If You Think Porn Is Just Harmless Fantasy, This Will Make You Think Again

Let’s stop perpetuating myths.
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Let’s stop perpetuating myths.

This article is excerpted from The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography by Matt Fradd. Reprinted with permission.

For years, the debate about media’s effect on real-life behavior has been in the spotlight. What role might violent media play in our lives? Can what we see on screen, no matter how obviously made up it may be, actually influence how we behave? How does exposure to violence affect our maturity? How does it affect our society?

These questions carry over into the debate about the effects of pornography. Does pornography alter human behavior? Does it really make a difference? Do images actually have that much power over us? The resounding answer, proven by countless studies, is that media does affect how we think and how we behave.

The advertising industry is proof that media has a powerful influence over our thoughts. Companies invest billions in advertising campaigns in the hopes that their thirty seconds of great graphics and catchy jingles will be enough to get you thinking about their products. Their products might not be much different from a competitor’s, but the goal of their advertising campaign is for you to choose theirs. Executives are literally banking on the fact that advertising brings customers. Media changes minds.

You may be thinking, “Well, sure, that’s advertising. It’s not the same as pornography. Pornography is different. After all, pornography is not real. It is fantasy, and we know that. It is just harmless fun and safer than engaging in risky sexual activities.”

It is true that most pornography is scripted and heavily edited, but that does not lessen its effects on viewers, their bodies, and their relationships.

To understand the full extent of pornography’s power to alter our sexual behavior, we have to understand how the human mind learns. We learn to do something by watching it being done. In one of the first studies of observational learning, children watched an adult act aggressively toward an inflatable punching bag—throwing it in the air, hitting it with a mallet, and sitting on it. When given an opportunity to play with the same punching bag, the children who had witnessed the adult’s aggressive behavior tended to copy it.

Observational learning can be seen in how pornography use affects the behavior of its viewers. In Norway, a group of researchers has recognized the teaching power of pornography. They believe that average pornography consumers cannot be taught about sex using traditional methods (i.e., a sex education class) and that promoting “safe sex” pornographic films may be an effective way of normalizing safe sex. If educators believe that pornography can teach safe sex, then it is certainly capable of teaching other lessons—including aggression.

Pornography’s ties to sexual aggression have been the subject of many studies, articles, and debates over the last several decades. Some studies claim to prove a link, others claim to disprove it, and still others say that both pornography use and sexual aggression are affected by a man’s natural tendency.

Perhaps the most telling of all these studies is one from 2000 entitled “Pornography and Sexual Aggression” by Malamuth, Addison, and Koss. One part of their study focused on the effect of pornography on males who were low-risk for sexual aggression and males who were high-risk. It found that high pornography use is not necessarily indicative of high sexual aggression in the low-risk population. There was little difference between the aggressive tendencies of low-risk men who used porn somewhat frequently and those who used it very frequently, although there was a notable difference between men who had never or seldom viewed pornography and men who viewed it frequently. In the case of men at high risk for sexual aggressiveness, however, there was a relationship between porn and sexual violence. The high-use men in this group “were much more likely” than the low-use men to have engaged in sexual aggression.

Viewing pornography can affect not only a man’s sexual aggressiveness but also his commitment to a relationship. Researchers at Florida State University studied college students who admitted to habitual pornography viewing. Half of the students were asked to give up pornography in any form; the other half were asked to give up their favorite food. At the end of the trial, the students were asked about their commitment to their relationships. The correlation might seem strange, but researchers found that the students who reduced or eliminated pornography consumption were much more committed to their relationships than the students who had continued to view pornography while giving up food.

What caused the difference? It could have been the lack of pornography’s influence, or it could have been the increased time available to spend with a partner. After all, every moment someone is not viewing porn is another moment he has to engage in real human interaction. Some porn users report that they watch up to fifteen hours of pornography a week—a significant chunk of time lost.

Pornography can also affect how we view sex and members of the opposite sex, particularly how men view women. In a study on the sexualization of women, researchers analyzed covers of Rolling Stone magazine. They discovered that women are hypersexualized at an increasing rate, often featured naked and in sexually suggestive poses. In 1960, 11 percent of the cover images were classified as hypersexualized. By contrast, since 2000, 61 percent of the covers featured hypersexual images, a majority of which were women. To quote the authors of the study: “The accumulation of sexualized attributes in these images leaves little room for observers to interpret [the women] in any way other than as instruments of sexual pleasure and visual possession.”

The problem with such mainstreamed images is that they feign to represent women as a whole. In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy states that picturing women in such a way gives rise to the message that being a sex object is the only way to be a woman. “What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression,” says Levy, “we now view as sexuality.” In other words, hypersexualization sends the message that “real” women are ready and available for sex. It holds up unrealistic standards for women and plants improper expectations in the minds of men.

Another effect of pornography is its impact on the human body. With the increasing availability of pornography has come an increase in the number of cases of sexual performance issues, such as erectile dysfunction (ED), among young men. Problems that were once found mostly in older men are now found in otherwise healthy men in their twenties and thirties. A 2012 Swiss study found that 30 percent of males ages eighteen to twenty-four have some form of ED, and a Canadian study published a couple of years later reported that 27 percent of sixteen- to twenty-one-year-olds have this problem. Doctors believe that porn is a major reason. One study from Cambridge University in 2014 asked men with ED about their use of pornography. Researchers reported that 60 percent of the subjects (average age twenty-five) said they had ED problems with sexual partners but not with porn.

Can the fantasy of pornography affect our everyday lives? The answer seems to be yes.

Those of us who oppose porn's objectification of human beings are not opposing sexual expression. We stand against pornography in order to stand for the honor of the human person. Anytime we capture the image of another—be it for artistic purposes or for entertainment—the display of that image should lead others to celebrate the mystery and the depth of humanity, not encourage them to treat the person as a cheap assembly of body parts.

Photo Credit: Thomas Lefebvre