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Sexual Violence Is a Huge Problem, But Don't Blame Porn

It’s not hard to see the foundation of a future porn crackdown in the works.

by Justin Lehmiller, PhD
Apr 24 2018, 4:00pm

Luca Pierro / Stocksy

In 2016, Utah became the first state to formally declare porn a “public health crisis.” Others states have since jumped on board, including Florida, where legislators recently passed a resolution proclaiming the health risks of porn—less than an hour after voting down a bill aimed at banning assault rifles introduced in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting. In Florida, apparently, porn is seen as an even bigger threat to public health and safety than guns.

These political claims about the risks and dangers of porn are based, in part, on the presumption that porn is inherently violent—and becoming more so—and that this is causing real world violence, too. Just look at what the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE) is saying. Their website states that “the pornography of today has created an unprecedented epidemic of sexual harm.” They claim that porn is necessarily exposing people to “violent and degrading content”—content that can ultimately lead them to commit “sexually aggressive and violent behaviors.”

The NCSE was a vocal supporter of FOSTA-SESTA, the recent federal bills aimed at fighting online sex trafficking—bills that ultimately led to the shutdown of Backpage.com and other sites. The language in FOSTA-SESTA gives authorities the power to go after websites that are “knowingly assisting, facilitating, or supporting sex trafficking.” When you take such a broadly written bill and couple it with all of these claims that porn is not only violent, but causes sexual violence and exploitation, it’s not hard to see the foundation of a future porn crackdown in the works.


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For this reason, it’s worth reevaluating all of these popular assumptions about the nature of porn and the effects it has on people. Is porn really as full of violence as the political elite have made it out to be? And is porn serving as rocket fuel for sexual violence? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

First, the idea that porn is inherently violent and that violent content is on the rise is simply not supported by the data. A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research entitled “Harder and Harder? Is Mainstream Pornography Becoming Increasingly Violent and Do Viewers Prefer Violent Content?” analyzed the content of nearly 300 of the most popular videos uploaded to Pornhub over the last ten years. The videos selected for inclusion were chosen at random, but only those videos that featured one man and one woman were included in the analysis.

Each video was content coded for signs of both verbal and physical aggression in general, as well as specific instances of aggression that were coupled with indicators of a lack of consent (e.g., signs of resistance)—in other words, non-consensual aggression. The researchers also coded for signs of women’s pleasure (e.g., moaning).

What they found was that a majority of videos did not include verbal or physical aggression. Further, non-consensual aggression in particular wasn’t a pervasive theme, being present in 12 percent of videos. Female pleasure, by contrast, was very commonly observed, appearing in about three-quarters of all videos.

Moreover, there was no evidence of aggressive content increasing in recent years—in fact, there was actually some evidence for the reverse, with displays of visible aggression dropping over time. It’s also worth noting that videos depicting sexual aggression were less popular on average. These videos racked up fewer views, received fewer “likes,” and were awarded more “thumbs down,” especially videos involving the non-consensual kind of aggression.

In short, this analysis suggests that, if anything, porn is actually becoming less violent and that violent and aggressive content isn’t what people want to see when they tune in. Incidentally, this busts another popular myth about porn, which is that porn users necessarily escalate to “harder” stuff over time because they become desensitized. It doesn’t seem to be the case that viewers increasingly need more extreme stuff to get off.

As for the common claim that porn causes sexual violence, that one isn’t supported by research either. For instance, national US data actually suggests the opposite conclusion, finding that as pornography consumption has increased, the number of rapes has actually decreased.
Admittedly, this research—like most research on porn—is correlational, meaning we can’t determine cause and effect. However, if there were something to the idea that porn in general was leading to a wave of sexual violence, it would most likely would have shown up by now.

It’s worth mentioning that some research has found that men exposed to violent porn specifically report greater acceptance of violence against women. This finding is a cause for concern; however, porn doesn’t have this effect on the vast majority of guys. The data suggest that our concern here is actually very limited in scope. Only one type of porn (notably, porn featuring violent content, which, as noted above, is unpopular and appearing less frequently) is potentially problematic—but, even then, only for male viewers who have certain personality traits (e.g., low agreeableness, or lacking care and concern for others).

With all of that said, there is undoubtedly a big problem with sexual violence in America—and thanks to #MeToo, there’s a spotlight on it right now. But cracking down on porn across the board isn’t going to solve this problem because porn is not the fundamental cause. Sexual violence predates online porn and, in fact, it was an even bigger problem before online porn came into existence.

We have a tendency to blame all of our sexual problems on porn, from sexual violence to divorce to rising rates of STDs. This isn’t surprising—after all, porn is an easy target because it has few defenders. However, we all should have learned by now that the easy target isn’t necessarily the right one.

Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.

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