Citation: Flood, M. (2019). Pornography: Ten Points in Ten Minutes. Panel presentation (with Terry Crews), Leading Change Summit (Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters), Feb. 19-21, Alberta, Canada.
1. Pornography defined
‘Pornography’ refers to ‘sexually explicit media that are primarily intended to sexually arouse the audience’.
Note that this definition is neutral rather than judgemental, although I am very critical of pornography.
2. Most users of pornography are heterosexual men
Most everyday users of pornography are heterosexual men. And most of the commercial pornographic industry caters to heterosexual men.
Men are more likely than women to view pornography frequently, to be sexually aroused by it, to masturbate to it, to initiate its use, and to have favourable attitudes towards it.
In short, pornography is a cornerstone of many boys’ and men’s sexualities.
Children and young people show increased rates of exposure, at younger ages, to a greater variety of material, including increasingly callous and hostile content.
3. Pornography’s content often is sexist and violent
Contemporary pornography routinely includes violent, hostile, and sexist content, as several recent studies show.
A recent analysis of 50 of the top-selling and top-renting porn titles in the USA found high levels of violence in pornography’s content. Of the scenes, 88% contained physical aggression, while 48% of scenes contained verbal aggression. Aggression was primarily by males, and overwhelmingly against females.
In pornography, what is now the norm is the sexual dominance of willing women (Bridges et al. 2010: 1080).
4. The pornographication of mainstream culture is the context for porn use.
The cultural context for young people’s pornography consumption is shifting too, with the increasing normalisation of pornography use and the pornographication of mainstream culture.
However, there are other shifts in young people’s sexual and social relations which go the other way, towards greater gender equality. For example, young people show increased support for gender equality, increased norms of sexual consent and respect, etc.
5. Pornography has undeniable effects on the sexual lives of men and women, boys and girls.
The research on porn documents six effects of porn use among young people (and others).
(1) Pornography as sex education (a): Young people who use porn have greater sexual knowledge (including about bodies and practices) and more liberalised sexual attitudes than others.
(2) Pornography as sex education (b): Porn can shift young men’s sexual interests, behaviours, and relations. E.g., young men who use porn are more likely than others to be interested in, and to try to have, anal intercourse.
(3) Porn as betrayal: Heterosexual men’s pornography use often is secret, hidden from girlfriends and wives. A substantial proportion of female partners aware of their partners’ porn use feel hurt and distress.
(4) Porn as addiction: While I’m wary of the term ‘addiction’, some men’s porn use certainly is compulsive and damaging.
(5) Pornography as sexist education: Porn teaches sexist and sexually objectifying understandings of gender and sexuality. It shapes how boys and men see girls and women. And it shapes how girls and women see themselves.
(6) Pornography as rape training: Porn teaches sexually aggressive and violence-supportive attitudes and behaviours.
Correlational studies find associations between pornography use and sexually aggressive and violence-supportive attitudes and actual violent behaviours. Experimental studies find that people shown pornography show increases in sexually violent attitudes and behaviours. Finally, longitudinal studies, which gather data over time among porn users and non-users, find that pornography use predicts later sexually violent attitudes and behaviours.
For example, in a longitudinal study of U.S. youth aged 10 to 15, with three waves of data over three years, individuals who used violent pornography were over six times as likely as others to engage in sexually aggressive behaviour.
6. Pornography’s effects are complex
The effects of pornography are complex.
Pornography is one risk factor, among many, for sexual violence perpetration.
We should use an interactive model of effects: pornography consumption is one factor, which combines with others, to predict men’s sexually aggressive behaviour.
Pornography increases the risk of sexual violence perpetration for some men much more than others – more so for men who are already predisposed to sexual violence. Men who have hostile and distrustful attitudes towards women, they get sexual gratification from controlling or dominating women, they are callous and unemotional, and so on.
So, in thinking about pornography’s effects:
- The user / consumer matters. What they bring to their use, and how they interpret its content.
- The content matters.
So, given that men’s and boys’ use of pornography intensifies their involvements in gender inequalities and sexual coercion, then what can be done about it?
There are all kinds of ways we should be tackling porn: using law and policy, holding the industry to account, and using advocacy and community education to challenge porn culture. But here, I focus on engaging men and boys.
7. Existing efforts to shift men’s porn use are limited.
The most prominent social response to the problem of men’s pornography use is Christian abstinence: Men should quit pornography, avoid sexual addiction, and renew their vows to God and their wives,
Christian abstinence is limited. It appeals primarily to Christian adherents and its narrow sexual recommendations are at odds with both mainstream sexual culture and progressive sexual values.
There is also a more secular abstinence movement, especially online, focused on pornography addiction and sex addiction. And large online communities dedicated to quitting pornography.
These are strongly supportive communities. But their strategies are focused on individual change. And they are not very feminist: they are concerned about whether men can have erections, or get a girl, and less concerned about men hurting and raping women.
The third call for abstinence comes from feminism. It starts with the feminist critique of pornography and the sex industry as patriarchal, brutalising and misogynistic, and calls on men to quit pornography and build ethical sexual and gender relations.
Robert Jensen, in the book Getting Off, first argues from justice. Pornography is linked to women’s sexual subordination, and men must stop using pornography because it is our ethical obligation to do so. But Jensen also argues from self-interest: porn dehumanises and limits men.
I support this, although it too is limited in some ways.
8. There are other promising ways to address porn use.
Comprehensive sexuality education
One key strategy is comprehensive sexuality education: providing young people with alternative, more age-appropriate content on sexuality. This will reduce porn’s appeal. But it won’t satisfy young men’s interest in materials they can masturbate to.
Pornography education is about teaching young people to respond more critically to porn, by teaching critical understandings of pornography and skills in media literacy. There is evidence that this can work. In Australia, content on pornography is being integrated into school curricula.
We should encourage better pornography, pornography which is ethical in how it is produced, its content, and its use. An ethical pornography would be produced without participants’ coercion or harm. And it would eroticise consent, respect, and intimacy.
After workshops for parents on pornography, some have come up to me and asked, What pornographic websites should my son be looking at? I think we should develop criteria for more and less harmful forms of pornography, although I also have reservations here.
9. We must appeal to and engage boys and men.
We must engage boys and men where they are at, and involve them in critical reflection on their use of porn.
We should highlight how porn use is bad for males’ relationships and sex lives.
We should draw on boys’ and men’s existing resistance to and criticisms of pornography. And on their guilt about what is wrong with porn.
We must find effective educational appeals or ‘hooks’ for males, e.g. porn as unrealistic, sexist, as teaching bad sex and turning males into bad lovers, and so on.
10. There are dilemmas here.
There are dilemmas here:
- Recognising and engaging young people as sexual subjects with sexual agency, while also criticising excessive or inappropriate sexualisation.
- Addressing sexual harm without reinforcing sex negativity / erotophobia or stigmatising masturbation.
Let’s remember what we are trying to do: To build a gender-just culture. To build sexual lives based on consent, respect, and mutual pleasure.
XYonline includes a range of further materials on pornography, including a review of the scholarship on the harms of pornography, pieces on how to engage men in responding critically to pornography, and more. See https://xyonline.net/content/pornography-men-and-boys.