Jason Dias: Is Porn Good for You? [analysis]

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Is porn good for you? Jason Dias examines the research from the U.S., Japan and Norway to get answers. And what he found will definitely surprise you.

aNewDomainjason-dias-anewdomainHere are some loaded questions for you: What is pornography? What is good? Who are we?

And why do we think pornography is bad for us? 

Here are my answers in order. Ready?

Porn, as they say, isn’t easy to define; you do know it when you see it. And the definition of good? That depends entirely on what the desired outcomes are. And third, we know who we are. We are Americans who usually try to take the moral high road.

We think porn is bad for us but science works backwards. It is in the business of proving things, not disproving them.

So if that’s not a definite, could porn actually be good for you? I dug into the scientific literature, and here’s what I came up with.

is porn good for you

Who looks at porn?

When we talk about porn being good or bad for you, mostly who we are talking about is men.

Men are far likelier than women to admit to looking at porn and being turned on by it.

But our bodies can betray us.

Women respond physically to porn, like men, but most studies show that, unlike men, they aren’t really mentally aroused by it. Not on average, anyway.

And we know most porn consumption is by men. 

But do all men look at pornography? It kind of looks that way.

There was one study that tried to find 20-year-old males who hadn’t ever looked at porn. But they couldn’t find any. So they had to come up with a different study …

Is there any real evidence showing that porn is bad for us?

hot girls wanted2Not reallly. We Americans have long been told – by advocates, politicians and government studies in media portrayals and movies — that pornography probably is bad for us.

The thinking is, it causes violence against women, negative attitudes towards women and an ever-declining sexual capability absent visual stimuli. There is actually a term for this. It’s called “porn creep.”

The data says this isn’t really true. Research (Padget, Brislin-Slutz and Neal, 1989) suggests porn viewers’ attitudes are not changed much at all by pornography. In that study, subjects could choose to watch either four hours of psychology videos or four hours of erotica. The researchers measured their attitudes towards women before and after. 

And as it turned out, there was no significant difference, in the end, between the two groups. 

As a result of that, researchers concluded that the damaging thing about porn isn’t actually the porn. It’s the violent nature of the porn they screened.

In fact, researchers found “quite conventional” sexuality among all the young men in that study, porn-viewing or no. Porn, for these guys, meant nothing. And it changed nothing.

And the data shows, too, that porn itself does not seem to change attitudes towards women. It’s the violence that’s the problem.

is porn good for you?

So is prolonged, repeated exposure to porn bad for you?

One unanswered question in that landmark 1989 study is around possible ill effects of long-term, habitual porn exposure. In 1989, of course, this was nearly impossible to measure. After all, there was virtually no Internet porn back then for people to get addicted or habituated to. In 1989, the media wasn’t such that it was easy to get porn overload at all.

So, frankly, we don’t know. Not yet, anyway.

What if men’s attitudes are already negative toward women? Does porn make them worse? 

Several studies show it is easy to improve such attitudes. But, actually, it is quite difficult to worsen them. So the answer is, probably, no.

What about the porn-watching guys in the study? How do we know they weren’t lying?

People being studied for research like this do know we researchers are judging them based on their attitudes towards women. Researchers generally can tell when they’re lying. They’re psychologists, right?

But it’s true that what people say they think doesn’t always or even usually correlate to how they behave. So there’s that.

Is porn good for men?

A group of researchers (Morrison, Ellis, Morrison, Bearden, and Harriman, 2006) looked into exactly this question. They wanted to know, specifically, whether pornography is good for men. To do this, they measured self-esteem and exposure to pornography in a survey format. They found an inverse correlation between exposure to pornography and sexual, genital and body self-esteem. That is, the more porn that was viewed by the men, the lower their self-esteem seemed to be.

But note that this one was a correlational study, meaning we can’t say that it was the erotica that caused the lowered self-esteem. 

That’s because the reverse correlation is equally possible. That is, it’s quite possible that the more negative one’s own body-image and sexual confidence is, the more one relies on pornographic images in the first place.  

But in the larger context of the existing literature, the opposite situation does seem more likely. We just don’t know for sure. Not yet.

is porn good for you?

We do know that people tend to draw inferences from our individual experiences. Just as women’s self-confidence is eroded by constant exposure to the one in a million faces and bodies they see on fashion models everywhere, so too can frequent exposure to the males used in pornographic movies give men a false impression of what is average or even normal, penis-wise.

With penis size, and considering differences in physique, sexual stamina, confidence and competence, leaning towards porn as a picture of normal life would be very unrealistic for a guy.

What about for women?

As Cynthia Stark (1997) said in the introduction to her study: Let’s don’t focus on men and whether their attitudes change after porn viewing and how it’s beneficial or damaging for them. Let’s instead focus on women. 

Is pornography good for you women?

The answer here is, almost certainly not. 

Stark contends that even the act of creating pornography subordinates women. Consider: The actress is paid to portray a fantasy character, and she is demeaned in the sex acts she portrays. Now it’s true that actresses in a non-pornographic movie might experience simulated harm. There could be stunts. Or she might have to act or behave in a way that makes her angry or aroused.

But in a pornographic movie, the acts portrayed on screen actually occur. The sex isn’t simulated, and neither are any of the demeaning acts that accompany it. And they often have to act as if they enjoy all this. It’s a little bit more than acting. It follows that porn acting would therefore be more damaging …

hot girls wantedWhen one woman is demeaned, is it true that women, as an abstraction or as a category, are also so demeaned?

The documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” explores some of these themes in a personal and interpersonal fashion. See Nancy Imperiale’s take on that picture, here

hot girls wantedA Dutch study (Hald, Kuyper, Adam & Wit, 2013) shows a correlation between consumption of sexually explicit materials and particular sexual behaviors, including multiple partners at once, promiscuity, prostitution and online-hookups.  

So called “sexual adventures,” as the authors refer to some of these behaviors, may be bad or they may be good. It all depends where any given individual stands morally.

But that the sexual adventures are in fact related in some way to pornography is not in doubt. Again, this being a correlation, it is difficult to say with any clarity that erotica causes experimentation or if it works better as a reverse correlation, meaning that those who experiment are more likely to consume erotica.

There will always be difficulty in asserting cause and effect with individuals. 

One reason for this is simple ethics: We can’t divide people into random groups and expose one group to constant, offensive, violent pornography. That’s because we generally think that such porn would be likely to cause harm. So we could never get such a study to survive the review board process for approval. And researchers would not even be likely to try.

But the U.S. government has commissioned more than one study on the subject of pornography. So, from the studies we have, what’s the consensus on the harm porn causes, if any? And how do they compare to studies done in Japan and Norway, which have done away with some or all of the proscriptions on porn?

How do Americans, Norwegians and the Japanese compare in terms of porn?

Now, the Japanese, Norwegian and U.S. studies have turned out contradictory results. This is likely because science is political, no matter how it tries not to be. Norway and Japan are both quite culturally different than we are.

is porn good for you norway pornAnd we researchers do tend to find what we’re looking for, and we especially tend to look for what someone is paying us to look for. 

In the U.S., in the 1970s, one study found that there was not demonstrable harm done society by pornography, and that we ought to protect children from it but not otherwise adjust the freedoms of adults to the needs of children. 

Also in the U.S., but in the 1980s, studies showed small but measurable risks of harm from porn viewing, and there was a recommendation for some changes to public policy based on those findings.

Meanwhile, as we Americans were debating the subject, many nations did away with their proscriptions of pornography. These countries include Japan and Norway, as mentioned above.

Studies in both those countries found that there was an actual decrease in levels of sexual violence towards women and children when porn was made legal. The decrease was correlated with the lessening of prurient attitudes towards sexually explicit material, which appeared to be a good thing.

And other studies followed as other nations did the same — and got the same results as proscriptions against porn were lifted.

So is porn good for us? Taken as a whole?

Pornography is unlikely to be good for a man over the long term. Researchers say it in fact is likely to have some pernicious and deleterious effects at high or constant rates of exposure. 

hot girls wanted2And porn, particularly in its production, is unlikely to be beneficial at all to the women “acting” in it or, more broadly, to women in general.

As hopeful as some folks might be about porn possibly being good for us, the answer is probably not.

Changes in prurient interest in adult entertainment result from and are accompanied by changes in the attitudes generally of governments towards their citizens. Respecting free speech is a great first step to establishing a free society. It’s a move toward a freer society generally changing authoritative attitudes on religion, the value of labor and a liberalization of social policy, in general.

It’s that liberation from a state enforcing socially regressive standards on its citizen that is probably what causes the reduction of sexual violence when porn bans and laws are lifted. It isn’t that more porn leads to less violence.

In other words, the government’s laissez-faire attitude towards pornography is what is good for us. Not the porn in itself.

Could this also apply to guns, drugs, anything on the black market?

Let’s consider if this might be true. 

Trying to restrict access to guns, especially state by state, results in a significant black-market for guns and generally has little or no effect on homicide rates. This we know.

Restricting alcohol or certain kinds of drugs does little to lessen our appetites for such things. We know this, too.

And if we want lower crime rates, focusing on the crimes and the criminals is unlikely to be productive, and highly unlikely to be cost-effective.

In all three cases, to get significant change, we have to focus on the social issues that lead to the phenomenon of interest. 

Probably pornography is no different.

is porn good for you?

Here, though, is possibly the next to last word: Young Japanese people increasingly find sex to be an abhorrent practice, dirty and demeaning, and refuse to engage in it. Click here for the The Guardian’s in-depth discussion of the phenomenon.

And all this leads us to yet another key question: Why might young Japanese men and women get the impression that sex is dirty, disgusting and demeaning, something that’s embarrassing and to be avoided? 

What possible reason might there be for indifference to intimacy? 

Hmm. 

I can’t quite put my finger on it.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

References

Hald, G. M., Kuyper, L., Adam, P. C., & Wit, J. B. (2013). Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association Between Sexually Explicit Materials Use and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults. Journal Of Sexual Medicine, 10(12), 2986-2995. doi:10.1111/jsm.12157.

Padgett, V. R., Brislin-Slütz, J. A., & Neal, J. A. (1989). Pornography, Erotica, and Attitudes Toward Women: The Effects of Repeated Exposure. Journal Of Sex Research, 26(4), 479-491.

Stark, C. A. (1997). Is pornography an action?: The causal vs. the conceptual view of pornography’s harm. Social Theory & Practice, 23(2), 277-306.

Morrison, T. G., Ellis, S. R., Morrison, M. A., Bearden, A., & Harriman, R. L. (2006). Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material and Variations in Body Esteem, Genital Attitudes, and Sexual Esteem among a Sample of Canadian Men. Journal Of Men’s Studies, 14(2), 209-222.

Image credits: Cover image: Screen shot from the trailer of the documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted.” All Rights Reserved. Image one:  “‘Prescribed Area'” by Michael Coghlan from Adelaide, Australia – Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Image two:  “Man reading pornography” by Marina Lystseva – club.photo.ru, All Rights ReservedLicensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia CommonsImage three: “Personal Computer 774” by Penarc – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsImage four: InklingMedia.net, All Rights ReservedImage five: Screen shot from the trailer of the documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted.” All Rights Reserved. Image six: Screen shot from the trailer of the documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted.” All Rights Reserved. Image seven: Norwegian girls. Break.com, All Rights Reserved. Image eight: Screen shot from the trailer of the documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted.” All Rights Reserved. Image nine: Money.CNN.com, All Rights Reserved. Image 10: JapanToday.com, All Rights ReservedImage 11: Screen shot from the trailer of the documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted.” All Rights Reserved.

About the author

Jason Dias

Jason Dias, PsyD is an existential psychotherapist who breathes words. He's a senior columnist at aNewDomain.

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