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Updated 20 October 2015

What sexual scientists say about porn

What is pornography? And what the effects of exposure to explicit material? We have a look at what sexual scientists have to say.

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The word “pornography” is derived from a Greek word meaning “writing about prostitutes”. Although there is no widely accepted modern definition, the common element in all definitions is that the material is sexually explicit.

Controversy revolves around whether specific depictions are art or smut, good or bad, innocuous or harmful. People often label as pornographic, material that violates their own moral standards and they use the terms artistic or erotic for sexual materials they find acceptable.

Pornography must be distinguished from obscenity. Obscenity is a legal term identifying material that has been judged by the courts to have violated specific statutes pertaining to sexually explicit material.

Central to these statutes is whether the material violates community standards of acceptability and whether it involves minors. Thus, many books, movies, and even advertisements that are acceptable today could have been judged obscene earlier in our history.

The effects of exposure to sexually explicit material
Since the 1960s, research has been conducted to assess the effects of exposure to sexually explicit material. Primary attention has been paid to commercially produced materials intended to generate sexual arousal and/or activity in adult audiences.

Three components have been of principal interest:

- the degree of explicitness,

- whether the material also contains aggression, and

- whether it depicts women in demeaning and degrading ways.

Types of materials.

Most explicit books, magazines and videos are marketed to heterosexual men. In recent years, more material has been produced by and for heterosexual women.

There is also explicit material for gay men and lesbians, and other distinct groups. Nearly all of the material depicts nudity and explicit sexual acts ("hard core"). Less than 10% of the X-rated or hard-core material contains aggression, and very little of that aggression involves physical violence or rape (1%-3%).

Although the volume of hard-core material has increased in recent years, it is no more violent today than in the past. R-rated material contains much more violence, but most R-rated films contain neither full nudity nor explicit sexual acts. Indeed, this material is often not even considered pornographic.

Some of the explicit material (15%-33% depending on the study), shows men in power over women, contains rape myths (e.g., the idea that women are sexually aroused by rough, abusive treatment) or demeans women in some other way.

Very often it depicts people engaging in non-marital, casual sexual encounters involving coitus, oral-genital, and other acts, and contains considerable variety in partners and positions.

Reactions.

People vary in response to sexual materials: Some react negatively to all depictions, whereas others find at least some material acceptable and arousing. Materials that are liked, produce more positive emotions and greater sexual arousal than those that are disliked, for both sexes.

Nonetheless, sexual arousal may occur even when people are mildly offended. Men tend to respond more positively to the more hard-core and male-dominated material; women tend to react more negatively to this material.

Individuals who hold authoritarian beliefs and have conservative social and religious attitudes tend to experience more sex guilt and react more negatively to explicit materials. Even if they do experience arousal, they judge the material to be undesirable.

Hypermasculine men tend to hold more negative and sexist attitudes toward women. They also are likely to believe that women respond positively to dominant, aggressive men. These men react more positively to scenes of sexual aggression and degrading portrayals of women. Most people, both men and women, respond negatively to this type of material.

Changes in sexual attitudes and sexual behaviour.

Repeated exposure generally increases tolerance of explicit material and to the behaviours depicted, except for those who start out with negative attitudes. Those who are aroused by the material are likely to engage in sexual acts, such as masturbation or coitus, within a few hours of exposure. Repeated short-term exposure results in increased disinterest and satiation, but after a period of no exposure, the impact is regained.

Attitudes toward women and aggressive behaviour.

For obvious ethical, moral, and legal reasons, researchers have not conducted experiments to determine whether exposure to material in which high levels of sexual explicitness and violence are both present leads to increased sexual violence. They have, however, looked at whether men with a history of such exposure are more likely to have committed sex crimes.

Sex offenders tend to come from restrictive and punitive home environments. Compared to non-offenders, they have had more undesirable experiences during childhood, including heightened exposure to sexual and physical abuse. Some offenders have had more exposure to explicit materials than other men, but early exposure alone does not increase the risk of becoming a sex offender.

In controlled laboratory research, individuals have been exposed to material containing (a) both aggression and explicit sex, (b) only aggression, and (c) only the sexual material. The results suggest it is exposure to aggression that triggers aggressive behaviour.

Exposure to sexual material alone does not increase aggression toward women. For most people, aggression and sex are incompatible. For a small percentage of men predisposed to aggression toward women, however, combining sex and aggression does stimulate arousal and aggressive responses.

The impact of exposure to sexist, demeaning material depends on the person's pre-existing attitudes. Under some conditions, those predisposed to negative views become more calloused and accepting of these negative views.

Is pornography harmful?
The answer is complex: "It depends." For those who believe that anything fostering more permissive attitudes toward sexuality or that even viewing others engaging in sexual acts is morally wrong, then exposure to explicit sexual material is clearly unacceptable.

Others, however, believe that there is nothing wrong with permissive attitudes and being stimulated by explicit materials. Indeed, materials depicting consensual activity have been used in beneficial ways by therapists and educators to reduce anxiety and to improve sexual knowledge, and by individuals and couples to enhance their sexual pleasure.

There is complete agreement that material involving minors or promoting sexual acts with children is unacceptable. Although only a small proportion of explicit material clearly depicts sexual abuse, violence, and exploitation of women, material that promotes such behaviour is also condemned. Explicit material, blending sex and violence or depicting women in degrading ways may reinforce and possibly increase sexist attitudes and sexual aggression among those who already have those kinds of attitudes.

R-rated materials, although not extremely explicit, are very sexually suggestive, and they are the most violent. They promote sexist attitudes more than the X-rated materials.

They are also far more prevalent and more easily accessible to younger, impressionable individuals. Sexist attitudes and violence toward women also are depicted frequently in everyday television fare, and sexual suggestiveness and somewhat explicit material are parts of many commercials.

These are seen regularly by even younger audiences. Clearly, young people acquire beliefs and attitudes about men, women, sexuality, and relationships from this material.

To the extent that our society views these attitudes as undesirable or harmful, there is reason for concern about such material.

Policy implications
Exposure to material that contains sexist or violent depictions can promote undesirable attitudes and behaviours. Increased censorship, however, will not be effective in addressing the problems, for three reasons.

Firstly, censorship is most often directed toward only the most sexually explicit material, leaving the much more problematic sexist and violent content of R-rated material untouched. Secondly, censorship would not end sexual exploitation or violence.

The roots of those behaviours are far deeper in the culture. Sexist, sexually explicit material, is more a symptom than a cause of female subordination and sexual violence.

Finally, restrictions beyond the existing obscenity laws and protection for minors would create numerous other problems in a free, democratic society. Few sexual scientists judge the evidence as warranting additional restrictions.

Written by Clive M. Davis, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Syracuse University and Naomi B. McCormick, Ph.D., Department of Family Studies, University of Northern Iowa.

 
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