Watching pornography is more widely accepted than ever before, but does it do more harm than good? BBC Newsbeat recently reported that, according to new research, a quarter of men aged 18 to 24 are worried about the amount of pornography they watch on the internet. This adds to already mounting concerns about the effects of pornographic material on teenagers and the potentially damaging impact it is having on body image and expectations of sex, as well as worries about the link between pornography and male sexual aggression. Perhaps, though, there is more than one side to this story.
Pornography in the classroom? Ridiculous as it may sound, interviews collected in 2007 by Professor Alan McKee suggest that pornography could have educational uses. Several interviewees revealed that they had learned sexual information through pornography in their youth and some even went as far to state that they would consider using it as an educational tool to teach their children about sex. Interviewees also agreed that pornography helps to lift the veil of stigma around sex, allowing the subject to be discussed more openly. For McKee, pornography is a rite of passage, or, as one interviewee put it, ‘Saying you’ve been at dad’s porn book is part of growing up’.
In contrast to the implications of McKee’s research, other studies, such as one conducted in 1993 by Lawrence C. Trostle, have shown that pornography plays a minor role in the dissemination of sexual information among teenagers. Trostle’s findings, based on interviews with a mixed group of undergraduates, showed that instead peers seem to provide the main source of sex education for adolescents. If this is true, then it would appear that the impact of pornography has been overestimated and that the moral panic provoked by worries about the exposure of young people to pornography is largely unfounded.
A study in America that screened 3,000 male college students, meanwhile, found that the link between male sexual aggression and pornography consumption is not clean cut. Men who tested low in the sexual aggression risk range differed widely in the amount of time they spent watching pornographic material. However, the men with moderate to high risk showed correlation between increased viewing and potential aggression. In any case, as in all studies of this kind, it is unclear whether aggression increases porn watching, vice versa, an entirely different set of factors or a combination of all of these.
In 1983, Thelma McCormack was asked to study pornography’s connection to sexual aggression. Her study showed that pornography might be cathartic and therefore might reduce the incidence of rape, and showed that there was no link between pornography and sex crimes. Her report was discarded and reassigned to David Scott, a non-feminist committed to anti-pornography, who produced more palatable conclusions.
In Japan, pornography containing graphic and brutal violence is widely available. There are fewer incidents of rape per person than in the United States, where violence in porn is severely restricted. This could also be because rape is under-reported in Japan, due to reputation, shame; a myriad number of reasons.
So called ‘ethical pornography’ attempts to side step some of the problems the industry is traditionally flooded with. Sites like SuicideGirls.com try to have the actors interact with their audience via forums and blogs, and also challenge the conventional perception of beauty.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive attitude of Professor Alan McKee’s interviewees towards pornography, the majority were in agreement that it should not be made freely available to children and that a degree of protection is still required. Interviewees also stressed that they would only use certain pornographic films in an educational capacity, the implication being that, while some films can provide helpful information, not all pornography has a wholly positive effect. Conflicting studies conducted under similar circumstances, meanwhile, provide evidence that pornography can give unrealistic expectations about sex and make young people feel pressurised to perform.
In 2009 Channel 4 launched The Sex Education Show vs Pornography in an attempt to uncover and tackle the effects of pornography exposure on youngsters. The programme presented the shocking statistic that 90% of children have been exposed to pornography on the internet, first seeing pornography at an average age of 11.
The show also revealed that a third of teenagers learn about sex through watching pornography, supporting McKee’s view of pornography as a form of education. The programme argued, however, that the unrealistic and often harmful impressions of sex created by pornography make it far from classroom material. Pornography rarely promotes safe sex, for example, while the fantasy element means that is not necessarily appropriate preparation for sexual encounters in the real world.
The sheer volume and lack of regulation in the wide world of pornographic imagery is one of its biggest negatives. A tame example is of cartoon images from an issue of Hustler showing ‘a cartoon of a construction worker drilling a jackhammer into a woman’s vagina, and one depicting a woman being fed through a meat grinder’. With the internet being the main source for the majority of consumers, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make sure everything online is legal.
The ethics of pornography are another factor to consider; the number of viewers who know whether the actors have been coerced into taking part. Pornography is also implicated as a possible motive for human trafficking, and some say it fuels sexual dysfunction through desensitising viewers.