ScienceBlogs takes a very serious (global) look at studies about porn and violence against women

by Violet Blue on June 4, 2010

As you know, I launched Our Porn, Ourselves earlier this week to create a resource that aims to create an alternative and constructive conversation on the use of pornography by women, and in turn offer balance to the anti-porn feminist agenda — especially with the Stop Porn Culture conference coming up. In the meantime on our Facebook page we’ve been discussing general anti-porn allegations that state correlations between porn and violence against women (sexual aggression, rape). We brought in Reason Magazine’s year-old article Does Porn Make Society Better?

But what we’ve been lacking is real data from unbiased studies, and a distinct need to actually answer this question. It would be foolish (or worse) to believe anything along these lines blindly. Note that Stop Porn Culture suggests that there is research to substantiate connections between rape (of women) with the creation and viewing of pornography are factual and inherent; they categorically state that increased violence against women is associated with the production and consumption of pornography (read this explanation on these exact statements). These statements about porn and sexual violence are key lynchpins in the whole anti-porn argument. After all, these people are women, they self-identify as feminists, and hold titles of academic status — and thus are seen and cited by media and politicians as credible sources for this very information.

Upon reading about the conference and seeing the storm brewing online, ScienceBlogs’ Jason G. Goldman (a graduate student in Developmental Psychology) decided to actually do the work. And the results, published in Just How Bad Is Porn, Anyway? are fascinating, and an interesting mix of what many of us who work in sex ed and read studies all the time were aware of — and results that are not as “cut and dried” as many would want. It’s fucking fascinating. And it makes absolute sense. The anti-porn people are not going to like it (they will likely ignore it), and I’m guessing that corporate media won’t know how to make a soundbite out of the results that fits made-for-prime-time stereotypes. Well, this should be reported high, far, loud and wide. This is a huge change for the entire discussion.

Science. It works. Here’s a snip from the conclusion if you’re impatient like me, after he closely examines several studies (note: bold text below is Goldman’s):

(…) What does it mean? High pornography use is not necessarily indicative of high risk for sexual aggression. Among men who are relatively low-risk for sexual aggression, the use of porn results in only a slight increase in aggression. In some circumstances, pornography use, however, is a very good indicator of higher sexual aggression levels. This is the case when considering men who were determined to previously be at high risk for sexual aggression. Those who are frequent users of pornography were more likely to have engaged in sexual aggression than others who consume porn less frequently.

As with the previous studies, this was also only correlational, and it is impossible to infer casuality. However, this data suggests very strongly that pornography is not a direct cause of aggression against women; rather, pornography moderates the relationship between sexual promiscuity/hostile masculinity and sexual aggression.

What have we learned?
1. These issues are very complicated.
2. Because of the “third person effect,” it is important to measure pornography consumption in addition to attitudes
3. When it comes to self-report, both men and women report larger positive effects than negative effects.
4. Nearly all men report viewing pornography (98%), but the vast majority of women (80%) do as well.
5. For some, pornography can lead to reduced sexual satisfaction. This effect is most pronounced for those who prefer “paraphilic” content to “mainstream” content, though this distinction leaves something to be desired.
6. There are reliable relationships between pornography use and sexual aggression, but the story isn’t so straightforward. For individuals with relatively low risk for sexual aggression, porn consumption has only a slight relationship with sexual aggression. The relationship becomes significant and pronounced only when the individual is already at a high-risk for sexual aggression.(…read more, scienceblogs.com)

Self-portrait by Camille Crimson. Article via Jiz Lee. And I’ll likely break my personal rules about cross-posting and put this on the Our Porn, Ourselves blog (in addition to creating a new resource page on facts and studies about porn and violence against women).

Violet Blue

The London Times named Violet Blue "One of the 40 bloggers who really count" and Self Magazine named TinyNibbles one of the “Best Sex Resources for Women.” Blue is an autodidact and pundit on sex and technology, hacking and security, porn for women, privacy and bleeding-edge tech culture. She is a journalist for ZDNet, CBS News, CNET; she's an educator, speaker, crisis counselor, volunteer NGO trainer, and the author and editor of over 40 award-winning books.

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{ 11 comments }

1 Jason G. Goldman June 9, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I take different sorts of responsibilities onto myself when writing an academic journal article, for example, than a blog post. In a journal article, I do my best to place my research in the appropriate context in the literature. Why does this question necessitate being asked, given the current state of the literature? In a sense, I try to do this as well when blogging, but to a different end. Instead of asking why is this important, from an empirical research point of view, I ask why the readers should give a damn in the first place. Different sort of context into which the main points are placed. Placing research on ant navigation into the context of the literature means little except to a small handful of people. But telling you WHY you should care? That’s for blogging or MSM.

Then again, whenever I’ve covered a paper on something like ant navigation, I’ve never been expected to place it into the context of an entire corpus of literature, and cover everything on ants, and everything on navigation. That people expected I should do that, and berated me for NOT doing that, for something more politically divisive…well perhaps I should have, but I don’t think that’s really the point.

Last – it was pointed out to me that I failed to include a statement about how the researchers in the third study operationalized “aggression.” In this case, it was defined as rape or criminal activity. Certainly there are other forms of aggression that may or may not be more highly associated with the viewing of pornography, not covered by this particular paper.

2 violet June 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Jonathan — thank you. that really means a lot.

Jason, thank you for circling back with the update. Interestingly, I find your new and re-edited post a lot more useful. For instance, I wanted to include some of the original on a page for Our Porn, Ourselves but I was going to have to excerpt the opinion *out* of it to do so. Looks great, the real meat of the discussion is right there now. And thanks again.

I still disagree with you about academic media vs. real time / indie media, but that’s just fine.

3 Jason G. Goldman June 8, 2010 at 8:45 am

Yes, I took down the post while deciding how to handle this. Decided to re-publish it, stripped of speculation and editorializing. What is left is strictly description and explanation of the studies, with more explicit caveats. All the comments have been left intact, though the comments are still closed.

4 Samantha June 8, 2010 at 5:37 am

I always took feminism to just mean getting paid the same amount as guys for the same amount of work. No?

5 Jonathan June 7, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Anyone who has any experience with peer reviewed research knows damn well (though few of them may admit it) that peer review is not anything like objectivity. Violet, bless you for a breath of rational thinking. Even if it is “only” through blog posts.

6 violet June 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Jason, I also noticed you kind of freaked out and closed comments on your post, stating the exact same thing you wrote here (which seems to contradict your previous comments on your own post). I realize this discussion went some places you did not expect it to go. I hope you can re-examine this post, and what we’re saying at Our Porn, Ourselves when things ease up for you.

7 violet June 7, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Jason, I respectfully disagree. You wrote the piece, and took the time to examine the data and how you see others’ reactions and opinions to your result (and how you chose to express it, in a blog post) is important. However, for those of us who have been having this discussion for over ten years, and never seen anything of this nature or caliber from a side that is not slanted one way or another — yes, it is a HUGE sea change for the whole discussion. You’re clearly not familiar with this landscape (the war of ideology on the effects of porn) and that’s why your writing (and evident work and analysis that went into this writing) on this is significant. You may disagree with its significance, and the value and weight of blogging in these very types of discussions — though keep in mind I have been a blogger and corporate/mainstream media writer on this topic for years. You may also be seeing this from an academic paper and academia/peer perspective. Which is not the rest of us. And I think you’re smart enough to know that people creating the anti-porn arguments could care less about whether fact-based opinions and conclusions such as yours come from peer-reviewed papers or blog posts — it’s the credibility of the source.

Wake up to the world of media in which you write, how it is perceived and its scope of influence. You need only look at the reaction around the blogosphere and Twitter to what you’ve written to see that I am far from the only person who thinks this is a huge shift in the conversation, and you may think all of us as irresponsible if you like. At the end of the day, what you think about how the world reacts to what you put together and said (“what this means”) does not matter. It’s what you wrote that matters. You don’t think it’s a big deal? Good. Stay that way and we can trust your objectivity.

Don’t worry: no one here is a fan of you and no one said you by any means did a complete job. It’s what you found. And after my decade of online journalism, far be it for you to tell me how to analyze my media.

Definitely took you and your writing with a huge grain of salt, and I appreciate that you call your own credibility into question. And I’m very glad you don’t agree with me, or like what I have to say. My blog, my opinion. Your post has more value to me than to you. I’d be delighted to tell you which parts of your post are irresponsible as well. But having the larger discussion is more important to me than doing the kind of accusatory drive-by you’ve done here in the comments.

8 Jason G. Goldman June 7, 2010 at 11:35 am

I don’t think this is a “huge change for the entire discussion,” and I think calling it as such is irresponsible. This is 3 papers out of a gazillion, and it is only focusing on pornography as a product, and its effects on the population – and specifically doesn’t address the issues wrapped up in the production of pornography in the first place. Furthermore, this is a BLOG post. Not peer-reviewed research. Posts often go up without so much as a spell-check. This needs to be kept in mind, and taken with a grain of salt.

9 Ms Naughty June 5, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Thanks for this Violet. Science FTW.
I hope you won’t mind if I add a link to a post I made a couple of months ago called “Defining the ‘harm’ of porn” – my review of Michael Flood’s study of whether porn is harmful to teens.
http://www.msnaughty.com/blog/2010/01/25/defining-the-harm-of-porn/
In that study “harm” was partly defined as being accepting of “open sexual lifestyles” and more open and positive about sex. It assumed that you had been harmed if you were encouraged to, say, try anal sex after seeing porn.
This is why these kinds of studies are so tricky… they seem to bring a shirtload of assumptions and value judgements into the research that skews the results.

10 violet June 5, 2010 at 11:58 am

Moneda, I agree. it’s this section:

“Another important measure they included was the a series of questions regarding the content of their preferred genre of porn. If they preferred BDSM, fetishism, bestiality, or violence/coercion, they were coded as “paraphilic” users. If they answered “none of the above,” they were coded as “mainstream” users. I think this bifurcation leaves some things to be desired, but let’s see how their results turned out.”

the bifurcation is the study’s distinction between what might be considered “mainstream” sex and, well, everything else. on one hand it’s apparent that they needed to make a distinction between what most consumers are consuming and what makes other sexual interests different. but it’s inaccurate (on their part, likely because they follow DSM definitions (unfortunately academically accepted as psychologically definitive on “outsider” sexuality).

we all know that BDSM is NOT the same sexual interest as bestiality, not by a long shot. Goldman, to his credit acknowledges the nuanced flaw in this thinking when he states ” I think this bifurcation leaves some things to be desired” which is a big understatement, but continues on to examine the findings.

the findings seem to make *even more obvious* the flaw in DSM-style definitions of non-mainstream human sexuality. I was reading this like you and thinking, hey, hold on a minute. the findings appear to back up exactly what your conclusion is, that being people with outsider sexual interests (and I’m using “outsider” by no way to indicate that this might be a minority experience of sex) have less satisfying sex because their needs in real life are simply not being met. not as a cause, or even in correlation to, the type of porn they consumed. and they consume more of it, logically because (for example) they’re turned on by non-vanilla sex, but is is not happening or they do not have safe access to it in life.

the flawed thinking on paraphilias is institutional (even how it defines them is inaccurate). yet that didn’t seem to undermine what happened in this examination, which shows porn isn’t *causing* *anything*.

we still have a lot of educating to do.

I was pleased to see women included as study subjects as equals, which is appallingly rare.

11 moneda June 4, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I liked it overall, but took issue with one conclusion: 5. For some, pornography can lead to reduced sexual satisfaction. This effect is most pronounced for those who prefer “paraphilic” content to “mainstream” content, though this distinction leaves something to be desired.

I assume this was gathered from the questionnaire given to Croatian men and women, but what I think could also be concluded is that those who prefer “paraphilic” porn content may also prefer a “paraphilic” sexual lifestyle and, as anyone with a kink they enjoy participating in regularly can tell you, finding sexual satisfaction can be tougher in some environments. Basically, perhaps the porn is not the cause of their sexual dissatisfaction, but instead an outlet through which they deal with unsatisfactory sex.

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