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Obscenity and Pornography: Behavioral Aspects - Evidence Concerning Behavioral Effects

violent violence sexually commission

At the most general level, many argue that pornography contributes to the decline of virtue and morality (it corrupts good character), and that it causes offense by its very presence (see Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49 (1973)). The claim about offense is rather straightforward, but the contention of moral corruption is obviously more speculative, and has not been tested scientifically. But its supporters point to a commonsense assumption: if we are right to encourage the teaching of good literature because of its beneficial impact on readers' minds, then it makes sense to assume that bad and degrading literature will have the opposite effect. Furthermore, scientific evidence suggests that exposure to certain forms of pornography increases the likelihood of aggression or negative attitudes toward women, providing some support for the moral corruption theory (for such results reflect moral states), as do cross-cultural correlational studies that suggest that the extent of the availability of pornography is correlated with the extent of sex crimes. However, debate rages concerning the reliability and validity of such studies; and such countries as Japan provide counterexamples, as the high level of violent pornography in Japan is not matched by high incidents of sexual assault. Along these lines, researcher Robert Bauserman found in a review of the literature that sex offenders were not more likely than nonoffenders to have consumed pornography when they were young, though a minority of offenders were using pornography when engaging in their crimes (a finding consistent with police reports).

Harms can also arise in the making of pornography. The 1986 Attorney General's Commission stated that performers are sometimes coerced into appearing in pornography or performing acts for which they did not consent in their contracts. The commission also found that participants are often "young, previously abused, and financially strapped," and that participation in pornography often hurt their relationships and personal lives. Such concerns are most prevalent when it comes to child pornography. On the other hand, some women performers have espoused a new version of feminism and proclaimed their right to participate voluntarily in pornography. In addition, no one has conducted a serious empirical study of the harms associated with the making of pornography, leaving the matter to educated guesses.

The commission's conclusions concerning sexually violent pornography (based on its study of laboratory research conducted by other researchers) were strong and controversial: violent pornography "bears a causal relationship to antisocial acts of sexual violence." The commission was somewhat more qualified about the behavioral effects of significant exposure to nonviolent but degrading pornography, but it nonetheless maintained that exposure "bears some causal relationship to" violence, sexual aggression, and negative attitudes (e.g., viewers see rape as less serious than it is). The commission found far fewer negative effects for nonviolent, nondegrading pornography.

The research on the effects of violent, sexually explicit pornography conducted before and after the commission's 1986 report has been fairly consistent, giving some plausibility to the commission's conclusions about violent pornography, but less plausibility to its conclusions about degrading pornography. Experiments have shown that violent pornography coarsens male attitudes toward women, desensitizes them to sexual violence, and increases their aggression toward women (usually measured by their willingness to administer electric shocks to a female colleague of the researchers after being exposed to a film with the requisite content). Experiments control effects by exposing different sets of males (usually college students) to one of four types of films: violent and sexually explicit; violent without being sexually explicit; sexually explicit without being violent; neither sexually explicit or violent.

Studies indicate that the highest levels of aggression are recorded by those who viewed the violent and erotic films, followed by those who viewed the violent film. Perhaps surprisingly, some studies have found little affect on those who viewed the erotic but nonviolent film. The most important finding is that aggression levels are highest when women are portrayed as being sexually aroused by the violence perpetrated against them. Experimental psychologist Edward Donnerstein and two colleagues summed up their own research and that of others (this view has not been contradicted in the years since): "It is this unique feature of violent pornography—the presentation of the idea that women find sexual violence arousing—that plays an important role in producing violent pornography's harmful effects" (p. 88). Later work stressed that violence was the most important ingredient of the violence-sex link: even minor suggestions of sex will have effects similar to more sexually explicit depictions if violence is present. Sex appears to be less of a problem than violence.

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