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The Forgotten War on Women: Disturbing Shades of Grey

An oft-debated issue in discussions about the potential harms of viewing pornography is its relationship, if any, to increases in sexual violence or aggression.  “The Sunny Side of Smut [1]” published in the Scientific American a few years back contends that “[f]or most people, pornography use has no negative effects-and it may even deter sexual violence.”  Alternatively, a great deal of other research [2] states just the opposite: that viewing violent porn changes attitudes regarding sexuality and relationships in a negative way, and that even non-violent porn impacts men’s attitudes toward women. 

The ‘Sunny’ Side

This review cites studies which correlate loosened restrictions on pornography with decreasing rates of rape in countries such as Japan, China and Denmark.  This perspective is supported by other research which suggests that there is no broad causal link between increased viewing of nonviolent pornography and the perpetration of sexual violence (the link between violent pornography consumption and sexual aggression remains an open question, however).  Specifically, Ferguson and Hartley’s (2009) research [3] suggests that those men who are not predisposed to be sexually aggressive are not incited to be so by exposure to nonviolent pornography.  However, those who are predisposed to sexual violence are impacted in some manner, though there is variability in its effects: some men become more prone to act out, while others experience a catharsis that lessens their inclination to attack.  While pornography use may serve to ameliorate the tension experienced by some persons who have a pathological inclination towards sexual violence, this by no means suggests that widespread availability and exposure to pornography is a social good or even merely harmless.  Things are not so black-and-white as the group-level national statistics might make them seem.

Important Questions For The Sunny Side

First, Ferguson and Hartley note that the data which support their conclusions are based on reported rapes only, and acknowledge that the incidents of rape occur in greater numbers than is known, and that not all rapes are similar, ranging from highly predatory acts by harmful strangers to sexual boundaries being overstepped within romantic involvements.  This raises the question:  Does viewing pornography perhaps persuade the young man who might otherwise respect “No” as “No!” to ignore the plea and persist?

Second, it is important to consider violence not only at the explicit sexual or physical level, but also the emotional level.  A critical question respecting pornography put forth by the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women [4] gets directly to the point:  “What kind of human feeling, empathy and intimate connections are possible in a world in which bodies are used so routinely in the process of selling and also are for sale virtually everywhere we turn?”  Violence occurs in the human psyche when it is deadened by the distortion of the human person on a constant basis in subtle (commercial advertising, for example) and not so subtle ways.  A person should be the subject of attention and affection, not an object of lust.

Third, the issue of so-called “non-violent” versus “violent” pornography is not so easily defined and dismissed as some would suggest.  For starters, it is legitimate to argue that all pornography is violent in its objectifying of persons.  It is well established that high levels of exposure to pornography of any sort lead men to begin thinking about women as objects to be consumed, rather than persons to be loved.  But even more so, it is established that men who regularly partake of pornography report that they experience a satiation for particular forms or images, and tend to escalate into more explicit, provocative material.  As this process continues, the desire for more degrading and even aggressive forms of pornography are inevitable. 


While efforts persist to normalize the porn industry and the material it spews forth, it is important to bear in mind the toxicity of the phenomenon itself.  The basic themes [4] of most pornography suggest that women are objects to be consumed, that they desire sex from men all the time, enjoy all types of acts, will perform on demand, and if they appear not to desire sex, they can be turned with just a little force, which really they enjoy.  This propaganda is poison for society and its members.  As contemporary society continues to wrestle with proper understanding of tolerance and freedom, human nature does not change.  No person needs pornography the way people need oxygen, food, friendship and ordered intimate relationships.  The idea of promoting pornography as some type of palliative for those relatively-few disturbed individuals who might experience some relief from their demons by keeping fantasy in fantasy, does not justify inflicting on the majority of persons material that could lead to the development of disordered habits. 

So the grey is not really so grey: pornography degrades and objectifies the actors, obscures the truth about relationships, tempts the vulnerable in their most base proclivities, and, at worst, opens a portal to the painful bondage of addiction. 

Human Sexuality
An oft-debated issue about the potential harms of viewing pornography is its relationship to sexual violence. “The Sunny Side of Smut” contends that “[f]or most people, pornography use has no negative effects-and it may even deter sexual violence.” What says the other side?