Just Harmless Fun?
Understanding the Impact of Pornography
All healthy men, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, know there is a
certain fury in sex that we cannot afford to inflame, and that a certain mystery
and awe must ever surround it if we are to remain sane.
More and more we are asked to believe that pornography is merely harmless .adult
entertainment.. Polls show that most people don.t buy that line, but where do you find
the evidence (rather than just rhetoric) to demonstrate its impact? To answer that
question, Enough Is Enough has prepared this Special Report to provide an up-to-date
overview of the evidence of harm. We survey recent empirical research, media
studies, experience of clinical psychologists and other compelling information, and we
respond to many of the porn advocates sound-bites.
Read the evidence and decide for yourself: is pornography .just harmless fun.?
Should we be concerned about the increasing intrusion of pornography into our society?
Interestingly, most people say .yes,. according to surveys giving as much as 75%1 or even 94%2
approval to pornography restrictions on the Internet.3 This report will review the evidence that
these concerns are eminently justified.
The advocates of pornography usually attribute such concerns to mere prudishness. Sex,
however, is hardly just another appetite, like hunger for food. Our sexual appetites are a bit more
complex than eating too much pizza, and the consequences of poor sexual decisions usually can.t
be fixed with two Alka-Seltzers.
Surveying the Evidence
A favorite tactic of pornography.s advocates is to argue that it is .harmless fun,. mere .adult
entertainment.. They would have us believe that any difference between Venus De Milo and
Debbie Does Dallas is simply personal taste, not discernment. They like to challenge the public
to prove that pornography causes harm.
Well, there is proof of harm. The best-kept secret about pornography is that it causes real
harm to real people.
Every Boy Scout knows that you can define any point on a map with two compass bearings
from different perspectives: just draw the two cross-bearing lines on the map, and look where
they intersect. In the case of pornography there are cross-bearings from many perspectives . all
intersecting at the point of harm. Each perspective is persuasive in its own right. Taken
together, the evidence of harm is difficult to ignore.
It has been said that the most disingenuous argument in the pornography debate is that porn
doesn.t influence people. If images don.t influence attitudes and behavior, how do we explain
the existence of the advertising industry?
Of course, none of us likes to admit we are influenced by advertising. Few proud car owners
would say: .I bought my Volvo because their advertisements create an image of a thinking
person.s car, and that appeals to my ego.. We value our self-image as rational beings and, as a
result, most of us are in denial about the influence of advertising.
Those in the advertising business, however, know that images have impact.
America.s top ten advertisers alone spent a total of $5.2 billion helping consumers part with their
hard-earned cash.5 It might be nice to think that investments like Nike.s Michael Jordan
campaign are made out of blind hope, but market research predicts and confirms the impact of
advertising. .The enormous advertising and marketing industries are built on the premise that
the media do influence a wide range of behaviors.. 6
To believe pornography does not impact attitudes and behavior is to believe we are not
affected by what we see. Our collective state of denial of the impact of advertising illustrates
that people can believe they are not affected. But the evidence illustrates how improbable that
To argue that advertising has no impact (as opposed to merely being blind to it) requires
impressive faith that we invariably intercept and rationally defuse the power of suggestion in
advertising images. Oftentimes we do. But communications experts note that advertising works
precisely because it appeals to human emotion rather than to rational considerations:
.TV commercials do not use propositions to persuade; they use visual images.and
only rarely.verifiable assertions. Therefore, commercials are not susceptible to logical
analysis [and] are not refutable.It is not facts that are offered to the consumers but idols,
to which both adults and children can attach themselves with equal devotion and without
the burden of logic or verification..7
If the effectiveness of advertising is based upon its appeal to emotion, do we really believe
that pornography appeals to reason? Pornography, ultimately, is a form of advertising. (Can you
spell .sex sells.?) Pornography advertises a particular view of human sexuality, as surely as the
Marlboro Man conveys a particular image of a cigarette brand. The only question is: what brand
of sexuality is pornography promoting?
The messages of pornography
The Hugh Hefners of the world sometimes describe their product as simply .the joys of
consensual sexuality.. The reality is much less elevated and considerably more one-sided.
Studies indicate that individuals use pornography to inform and teach themselves about sexual
behavior. So what does pornography teach?
Scholars note that human sexuality in pornography is never more than physical, since
depictions of other basic aspects of human sexuality.such as communication between
sexual partners, expressions of affection or emotion (except fear and lust).and concerns
about .the consequences of sexual activities.are minimized.
Pornography advertises sex without relationships, without commitment, and especially,
without consequences. How many porn videos include the resulting teenage pregnancy with the
child-mother dropping out of school? Or catching human papilloma virus (HPV), leading to
infertility or cervical cancer, or even catching AIDS?
In the words of one academic study: .The characteristic portrayal of women in
pornography [is] as socially nondiscriminating, as hysterically euphoric in response to just
about any sexual or pseudosexual stimulation, and as eager to accommodate seemingly any
and every sexual request..10 Another study notes that women are depicted as .malleable,
obsessed with sex, and willing to engage in any sexual act with any sexual partner..11
Pornography presents women in stereotype, as insatiable sex machines to accommodate
every possible sexual request. Women, it tells us, are here to please men, and if they say .no. it
is just token resistance. In pornography, the typical woman is always ready, available, and eager
to please, unlike a real woman who might have inconvenient expectations of her own.
In pornography, men are apparently here to have sex with as many women as possible.
Marriage is either a hindrance to their purpose, or irrelevant because fidelity is abnormal and
possibly unnatural. In pornography, men certainly don.t value women for their minds, since they
don.t appear to have discovered that women have such a thing.
In our society, .the learning of sexual techniques and attitudes is too often left to chance,
which may include such sources as X-rated video shops. As a result, a great number of people
acquire faulty information and expectations that can impair their sexual enjoyment and
adequacy..12 The message of pornography is that sex is the only human activity where there is
no such thing as a poor choice, and where there are no consequences to actions.
Pornography.s portrayal of human sexual behavior is so erroneous as to be fraudulent. Most
obvious are the unrealistic body types, unrealistic sexual situations, and routinely multi-orgasmic
sexual performances. More subtly, the most desirable sexual behaviors are depicted as excluding
monogamy, fidelity, responsibility, commitment, or even an established relationship of any sort
This stands in direct contrast to the most rewarding and satisfying sexual relationships in real
life. In the most definitive scientific survey ever done on human sexual behavior, the vast
majority of both males and females were found to have few sex partners over a lifetime. Once
married, the vast majority have no other sex partner than their spouse. Americans generally
show considerably more sexual restraint than the entertainment media (including pornography)
would suggest, but it is the couples who are married or cohabiting who have more frequent and
more satisfying sex.
There is a vivid contrast between pornography.s portrayal of desirable sexual behaviors, and
the behaviors found most satisfying by most individuals. Because people often judge themselves
by how they perceive that others behave, individuals using pornography set themselves up for
unrealistic expectations leading to damaged relationships.
Impact of Sexually Oriented Businesses
The curiously toxic nature of pornography is also illustrated by the consistently negative
impact that sex businesses have upon the areas in which they are located. This impact of
sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) has been clearly demonstrated through land use studies.
U.S. courts allow restrictive zoning of SOBs because such businesses have significant negative impact
on their surrounding communities.
Empirical Research Studies
In her book Defending Pornography, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) President
Nadine Strossen quotes with approval a writer.s observation that: .Pornography tells me.that
none of my thoughts are bad, that anything goes [emphasis in original]..17
The message that anything goes is certainly inherent in pornography. Unfortunately,
pornography makes short work of any distinction between sexual liberation (in the sense of a
mature awareness and understanding of one.s sexuality) and sexual exploitation.
The characteristic message of pornography is that women are sluts (or, in the more measured
terminology of scholarly analysis of content, .promiscuous sexual creatures who [are]subordinate and subservient to men.. Empirical research sets out to test the obvious question:
do users absorb the message that pornography is selling?
A useful way to overview the empirical research is to divide it into two chronological
periods: the work reviewed by two government commissions, and the research that has taken
The Government Commissions
The then-available evidence as to the influence of pornography was assessed by two major
Commissions established in 1970 and 1986, respectively. In 1970, the Presidential Commission
on Obscenity and Pornography concluded that there was insufficient evidence that exposure to
explicit sexual materials played a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal
behavior. In 1986, the Attorney General.s Commission on Pornography reached the opposite
conclusion, advising that available pornography was in varying degrees harmful. In effect,
however, the two Commissions were answering different questions.
Between 1970 and 1986 the nature of the available material changed substantially. In 1970,
full frontal nudity was rarely found in newstand magazines, since it could be successfully
prosecuted as obscenity. One scholar noted that .in 1970, many of the experimental studies
utilized sexually explicit materials from sex research institutes . . . because of the difficulty of
obtaining materials from the local market.. Needless to say, by 1986 this was no longer a
research constraint! By 1986, gynecological close-ups were available in newsstand magazines
and hard-core material (.penetration clearly visible.) was not difficult to find in adult video
This complete change in the pornography .scene. contributed to the change in findings
between 1970 and 1986. Also, in 1970 only a limited amount of research had been carried out,
much of it originated by the Commission itself, in comparison to the extensive studies completed
since then. The 1970 Commission was criticized for failing to adequately address the impact of
violent pornography and, as a result, much of the research over the next sixteen years went into
By 1986, there was .some convergent validation.20 of the effects of violent pornography,
including findings that sexually violent depictions led to:
♦ Aggression against women under laboratory test conditions.
♦ Significant increases by college males in the acceptance of rape myths and of
sexual violence towards women.
♦ Seeing the rape victim as more responsible for the assault, with perpetrators
absolved and viewed less negatively.
♦ More aggressive sexual fantasies.
Even certain scholars who attributed such results primarily to the violence component noted
that .a nonrapist population will evidence increased sexual arousal to media-presented images
of rape . when the female victim shows signs of pleasure and arousal, the theme most
commonly presented in aggressive pornography.
The Surgeon General.s Workshop on Pornography and Public Health met from June 22-24,
1986, and, like the 1986 Attorney General.s Commission, concluded that .pornography does
stimulate attitudes and behavior that lead to gravely negative consequences for individuals and
It is customary for pornography advocates to counter such findings by overstating them. For
example: .It is ridiculous to suggest that one look at Playboy turns a man into a rapist.. Of
course that would be ridiculous: it.s also not what the research is suggesting. Or: .Pornography
can.t compel anyone to act in a particular way.. True, and neither did liquor or tobacco
advertisements (now banned or restricted) compel anyone to buy their products. Or:
.Pornography doesn.t affect everyone the same way.. True, and neither did tobacco or liquor
ads . but their influence was undeniable.
What the research does show is that pornography is a strong, negative influence affecting
attitudes and behavior. It promotes the same attitudes towards women that breed sexual
harassment and destroy relationships. It promotes the same attitudes towards sexuality that breed
promiscuity and the spread of STDs. It teaches that the main function of .a sensitive, key
relationship of human existence. is simply self-gratification at the expense of others. And it is
sold without even a .Surgeon-General.s Warning.
Experience of clinical psychologists
The May 15, 1999 cover story of the highly-regarded business magazine Fortune was a feature
article, .Addicted to Sex . Corporate America.s Dirty Secret,. discussing the destructive effects
of pornography, promiscuity and prostitution in the business world. It is ironic that, while the
pornographers make intellectual arguments that their product is harmless, businesses in the real
world are dealing with its consequences.
The sub-head for the Fortune article was: .Companies used to wink at these troubled executives,
now they send them to desert clinics for .The Cure… One such clinic is run by Dr. Patrick J. Carnes,
a leading expert on sexual addictions, who commented in the article that: .Most of my patients are
CEOs or doctors or attorneys or priests. We have corporate America.s leadership marching through
Fortune, of course, has no advocacy position on either side of the pornography debate and its
interest was simply to report a growing problem for business. For years, however, some clinical
psychologists have expressed concern about pornography because of the evidence of their patients.
experiences. In a previous study by Dr. Carnes, for example, 90% of the men and 77% of the women
(out of 932 sex addicts) indicated that pornography played a significant role in their addiction.
Other clinical psychologists who have published their work include:
♦ Dr. Gary Brooks, who describes five principal symptoms of a .pervasive disorder. linked to
consumption of even soft-core pornography like Playboy:
• Voyeurism – An obsession with visual stimulation trivializing all other mature
features of a healthy psychological relationship.
• Objectification – An attitude where women are rated by size, shape and harmony
of body parts.
• Validation . Where men who never come close to sex with their dream woman
feel cheated or unmanly.
• Trophyism . Where women become the property of the man as a symbol of
accomplishment and worthiness.
• Fear of true intimacy . A preoccupation with sexuality, handicaping the capacity
for emotional or non-sexual intimacy.
♦ Dr. Victor Cline of the University of Utah, who identifies four stages of viewing pornography
following the initial exposure:
• Addiction – The desire and need to keep coming back for pornographic images.
• Escalation – The need for more explicit, rougher, and more deviant images for
the same sexual effect.
• Desensitization – Material once viewed as shocking or taboo is seen as
acceptable or commonplace.
• Acting out – The tendency to perform the behaviors viewed, including
exhibitionism, sadistic/masochistic sex, rape, or sex with minor children.
Although not all men are equally vulnerable to habitual porn use, Dr. Cline concluded that
for some men pornography .is the gateway drug to sexual addiction..
Dr. William Marshall and Dr. Gene Abel have published important research with child molesters,
rapists and other sexual offenders.49 Abel.s research indicated that more than 50% of sex offenders
used pornography, and that offenders who used it were less able to control their behavior than those
who did not. Abel.s findings contradicted the .safety-valve. or .catharsis. theory (which has
basically died from lack of supporting evidence in the last twenty years). Marshall found that, in a
study of outpatient sex offenders treated over a six-year period, one-third reported they had used
pornography immediately before at least one of their crimes.
The body.s biological responses are one reason pornography.s effects are so powerful.
Research reveals biochemical and neurological responses in individuals who are emotionally
aroused, regardless of the stimuli. The adrenal hormone epinephrine is released, locking
memories into the brain, and explaining why men can remember pornographic images seen years
before50. Chemicals called opioids, released by nerve endings in response to pleasure, then
reinforce the body.s desire to repeat the process.
In other words, chemical responses to sexual arousal and gratification cause the body to
desire to repeat a rewarding behavior.which may be the use of pornography. Thus the
biological drive to return to rewarding behavior can lead to an actual dependence or addiction.
In addition, the release of epinephrine and opioids in the body are associated with both the
triggering sexual image and the message it conveys. Thus the biological response to
pornography rewards and hence reinforces the messages presented – which, as discussed earlier,
often include anti-social attitudes about women, relationships, and behavior. Simply stated, in
terms of pure body chemistry, sex sells!
In addition to the experience of psychologists and therapists, the harms of pornography are
attested to by those who have experienced them directly . users and spouses of users. In the
words of Enough Is Enough President Emeritus Dee Jepsen: .Some say pornography doesn.t
have any victims. I know better. I look into the tear-filled eyes of victims nearly every time I
speak about the Enough Is Enough campaign..
This sort of qualitative evidence does not generate the neat, clinical percentages of
experiments under controlled circumstances. But the wife whose marriage has been destroyed
by her spouse.s pornography addiction has little interest in whether the latest research studies
confirm that pornography might have harmful effects. To the men and women whose lives have
been damaged by pornography, this is not an academic issue.
In the 1986 Final Report of the Attorney General.s Commission on Pornography,
testimony after testimony demonstrated pornography.s damage to individuals and families.
Women spoke of husbands who insisted they imitate scenes from pornography, whether they
wished to or not. Doctors spoke of sexual dysfunction and unrealistic expectations due to
pornography. Law enforcement officials spoke of pornography.s connection to sexual crimes.
And men spoke of the damage they had witnessed, or caused, because of pornography use.
Other anecdotal evidence includes the worst-case scenarios of mass-murderers like Ted Bundy,
John Wayne Gacy, Gary Bishop and others where pornography played a role in their crimes.
Obviously, millions of men use pornography without ever going to these extremes. But while .no
one supposes that every addict of such material will act out his fantasies, it is willfully blind to think
that none will.
Factors Particularly Affecting Children
Although no evidence will ever sway some porn advocates to concede its potential for harm
in the lives of adults, one might expect less dispute in the case of children. After all, children
usually have less maturity and discernment. How can children deal wisely with hard-core
sexuality that is (usually and hopefully) beyond their experience of life? If a neighbor exposed
your child to hard-core pornography, wouldn.t you regard that as sexual abuse?
Unfortunately, even the protection of children from pornography is now challenged in some
circles because, the argument runs, the harm to children has never been .proved.. This is a
recurring topic, for example, in the Internet discussion groups of the self-styled .intellectual
freedom. arm of the American Library Association (ALA). Similarly, in 1999, two North
American court decisions were based in part on the idea that pornography.s harm to children has
not been .proved..
By the same logic, one might argue that the harm of crack cocaine to children is also
unproven, since in neither case is experimental research conducted on children. In both cases the
omission is a simple matter of ethics . what kind of researcher exposes a child to putatively
harmful matter, to see if harm does, in fact, result?
The Ethical Principles of the American Psychological Association (APA) state that .the
fundamental requirements are the participants have made a fully informed and competent
decision to participate and that they emerge from their research experiment unharmed.or, at
least, that the risks are minimal, understood by the participants, and accepted as reasonable.
[emphasis added].56 Clearly, no child can give such informed consent, which is why no ethical
researcher would conduct experimental studies on pornography and children. In short, studies
including children do not exist because they would violate professional and ethical
This does not mean there is no evidence of harm to children. Firstly, all the considerations
already discussed with respect to adults apply at least equally to children. Secondly, there are
other considerations that particularly impact children:
Although children mature at different rates, there are four or five stages of cognitive
development which are fairly standard in their occurrence.57 The child starts as the center of his
or her universe and advances through concrete thought and abstract thought to eventually be
capable of relationships. Every teacher knows that algebra is not taught in elementary school,
for example, because the child hasn.t yet developed sufficient faculty for abstract thought.
It is a maxim of parenting that you don.t give children more information than they are ready
to handle. For example, when a child asks .where do I come from?. the wise parent knows that
sometimes the right answer may simply be .Pittsburgh.. Premature exposure to hard-core
sexuality is a bit more complex than premature exposure to algebra . particularly if the images
themselves are misleading (see .False Advertising?. above). One therapist writes:
.When a child experiences reality beyond their readiness, they have no means of
processing the material intellectually or emotionally. At that time, they will bury the
experience in their unconscious, where it will lurk in the shadows haunting them,
possibly for the rest of their lives..
Can the harms of pornography be proved with the certainty of a proposition in geometry?
No, because that is not the standard applied to research in the social sciences. The correct
standard is to assess the preponderance of the evidence.
In the case of pornography, the preponderance of the evidence clearly demonstrates that the
material is not .just harmless fun.. Although almost all men are attracted by it, there are clearly
perils associated with its use . which no doubt explains why so many men are willing to resist
their own hormones and try to keep away from pornography.
Pornography is not about real human sexuality: it.s about a dehumanized, synthetic version
of sex that eliminates love, honor, dignity, true intimacy and commitment. The image of
sexuality offered by pornography comes without relationships, responsibility or consequences.
a largely fraudulent picture. Porn movies never show a girlfriend getting pregnant at 16, or a
young man getting AIDS . or a married man resisting the temptation of another woman.
Unfortunately, the research demonstrates that pornography.s fraudulent messages are
ingested, affecting attitudes and behavior. Countless studies show that the basic messages of
pornography . that a woman.s function is to satisfy a man sexually, that women have no value,
no meaning, and their desires and needs are irrelevant . breed sexual callousness and acceptance
of the rape myth (i.e. that women secretly desire to be raped).
These are the attitudes that lead to sexual harassment, failed relationships, early promiscuity
and the spread of STDs. And, unless one believes that attitudes and behaviors are unrelated, it is
difficult then to be surprised by the evidence of correlation between pornography usage and
sexually abusive behaviors.
We protect ourselves and our communities, in part, through the values we affirm as
important. Treating every human being with respect, equality, and dignity, are values we should
all be able to embrace, as a society and as individuals. The harms of pornography result from
replacing respect, equality and dignity with a candy-coated message of hate.
Just Harmless Fun?
By Bruce Watson and Shyla Rae Welch
Copyright © Enough Is Enough, 2000
1 State of the First Amendment 1999, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Nashville, TN,