Existence of free porn and unknown consumption preferences between states make his claim untenable.

The entire investigation is based on a false premise. Pornography is not a genre; itâs an accusation and a business model.

Labeling a work as âpornographyâ allows the work to be marginalize, socially and economically. Accepting or even celebrating this label means running a business that accepts the realities of this marginalization: poor access to markets, legally marginalized distribution, preposterously low wholesale price points, second-class citizen treatment in the media, government censorship, etc. (Producers and publishers who wish to participate in the market broadly label their work non-pornographic, such as the above commenters' description of his CarnalNation project, or our own âerotic documentary.)

Once the argument over content stops, and the question of âpornographyâ is parsed from a legal and economic point of view, investigations like this ons can be seen for what for what is really is, an attempt to further justify the legal, social, and most of all, economic marginalization of sexual expression. It creates an ill-defined and ultimately false and tautological class âpornographyâ and then layers on top of that dubious assertions about the effect of viewing material drawn from within this class. If her assertions gain currency, then the label âpornographyâ can be used to marginalize whatever work to which it can be successfully attached.

Seconding Chris, the study Pettitt cites was dubious at best. In fact, CarnalNation ran my critique of Benjamin Edelman's study. I'm surprised to see him referring to it here.

I have read the article below

The Effects of Rape Myth Pornography on Women's
Attitudes and the Mediating Role of
Sex Role Stereotyping
Suzin E. Mayerson
University of Maryland
Dalmas A. Taylor
Wayne State University
This study tested several hypotheses regarding (1) the effects of reading pornography
on women's self-esteem and attitudes about rape and interpersonal
violence and (2) how these effects were mediated by subject's degree of sex
role stereotyping (SRS). Women high and low in SRS read one of three sexually
explicit stories portraying different combinations of a woman's consent
(or no consenO and arousal (or no arousaO to forceful sexual activity.
As predicted, all stories had some effect on attitudes. Differences attributable
to the Consent and Arousal manipulations were minimal, but generally
in the expected direction. Compared to not reading a story, reading any story
generally led to changes in self-esteem and greater acceptance of rape myths
and interpersonal violence. Also as predicted, high, compared to low, SRS
subjects generally reported lower self-esteem and more tolerance of rape and
other violence. Differences were also found in perceptions of sexual situations.
Significant SRS by story interactions and other results related to the
hypotheses are also discussed.

I was pleased to stumble upon this blog, especially as a cited author. Some excellent points have been made here, and I am glad to see intelligent discussion happening 25 years after I worked on that research. One thing I want to mention is that "pornography" of any kind is very difficult to study. It is complex, and as Ms.Broendel points out, dependent on context. As a member of my master's thesis oral exam committee said during my defense, "She is not here to define pornography." I have always been grateful for that, partly because it was true. I was only studying a small part of the topic. I would like to stay in touch with people who find this topic of interest, so I'm posting this comment.

By Dr. S. Mayerson (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink