THE BLOG

Porn and Critical Thinking: The Importance of Using Your Head When Looking at Scientific Results

01/27/2016 10:55 pm ET
  • Jodie Baer Researcher with a sex and sexuality focus
scyther5 via Getty Images

Recently, my colleagues and I accidentally reinvigorated public discussions of pornography's impact on the treatment of women by publishing an archival study[i] examining the correlates of pornography use. Although limited in its scope, and never really intended for public consumption, our findings, which surprised many people (including us to some extent), captured media attention for a few weeks, and appear to have briefly rekindled public interest in porn research. For those who are not familiar with our study, we examined the responses of over 25,000 Americans collected over the course of 35 years, and found evidence -- in contrast to pervasive cultural beliefs -- that pornography users in the sample held more gender egalitarian attitudes than non-users on three of our five indices. Specifically, those who indicated that they had watched an X-rated movie in the past year were more likely to agree that women are suited for politics, should be free to work outside the home, and should be able to access abortion.

While we are the first to admit that the interpretation of our findings must be qualified by several important shortcomings with the study, the pushback we have received in some public forums -- including accusations that we are uncritical apologists of Big Porno -- is quite at odds with the actual weaknesses of the study, and has reminded us that most people lack access to basic research concerning pornography use. Mirroring trends in public discourse, it may surprise some people to know that the topic of pornography has contributed to considerable conflict within academic circles for nearly 50 years. Since the late 1960s, researchers have asserted many (sometimes conflicting) effects of viewing the stuff, the most controversial of which concerns the idea that pornography use increases the risk for sexual assault. Considerable research has been conducted on both sides of the argument[ii],[iii],[iv],[v], but a research consensus remains elusive. Because concerns about sexual assault, rape culture, and pornography use have all risen to cultural prominence (and for good reasons), I thought this to be a good time to discuss one of the fundamental reasons that the link between sexual assault and pornography use remains unclear. Academics don't really understand what porn is.

These days, many people argue that sexual depictions on the whole aren't the issue, but rather, pornography featuring violent content is the root of the problem. In the same breath, such people often point to a content analysis[vi] which claims that 88 percent of popular mainstream porn videos (DVD and VHS) contain depictions of aggression. While that would certainly be concerning if the figure was meaningful, there are several reasons to be critical of this study. One common criticism of content analyses is that the researchers conducting them tend to find what they're looking for, and Ana Bridges, the leading author of this paper, has known affiliations with prominent contemporary anti-pornography feminists Robert Jensen and Gail Dines. Another point of concern is that these results literally stand alone: You will not find another content analysis of porn conducted in last 40 years (and there have been dozens) that report numbers anywhere near that high. There are also problems with the methodology. For example, this study considered insertion of a penis into the mouth in a manner that obstructs breathing, which occurred in 54 percent of analyzed scenes, as "gagging," a form of violence. I don't know about you folks, but the last I checked, sometimes going down on a guy involves holding one's breath -- that's just how things work. Relatedly, this study has also been formally criticized[vii] for its lack of differentiation between consensual and nonconsensual "aggressive" acts, which arguably shouldn't influence nonconsensual behaviors, due to their desired nature. So, how much porn is violent? Virtually all of it or almost none of it -- it depends who you ask.

Concerns about the prevalence and nature of violent pornography are related to a much broader issue that the research community is only just beginning to grapple with[viii],[ix]: Pornography itself is not well understood. Despite years of trying, scientists, researchers, academics, and clinicians just can't seem to agree when it comes to what counts as pornography. Depending on who you talk to, porn is:

· something that is "obscene or licentious; foul, disgusting, or offensive; tending to produce lewd emotions"[x]

· a verbal or pictorial representation that involves "the degrading and demeaning portrayal of the role and status of the human female...as a mere sexual object to be exploited and manipulated sexually"[xi]

· "any kind of material aiming at creating or enhancing sexual feelings or thoughts in the recipient and, at the same time containing explicit exposure and/or descriptions of the genitals, and clear and explicit sexual acts," but not "posing or acting naked such as seen in Playboy"[xii]

This problem is compounded when measuring porn use or exposing people to porn in the lab, as all researchers go about it in a slightly different way[xiii],[xiv]. In other words, two studies which say they're looking at pornography use may be measuring or exposing people to very different things. This problem extends to the very few studies that have actually made the effort to examine who uses violent pornography. The natural consequence is that we have no idea how many people watch porn, how frequently they're doing it, and what they're watching. Given this state of affairs, how are we supposed to reach meaningful conclusions about the impact porn has on attitudes toward women or sexual assault?


[i] Kohut, T., Baer, J.L., & Watts, B. (2016). Is pornography really about "making hate to women"? Pornography users hold more gender egalitarian attitudes than nonusers in a representative American sample. Journal of Sex Research, 53(1), 1-11.

[ii] Donnerstein, J. & Hallam, J. (1978). Facilitating effects of erotica on aggression against women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(4), 710-724.

[iii] Ferguson, C.J., & Hartley, R.D. (2009). The pleasure is momentary... the expense damnable? The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 14(5), 323-329.

[iv] Fisher, W.A., & Grenier, G. (1994). Violent pornography, antiwoman thoughts, and antiwoman acts: In search of reliable effects. Journal of Sex Research, 31(3), 23-28.

[v] Hald, G.M., Malamuth, N.M., & Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and attitudes supporting violence against women: Revisiting the relationship in non-experimental studies. Aggressive Behavior, 36(1), 14-20.

[vi] Bridges, A.J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., &Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behaviour in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update. Violence Against Women, 16(10), 1065-1085.

[vii] McKee, A. (2015). Methodological issues in defining aggression for content analyses of sexually explicit material. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 81-87.

[viii] Kohut, T. (2014). An empirical investigation of the concept of "pornography" (Doctoral dissertation). Western University, London, ON.

[ix] Willoughby, B.J. & Busby, D.M. (2015). In the eye of the beholder: Exploring variations in the perceptions of pornography. The Journal of Sex Research. Advance online publication.

[x] Byrne, D., Fisher, J.D., Lamberth, J., & Mitchell, H.E. (1974). Evaluations of erotica: Facts or feelings? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(1), 111-116.

[xi] Longino, H.E. (1980). Pornography, oppression, & freedom: A closer look. In Lederer, L. (Ed.), Take back the night: Women on pornography (40-54). New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

[xii] Hald, G.M. & Malamuth, N.M. (2008). Self-perceived effects of pornography consumption. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(4), 624-625.

[xiii] Kohut, T. (2014). An empirical investigation of the concept of "pornography" (Doctoral dissertation). Western University, London, ON.

[xiv] Short, M.B., Black, L., Smith, A.H., Wetterneck, C.T., & Wells, D.E. (2012). A review of Internet pornography use research: Methodology and content from the past 10 years. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(1), 13-23.

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