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.

G.K. Chesterton


More and more we are asked to believe that pornography is merely harmless adult entertainment. Polls show that most people dont 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% or even 94% approval to pornography restrictions on the Internet. 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 doesnt influence people. If images dont 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 persons 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.


In 1997, America.s top ten advertisers alone spent a total of $5.2 billion helping consumers part with their hard-earned cash. It might be nice to think that investments like Nikes 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.

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 would be!

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.

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?

About sexuality


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?


About women


In the words of one academic study: The characteristic portrayal of women in pornography [is] as socially non discriminating, as hysterically euphoric in response to just about any sexual or pseudosexual stimulation, and as eager to accommodate seemingly any and every sexual request.

Another study notes that women are depicted as malleable, obsessed with sex, and willing to engage in any sexual act with any sexual partner.

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.


About Men


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 dont value women for their minds, since they dont appear to have discovered that women have such a thing.


False advertising?


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. 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.

Pornographys 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 between partners.

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 pornographys 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 writers observation that: Pornography tells me that none of my thoughts are bad, that anything goes [emphasis in original].

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 ones 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 place subsequently.

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 Generals 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 newsstand 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, gynaecological close-ups were available in newsstand magazines and hard-core material (penetration clearly visible) was not difficult to find in adult video stores.


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 this area.

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 Generals Workshop on Pornography and Public Health met from June 22-24,1986, and, like the 1986 Attorney Generals Commission, concluded that pornography does stimulate attitudes and behavior that lead to gravely negative consequences for individuals and for society.


Straw Men


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: its also not what the research is suggesting. Or: Pornography cant 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.


Pornography doesnt 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-Generals 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 Americas 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 Americas leadership marching through here. 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, handicapping 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.

Abels 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. Abels 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 bodys biological responses are one reason pornographys 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 before. Chemicals called opioids, released by nerve endings in response to pleasure, then reinforce the bodys 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!


Anecdotal Evidence


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 spouses 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 Generals Commission on Pornography, testimony after testimony demonstrated pornographys 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 pornographys 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, wouldnt 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 pornographys 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, atleast, that the risks are minimal, understood by the participants, and accepted as reasonable [emphasis added]. 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 guidelines.

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:


Cognitive development


Although children mature at different rates, there are four or five stages of cognitive development which are fairly standard in their occurrence. 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 hasnt yet developed sufficient faculty for abstract thought.

It is a maxim of parenting that you dont 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: its 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 pornographys fraudulent messages are ingested, affecting attitudes and behavior. Countless studies show that the basic messages of pornography, that a womans 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.


<b>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.</b>


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

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