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Pornography Probably Isn't Hurting Women After All, According to Extensive Study

There exists a radical feminist theory that you may have heard before, and it goes something like this: Pornography serves to further the subordination of women by training its users, males and females alike, to view women as little more than sex objects. This theory is finally debunked after long sex research.

This isn’t something new, as radical feminism has long been at odds with liberal views on sex and pornography, and even more so in recent years with a new wave of puritanism. The statement is generally made that porn is damaging to women and even society at large, citing anything from rapes to murders as proof of the media’s effect on our minds. Many of our readers might have heard of the term “rape culture”, the idea that society allows and actually endorses the rape of women through its culture. While quite false, the notion is still present with radical feminists, remaining a prominent piece of their manifesto. It’s an oddly conservative view from those who would label themselves liberal, but is there any shred of truth to it?

Many studies seek that truth, hoping to corroborate theories on the topic. Whether those studies simply look for confirmation bias, only seeking evidence that will complement their position or whether they just look at the facts – is down to the researcher. Some such studies, according to the Journal of Sex Research (JSR), only employ “relatively small samples of self-selected undergraduate students or non-student pornography users.” One such study by Pagdgett (et al.) employed a miniscule 66 participants. The JSR rightfully refer to this as “underpowered”, unfit for purpose. This is unsurprising; many modern studies employ these techniques to sway results with small sample sizes, deliberate selection, misleading questions, or even just outright fudging results. Most studies that take the view of radical feminism and pornography generally assume that sexist attitudes are directly linked to depictions in pornography. According to the JSR, however, these studies “rarely assess attitudes toward gender equality specifically.” In other words, they dance around the subject.

For some background, the Journal for Sex Research (JSR) is a peer reviewed academic journal that covers human sexology in general. It is currently ranked 2nd out of 92 journals in the social sciences category, making it one of the most respected and trusted sources available on the topic. The recently published study titled “Is Pornography Really About Making Hate to Women?” covers the much debated theory that pornography has a detrimental impact on women. This view is argued most prominently by radical feminists such as Diamond & Longingo, who stated that pornography depicts women as “anonymous, panting playthings, adult toys, dehumanized objects to be used, broken and discarded.” Sounds like your average BDSM session honestly, which is quite consensual. In general, much the same as the JSR would likely attest, the consensus that women are inferior in some way is mainly held by feminists. Evidence for this theory comes from a recent study in 2009, which “suggested that pornography use is associated with less progressive gender roles among women but not among men.”

However, the JSR found that these studies have generally “failed to find any impact of pornography exposure on participant’s attitudes towards gender inequality.” In one particularly telling study, researchers actually attempted to manipulate the way the tests were administered, hoping to encourage reductionism . For those unaware, reductionism is the attempt to simplify complex information by only studying the most basic understanding. This is usually linked with the minimization or distortion of facts, oversimplifying the problem to its own detriment. The study however, still found no impact towards sexist attitudes and porn. According to the JSR, any evidence that would substantiate radical feminist theory “remains inconsistent”.

In response, the JSR conducted their own investigation into the subject, producing the paper that I’m discussing right now. They first considered the feminist variable; if porn was likely to cause sexism and inequality, it would stand to reason that viewers would be less likely to consider themselves feminists. For the basis of the study, sexism was viewed as “holding negative attitudes to women in positions of power, working outside the home, and access to abortion and positive attitudes towards a traditional family.” While the last one is debatable in its relevance to sexism, the others are reasonable conditions for judgement. The data for the study was produced in 2011 and drawn from the General Social Survey (GSS), which asked core questions to 11,000 men and 14,000 women.

The study found that through individual level analysis, porn usage correlated more with younger, less religious people with more liberal attitudes towards sexuality for both men and women. The study also found, as an interesting point, that the vast majority of the American public do not identify as feminist (around 86% of men and 70% of women). This is also noteworthy as pornography use was not related to feminist identifying participants, suggesting that the percentage of radical feminists who oppose pornography is in fact in single digits, if that. The results of the other questions posed to participants were a rather glaring contradiction to the idea that pornography is at all harmful. This correlates with recent news that sexual violence, and violence in general, has fallen significantly over the years. Much in the same way video games do not cause violence or may even mitigate violence, pornography usage does not correlate and may even alleviate sexual violence. This is of course a theory derived from the data available, but it cannot be denied as porn usage has gone up, violence in general has gone down.

In general, these results show that in each category sexist attitudes were fairly similar between sexes, and actually less likely to be held by porn users. While this is likely unexpected from radical feminists, these results are actually corroborated by a small number of empirical studies. Baron (1990), for example, found a moderate correlation between soft-core pornography magazine availability and gender equality in that state. In addition, Baron found that individuals who had viewed porn within the last year were more supportive of egalitarianism. Similarly with Padgett’s study, male patrons of adult movie theatres held positive attitudes towards women on aggregate. This does contradict a recent study (2013) by Hald and colleagues, which only focused on men and is thus inconclusive that pornography causes general sexist attitudes towards women by both genders. In order for such a proposition to be true (that pornography negatively impacts women) it would need to be found among both sexes and not just men. Perhaps the study itself was sexist?

In conclusion, the JSR have proven quite conclusively that pornography and sexist attitudes are not linked. There simply isn’t enough evidence in the inconsistent and possibly biased studies like those put forward by Hald. Much the same, the JSR concluded that “pornography may not be associated with non-egalitarian attitudes towards women.” While this is a research journal and thus must remain open to new information, its studies appear to be quite thorough. If we are to be logical about it, those who would watch porn generally hold less religious views and are generally less conservative. It would make sense, then, that the more open-minded individuals who would use porn are more likely to be open-minded in other areas too. To quote Marilyn Monroe, “sex is a part of nature. I go along with nature.” Maybe we all should too.

If you’re interested in a full read of the published article by the JSR you can find it here, which carries all references to studies or books made in this article. The paper is in a PDF format that is free to download.

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