Pornography Exposure Effects

For as long as people have been able to draw and write, they have created pornography. Greek vases and Roman brothels contain ancient, sexually explicit images. Modern technologies for delivering sexually explicit images, such as the Internet, have made pornography ubiquitous. The affordability, accessibility, and anonymity of Internet pornography have also proved a boon to the industry. The total market for adult material in the United States is now estimated to be $13 billion a year.

The subjective experience of viewing sexually explicit materials and societal reactions to their availability are characterized by shifting definitions and mores. Over the past 150 years, concern about the psychological effects of exposure to pornography on the viewer’s character, morality, and, lately, tendency to engage in sexually violent behavior has driven social/legal policy as well as social science research on the problem of pornography.

Psychological investigations have focused on how the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by exposure to sexually explicit messages. To understand pornography research, it is useful to consider it in the context of the debate about pornography’s effects in society. The terms of this debate have often framed the research agenda. One way of organizing the theory and research on the effects of sexually explicit material is by the normative concepts pornography, erotica, and obscenity. The term obscene is derived from the Latin ob, meaning “to,” and caenum, meaning “filth.” Obscenity has traditionally been associated with filth and offensiveness, disgust, shame, and the idea of insulting or breaching an accepted communitymoral standard. Pornography is derived from the Greek porne, meaning “whore,” and graphein, meaning “to write.” Pornography then literally means the “writing of harlots” or the depiction of women as prostitutes. Erotica, derived from the Greek god Eros, refers to sexual love. It is often used to refer to literary or artistic works that have a sexual quality or theme.

The Obscenity Theoretical Perspective

Currently, the law in the United States is organized around a test formulated for obscenity fashioned by the Supreme Court in 1973, which emphasizes the filth and offensiveness, disgust and shame associated with viewing sexually explicit materials. The test states that the basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be (a) whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (defined as a “shameful, morbid, unhealthy interest in sex”); (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

This test with its focus on community standards has meant that magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse may be banned in towns with conservative values. Theoretically, the decision makes every local community the arbiter of what is acceptable. Both the prosecution and the defense are entitled to introduce evidence during an obscenity prosecution regarding the types of depictions a given community will accept given the current social climate, social mores, and so on. The evidence of community standards may include expert testimony, surveys, and comparable materials.

The social-psychological research on perceptions of community standards for sexually explicit depictions has involved several communities across the United States and has found considerable slippage between community sentiment and legal actors’ presumptions. In a few studies, community residents were randomly assigned to view sexually explicit films charged in obscenity cases. The results showed that residents believed, contrary to prosecutors, that sexually explicit films charged in the case do not appeal to a morbid unhealthy interest in sex and are not patently offensive. The community members indicate that they would be substantially less accepting of sexually explicit materials, however, if they contained rape and bondage, and they show no acceptance of child actors. Other research has confirmed that the majority of residents randomly selected from the community do not judge materials before the court to appeal to a prurient interest in sex and have tolerance for such materials. A lower percentage of people believe that others in the community tolerated the materials they personally found acceptable.

Psychological research has been conducted on the idea that exposure to sexually explicit materials insults or breaches an accepted moral standard and that these materials induce greater promiscuity and a loss of respect for marriage and fidelity and other traditional moral values. This research has attempted to test the hypothesis derived from the “obscenity” theoretical perspective that exposure to sexually explicit material has a corrosive effect on men’s relationships with women and a negative impact on male intimacy and sexual performance and satisfaction within marriage.

The survey research suggests that people who report being happily married are less likely to report using Internet pornography. This research supports the idea that married women may be distressed by their husbands’ use of sexually explicit material and that this may threaten the stability of their marriage. The survey data by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in Chicago, Illinois, regarding the impact of Internet usage on marriages indicate that the Internet had been a significant factor in divorces they had handled during the past year and that a majority of divorce cases involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic Web sites.

Decreased sexual satisfaction with traditional sexual relationships has also been observed after exposure to sexually explicit materials. One study looked at the impact of consuming nonviolent pornographic material on male and female participants drawn from college and nonstudent populations from a Midwestern city. As part of the study, participants were exposed to either pornographic or innocuous, nonpornographic content in hourly sessions for six consecutive weeks. In the seventh week, participants were asked to rate their personal happiness regarding various domains of experience and the relative importance of gratifying experiences. The results showed that exposure to pornography negatively affected self-assessment of sexual experience. The male and female participants reported less satisfaction with their intimate partner generally and with their partner’s affection, physical appearance, sexual curiosity, and sexual performance. Additionally, the participants who were repeatedly exposed to pornographic material assigned increased importance to sexual relations without emotional involvement.

The proponents of the obscenity/traditional moral values theoretical perspective have also attempted research into whether the compulsive behavior associated with repeated exposure to sexually explicit materials is psychologically damaging. This research is inconclusive, and there is skepticism among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals regarding the case for including pornography addiction as a mental disorder.

Theoretical Perspectives on Pornography

Some feminists have argued that pornography both discriminates against women and provokes violence against women. Catherine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin proposed not a criminal obscenity law but an antidiscrimination civil law designed to confront pornography. As an alternative to obscenity law, several communities revised their discrimination laws to reflect this concern. Such a law was adopted in Indianapolis in 1984. The law declared that works that portrayed the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women, whether in pictures or in words, were pornographic if they also included scenes or pictures in which women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or are tied up, cut up, or mutilated or in which women are presented as being dominated, violated, exploited, or possessed through postures or positions of servility or submission. Women could sue on behalf of all women or a group or themselves for damages.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law was unconstitutionally vague and that the kind of expression it sought to bar was protected by the First Amendment. The court noted that under the Indianapolis law, sexually explicit speech or expression is pornography or not depending on the perspective of the author; this is viewpoint discrimination. According to the court, speech that subordinates women is pornography no matter how great the literary or political value of the work. On the other hand, according to the law, speech that portrays women in positions of equality is lawful no matter how graphic the sexual conduct.

Research testing feminist sociolegal theory has examined pornography’s effect on attitudes that justify violence against women, such as rape myth acceptance, and undermine viewer sensitivity to victims of rape and violence. The research literature examining the association between acceptance of rape myths and exposure to pornography has been examined in a meta-analysis. This analysis shows that nonexperimental studies show almost no effect—exposure to pornography does not increase rape myth acceptance. The laboratory experimental studies have found that exposure to pornography does increase rape myth acceptance; however, this effect occurs primarily for violent pornography rather than nonviolent pornography. The generalization of the finding causes some concern because of the difference demonstrated between experimental and nonexperimental research.

Neil Malamuth and his colleagues have conducted research testing feminist sociolegal theory that has also examined sexual arousal to depictions of rape. A series of studies examining the effects of exposure to sexual violence in the media on perceptions of rape victims have been conducted. Specifically, these studies have been concerned with the impact of positive- versus negative-outcome rape in pornographic portrayals. These studies have generally taken the following form: Male subjects were either exposed to depictions of mutually consenting sex, a rape in which the female victim eventually becomes aroused (positive outcome), or rape that is abhorred (negative outcome) by the victim. Afterward, the subjects were shown a rape depiction and asked about their perceptions of the act and the victim. The males exposed to the positive rape portrayal perceive the second rape as less negative and more normal than those first exposed to other depictions. The researchers have also con-ducted studies that have asked male subjects how they think women in general would react to being victimized by sexual violence. Those first exposed to a positive rape portrayal believed that a higher percentage of women would derive pleasure from being sexually assaulted. The effect of the portrayal was particularly apparent in men with self-reported inclinations to aggress against women.

Edward Donnerstein and his colleagues have conducted research on the effects of exposure to pornography on aggressive behavior. Meta-analytic reviews have been undertaken of the effect of exposure to pornography on aggressive behavior under laboratory conditions, considering a variety of possible moderating variables, such as level of sexual arousal, level of prior anger, type of pornography, gender of subject, gender of target of aggression, and medium used to convey the sexually explicit message. The results demonstrated that nudity actually reduces subsequent aggressive behavior, that consumption of pornography depicting nonviolent sexual activity increases aggressive behavior slightly, but that media depictions of violent sexual activity generate more aggression than depictions of nonviolent sexual activity. No other moderator variable produced homogeneous findings in the meta-analysis.

The data collected from women participating in a battered women’s program have also been examined to determine whether pornography use increases the probability that battered women will be sexually abused by their partners. This research shows that certain disinhibitory factors, such as alcohol use, mediate or exacerbate the effects of pornography on sexual violence. Compared with batterers who do not use pornography and alcohol, the combination of alcohol and pornography does increase the odds of sexual abuse.

This theoretical perspective has also fueled research on discriminatory and sexually aggressive behavior. The research shows that short-term exposure to nonviolent sexual media stimuli can produce cognitive changes in men that, in turn, can affect attitudes toward women. Daniel Linz and colleagues tested whether viewing these materials affects their judgment of women in subsequent face-to-face interactions. Sex-typed men and non-sex-typed men viewed one of three equally stimulating films: sexually explicit and degrading, sexually explicit and nondegrading, and nonsex. After the viewing, the men interacted with women and then evaluated their partners’ intellectual competence and sexual interest. The results indicated that men’s sex role orientation moderated the film effects for men’s evaluations of their female partners’ intellectual competence and sexual interest.

High pornography use is not necessarily indicative of high risk of sexual aggression unless other variables come into play. The combination of sexually explicit media with personality variables has also been examined within this theoretical perspective. Research by Neil Malamuth and his colleagues suggests that pornography is most likely to affect behavior when two streams of dispositional variables, one labeled “sexual promiscuity” (measured by the number of times an individual has had sexual intercourse and age at the time of the first intercourse) and the other “hostile masculinity” (a general sense of hostility as well as more specific hostility toward women), coalesce. Among men classified as being relatively low risk for sexual aggression on the basis of their levels of hostile masculinity and sexual promiscuity, there is only a minor difference between those who report sexual aggression and differing levels of pornography use. For men who were previously determined to be at high risk for sexual aggression based on hostile masculinity and sexual promiscuity, research has shown that those who are additionally very frequent users of pornography were much more likely to have engaged in sexual aggression than their counterparts who consume pornography less frequently.

This perspective has also generated research on the more general culture of violence against women cultivated by the media. Daniel Linz and his colleagues have conducted research on the effects of “slasher” films, films that often juxtapose sex and violence for male and female victims and that pair sexiness with the torture and death of female victims. Men who repeatedly viewed movies depicting violence against women came to have fewer negative emotional reactions to the films, to consider them as significantly less violent, and to consider them less degrading to women. It has also been found that there is a tendency for the desensitization to filmed violence against women to spill over into subjects’ judgments of female victims in other contexts. Men who were exposed to large doses of filmed violence against women judged the victim of violent assault and rape to be significantly less injured than did the control groups.

The Liberal Normative Theory

This perspective emphasizes that the free flow of ideas is so valuable to the discovery of sexual truths and erotic art and literature that it should be interrupted only when a grave harm to another person occurs as a result of exposure to sex-related materials. The threshold for censorship should be set high to guard against frivolous attempts to censor ideas that are taboo now but may be acceptable later. This position emphasizes that as long as the recipient of sexually explicit messages restricts his or her behavior to private actions, such as sexual fantasy, or only acts on these ideas with a consenting partner, society has no right to interfere. For example, only if it can be shown that consumption of sex depictions is causally related to rape or other violent crimes can the government regulate such depictions. No effect short of these direct threats of violence is sufficient justification for society to interfere with the individual’s right to view sex-related materials and with the right of others to produce it. This position embraces findings such as the meta-analyses focusing on the use of pornography by convicted sex offenders, as compared with men from the noncriminal general population. Studies have examined several types of dependent measures, including frequency of pornography use, age at first exposure, the degree to which pornography was a prelude to some sexual act, and degree of sexual arousal. The findings showed a slight difference but not one that was judged to be reliable.

This theory of freedom of expression has led to concerns with methodological problems in laboratory studies on the effects of sexually explicit materials. For example, in the laboratory, only attitudes toward rape or, at best, physiological arousal can be measured, not, of course, actual rapes. However, these critics point out, when privately consumed, pornography is often associated with masturbation or consenting sex, and thus, laboratory settings may be dissimilar to the typical experience with pornography. By attempting to simply arouse subjects in the laboratory, such studies ignore completely the potential that pornography consumption and masturbation may serve as a substitute for rape that results from the use of pornography to release sexual tension.

These critics note that the incidence of rape in the United States has actually declined in the past 25 years, while pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults through the Internet. Studies have shown, for example, that while the nationwide incidence of rape was showing a drastic decline, the incidence of rape in the four states having the least access to the Internet showed an increase over the same time period. The four states having the most access to the Internet have shown declines in rape. More sophisticated analyses controlling for offender age have found that the effect of the Internet on rape is concentrated among those for whom access to the Internet is greatest—males aged 15 to 19 years. They have also found that the advent of the Internet was associated with a reduction in rape incidence. However, the growth in Internet usage has had no apparent effect on other crimes.


  1. Allen, M., D’Alessio, D., & Emmers-Sommer, T. M. (2000). Reactions of criminal sexual offenders to pornography: A meta-analytic summary. In Roloff (Ed.), Communication yearbook 22 (pp. 139-169). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Allen, M. D., Emmers, T. M., Gebhardt, L., & Giery, M. (1995). Pornography and rape myth acceptance. Journal of Communication, 45, 5-26.
  3. Linz, D., & Malamuth, N. (1993). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  4. Linz, D. G., Donnerstein, E., & Penrod, S. (1988). Effects of long-term exposure to violent and sexually degrading depictions of women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 758-768.
  5. Malamuth, N. M., Addison, T., & Koss, M. (2000). Pornography and sexual aggression: Are there reliable effects and can we understand them? Annual Review of Sex Research, 11, 26-91.

See also: