Pornography: A Recipe for Rape?

08/04/2016 04:08 pm ET

Before the porn industry invaded the campus where I was employed at the time, I had distaste for pornography, but never quite knew how it affected people. So when there was a live strip show in our student union, a formerly prostituted woman demonstrating fellatio on a phallic device along with other representations from various corners of the porn industry, I became more motivated to look for data on how the pornography industry impacts those who use their (often illegal) products and services. Somehow it didn’t seem right to me that my employer would use state funds to support the porn industry.

Dr. Mary Anne Layden, the Director of the Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, stated in her chapter of The Social Costs of Pornography that “I’ve been a psychotherapist for 25 years. I specialize in the treatment of sexual violence victims and perpetrators and sex addicts. I spend all day, every day talking to rapists, and rape victims, pedophiles and incest survivors, sex addicts, pornography addicts, prostitutes, strippers, and pornography models. After I had done this work for about 10 years, I had a sudden realization that I hadn’t treated one case of sexual violence that didn’t involve pornography. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in psychology to realize something is going on here.” Indeed, the people she has treated evidence the link between pornography and sexual violence.

So all of this begs the question, what exactly does pornography teach about sexual encounters? Research published in the highly respected journal, Violence Against Women, by Dr. Ana Bridges and her colleagues, paints a startling picture. Dr. Bridges and her colleagues gathered the 25 most commonly rented and 25 most commonly purchased pornography videos. They viewed each film and catalogued the behaviors in every scene of every movie. What they found was a disconcerting amount of violence, particularly violence by men toward women. For example, in 88% of the scenes in these mainstream movies, there was spanking, open-hand slapping, hair pulling, choking or bondage. Further, in 41% of these movies, a man put his penis in a woman’s anus and then immediately into her mouth (without washing or changing condoms). What this research shows is that pornography teaches viewers to be violent. Fully 95% of the time when someone was violent in these movies the recipient of violence responded with either pleasure or passive compliance. What message does this teach men? Women like to be hit. What does this encourage women to learn? If a man hits you, either enjoy it or do not resist or respond at all. This should shock the conscience of anyone who has one.

Young people are particularly vulnerable because their brains are still developing. Research by published in Surgical Neurology International by Donald Hilton and Clark Watts used brain imaging to study how men react to pornography. They found that when young brains take in frequent pornographic images, their neural pathways regulating arousal become re-routed. Instead of traveling from being stimulated by the physical presence of a willing partner, neurons begin to fire almost exclusively for video or pictorial images and no longer fire for a real, present person. In addition, they found that pornography is just as addictive as cocaine and methamphetamine.

When I make presentations at universities and conferences about pornography, one thing I often hear is the argument that if we just made pornography consensual, feminist, ethical or some other misleading label, there would be no harm. These arguments are vapid. First, any pornography, whether ‘consensual’ or not, objectifies the actors in the particular medium. When users view at pornography, they do so to look at bodies having sex, bodies that then become objectified in the eyes of the viewer. It is objectification that is the seed from which violence grows. Secondly, a review of research by Malamuth, Addison, and Koss in the Annual Review of Sex Research found that even so called “consensual” and “nonviolent” pornography had a cause and effect relationship with support for sexual aggression (attitudes) and for aggression itself (behavior). Together, there were approximately 50 experimental studies with several thousands of people to support these causal relationships.

During an interview with a pornography producer, Robert Jensen asked what purpose that producer serves in the pornography industry. The producer’s response was telling, “I’d like to show what I believe the men want to see: violence against women. I firmly believe that we serve a purpose by showing that. The most violent we can get is the cum shot in the face. Men get off behind that, because they get even with the women they can’t have. We try to inundate the world with orgasms in the face.” (p. 84). From the research I have shared in this article, along with many other studies, it seems that the intent of the industry is consistent with its effect.

Occasionally, people will ask me how they can break their habit (sometimes called an addiction) to pornography. My recommendation is similar to what I have always given for people struggling with alcoholism. Go to an inpatient treatment facility and get clean. Or start by going to a weekend workshop with an organization like Every Man’s Battle.  Use one of the new online programs (sometimes even free) like The Fortify Program by the great folks at Fight the New Drug.  The thing that successful programs tend to have in common is helping you realize that the problem is bigger than you can solve on your own, and there is a source of power greater than you that can help.

The first time someone began talking with me about the harms of pornography, I thought he was a bit extreme and just a little too passionate about the topic. Initially, you might feel the same way after reading this blog. However, I do hope that you will consider the different ways in which pornography can harm young people, and indeed all viewers. So many people learn about sex from watching pornography. So much of this pornography emphasizes violence. It is time that we started to educate others with a public health approach to turn the tide against an industry bent on hijacking the sexuality of every successive generation.

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