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Is Porn Harmful?

I recently got into a discussion with a Catholic friend of mine about the morality of porn.  He thinks that masturbating to porn is immoral because it goes against God’s natural law, while I don’t think there is anything immoral about it.  He thinks it is very harmful to society, while I don’t think there is anything necessarily harmful about porn.

After our discussion, my friend sent me a bunch of articles which attempt to show how evil pornography is.  These articles made a lot of bad arguments, far too many to explore in this post, but I’d like to lay out some of the problems I see with two of them.  In Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships, Ana J. Bridges argues that pornography has a very harmful effect on marriages and romantic relationships.  In Industry Size, Measurement, and Social Costs, K. Doran argues that there is no good statistical evidence that consuming porn has positive or negative effects, but says that there are still good reasons to limit its distribution.

On page 3, Bridges comments that porn typically provides a flawed script for real life relationships.  I agree.  Porn emphasizes “culturally accepted beauty standards”, typically focuses on male rather than female pleasure, and often focuses too much on penetration.  But I would argue that mainstream movies are also a terrible guide to real life relationships.  They also emphasize “culturally accepted beauty standards”, make it seem like couples always end up living happily ever after, treat women as if they need validation from men, and make it seem like all men and women are supposed to conform to certain behaviors within relationships rather than being themselves.  I think that both should be improved, but I support banning neither porn nor mainstream movies.

I also think the author draws a ridiculously unsubstantiated conclusion in the section titled “Pornography increases negative attitudes to women”.  She bases this conclusion on a study that showed a very slight correlation between viewing degrading porn and a less positive view of women.  But correlation is not causation.  If porn use had no affect whatsoever on views of women, I would still expect that those who had a negative view of women and wanted to dominate them would prefer porn that showed women being dominated.  Without the seemingly unjustifiable assumption that attitudes towards women have no effect on taste in porn, we can draw absolutely nothing from the slight correlation shown here.

Yet the very next section “Pornography decreases empathy for victims of sexual violence” is even worse.  In an attempt to support the claim that porn decreases empathy for victims of sexual violence, the author cites a study showing that people who were shown R-rated slasher films were significantly less empathetic to rape victims then those shown X-rated porn or R-rated teen sex films.  They found no difference between those who viewed the porn and those who viewed the R-rated teen sex films.  The author misleadingly refers to the slasher films as “graphically violent sexual films”.  In reality, the authors of this study said that at most, the slasher films contained “mildly erotic scenes”.  This study did not show that viewing porn was worse than viewing any other film, and showed that mainstream slasher movies were far worse.

Bridges also talks about the negative effects of porn within romantic relationships, but the examples she gives are primarily problems with how porn is perceived rather than problems with porn itself.  She says that while porn can be used together by couples to enhance their sex life, it is often used in secret without the knowledge of one’s partner.  Since openness and honesty are important to a successful relationship, this is not good.  But this doesn’t mean that porn is bad, just that if a person does use it, he/she should not hide that from his/her spouse.  Another piece of evidence given is that porn can be addictive and can cause people to spend more time alone rather than with their spouse.  However, this is true of many entertaining diversions, such as video games.  Some people spend several hours a day playing video games instead of spending that time with their spouses, but this doesn’t mean we should get rid of video games, just that we should encourage people to use them in healthy amounts.  We should do the same with porn.  Finally, Bridges mentions that women are reluctant to enter into a relationship with porn users.  But this is a problem caused not by porn itself, or by its users, but by people like her who encourage people to have a negative view of it.

Bridges further argues that porn is bad because it leads to decreased sexual satisfaction.  To support this, she cites a study which found that happily married people viewed less porn.  But instead of porn making people less happy, it seems far more likely that the causal arrow points in the other direction.  People who are feeling sexually unsatisfied in their relationship almost certainly have less sex and therefore will need to get a greater percentage of their orgasms from looking at porn.  Bridges also provides evidence that looking at porn leads to people viewing their partner as less attractive.  This seems plausible.  Just as watching Hollywood movies where even ugly women are played by beautiful actresses could lead one to have unrealistic standards of beauty, so could watching porn movies where everyone is beautiful and has unnaturally large breasts.

Finally, Bridges brings up a New York study that she says showed that porn use “nearly doubled the odds that a woman reported being sexually assaulted by her partner.”  I have some concerns over their choice of control group, but setting that aside, this study still does nothing to establish that pornography caused the abuse.  Violent sexual criminals may be more obsessed with sexual content more than the average person, but this doesn’t mean that viewing pornographic content causes someone to become a violent sexual criminal.  Killers generally tend to like guns, but guns don’t make people killers.

Given her frequent abuse of statistics to further her case, it seems far more likely that she started with her conclusion and then tried to find evidence to support it, rather than following the evidence where it led.

I thought Doran’s piece was much better.  Unlike Bridges, Doran does not recklessly leap from correlation to causation.  Doran instead critiques the methodology of other studies and concludes that “there is no convincing statistical evidence that consumption of pornography does or does not affect behavior.”  And while it may initially seem contrary to my position, I even agree with Doran’s statement that “some people do appear to have a strong incentive to prevent themselves from consuming pornography, and to pay more for this prevention than for the pornography itself. This suggests that there may be large personal costs of consumption associated with pornography, and opens up the possibility that it may be optimal for the state to use regulation to limit the distribution and consumption of pornography.”

The government should impose some regulations.  I do not think that hardcore pornography should be plastered on buildings so that young children can’t even go outside without seeing anal penetration.  I think the government’s role in regulating porn should be a lot like the government’s role in regulating food.  The government makes sure the people producing the food have safe working conditions.  The government restricts what foods are available to children (for example, banning soda in school vending machines).  But the government does not restrict what foods people are able to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes.  Like with porn, there are some people who eat a lot, but who want to eat less.  Some of them spend more on weight loss plans than they do on the food itself.  But this does not mean we should ban food, or even ban people from eating fattening foods.

Just because someone wants to view less porn does not mean that he/she should.  In many cases, people are taught by their religion that all porn use is sin and so see their perfectly normal level of porn use as a problem.  Similarly, many people who are perfectly healthy and have an about average weight are taught by societal norms that the only good body is supermodel skinny.  These people may desperately want to reduce their weight, turning to weight loss fads or even bulimia, but this doesn’t mean that they should become skinnier.  If society had healthier attitudes towards porn and weight, then maybe there would be less money spent trying to fix what was never broken.

Neither of these articles provides good evidence that porn is necessarily harmful.  Unless such harm can be demonstrated, I don’t think there is any justification for the government limiting what people can view in the privacy of their own homes.

8 comments:
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DM said...
April 23, 2010 at 4:24 PM  
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DM said...
April 25, 2010 at 9:19 PM  
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Anonymous said...
June 15, 2010 at 6:21 PM  

http://www.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=43723

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Anonymous said...
June 15, 2010 at 6:28 PM  

http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2004/11/65772

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Anonymous said...
June 15, 2010 at 7:07 PM  

http://www.obscenitycrimes.org/Senate-Reisman-Layden-Etc.pdf

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Ignostic Morgan said...
August 1, 2010 at 12:04 PM  

I viewed some beautiful porn yesterday! The two women and the man just were so happy!
With me liking to see pretty women, the very thought of some one hurting any makes me sad. Then as I am an egalitarian- being fair to all- harming any woman or man makes me sick!
Yes, few would feel like me about porn I expect.

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Kimberly said...
January 20, 2011 at 10:57 AM  

I thought this was a very well-written critique. As a woman, I do not feel that a man who watches pornography is a poor selection for a mate nor do I feel that porn portrays women negatively. "Women" cannot be generalized into one group just because some women choose to have sex on film, have sex for money or drugs, etc. Just as I am not classified in the same group with women who are astronauts, doctors, or lawyers just because we all have vaginae. I am what I am based upon my choices and I have found that most women who disapprove of pornography are either jealous of the bodies of the women in the films, or because they buy into an unrealistic view of society including religion and the roles of women and men and really need to study the sciences more.

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kadir karabaş said...
February 5, 2013 at 12:28 PM  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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