The Both/And of the Porn Wars

I have to admit that I find the debates about porn fascinating. Actually, they’re not really debates since, more often than not, what I see is people yelling at each other. Calling it a debate would imply that there’s a deeper level of dialogue than actually exists. I find this rather frustrating because I can understand the perspectives of the different sides.

So I was gratified to see this summary of some of the research on the effects of porn in this post on scienceblogs.com. Of course, the research on the topic is wide-ranging and it’s hard to grasp it all, especially since different definitions of pornography and harm are used. That makes it hard to compare studies and limits how well we can generalize.

Nevertheless, there’s one study highlighted in that post that I think sheds a lot of light on the issue. The authors of this article surveyed almost 3000 men from US colleges. (Such studies often focus on college students because they’re easy to recruit, but that does limit how generalizable the data is.) As part of the study, they measured sexual aggression, sexual promiscuity, hostility towards women, and self-perceived masculinity. They then combined the the sexual promiscuity variable with the hostile masculinity variable, which they called the “confluence risk” variable because other research suggested that these factors combine to create a risk factor for aggression. And of course, they also asked them about their porn habits.

What they found was quite interesting (click on the image for a larger version):

For men at the lower end of the sexual aggression range, there was either no difference or only small changes in their sexual aggression due to porn use. However, for men at the level of moderate or high risk for sexual aggression, there was  a correlation between more porn use and increased sexual aggression. We need to be very clear that correlation is not causation- there’s no way to tell from this research what the causal links may be. Porn use could increase aggression, aggression could lead to more porn watching, they could both be the result of another set of factors, or (most likely, in my opinion) all of the above.

I’m also curious to know what sorts of porn men in each of these different groups watch and what relationship that has with aggression. I’d also like to know whether there are any patterns among the men in different groups with respect to their porn history- does the age at which they started watching porn have an effect on their level of aggression, for example. For that matter, I want to know what effects porn has for people who aren’t heterosexual cisgender men.

But the thing that I find so interesting about this study is that it shows a possible reason why some people say that porn is harmless and others say that it causes real harm. Different people have different experiences, so of course, porn has different effects on different people.

If we start from that point, then we can ask what the relationships are between the overall good and the overall harm. We can discuss ways to maximize the first and minimize the second. But that’s not going to happen if we can’t hold onto both pieces- that porn has both positive and negative effects on some of the performers, producers, and purchasers. And so far, it seems to me that very few people are taking that path.

Unfortunately, what I see instead is an ever-increasing polarization. I see anti-porn folks using misinformation, inaccurate overgeneralizations, outright lies, and undiluted vitriol to try to shame people who enjoy watching other people have sex. I see them grouping movies of adults engaging in fully consensual sex with movies of nonconsensual humiliation and child porn, as if they’re all the same thing. I see them taking a few examples of the truly unfortunate side of porn and presenting them as representative of an incredibly diverse medium. I see them yelling louder and louder, as if they can prove their point by silencing every other voice.

And I also see many of the folks defending porn who ignore the ways in which some people are negatively influenced by the misinformation, stereotypes and inaccuracies that are so common in porn. I see people who deny the experiences of folks who have difficulty turning the TV or computer off and relating to live partners. Or who don’t understand why their partners aren’t like the people on the screen. Or who feel shame because they don’t look like the young, skinny, tanned, buffed, flexible, able-bodied, hard-cocked, slippery vagina-ed performers. Or who don’t understand the difference between the fantasy of porn and the real-life situations they find themselves in. These are all real problems that many people face and that are exacerbated by porn, whether they are caused by porn or not. Granted, many of the pro-porn folks will certainly acknowledge the existence of these issues, but I don’t see many of them looking for ways to resolve them. That gives the anti-porn folks the playing field.

While I don’t want to overgeneralize from this one study, it does suggest to me that both sides have a piece of the total picture. For some people, porn is a harmless and fun way to get turned on, discover new ways to have sex, and to get off without causing problems. For some people, porn contributes to serious issues, both for themselves and in their relationships. What do we do about that? I’m not sure. What I do know is that the first step is to learn to hold both of these pieces, to be able to allow each of them to exist without invalidating the other. Until we can do that, we’re just going to keep yelling and not getting anywhere.

That doesn’t mean that I want to condone the vicious attacks and lies that have become common among anti-porn folks. I want to hold them to the same standards of respectful communication that I expect from anyone else. And I know that quite a few pro-porn folks have tried to engage them in dialogue, only to be ignored, or to be attacked, or to have their words twisted and misrepresented. So it’s not enough to simply say that we need to be able to sit down and talk. But it is the first step that we need to be able to take, and so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of genuine dialogue.

While not everything in life can be resolved by looking for the both/and solution, I think that this is one that can. And until and unless people on both sides can come together and respectfully work together, we’re not going to find a workable solution.

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18 Responses so far.

  1. makomk says:

    That’s an interesting theory. There’s a slight issue, though: there is no “ever-increasing polarization”. The feminist anti-porn movement has been doing all these things since it began in the 1980s, and many of the people and groups involved in it now have been involved for all that time. (I don’t just mean some obscure fringe, I’m talking about the mainstream, successful face of the movement.) The “misinformation, inaccurate overgeneralizations, outright lies, and undiluted vitriol”? Check. The cherry-picking of the worst porn and presenting it as though it represents the entire industry? Check – pretty much all the anti-porn lobbying relied on this. The slandering of sex-positive activists as padeophiles and similar? Oh yes, big check mark there.

    It’s just that, for a while, the anti-porn movement seemed like an irrelevance to many people. No-one paid it any attention. (A lot of the big-name figures actually left and founded the anti-sex trafficking movement, which is similar in many ways, and has many of the same issues.)

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  2. Cynde Moya, MLIS, PhD says:

    Hi Charlie

    I strongly agree with one observation you made above — namely that the “porn” that experimental subjects are given to view is not further described. It could be anything, from straight sex to who-knows-what exotic or specialty sexual behaviors.

    I call for researchers to include a full bibliographic citation the materials that they expose their subjects to — for example, minutes 45 – 52 of Video XYZ published by company Q, starring actors A,B,C, and D. And possibly a summary description of the persons and acts depicted. Then those interested in further examining the research could look up these clips and see what they think about these images themselves.

    In other words, “Porn” is not a monolithic genre where any exemplar has the same valence as any other.

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  3. Actually, if you look at the paper that’s cited (Malamuth, et al, 2000), the sample size of 3000 was achieved not through one study, but because the paper you’re quoting is a meta-analysis of many prior studies. So the participants in all the substudies almost certainly did not see the same material.

    The Malamuth et al paper was a really important one to look at closely, first, because its a meta-analysis of many prior studies by a leading researcher in that field, and, second, this same study is frequently quoted – and misinterpreted – by anti-porn activists. Malamuth is claiming some effects from some porn against the null hypothesis of no effect. The antis claim this as proof positive for everything they’ve ever claimed about porn. In fact, Malamuth’s findings are quite modest.

    As for my thoughts about the rest of your article, I’ll put that in a separate comment.

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  4. I meant to say “some bad practices in some parts of the industry”. “The porn industry” is pretty far from a monolith, quite unlike the way the antis frame it.

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  5. Charlie says:

    Well, I’m not saying that “the truth is in the middle” because that assumes a zero-sum perspective that I don’t think applies here (or, for that matter, to most of life). In my experience, real solutions are usually not compromises because those are based on the zero-sum, either-or model. Instead, I’m suggesting that any response that doesn’t take into account the different facets of the puzzle, the different experiences people have, and the various perspectives they bring, is going to lack the attributes of a real solution.

    I’m never in favor of censorship because it almost always causes worse problems. And I agree that the pro-porn side would do well to add a critique of the industry practices, just as I think the anti-porn folks would do well to incorporate critiques of their own tactics. That would go a long way towards helping people being to listen to each other for a change. Some pro-porn (or at least, anti-anti-porn folks) have tried to do that, and while that hasn’t yet borne fruit, I don’t (yet) have an alternative to suggest.

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  6. Luke says:

    A question missed in relation to the study: Are more sexually aggresive males more likely to _admit_ to frequent porn viewing? Every male I knew in college, including myself, viewed porn on a rather frequent basis. Granted, the subset I was exposed to was smaller than 3000 people, but the numbers of viewers are there.

    The great question listed (and should be developed) is the *type* of porn viewed and it’s correlation to sexual aggression or in this study, Confluence Model Risk Level.

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  7. reptile says:

    While I am generally meh on porn (I think misogynistic, hateful, violent porn is terrible and the rest can be good, aside from really bad production values), I think you paint too rosy a picture of porn’s effects. Yes, porn is only correlated with aggression for a small subset of men who are prone to be sexually aggressive. But what proportion of men are just bad lays because they’ve learned to be sexually selfish, or just picked up some very bad techniques and perceptions from watching porn? That’s what I’ve encountered most often in my dating experience.

    However, I have watched porn with a partner and think that can be a very useful/positive experience. So I don’t think porn should be banned or anything, I just think too many people want to whitewash the fact that it’s bad as a sex manual–which is how a depressing number of men use it.

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  8. Charlie says:

    Actually, I’ve written about exactly that issue here and here. That particular topic wasn’t really germane to this post, and I totally agree with you- porn is terrible sex ed.

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  9. Ashley says:

    I find retired porn stars to be fascinating examples of the anti-porn argument. Some will retire claiming the business was terrible and degrading, yet often return to it or retract their previous condemnation. From a psychological perspective, I am fascinated by the internal struggle sex workers often experience in coming to terms with their jobs. Linda Lovelace, Jenna Jameson, Bella Donna, have all spoken out at one point or another about the ways in which the porn industry has taken advantage of them. Yet, at the same time, they are captivated, supported by and drawn to that line of work for reasons they may not fully understand.

    I agree with Charlie that both pro and anti pornography arguments have many valid points that deserve our attention, and it is important to note that sexual desires and the ethical mind often send our minds two different signals. On one hand, I feel that the more pornography is accepted into the American Zeitgeist, the less guilt and shame we’ll suffer and the better off we’ll all be. On the other hand, I see that allowing a place for sex-positive, feminist pornography to thrive, also means allowing a place for pornography that may objectify and degrade women. The line between them is often blurred and hard to define, and may challenge how comfortable we feel with the ethics of our own sexuality. Personal accounts of these struggles are what inspired my interest in the psychology of human sexuality and pushed me through college with a fascination for the diversity of the human experience.

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  10. bubbles says:

    I think on average sexually aggressive men are likely to watch more cage-fighting too.

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  11. Mindet says:

    Wow, I was going to write pretty much this article, and I find you’ve beaten me to it!

    I think the anti-porn push is greater in America than it is here in the UK, probably due to our comparative lack of a religious lobby on that specific issue. Perhaps that is why, in my experience, the greater vitriol comes from pro-porn “advocates”, who continually insist that if someone does not enjoy watching other people have sex, they must not enjoy *anything* about sex *at all*, even having it themselves. The construction of not enjoying pornography as somehow being “anti-sex” is horrific and abusive, and I think anyone advocating for the harmlessness of porn for many people needs to make sure to steer clear of it.

    Sadly the UK has gone down the prohibition route in recent years, because it pleases the reactionary mainstream press. The Government has yet to understand the benefits of legalise+regulate in any area of policy.

    Anyway, great read, thanks.

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  12. Mindet says:

    Upon re-reading the above, I want to clarify that the inverted commas around the word “advocates” is intended to signify the detrimental effect of the described attitude on the person’s ability to be a proper advocate. I didn’t mean that there are no true advocates, because there are.

    I’m not sure pro- and anti-porn are terms that can apply to people without absolutist “all bad” or “all good” positions. Perhaps pro- or anti-censorship would make more sense, although, as noted, the debate doesn’t seem to have matured to that degree yet.

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