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See Inside July / August 2011

The Sunny Side of Smut

For most people, pornography use has no negative effects—and it may even deter sexual violence

IT USED TO BE TOUGH to get porn. Renting an X-rated movie required sneaking into a roped-off room in the back of a video store, and eyeing a centerfold meant facing down a store clerk to buy a pornographic magazine. Now pornography is just one Google search away, and much of it is free. Age restrictions have become meaningless, too, with the advent of social media—one teenager in five has sent or posted naked pictures of themselves online, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

With access to pornography easier than ever before, politicians and scientists alike have renewed their interest in deciphering its psychological effects. Certainly pornography addiction or overconsumption seems to cause relationship problems [see “Sex in Bits and Bytes,” by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2010]. But what about the more casual exposure typical of most porn users? Contrary to what many people believe, recent research shows that moderate pornography consumption does not make users more aggressive, promote sexism or harm relationships. If anything, some researchers suggest, exposure to pornography might make some people less likely to commit sexual crimes.

Does Porn Harm Women?
The most common concern about pornography is that it indirectly hurts women by encouraging sexism, raising sexual expectations and thereby harming relationships. Some people worry that it might even incite violence against women. The data, however, do not support these claims. “There’s absolutely no evidence that pornography does anything negative,” says Milton Diamond, director of the Pacific Center for Sex and Society at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It’s a moral issue, not a factual issue.”

In 2007 researchers at the University of Zagreb in Croatia surveyed 650 young men about their pornography use and sex lives. As they reported in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the scientists found that users of mainstream, non­violent pornography were neither more nor less sexually satisfied than nonusers. Both groups felt the same degree of intimacy in their current or recent relationships and shared the same range of sexual experiences. But when it came to violent or fetishist porn, the groups diverged. Consumers of these types of pornography appeared to masturbate more frequently, have more sexual partners over the course of their life, and experience slightly less relationship intimacy than their nonviolent porn–viewing counterparts.

Regular pornography use does not seem to encourage sexism, either. In 2007 Alan McKee, a cultural studies expert at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, designed a questionnaire to assess sexist tendencies. He enclosed his survey in shipments of pornographic material distributed by a mail-order company and also posted it online. Responses from 1,023 pornography users indicated that the amount of pornography the subjects consumed did not predict whether they would hold negative attitudes toward women. The survey respondents who were most sexist were generally older men who voted for a right-wing political party, lived in a rural area and had a lower level of formal education.

But the questionnaire may have missed a key nuance. In a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, researchers at Texas Tech University administered a different survey to male and female college students and found that although consumers of pornography did not display more negative attitudes toward women, they were more likely than other respondents to believe that women should be protected from harm—what the investigators call “benevolent sexism.”

Self-Medicating with Fantasy
Perhaps the most serious accusation against pornography is that it incites sexual aggression. But not only do rape statistics suggest otherwise, some experts believe the consumption of pornography may actually reduce the desire to rape by offering a safe, private outlet for deviant sexual desires.

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