Nope, people watching porn isn’t a ‘public health crisis’ 17

The torrent of sexual abuse revelations that started with the exposure of systemic sexual harassment in Hollywood, and since spread to many other industries has put a spotlight on the discussion around the causes of such behaviors. The temptation to find a magic bullet solution is strong, but almost always misguided. Perhaps if we could just get rid of this one terrible thing, the problem would be solved.

In a recent LA Times piece, porn, once again, is set directly in the sights of this bullet. “Pornography consumption is a public health crisis,” it decries without any robust evidence to support the assertion, before arguing that recognizing this would be “one of the most effective ways to attack the problem” of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the US.

Cherry picking from a narrow set of papers to bolster what could well be a biased view, however, does little to advance any debate. Research into how porn affects us is ongoing, not least because the nature of pornography itself is changing at such a rapid pace it is almost impossible for empirical research to keep up. It most certainly isn’t as cut and dry as anyone that wants to lay the blame solely on porn would have you believe.

The impact of pornography

The idea that simply observing pornography makes people more sexually aggressive is not what current wisdom tells us. In fact, there is plenty of research to suggest watching porn can be beneficial for many people. For example, it has been shown to be associated with feeling less repressed and more open-minded about sex, increased tolerance of others’ sexualities, educational insights, finding an identity and/or community, and improved sex-related communication between partners.

In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that increased availability of porn is associated with a reduction in sexual assault. A review of the literature, published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, stated that “availability of pornography is linked to a decrease in sex crimes ranging from rape to exhibitionism.” Again, this is not representative of all the research, which offers a much more nuanced and complex picture.

While the debate continues, what seems clear is the role of agency in sexual aggression. Numerous individual attributes have been identified as present in people who choose to carry out sexually aggressive or violent acts, including impulsivity, a tendency to objectify others, and disinhibition. Various social and environmental influences have also been identified. There is no robust evidence, however, that watching porn leads to sexual assault. Pornography that people produce and consume is more likely a reflection of society at large, rather than the key factor that determines how people ultimately act.

Porn can be a problem

Watching porn can, of course, become problematic . But is it the porn itself that’s the problem? Rather than blame porn, we must consider what purpose the pornography is serving. Is the compulsion to watch porn a symptom of a more serious underlying problem like, for example, hypersexuality? If you removed the pornography, what other ways would these problems find to manifest themselves? We need to examine the reasons why people overindulge in pornography in the first instance instead of viewing it as a root cause of the problems some people are facing.

Stigmatizing and shaming attitudes can make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for people to seek help for problematic porn consumption. These attitudes also have the potential to cause clinically significant symptoms in those who consume pornography in a healthy and often developmentally important way. Indeed, once these damaging beliefs filter through all of society, they bias everyone’s perspectives, including anyone working to help people with problematic pornography use.

In reality, the vast majority of people that watch porn do not commit sexually aggressive crimes, nor do they become ‘addicted’ by any clinical measure. What might be more useful than declaring porn a public health risk is research that focuses on the specific elements of this phenomenon that might directly affect behavior, including predictive risk factors at an individual level. Shaming and pathologizing otherwise normal human behavior and, ultimately, blaming pornography for sexual aggression simply distracts us from taking individual responsibility.

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I’m Butros and I’m interested in how technology is shaping us. I’m based in London and you can get in touch with me on Twitter at ButrosButrosK.

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