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Pornography from a scientific atheist perspective

I reblogged this from the author William Hamby

The American Humanist Association has made a call for non-believers to weigh in on the topic of pornography. To be sure, it’s a controversial topic. More than a few non-believers feel that pornography is harmful or degrading to women, or that it increases sex related crime. On the other hand, many believe that it is healthy, normal, and even has positive effects on both individual and societal levels.

Thankfully, there is a good bit of hard science at our disposal, and we can examine specific claims both for and against pornography by testing the predictions made by both sides. To begin with, let’s look at the most common claims about the negative impacts of porn:

Porn Leads to Crime

Some people claim that the widespread availability of porn contributes to increased sex crimes such as rape and sexual assault. This claim has been thoroughly tested and completely debunked. The actual data is crystal clear. In every society studied, increased availability of porn either coincided with a decrease in sex crimes or had no effect. (Diamond 2009) Even more challenging to the anti-porn position, it has been consistently shown that decreasing access to porn actually increases the rates of rape and sexual assault. (Kimmel and Linders 1996)

The study of convicted criminals is especially powerful. It turns out that rapists are significantly more likely to have been punished as children for looking at porn. (Goldstein and Kant 1973) The fact that most criminals have viewed porn is statistically meaningless since virtually all men have viewed porn, and it has already been well established that porn availability decreases sex crime if it has any effect at all.

To put a firm number on the claim, a 2006 survey found that in the U.S. from the 1970s, when porn was available only in adult theaters or “back room” magazine shops, to the 1990s, when it was available for free on virtually any computer in the country, rapes per capita have dropped more than 85%, with the largest drop occurring in the 20-34 age range. Notably, this is the population which used the internet and porn the most in the same period. (Fahrenthold 2006)

A second study reiterated the finding:

The incidence of rape in the United States has declined 85% in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. The Nixon and Reagan Commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials produced social violence. The reverse may be true: that pornography has reduced social violence (D’Amato, 2006)

Porn is Degrading to Women

While many people are willing to admit that porn doesn’t directly contribute to crimes against women, they insist that it is degrading to women, or that it causes men to devalue women. It’s a very powerful claim with significant support among Muslim, Christian conservatives and liberal feminists alike. The thing is, it doesn’t hold up to the evidence. In fact, it appears that porn usage may actually contribute to increased valuation of women!

In three separate studies combining results from numerous national opinion polls, scientists have found that men who viewed an X-rated porn in the last year actually had better opinions of women and displayed less misogynist attitudes than men who had not viewed a porn. (Padget et al. 1989, Reiss 1986, Reiss 2006)

To put it even more succinctly, a 2006 comprehensive review of current science on the subject found that “there was no detectable relationship of the amount of exposure to pornography and any measure of misogynist attitudes. No researcher or critic has found the opposite, that exposure to pornography – by any definition – has had a cause and effect relationship between exposure to SEM and ill feelings or actions against women. No correlation has even been found between exposure to porn and calloused attitudes toward women.” (Diamond 2009)

To add final closure to the argument, two researchers performed an experiment specifically designed to provoke men to negative, agressive, and violent attitudes towards women and found that even violent porn had no measurable effect. (Fisher and Grenier 1994) Even violent porn’s popularity or pervasiveness is highly suspect. In a study in which men could choose the themes for porn viewing, the overwhelming majority chose sexual situations with women displaying consent, engagement, and pleasure. Only 4% chose violent themes. (Bogaert 1993)

Porn is Exploitative

Opponents of porn often cite the exploitive nature of the porn industry. They suggest that large numbers of women are “forced” into the industry and then remain trapped there as a result of manipulative “pimps” or producers, low wages, or shame.

To begin with, it must be noted that whether critics realize it or not, this is not a criticism of porn. It is a criticism of the industry. Even granting that such exploitation does exist, we must note that there are plenty of degrading and exploitive jobs in America that do not involve sex. Ask anyone who’s been stuck working at a fast food place for fifteen years after dropping out of high school.

In America, it’s highly questionable whether exploitation of female performers exists in any significant measure. In fact, legitimate porn producers pay rather spectacular rates when compared to any other “unskilled” work. Though pay rates vary significantly per scene, from as little as $200 for oral sex to over $2000 for anal sex, there is no debate that women make far more than men. More importantly, many women net well over $100,000 per year — plenty enough money to start a new career with a nice nest egg in reserve. (As reported by porn star Ron Jeremy.) It’s worth asking which is more exploitive, working 40+ hours for minimum wage or working 2-3 hours for $2000 per hour.

As a final observation, we should note that if women in America are indeed being “forced” into porn, it’s not because of the evils of porn. It’s because there are very few jobs other than porn which pay living wages for women with little or no education and bills to pay.

Additional Thoughts

When we examine the topic of porn from the perspective of scientific literature, the evidence is clear: The use of pornography does not lead to increased crime or negative male attitudes towards women. It is not inherently an exploitive industry. There’s good evidence that it actually decreases crime and increases positive attitudes towards women.

Still, there is a discussion to be had regarding women’s attitudes towards their own participation in filming porn. The internet is filled with stories from women with negative experiences in the porn industry, and there are plenty of women who will assert that they could not “lower themselves” to doing that kind of work.

At some point, we must begin asking whether these attitudes are reflections of an inherently harmful or degrading property of filming sex, or whether it might be more a commentary on the general attitude towards women’s sexuality in our society. There is reason to believe that religious — specifically Christian — ideas about women’s sexuality contribute more to the disapproval of making porn than anything about the porn itself. A recent study of a similar profession — prostitution — revealed a startling fact. Women with good education, financial prospects, and no particular reason to “have to” become prostitutes are voluntarily choosing the world’s oldest profession anyway. (LINK) Why would they do this? In a nutshell, more job satisfaction than any of the alternatives.

Furthermore, recent studies demonstrate that people who have left Christianity have experienced a significant increase in sex-positive attitudes, enjoyment of sex, and willingness to experiment with various sexual fantasies, including making porn videos. (LINK) On the other side, there are numerous studies which clearly demonstrate a causal link between Christian sexual values and guilt/shame responses, sexual dysfunction, and reluctance to experiment (LINK)

These observations raise a very pointed question: If the objection to making porn is the idea that it is a “shameful” occupation, and sexual shame is a direct result of Christian sexual values, is it not proper to say that Christianity is at least significantly responsible for our attitude that porn is a shameful occupation for women? More importantly, since Christianity is demonstrably misogynist and sex-negative (LINK) and such attitudes are directly linked to sexual dysfunction, should we not begin with the assumption that their proclamations about porn are highly suspect?

There is certainly more to the porn conversation than the topics addressed here, but the scientific facts demand a high standard of argument from any who would insist on condemning it. If it does not lead to crime, and it actually increases favorable attitudes towards women in men, what is left to criticize? If women are choosing to make porn, are making more than men, and report enjoying their work, whence comes the claim of exploitation? We must at least entertain the idea that all the hooplah over porn as a shameful and bad industry is a reflection of our incorrect Christian moral assumptions, not any demonstrable negative effect discovered by science.

Sources:

Milton Diamond, Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: A review, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Volume 32, Issue 5, September–October 2009

M.S. Kimmel, A. Linders, Does censorship make a difference: an aggregate empirical analysis of pornography and rape, Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 8 (3) (1996), pp. 1–20

M.J. Goldstein, H.S. Kant, Pornography and sexual deviance, A Report of the Legal and Behavioral Institute, University of California Press, Berkeley (1973)

D.A. Fahrenthold, Rape rate declining in U.S., study finds: But numbers are in dispute and crime often goes unreported, The Washington Post (2006, 18 June)

A. D’Amato, Porn up, rape down, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 913013 (June 23) (2006)

V.R. Padget, J.A. Brislin-Slutz, J.A. Neal, Pornography, erotica, and attitudes toward women: the effects of repeated exposure, The Journal of Sex Research, 26 (1989), pp. 479–491

I.L. Reiss, Journey into Sexuality: An exploratory voyage, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ (1986)

I.L. Reiss, An Insider’s view of Sexual Science since Kinsey, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD (2006)

W.A. Fisher, G. Grenier, Violent pornography, antiwomon thoughts, and antiwoman acts: in search of reliable effects, Journal of Sex Research, 31 (1) (1994)

A.F. Bogaert, The sexual media: the role of individual differences, University of Western Ontario, London (1993)

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