Sexual Imagery, Research,
Censorship, and the Law
It is just assumed that the effects of explicit sexual imagery are negative. Thus, it is reasoned, society is obliged to take measures to control access to these images.
But, there is a problem.
Contrary to popular opinion, empirical research does not support a relationship between nonviolent sexual imagery (including adult pornography) and sex crimes. At the same time, as we will see, there are negative aspects to pornography -- but they may not be what you think.
Today, even some conservative religious leaders admit that
it is media violence and
not sex that constitutes the the larger social and moral threat.
Sexual Images and Sex Crimes
Those who advocate the censorship of sexual material have repeatedly enlisted the help of researchers to prove a link between sexual materials -- even hard-core pornography -- and sexual crimes.
And, repeatedly, either no valid link was found or, in the case of a Chapman University study, it was actually found that there was a reverse relationship. In areas of the country where pornography expanded the fastest, there was a decrease in rapes. In fact, since 1993, rape in the United States has dropped 72 percent.
Even though millions of dollars have been spent trying to establish a valid link between pornography and sex crime, the "link" that has been established has rested much more on religious beliefs and resulting social attitudes than on the findings of objective research.
Although those who commit sex crimes may collect pornography, 99 percent of people who collect pornography do not commit sex crimes -- just as 99 percent of the people who collect guns don't kill people.
Most of the people who collect pornography are married, white males over 30 with average incomes -- about the same demographics as gun collectors, stamp collectors, and coin collectors. The difference, of course, is in the perceived "morality" of pornography
Confounding any simple cause-and-effect between pornography and sex crime is the fact that when some countries legalized pornography, sex crimes in the country decreased. For example, when Denmark removed all obscenity laws, the incidence of sex crimes dropped by nearly 50 percent. (Some of this could be traced to the fact that there then were fewer sex-related laws to break.)
Although many studies have been done on pornography over the years, we'll confine ourselves to several major, reputable studies. (Note that throughout this discussion we're referring to non-violent pornography involving freely-consenting adults. Nor are we including or condoning pornography involving underage subjects.)
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.
Of course, this statement was not only proved politically unpopular, it incensed people who were convinced that the research would find a link between sexual imagery and rape and sexual crime.
Hoping that additional research would find different results, another government-funded U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography was instituted in 1970. However, this commission concluded: "[We] find no evidence that exposure to or the use of sexual explicit material plays a significant role in the causation of social or individual harms."
In another effort to find a provable link between sexual imagery and sex crime, some 16 years later another U.S. commission was formed. This time it was felt if the research deck was stacked -- which in itself violates the rules of research -- it was thought that finally the intended results would ensue.
Attorney General Edwin Meese, who was known as an outspoken opponent of pornography, was put in charge.
After much controversy about the data and charges of politically tainted conclusions, the commission stated, "There is a causal relationship between exposure to sexually violent materials and an increase in aggressive behavior directed toward women." (Note the relationship is between sexually violent materials and aggressive behavior -- two potentially confounding elements that don't appear to have been a part of previous U.S. studies.)
But even the findings of this study, which were touted as showing a relationship between pornography, and violent materials and aggressive behavior, prompted considerable debate within the commission.
Two women members, Ellen Levine, Woman's Day editor and Dr. Judith Becker, associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, interpreted the data in the study differently. After reviewing the same data, they concluded: "There are no scientific studies that show that exposure to nonviolent sexual material causes a person to commit a sexual crime or become more sexually aggressive."
Dr. Becker, who was also serving as director of the Sexual Behavior Clinic of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, told the New York Times, "I've been working with sex offenders for 10 years and have reviewed the scientific literature, and I don't think a casual link exists between pornography and sex crimes."
Some of the scientists quoted in the Meese Commission to support their anti-pornography findings disassociated themselves from the final report and charged that their research had been misrepresented.
The British have also investigated the alleged link between sexual materials and sex crime.
After considerable study they issued the following conclusion: "We unhesitatingly reject the suggestion that the available statistical information for England and Wales lends any support at all to the argument that pornography acts as a stimulus to the commission of sexual violence."
Subsequently a report by the Danish Council of Forensic Medicine concluded, "No scientific experiment exists which can lay a basis for the assumption that pornography or 'obscene' pictures and films contribute to the committing of sexual offenses by normal adults or young people."
The term "normal" is significant. In these studies they were not talking about people with psychological problems. With these people findings indicate that pornography may either help or hinder their condition, depending upon the nature of their problems.
Violent and Nonconsensual Sexual Content
Throughout this discussion we've been referring to nonviolent sexual content. Some critical distinctions need to be made in this regard.
Early in the development of the Worldwide Web pornography became the most profitable of all the web-based businesses. In fact, more pornographic movies are produced each year than mainstream films. As a result of the demand, a profusion of pornographic web sites sprung up. (A look at the economics underlying the success of video rentals reveals this medium was primarily fueled by X-rated materials.)
Because of the money being made in pornographic web sites, they have become highly competitive, each trying to outdo the other in ever more explicit and shocking sexual content, just as mainstream films are now trying to outdo each other with ever more shocking violent content.
In trying to outdo each other in sexual content, some Internet sites now feature acts of violence and depictions of sadistic and nonconsensual sex acts (rape). It is important to note that the studies we've previously cited relate to consensual, nonviolent sexual material. Once we move beyond this to real or staged depictions of nonconsensual sex acts, the research is much different.
The effect of film and TV violence is important to consider in this regard.
Those who attack pornographic materials typically cite sexual deviants, including one or two infamous serial killers, who reported viewing -- or being obsessed by -- violent sexual material from an early age. It should also be noted that most of these killers also had a fascination with guns, knives and torturous murder -- not to mention having major psychological problems.
At the same time, the majority of normal adults encounter pornographic materials without antisocial consequences. Interestingly, some of the most conservative areas of the United States view the highest percentage of pornographic materials.
An Obsession With Pornography
Does pornography become an obsession with some people?
Yes, in some cases.
In a small percentage of cases subjects become obsessed with pornography and interest does not wane as it normally does with most individuals. For people with specific deficiencies in their nurturing, this can turn into a sexual addiction.
It should go without saying that long-standing obsessions of any sort, be they with pornography, guns, knives, feelings of revenge, or whatever, are basically morbific.
As in the case of most obsessions, individuals who continue to be plagued by any obsession should seek professional help. The addictive aspect of pornography will be covered later.
Does Pornography Kill Love?
The fact that the viewing of pornography creates guilt in many individuals cannot be denied. This guilt is based largely on deep-seated sex-is-sin attitudes that can be traced back in Judeo-Christian cultures to the original Jewish scriptures, which later became Christian scriptures.
According to biblical scholars these sexual prohibitions were in large measure originally intended to keep the Jewish race "pure" and, later, to protect the property of the Catholic Church. This is discussed in more detail here.
Sexual repression and guilt,
together with clandestine behavior, can drive a wedge between
Is Pornography Degrading to Women?
There is a common argument that pornography is degrading to women. Seldom, if ever, is the term "degrading" applied to the men involved. Thus, we have another example of the dual standard between men and women.
In the final analysis the "degrading" aspects of pornography are based on negative views about sex that can be traced back to Jewish tribal laws. During this time prostitution and having multiple wives were an accepted part of the culture and "adultery" only applied to women.
Even though the views have long been abandoned by most Judeo-Christians, the Bible contains many strong anti-woman views—views that in today's society would consider heinous, not to mention highly illegal. At the same time the spirit of these views have influenced Judeo-Christianity for centuries.
Although even today some women are blatantly "anti-sex," many women hold a much different view. A leading advocate of women's rights, Nadine Strossen, effectively establishes the woman's viewpoint on this issue in a well- researched book, Defending Pornography-Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. Among the many positive reviews of the book is one by Karen DeCrow, former president of NOW (the National Organization of Women). DeCrow says, "Nadine Strossen crushes forever the myths that sexually explicit materials are harmful to women or inherently sexist, and that if one is against sexism, one is against sex."
Thousands of women have elected to start their own web sites featuring still photos or webcams and X-rated content of themselves. Many critics
blame pressure from men or the monetary compensation involved. However, in many cases neither of these elements is present and the women appear to be motivated by what is commonly termed "exhibitionism" -- a motivation that is clearly stronger in these cases than any feelings about being "degraded."
The "Objectification" of Women
The phrase, "treating women as sex objects" has been heard for decades. As many commercials show, the same phrase can now be applied to men -- although our sexual programming predisposes us to see women as the only ones harmed.There is little doubt that pornography treats people as sex objects. At the same time we must admit that sports largely treat people as "objects of athletic prowess," and, at the other end of the scale, academia treats professors as "objects of intellect."
Thus, when pornography is criticized for treating people as sex objects -- that is, objectifying people -- we are not exactly entering new territory; we are only making the sex component
(if not our anti-sex, sex-as-sin biases) blatantly obvious.
Pornography as a Political Issue
The fact that there is no empirical evidence that sexual materials cause sex crimes does not stop those who would like to politically exploit this emotionally charged issue.
If a large number of people want to believe there is a relationship between sexual imagery and sex crimes, then it is just good politics to cater to those beliefs. Politicians regularly exploit the uninformed.
Those who feel that this is an infringement on personal values and beliefs are typically silent, lest they be ostracized for condoning "immorality."
Out of fear of being associated with immorality, politicians are afraid to suggest that many of the sex laws that are laughable in today's society be repealed.