The Harmfulness of Pornography

A huge majority of Americans believe that some forms of "pornography" - eg. eroticized rape scenes - influence some men toward real-life sexual aggression. Social science also now confirms this. A large body of behavioral research shows that men exposed to certain rape portrayals show psychological changes that increase the likelihood of attacks on women. A common scenario - She refuses, he forces her, and she loves it! - appears to have especially harmful effects.

Young male viewers become more likely to believe "all women want to be raped," more prone to fantasizing rape, more likely to say they personally would rape if there were no punishment, more aroused by violent rape scenes, and more ready to inflict pain on women. Such effects follow also from eroticized degradation, and from R-rated (not XXX) "slasher" films (such as one produced by a film company on whose Board of Directors George W. Bush was serving.)

Further, there is some research evidence, and the personal testimony of countless women, that "objectification" is also a significant problem. When women are portrayed more as stereotypical bodies and sex objects than as real human beings - with names, lives, and complexities - we seem to see and treat them more as objects to be used. Objectification is becoming ubiquitous, though perhaps most extreme in pornography.

Sexually arousing material doesn't have to be so harmful to women and society in general as it is today. Gloria Steinem, Diana Russell and other feminists have identified sexual portrayals (even explicit) that are based on equality, mutual pleasure, and consent as "erotica," not pornography. Such erotica does not appear to cause harm, but in practice is hard to find. The sex industry cynically prefers "extreme" fare, whatever the human costs.

If we truly took women's safety seriously, or saw the high and rising levels of rape in the U.S. as a MAJOR ISSUE to confront, the commercial sex industry could be induced to significantly clean up its act. But instead we see pornographic styles and themes steadily moving into clothing catalogs, popular fiction, mainstream network TV...

And those who point to the widespread harms being caused are usually silenced by shouts of: Censorship! Puritanical prudishness! First Amendment! Free Speech! Collaborating with the Right Wing!

So pornographers profit, and the ACLU profits defending them, and women around the world continue to pay the price. This part of life is getting worse, not better.

  • Originally published as NOMAS Position Paper on the Harmfulness of Pornograpy
  • Authored by Robert Brannon, Ph.D. - Chair, Pornography and Prostitution Task Group