Updated 4/4/2014

An Analysis of the Effects of Pornography


Part II

    To Part I

Sex Imagery, Censorship

and the Law


Does Pornography Alter Attitudes?

es, there are a number of studies that suggest that with prolonged exposure to sexually explicit materials individuals tend to be desensitized to it, at least for short periods of time.  They also become more open, tolerant, and accepting of the varieties of sexual behavior.

Is this bad?

Yes, it is in the minds of those who feel that much of this type of behavior is inappropriate or sinful.

At the same time, this desensitizing factor has been successfully used to treat individuals who have problems with sex and sexual guilt.

It is this more relaxed "acceptance factor" that troubles many people who feel that these attitudes are not acceptable and should not be given any type of social approval.

Finally, some individuals contend that exposure to materials with strong prurient appeal makes it more difficult for individuals to respond to normal sexual stimuli. Although this effect is difficult to quantify, anecdotal evidence would seem to support this, at least for limited periods of time. This issue is taken up later in this article.


Post-Internet Pornography

Most of the studies on pornography were done before the Internet. Clearly the Internet has opened the door to far greater accessibility. But as we've seen, this has been accompanied be a decline in rape and sexual crime.

Porn Site VisitsToday, there are an estimated 300-million pages of porn on the Internet. According to Google, this is 7% of the 3.3 billion pages on the web. Most Internet users have viewed pornography—often by accident when a site shows up in their e-mail or in unrelated Internet searches.

Although there are more opinions than facts in this area right now, many observers feel that Internet porn has had a negative effect on relationships.

At the 2003 meeting of the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers the majority of the lawyers said that Internet porn had played a significant role in divorce. "Sexting" and carrying on "relationships" via social networks have also reportedly been a factor in divorce.

However, according to a 2002 survey of more than 7,000 adults, two-thirds of the respondents who say they regularly visit porn sites report it has not affected their relationships.


Through the Internet sexual psychopaths are able to exploit the repressive sexual atmosphere in the United States.

Sex education that stops with "just say no," without honestly and openly addressing human sexuality in all its dimensions invites people, especially young people, to do their own exploring.

As in the case of pre-Internet pornography, it appears that people who have grown up with distorted or repressed sexual views, which, includes a significant, but decreasing segment of the U.S. population, have the most problems with, and objections to, pornography.

Individuals who have a positive self-concept, who had parents who were not reluctant to discuss sexual issues, and who were not subjected to negative religious views about human sexuality almost never report problems. This group is most apt to become disinterested in pornography over time.


Is Pornography Addictive?

Yes, it can be.

According to CBS News, at any one time almost 30,000 people are viewing pornography on the Internet. Of the total number that see pornography, four-million people say they are addicted.

The sexual stimulation from viewing pornography releases dopamine, which creates a kind of dopamine "high" that can be addictive.

But many things can release dopamine in the body: gambling, shopping, overeating, computer games, heroin, etc. They all work differently on the brain, but each can increase the dopamine level.


Snuff Films

One of the centerpieces of the crusade against pornography is the "snuff film," or a sex film in which someone supposedly gets murdered.

The problem is that the FBI has spent 30 years, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars trying to find one snuff film in the United States and has reportedly never been able to locate one.

A film entitled Snuff was released in 1976. It was widely promoted as containing a snuff scene, which (just as planned by the promoters) set off a firestorm of opposition and publicity. The film opened in Indianapolis to an audience of 12 people, almost half of which were law enforcement people trying to collect evidence to arrest the people involved.

What they discovered was a poorly faked death scene, which had simply been tacked onto an older film.  The scene was far less convincing or graphic than the scenes we often see on prime-time television.

But even after the film was exposed as a fake, numerous anti-porn groups were quickly organized, based on linking pornography with murder. Even the Meese commission, which we discussed earlier, grew out of the protest.

" Does it not represent something of a twisted morality that for the majority of Americans dramatic depictions of people killing each other is far more acceptable than depictions of people making love? "

Dr. Cherry Lee

The "Porn Made Me Do It" Defense

The latest anti-porn legal effort has been to connect exposure to sexual material to sex crimes.

Despite research evidence to the contrary, the attempt is to hold anyone with any responsibility for the sex materials liable for damages. "It's the porn made me do it defense which is totally inappropriate," according to Jonathan Cummings of the ACLU's Arts Censorship Project. "There is just no evidence to back it up."

Even so, due in part to a surprising alliance between some feminists and ultraconservatives, we are now seeing legal efforts to blame the media for sexual crime. This ignores the fact that for thousands of years before the invention of the printing press, movies or TV, rape, child abuse, and prostitution flourished.

It has only been relatively recently, thanks to the media, that rape has started getting the attention it deserves. In earlier days according to one historian, "Rape was unreportable because it was unremarkable."


Pornography and "Undesirable Types"

The commercial pornography market is, for the most part, associated with less than respectable business types. This is not surprising, given the fact that social attitudes have pushed many consenting adult sexual activities into the margins of society and defined them as "illegal."

At the same time, as documented in a 60-Minutes investigation, some prestigious, mainstream U.S. corporations derive a substantial percentage of their income from marketing soft-core and hard-core pornography -- although the fact is generally disguised in profit reports.

Sexual Predators

David Finkelhor, a criminologist at the University of New Hampshire has studied Internet-related crime. He reports, "There are new perils for kids, but no evidence that kids are on the whole more endangered today as a result of the Internet."

A report was released In 2009 that showed that more young people were being harmed by peer cyberbullying than by online sexual predators.

Some people feel that the fact that we are seeing a regular stream of TV reports on the danger of sexual predators on the Internet -- far exceeding what the crime would warrant -- may be influenced by a need to cash in on the salacious, and attention-getting nature of these crimes.

According to a 2004 study by Wolak and Finkelhor, financed by the U.S. Department of Justice, there are a number of fallacies about sexual abusers.  

  • First, it is assumed that most Internet molesters pretend to be peers.  Actually, only about 5% do.    
  • Second, it's assumed that things happen quickly for the unsuspecting victim.  Actually, most abusers correspond with their victims for at least a month and most have telephone conversations before meeting. 
  • Finally, it's assumed that sex is not mentioned by the abuser.  Actually, most discuss sex and most victims freely agree to it.  Only about 16% are coerced into sex.  

 Internet Sex Crimes by Age

Age of Victims          Age of Offenders

12   1%
13   26%
14   22%
15   28%
16   14%
17   8%
18    1%
18-25    23%
26-39    41%
Over 40    35%

After many of the studies in this article were originally published, our society has become more sex oriented -- at least in it's acceptance of media imagery. Advertising often exploits the appeal of sex, and, of course, we have Internet pornography, that despite efforts to curtail it, is widely accessible. According to Cal Masterson, this has made sex cerebral instead of visceral, and therein lies the problem.


An Opposing View: Cal Masterson

On Sex and Pornography

According to Cal Masterson, the author of writings on spiritual sex, pornography is harmful, despite the fact that research may not support this view.

According to Masterson, pornography and cybersex need not be considered Judeo-Christian religious issues, which, historically, have ranged at different times all the way from accepting prostitution to discouraging normal sex between a husband and wife.

All moral issues aside, Masterson says pornography is harmful because the type of idealistic and unrealistic men and women shown can become the fantasized, cerebral norm, which then to varying degrees can replace reality.  

"The more I looked at pornography the greater the distance grew between my wife and me. ...It made me feel guilty I guess because  these women seemed completely uninhibited about sex, the total opposite of my wife."

e-mail to Cal Masterson

Even for people in a normal relationship disillusionment with a partner can develop, especially if partners have trouble with open, honest, guilt-free, discussions about sex.


The Allogynia Issue

Masterson also cites allogynia, where sexual arousal and orgasm becomes dependent on fantasizing about a sexual partner more desirable than one's own. Technically, this is alloandrism in heterosexual females or gay men, and allogynia in heterosexual men or lesbians. At the same time, Masterson admits that sexual fantasies appear to be universal.

Finally, Masterson says that often divorce results after people meet an Internet partner whom they feel is more suitable. This generally starts with the uninhibited sexual conversations that are not possible with a spouse or partner.


Believing Makes It So

Hidden within most of the attacks against pornography are unproven assumptions.

There little doubt that in most societies pornography is viewed as harmful -- even without a need for proof. To a great extent these views shape reality.

For example, if pornography is seen as being degrading to women (and generally not to men, which is obviously a dual standard), then to a great extent believing that makes it so.

As pornography becomes commonplace and even more accepted, and we seem to be headed in that direction, its harmful effects will diminish.

Although moralists will continue to oppose this eventuality, just as they have initially opposed many social changes throughout history, acceptance may lessen the negative impact of such things as revenge porn. For an explanation see Sexting and a Preacher.

 Summary and Conclusions

Exposure to pornography, which is common in the Internet age, does not directly contribute to rape or sex crime. In fact, there is some evidence that pornography actually reduces these crimes.

At the same time, pornography threatens decades of religion-based restrictive views on sexual conduct.  For this reason it encounters significant cultural opposition, often backed by laws that have been enacted to support these views.

Although we may hear of studies showing harmful effects of pornography, a close examination of the approaches  often reveals that the researchers are motivated by personal beliefs and the data is tainted by presuppositions.

We know that the people and situations depicted in most pornography are not typical. The subjects tend to be more beautiful and handsome than average, not to mention better endowed, the situations staged, and the acts shown exceed the boundaries of common sexual predispositions. More troubling, safe sex is seldom shown.

>>"Sex education" that stops with "just say no," without honestly and openly addressing human sexuality in all its dimensions, invites young people to do their own exploring. Sexual predators have admitted that it's easy to exploit this information vacuum.

Studies also show that "just say no" in the form of abstinence pledges not only doesn't work in most cases but leaves these well-intended individuals at a higher risk of pregnancy and sexual disease.

The major concern of many social scientists today is that pornographic photos and videos do not convey realistic human feelings. The focus is on the mechanics, and the personal and even spiritual dimension of sex is missing.

" What hard data exists at this point -- as opposed to the long-standing range of prejudices we bring to the subject -- suggests that most people will not suffer any long-term negative effects by looking at Internet porn. "

-Gary Webb, 2001, who has won more than 30 awards for investigative journalism

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  • Research studies on Youth, Broadcasting, and Sex can be found here.
  • See also Sexting.

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