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The Effects of Pornography on Individuals, Marriage, Family, and Community
By Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D.
Pornography is a visual representation of sexuality which distorts an individual’s concept of the nature of conjugal relations. This, in turn, alters both sexual attitudes and behavior. It is a major threat to marriage, to family, to children and to individual happiness. In undermining marriage it is one of the factors in undermining social stability.
Social scientists, clinical psychologists, and biologists have begun to clarify some of the social and psychological effects, and neurologists are beginning to delineate the biological mechanisms through which pornography produces its powerful negative effects.
Key Findings on the Effects of Pornography
The Family and Pornography
· Married men who are involved in pornography feel less satisfied with their conjugal relations and less emotionally attached to their wives. Wives notice and are upset by the difference.
· Pornography use is a pathway to infidelity and divorce, and is frequently a major factor in these family disasters.
· Among couples affected by one spouse’s addiction, two-thirds experience a loss of interest in sexual intercourse.
· Both spouses perceive pornography viewing as tantamount to infidelity.
· Pornography viewing leads to a loss of interest in good family relations.
The Individual and Pornography
· Pornography is addictive, and neuroscientists are beginning to map the biological substrate of this addiction.
· Users tend to become desensitized to the type of pornorgraphy they use, become bored with it, and then seek more perverse forms of pornography.
· Men who view pornography regularly have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexuality, including rape, sexual aggression, and sexual promiscuity.
· Prolonged consumption of pornography by men produces stronger notions of women as commodities or as “sex objects.”
· Pornography engenders greater sexual permissiveness, which in turn leads to a greater risk of out-of-wedlock births and STDs. These, in turn, lead to still more weaknesses and debilities.
· Child-sex offenders are more likely to view pornography regularly or to be involved in its distribution.
Other Effects of Pornography
· Many adolescents who view pornography initially feel shame, diminished self-confidence, and sexual uncertainty, but these feelings quickly shift to unadulterated enjoyment with regular viewing.
· The presence of sexually oriented businesses significantly harms the surrounding community, leading to increases in crime and decreases in property values.
· The main defenses against pornography are close family life, a good marriage and good relations between parents and children, coupled with deliberate parental monitoring of Internet use. Traditionally, government has kept a tight lid on sexual traffic and businesses, but in matters of pornography that has waned almost completely, except where child pornography is concerned. Given the massive, deleterious individual, marital, family, and social effects of pornography, it is time for citizens, communities, and government to reconsider their laissez-faire approach.
THE EFFECTS OF PORNOGRAPHY ON INDIVIDUALS, MARRIAGE, FAMILY, AND COMMUNITY
Pornography, as a visual (mis)representation of sexuality, distorts an individual’s concept of sexual relations by objectifying them, which, in turn, alters both sexual attitudes and behavior. It is a major threat to marriage, to family, to children, and to individual happiness.
Social scientists, clinical psychologists, and biologists have begun to clarify some of the social and psychological effects of pornography, and neurologists are beginning to delineate the biological mechanisms through which pornography produces its powerful effects on people.
Pornography’s power to undermine individual and social functioning is powerful and deep.
·Effect on the Mind: Pornography significantly distorts attitudes and perceptions about the nature of sexual intercourse. Men who habitually look at pornography have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexual behaviors, sexual aggression, promiscuity, and even rape. In addition, men begin to view women and even children as “sex objects,” commodities or instruments for their pleasure, not as persons with their own inherent dignity.
·Effect on the Body: Pornography is very addictive. The addictive aspect of pornography has a biological substrate, with dopamine hormone release acting as one of the mechanisms for forming the transmission pathway to pleasure centers of the brain. Also, the increased sexual permissiveness engendered by pornography increases the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or of being an unwitting parent in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
·Effect on the Heart: Pornography affects people’s emotional lives. Married men who are involved in pornography feel less satisfied with their marital sexual relations and less emotionally attached to their wives. Women married to men with a pornography addiction report feelings of betrayal, mistrust, and anger. Pornographic use may lead to infidelity and even divorce. Adolescents who view pornography feel shame, diminished self-confidence, and sexual uncertainty.
The conjugal act—the act of sexual intercourse—brings humanity into existence and sets in motion the next generations of society. Sexual intercourse, like atomic energy, is a powerful agent for good if channeled well, but for ill if not. Healthy societies maintain their stability by channeling the sexual energies of young adults into marriage, an institution that legitimizes sexual intercourse, protects the children that are the fruit of intercourse, and channels the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure in a way that builds up rather than tears down society. Sexual taboos are one set of the normal mechanisms of social control of the sexual appetite. They are analogous to the control rods of a nuclear reactor plant: they block the sexual from straying off course and into destructive pathways.
One of the biggest tasks of adolescent members of all society is to come to grips with their burgeoning sexuality. Some have always tested the limits of sexual expression even when strong social controls were in place. In well-ordered societies, such testing triggers immediate social sanctions from parents, mentors, and community.
In today’s media-saturated society, these sanctions operate in fewer and fewer quarters. A substantial factor in this shift has been the growth of digital media and the Internet. This “digital revolution” has led to great strides in productivity, communication, and other desirable ends, but pornographers also have harnessed its power for their profit. The cost has been a further weakening of the nation’s citizens and families, a development that should be of grave concern to all. The social sciences demonstrate the appropriateness of this concern.
Two recent reports, one by the American Psychological Association on hyper-sexualized girls, and the other by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy on the pornographic content of phone texting among teenagers, make clear that the digital revolution is being used by younger and younger children to dismantle the barriers that channel sexuality into family life.
Pornography hurts adults, children, couples, families, and society. Among adolescents, pornography hinders the development of a healthy sexuality, and among adults, it distorts sexual attitudes and social realities. In families, pornography use leads to marital dissatisfaction, infidelity, separation, and divorce. Society at large is not immune to the effect of pornography. Child sex-offenders, for example, are often involved not only in the viewing, but also in the distribution, of pornography.
Pornography is powerful enough even to overwhelm individuals, couples, and families despite earlier affectionate relationships—whether between the mother and father or between the parents and the child. But loving family relationships can help mute many of the factors that encourage the use of pornography long before its addictive power takes root in a user’s life.
The effect of regular viewing of pornography on marriage and family is dealt with first, for there its greatest damage to the innocent can be seen. Then the source of this damage is reviewed: the effects on the individual user, his psyche, and his behavior. Adolescent usage, patterns, and effects are then delineated, for during this period the habit of viewing pornography is often developed in stages. Finally the effects of sexually-oriented-businesses on their local environs are reviewed.
The Consequences of Viewing Pornography
Pornography has significant effects during all stages of family life. For a child exposed to pornography within a family setting, pornography causes stress and increases the risk for developing negative attitudes about the nature and purpose of human sexuality. For adolescents who view pornography, their attitudes toward their own and others’ sexuality change, and their sexual expectations and behavior are shaped accordingly. For adults, pornography has harmful and even destructive effects on marriage.
Impact on Children
The impact of a parent’s use of pornography on young children is varied and disturbing. Pornography eliminates the warmth of affectionate family life, which is the natural social nutrient for a growing child. Other losses and traumas related to the use of pornography when a child is young include:
· encountering pornographic material a parent has acquired;
· encountering a parent masturbating;
· overhearing a parent engaged in “phone sex”;
· witnessing and experiencing stress in the home caused by online sexual activities;
· increased risk of the children becoming consumers of pornography themselves;
· witnessing and being involved in parental conflict;
· exposure to the commodification of human beings, especially women, as “sex objects”;
· increased risk of parental job loss and financial strain;
· increased risk of parental separation and divorce;
Impact on Adolescents
Pornography viewing among teenagers disorients them during that developmental phase when they have to learn how to handle their sexuality and when they are most vulnerable to uncertainty about their sexual beliefs and moral values. A study of 2,343 adolescents found that sexually explicit Internet material significantly increased their uncertainties about sexuality. The study also showed that increased exposure to sexually explicit Internet material increased favorable attitudes toward sexual exploration with others outside of marriage and decreased marital commitment to the other spouse. Another study by Todd G. Morrison, professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, and colleagues found that adolescents exposed to high levels of pornography had lower levels of sexual self-esteem.
Finally, viewing pornography can engender feelings of shame: In a study of high school students, the majority of those who had viewed pornography felt some degree of shame for viewing it. However, 36 percent of males and 26 percent of females said they were never ashamed of viewing pornography, giving some idea of the level of desensitization already reached in society.
High adolescent consumption of pornography also affects behavior. Male pornography use is linked to significantly increased sexual intercourse with non-romantic friends, and is likely a correlate of the so-called “hook-up” culture.
Exposure to pornographic sexual content can be a significant factor in teenage pregnancy. A three year longitudinal study of teenagers found that frequent exposure to televised sexual content was related to a substantially greater likelihood of teenage pregnancy within the succeeding three years. This same study also found that the likelihood of teenage pregnancy was two times greater when the quantity of that sexual content exposure, within the viewing episodes, was high rather than low.
Impact on Marriage
In many cases, the wives of pornography users also develop deep psychological wounds, commonly reporting feelings of betrayal, loss, mistrust, devastation, and anger in responses to the discovery or disclosure of a partner’s pornographic online sexual activity.
Wives can begin to feel unattractive or sexually inadequate and may become severely depressed when they realize their husbands view pornography. The distress level in wives may be so high as to require clinical treatment for trauma, not mere discomfort.
The emotional distance fostered by pornography and “cybersex” (interactive computer contact with another regarding pornographic sexual issues) can often be just as damaging to the relationship as real-life infidelity, and both men and women tend to put online sexual activity in the same category as having an affair. The estrangement between spouses wrought by pornography can have tangible consequences as well: when the viewing of pornography rises to the level of addiction, 40 percent of “sex addicts” lose their spouses, 58 percent suffer considerable financial losses, and about a third lose their jobs.
In a study on the effects of “cybersex”—a form of sexually explicit interaction between two people on the Internet—researchers found that more than half of those engaged in “cybersex” had lost interest in sexual intercourse, while one-third of their partners had lost interest as well, while in one-fifth of the couples both husband and wife or both partners had a significantly decreased interest in sexual intercourse. Stated differently, this study showed that only one-third of couples maintained an interest in sexual relations with one another when one partner was engaged in “cybersex.”
Prolonged exposure to pornography also fosters dissatisfaction with, and even distate for, a spouse’s affection. Cynical attitudes regarding love begin to emerge, and “superior sexual pleasures are thought attainable without affection toward partners.” These consequences hold for both men and women who have had prolonged exposure to pornography, with the decline in sexual happiness being primarily due to the growing dissatisfaction with the spouse’s normal sexual behavior.
Finally, pornography users increasingly see the institution of marriage as sexually confining, have diminished belief in the importance of marital faithfulness, and have increasing doubts about the value of marriage as an essential social institution and further doubts about its future viability. All this naturally diminishes the importance for them of having good family relations in their own families.
Dolf Zillman of the University of Alabama, in one study of adolescents, shows that the steady use of pornography frequently leads to abandonment of fidelity to their girlfriends. Steven Stack of Wayne State University and colleagues later showed that pornography use increased the marital infidelity rate by more than 300 percent. Another study found a strong correlation between viewing Internet pornography and sexually permissive behavior. Stack’s study found that Internet pornography use is 3.7 times greater among those who procure sexual relations with a prostitute than among those who do not.
“Cybersex” pornography also leads to much higher levels of infidelity among women. Women who engaged in “cybersex” had about 40 percent more offline sexual partners than women who did not engage in cybersex.
Separation and Divorce
Given the research already cited, it is not surprising that addiction to pornography is a contributor to separation and divorce. In the best study to date (a very rudimentary opportunity study of reports by divorce lawyers on the most salient factors present in the divorce cases they handled), 68 percent of divorce cases involved one party meeting a new paramour over the Internet, 56 percent involved “one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites,” 47 percent involved “spending excessive time on the computer,” and 33 percent involved spending excessive time in chat rooms (a commonly sexualized forum). Cybersex, which often takes place in these chat rooms, was a major factor in separation and divorce: In over 22 percent of the couples observed the spouse was no longer living with the “cybersex” addict, and in many of the other cases spouses were seriously considering leaving the marriage or relationship.
Differences between Men and Women
Pornography affects both men and women. However there are significant differences between men and women on the likelihood of using pornography, the types of pornography used, and their feelings about pornography.
Different Rates of Use and Different Types of Use
In a study of self-identified female ”cybersex” addicts, women reported that they preferred engaging in “cybersex” within the context of a relationship (via email or chat room) rather than accessing pornographic images. This preference may contribute to the significant difference one study found in the proportion of women who have real-life sexual encounters with their online companions compared to men. It found that 80 percent of women who engaged in these online sexual activities also had real-life sexual encounters with their online partners, compared to the much lower proportion of 33 percent for men. Also, as stated above, such women are much more likely to have had very high numbers of such sexual encounters and partners. However in another study, this time of men who flirted in Internet chat rooms, 78 percent reported they had at least one face-to-face sexual experience with someone they had met through a chat room in the past year. Thus, it seems that a very high proportion of both men and women who engage in “cybersex” may go on to have physical sexual encounters with their online partners.
A study of sex-addicted men also found that 43 percent used online sexual activity to engage in sexual activities they would never otherwise perform. Similarly, self reports also reveal that the tendency to explore new behaviors in “offline” relationships increases with increased online sexual activity.
Different Reactions to Different Infidelities
The way men and women view infidelity is very different. One study, using undergraduates from a large university in Northern Ireland, investigated how men and women perceive online and offline sexual and emotional infidelity. When forced to decide, men were more upset by sexual infidelity and women by emotional infidelity. Only 23 percent of women claimed they would be more bothered by sexual infidelity, compared to the 77 percent of women who would be more bothered by emotional infidelity. Males felt the opposite way. Eighty-four percent of the men reported they would be more bothered by sexual infidelity, whereas only 16 percent say they would be more bothered by emotional infidelity.
In a study which examined different types of degrading pornography, featuring themes such as “objectification” and “dominance,” both men and women rated the same three major themes as the most degrading of all, but with different intensities: women rated them as even more degrading than men did.
Pornography changes the habits of the mind, the inner private self. Its use can easily become habitual, which in turn leads to desensitization, boredom, distorted views of reality, and an objectification of women. A greater amount of sexual stimuli becomes necessary to arouse habitual users, leading them to pursue more deviant forms of pornography to fulfill their sexual desires.
Desensitization, Habituation, and Boredom
Prolonged use of pornography produces habituation, boredom, and sexual dissatisfaction among female and male viewers, and is associated with more lenient views of extramarital sexual relations and recreational attitudes toward sex. A 2000 study of college freshmen found that the habitual use of pornography led to greater tolerance of sexually explicit material, thus requiring more novel and bizarre material to achieve the same level of arousal or interest. For example, habituation may lead to watching “depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual contact with animals,” engaging in anal intercourse, and trivializing “nonviolent forms of the sexual abuse of children.”
The pornography industry adapted to this desire for more bizarre and uncommon images. An analysis of the content of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler from the years 1953 to 1984 revealed 6,004 child images and an additional 14,854 images depicting crime or violence. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of the child images were sexual and violent, with most of the images displaying girls between the ages of three and eleven years of age. Each of these magazines portrayed the scenes involving children as though the child had been unharmed by the sexual scene or even benefited from it.
Heavy exposure to pornography leads men to judge their mates as sexually less attractive, resulting in less satisfaction with their affection, physical appearance, and sexual behavior. The need for more intense sexual stimulation brought on by pornography can lead to boredom in normal relationships and a greater likelihood of seeking sexual pleasure outside of marriage. Repeated exposure to pornography leads the viewer to consider “recreational sexual engagements” as increasingly important, and changes the viewer to being very accepting of sexual permissiveness.
Distorted Perception of Reality
Pornography presents sexual access as relentless, “a sporting event that amounts to innocent fun” with inconsequential effects on emotions, perceptions, and health. This is not the case, however. Pornography leads to distorted perceptions of social reality: an exaggerated perception of the level of sexual activity in the general population, an inflated estimate “of the incidence of premarital and extramarital sexual activity, as well as increased assessment of male and female promiscuity,” “an overestimation of almost all sexual activities performed by sexually active adults,” and an overestimation of the general prevalence of perversions such as group sex, bestiality, and sadomasochistic activity. Thus the beliefs being formed in the mind of the viewer of pornography are far removed from reality. A case could be made that repeated viewing of pornography induces a mental illness in matters sexual.
These distortions result in an acceptance of three beliefs: (1) sexual relationships are recreational in nature, (2) men are generally sexually driven, and (3) women are sex objects or commodities. These are called “permission-giving beliefs” because they result in assumptions that one’s behavior is normal, acceptable, and commonplace, and thus not hurtful to anyone else. These beliefs are deepened and reinforced by masturbation while viewing pornography, a frequent practice among those who use pornography to deal with stress.
When male and female viewers do not believe that exposure to pornography has any effect upon their personal views or lives, they more readily internalize abnormal sexual attitudes and increase the likelihood that they will engage in perverse sexual behaviors.
All of these distortions amount to a serious misunderstanding about sexuality and relationships and are a dangerous distortion of the nature of social life. Those who perceive pornographic sexual scenes as depicting reality tend to be more accepting of sexual permissiveness than others. Prolonged exposure to pornography fosters the belief that sexual inactivity constitutes a health risk.
Objectification and Degradation of Women
Pornography fosters the idea that the degradation of women is acceptable. Since males use pornography much more frequently than females, exposure to sexual and even semi-sexual material from the Internet, magazines, and television is associated with stronger notions that women are sex objects or sexual commodities. Men thus exposed are more likely to describe women in overtly sexual terms, rather than by other personal attributes.
A study of widely distributed x-rated films by Gloria Cowan and colleagues, professors of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, determined the range and extent of domination and sexual inequality depicted of women in a random selection of movies in family video rental stores in California. Physical aggression was present in 73 percent of the films, and rape scenes were present in 51 percent, with the woman as the victim every time. The films depicted gender-role inequalities as well, typically portraying the men as professionals and the women as school girls, secretaries, or housewives. During the sexual scenes, the man usually remained at least partially clothed, whereas the woman was usually naked.
Pornographic films also degrade women through “rape myth acceptance” scenes, which depict women being raped and ultimately enjoying the experience. These scenes foster the belief that women really “want” to be raped. Jeannette Norris of the University of Washington conducted a study in which a group of students read two versions of the same story depicting a woman being raped. The story, however, had two different endings: one version ended with the woman deeply distressed, the other ended with the woman seeming to enjoy herself. Even though the two stories were identical in every way except for the woman’s reaction at the end, the students viewed the scenario more positively when the story depicted the woman as enjoying the rape. They perceived the raped woman as having a greater “desire” to have sex and were thus more accepting of what the man had done.
Similar results emerge in assessments of college men. Sarah Murnen of Kenyon College, Ohio found that fraternity members, who displayed many more pornographic pictures of women in their rooms than those from the non-fraternity group, had more positive attitudes toward rape.
Women tend to view pornography as more degrading of women than men do. When a sample of students was asked about their feelings toward pornography, 72 percent of the young women but only 23 percent of the young men stated their feelings were negative. Moreover, when asked if pornography is degrading, almost 90 percent of young women but only 65 percent of young men agreed that pornography is degrading.
Wheter they think pornography is degrading or not, women who view pornography regularly unwittingly engage in a form of self degradation: they develop a negative body image about themselves because they do not measure up to the depictions in the pornographic materials.
Pornography consumption has more than just psychological and familial ramifications. There are numerous clinical consequences to pornography use, including increased risk for significant physical and mental health problems and a greater likelihood of committing a sex-based crime.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancies
Since pornography encourages sexually permissive attitudes and behavior, users of pornography have a higher likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or fathering an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Pornography’s frequent depiction of intercourse without condoms (87 percent of the time) is an invitation for the promiscuous to contract a sexually transmitted disease, to have a child out of wedlock and to have multiple sex partners. Pornography also promotes sexual compulsiveness, which doubles the likelihood of being infected with a sexually transmitted disease.
Pornography and “cybersex” are highly addictive and can lead to sexually compulsive behaviors (that decrease a person’s capacity to perform other major tasks in life). Over 90 percent of therapists surveyed in one study believed that a person could become addicted to “cybersex.” In an American survey, 57 percent of frequent viewers used online sexual activity to deal with stress. A 2006 Swedish study of regular Internet pornography users found that about six percent were compulsive users and that these compulsives also used much more non-Internet pornography as well.
Addictive pornography use leads to lower self-esteem and a weakened ability to carry out a meaningful social and work life. A survey of pornography addicts found that they disliked the “out of control” feeling and the time consumption that their pornography use engendered. All of the sexual compulsives reported they had felt distressed and experienced impairment in an important aspect of their lives as a result of their addiction. Almost half of the sexual compulsives said their behavior had significant negative results in their social lives, and a quarter reported negative effects on their job. In another survey, sexual compulsives and sexual addicts were 23 times more likely than those without a problem to state that discovering online sexual material was the worst thing that had ever happened in their life. No wonder then that severe clinical depression was reported twice as frequently among Internet pornography users compated to non-users.
Aggression and Abuse
Intense use of pornography is strongly related to sexual aggression, and among frequent viewers of pornography, there is a marked increase in sexual callousness, including the “rape myth acceptance” noted above.
A significant portion of pornography is violent in content. A study of different pornographic media found violence in almost a quarter of magazine scenes, in more than a quarter of video scenes, and in almost half (over 42 percent) of online pornography. A second study found that almost half the violent Internet scenes included nonconsensual sex.
The data suggest “a modest connection between exposure to pornography and subsequent behavioral aggression,” though when men consume violent pornography (i.e. depicting rape or torture), they are more likely to commit acts of sexual aggression. Dangerously, pornography strongly affects psychotic men, who are more likely to act out their impulses.
Consumption of nonviolent pornography also increases men’s self-acknowledged willingness to force compliance with their particular sexual desires on reluctant partners. And though there are conflicting data on the relative effects of violent versus non-violent pornography, there is little doubt that the consumption of pornography leads to a significant increase in “rape myth acceptance,” which involves a reduction of sympathy with rape victims and a trivialization of rape as a criminal offense, a diminished concern about child sexual abuse, short of the rape of children, and an increased preparedness to resort to rape.
One study at a rape crisis center interviewed 100 sexually abused women to determine if pornography played a role in any past incidences of sexual abuse. While 58 percent could not say, 28 percent stated that their abuser had in fact used pornography. Of this 28 percent (women who were aware that their abuser used pornography), 40 percent (or 11 percent of the total group) reported that pornography actually played a role in the abusive incident they experienced. In some cases the abuser had watched pornography before abusing the woman, in one case he used pornography while committing the abuse, and in yet some other cases he forced his victim to participate in the making of a pornographic film.
Sex Offenders and Pornography
Pornography viewing and sexual offense are inextricably linked.
One study of convicted Internet sexual offenders reported that they spent more than eleven hours per week viewing pornographic images of children on the Internet. Another study compared two groups of offenders: those convicted of Internet collection and distribution of child pornography images, and those who commit real life child sex abuse. The results showed that a majority of those who were convicted of only Internet-based offenses also had committed real life sexual abuse of children. Moreover the study also found that real life offenders had committed an average of over thirteen different child sex abuse offenses, irrespective of whether they had formally been convicted of any real life incident.
A study of sex offenders and non-offenders revealed significant differences in adolescent pornography use as well as current use. Significant proportions of different types of rapists and molesters had used hard-core pornography (depictions of non-consensual acts) during their adolescence: 33 percent of heterosexual child molesters, 39 percent of homosexual child molesters, and 33 percent of rapists. The current use of hard core pornography was even greater for these groups: 67 percent of heterosexual child molesters, 67 percent of homosexual child molesters, and 83 percent of rapists, contrasted with 29 percent of non-offending pornography viewers. About a third of the sex offenders reported using pornography as a deliberate stimulus to commit their sexual offenses.
Another study examined the beliefs of three groups: real life, “contact-only”child sex offenders, Internet-only child sex offenders, and mixed offenders (contact and Internet). While all groups were more likely to minimize the gravity of their offense, the Internet-only group was more likely than the contact-only group to think that children could make their own decisions on sexual involvement and to believe that some children wanted, even eagerly wanted, sexual activity with an adult.
Pornography and New Findings in Neurology
The neurological study of pornography is still in its infancy, but neurophysiology provides insight into pornography’s power to form the cognitive and emotional habits of the user. As is becoming clear from many different areas of neurological study, repetition of an act establishes new neural pathways, thus facilitating the retention of these behaviors.
Other research is uncovering the link between dopamine, a hormone that produces feelings of pleasure, and the effect that a pornographic image has. PET scans (a nuclear medicine three-dimensional imaging technique) of both pornography-addicted adults and non-addicted adults viewing pornography show brain reactions for both groups similar to cocaine addicts looking at images of people taking cocaine. Findings such as these have led scholars to posit that “emotionally arousing images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an instant, involuntary, but lasting, biochemical memory trail.” A small experimental indication of this type of imprinting occurred in one study where participants saw a board of words that were either sexual or neutral. All participants retained more sexual words than neutral words, but pornography consumers retained even higher amounts of sexual words.
Treatment programs for sex offenders and pornography addicts, designed to break patterns of deriving pleasure from viewing pornography, use a technique called “safeguarding.” “Safeguards” are negative thoughts used to interrupt sexual fantasies. Whenever patients have sexual fantasies, they are taught to think of a safeguard; for example, they may produce a mental image of bugs crawling on them, a public address system broadcasting their thoughts, or an image of a police officer watching their sexual behavior. Through this method, participants learn to interrupt their fantasies and, it is thought, gradually displace the old neurological pathway with a different and safer one.
Adolescenct Exposure to Pornography in the Media
The phenomenal growth of mass media during the late 20th century, and particularly the establishment of the Internet, has vastly increased accessibility to pornography and other sexually-related information. This creates a major obstacle to the healthy development of sexuality, especially among youth.
Adolescents and Pornography
Though most U.S. parents (78 percent) are worried about their adolescents accessing Internet pornography, not all teenagers readily take to this sexualized culture. Most start out being ill at ease with any display of pornography: they tend to be upset or embarrassed, with reactions ranging from fear to shame to anger to fascination. In one survey, about a quarter were “very” upset by this exposure, but they tend not to report it.
Adolescents often come across pornography accidentally on the Internet. One study found that 70 percent of youth aged 15 to 17 accidentally came across pornography online. A study of 1,501 youth aged ten to seventeen examined unwanted exposure incidents more thoroughly: in 26 percent of the cases, respondents reported that when they tried to exit an unwanted site, they were actually brought to an additional sex site. The same study showed that out of the total number of unwanted exposure incidents, 44 percent of the time the youth did not disclose the episode to anyone else.
These initial reactions of disgust, however, rapidly dissipate so that older adolescents tend to use sexually explicit Internet material more often than younger adolescents and are twice as likely to report intentional pornography use as are younger adolescents. Repeated exposure to pornography eventually wipes out any feelings of shame and disgust and gives way, instead, to unadulterated enjoyment.
A 2005 survey showed that respondents who reported unintentional exposure to pornography were over 2.5 times as likely to then report intentional exposure as those who did not report any unintentional exposure. It seems the unintentional exposure has its effect of bringing them back for more, which of course is one of the fears of parents.
Several factors predict an adolescent’s use of pornography. Teenagers who watch pornography more frequently tend to be high sensation seekers, less satisfied with their lives, have a fast Internet connection, and have friends who are younger. Adolescents are at greater risk for intentionally seeking out sexual material when they have high levels of computer use. The more time spent on the computer, the more likely these adolescents will search for sexually explicit content. Not surprisingly, given all that has already been reported, viewers who masturbate while viewing sexually explicit material assess the material more favorably than those who do not masturbate.
There is a difference between boys’ and girls’ reasons for seeking pornographic sites, differences that parallel the different patterns of adult male and female use of pornography. Boys tend to seek pornography initially because they are curious or want sexual arousal, while girls tend first to go to non-pornographic but sexually oriented sites for sexual health or relationship-related information. Also, the impacts are different for boys and girls: males report more positive memories of sexually explicit material than females, and report “more positive attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration” as their use of pornography increases. In one study, adolescents who watched the highest level of sexual content on television doubled the likelihood they would initiate intercourse.
The Protective Role of Parental Involvement
Although U.S. adolescents indicate their preferred source of sexual information is their parents, more than half of them report they have learned about intercourse, pregnancy, and birth control from television, and half of teenage women report they first learned about intercourse from magazines.
A study of 1,300 eight- to thirteen-year-old girls found that, among those who engaged in “cybersex,” 95 percent of the parents were completely unaware of their children’s involvement. Compared to adolescents who do not search for pornography online, adolescents who search for pornography online are about three times as likely to have parents who do not monitor their behavior at all (or very little). Compared to those who do not seek out pornography, those who seek Internet pornography are three times as likely to give a poor rating of their attachment to their parent.
Clearly there is a lot that parents can do, but it takes a good family life, lots of communication with the adolescent, and a relationship that permits such communication about such an anxiety-provoking topic.
We move now to matters far outside the family.
The Effect of Sexually Oriented Businesses on
Sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) – pornography stores and strip clubs – deleteriously affect their surrounding communities. For instance, SOBs along Garden Grove Boulevard in California contributed to 36 percent of all crime in that area. A similar study in Centralia, Washington found that, after an SOB opened, the serious crime rate rose significantly in the vicinity of the SOB’s address. Findings such as these generally come from studies commissioned by cities to measure the incidence of the eight serious crimes of the Uniform Crime Reports: homicide, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, theft, auto theft, and arson.
SOBs have been found to cause more crime than non-sexually oriented nightclubs and bars. A report from Daytona Beach, Florida found that SOB neighborhoods have 270 percent more total crime than non-SOB control neighborhoods and 180 percent more than non-SOB neighborhoods with “taverns.” A study in Adams County, Colorado found that 83 percent of crimes in a neighborhood featuring two adult businesses were connected to those adult businesses.
A study of SOBs in Phoenix, Arizona found that the number of sex offenses was 506 percent greater in a neighborhood containing a SOB. Sexual deviants are attracted to these areas, intending to pay for sexual pleasures. The forbidden partners they desire include children, the invalid, and the elderly.
The transmission of STDs is also commonplace at many SOBs. Pennsylvania’s attorney general closed several Philadelphia SOBs because patrons created a serious public health risk by regularly engaging in unprotected sexual activity inside the video booths, promoting the spread of HIV, hepatitis B, and other STDs. The numbers of incidences may be higher than reported to police (and thus used in these studies) because many victims are reluctant to report crimes committed against them while at SOBs. This reluctance makes many patrons easy prey for criminals.
SOBs affect property values as well. The closer a property is to an SOB, the more its value depreciates. A study of owners of commercial property or their owners from Dallas, Texas found that all concluded that SOBs drastically decrease property value. Property sales were significantly lower at $1.50 to $7 per square foot in areas in close proximity to SOBs, compared to $10 to $12 per square foot a mile away from SOBs.
The close proximity of SOBs to neighborhoods leads to a greater exposure of children to pornographic material. In Denver, Colorado, an investigation into the adverse secondary effects of SOBs on surrounding neighborhoods found large amounts of litter in these neighborhoods that included pornographic images, sex paraphernalia, used condoms, and used syringes.
The devaluation of people and property by SOBs has not gone unnoticed by the courts, which have consistently afforded substantial deference to government entities seeking to regulate adverse secondary effects associated with SOBs. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a jurisdiction need not conduct its own study, but may rely on relevant studies and evidence produced by other jurisdictions. The Court has also recognized that common experience and case law can be relevant factors in support of SOB regulation.
Conclusion: Pornography in the Context of
Modernity’s Social and Sexual Problems
Contemporary society is alarmingly sexualized, and the traditional sexual taboos of a well-functioning society have broken down. Nearly two-thirds of United States high-school students have had sexual intercourse by grade twelve. Of these sexually active high-schoolers, 70 percent of females and 55 percent of males report that they wish they had waited instead. These numbers have massive implications for the future of the American family, for of women who have had three sexual partners other than their eventual husband, only 39 percent will be in a stable marriage by their mid-thirties. In 2007, 20 percent of U.S. girls in grade 12 already have had sexual intercourse with four or more partners. The vast majority of their children will grow up without their fathers present.
As the empirical data make clear, pornography further misshapes this already dysfunctional sexuality, and the consumption of pornography can become a destructive addiction as well. This sexual malformation not only affects the consumer of pornography, but also weakens those close to him or her. Habitual consumption of pornography can break down the relational substrates of human life and interaction—family, friends and society.
As such, reinforcing these relationships is the surest guard against such destructive sexual tendencies.
The closer adult men were to their fathers growing up, the fewer non-marital sexual behaviors they engage in and the greater their levels of marital happiness and family satisfaction. The proportion of adolescents who rate their fathers as very close to them is highest among those from intact married families (40 percent) and lowest among those from single-parent families (three percent).
Society benefits when it fosters a healthy sexuality. Human beings are healthiest and happiest when they are monogamous (only one sexual partner in a lifetime), and that happiness is directly related to monogamy’s long-term stability and exclusivity.
Healthy relationships yield additional positive sexual outcomes. Some research indicates that married couples have the most frequent, and Conservative Protestant women have the most enjoyable, sexual relations. The supreme and tragic irony is that, while the desire for the highest levels of sexual fulfillment are likely the motive for many adolescents’ first peek into pornography, the attainment of that universal longing is most likely to be had through monogamy and regular participation in religious worship.
These insights, until recently, were common social assumptions and institutionalized patterns. Until the dawn of the sexual revolution and, later, the digital age, they were reflected in a public opprobrium of pornography. One 1994 study found that 71 percent favored a total ban on sexually violent movies and 77 percent a total ban on sexually violent magazines. Only eight percent thought that there should be no restrictions on the former, and only three percent thought there should be no restrictions on the latter. Concerning merely sexually explicit magazines, less than 10 percent thought there should be no restrictions on the material.
The cultural censure of disordered sexuality that enables stable family life has faded with the proliferation of Internet pornography. As a result, the effects of hyper-sexualization permeate society. Today’s youth are reaching puberty earlier, engaging in sexual intercourse sooner, while “Emerging Adults” are cohabiting more, having children out of wedlock,and getting married significantly later or not at all.
The key to militating against these damaging patterns and to protecting against the effects of pornography is to foster relationships of affection and attachment in family. The first and most important relationship is between the father and the mother. The second is engaged parents who love their children. In today’s technological society, this means limiting, monitoring, and directing their children’s Internet use. This, in turn, provides an invaluable shield against Internet pornography, and allows room for a healthy sexuality to unfold in a natural and socially supported way. In our over-sexualized culture, with a longer pre-marriage period, children need the capacity for abstinence if their sexuality is to be channeled into stable marriage, procreation, and healthy family life for their children. Strong families remain the best defense against the negative effects of pornography, especially when aided by regular religious worship with all the benefits it brings.
Finally, the fundamental role of government (including the courts) is to protect innocent citizens, most especially children and adolescents, and to protect the sound functioning of the basic institutions of family, church, school, marketplace, and government. They are all interdependent. Pornography, clearly, undermines both marriage and the family, and has a host of ill effects. It is time for government to reassess its laissez-faire attitude towards the proliferation of pornography, especially on the Internet.
Our present and future families need protection from this insidious enemy of love, affection, and of family and social stability.
Note: This paper has been published in cooperation with the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI), a project of the Family Research Council.
The author acknowledges his debt to Drs. Jill Manning, Stephanie Sargeant-Weaver and James B. Weaver III without whose reviews of the literature, Senate Testimonies and pointers towards the underlying studies he could not have prepared this paper. Their work suffuses the whole project. These reviews include Jill C. Manning, “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 13 (2006): 131-65; Stephanie Sargent-Weaver, “The Effects of Teens’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Materials on the Internet: Synthesis of the Research and Implications for Future Research;” and James B. Weaver III, “The Effects of Pornography Addiction on Families and Communities,” presented before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Washington, DC (November 18, 2004). Jill Manning’s Senate Testimony, from which more of this paper has been drawn than from any other source, is highly recommended for its comprehensiveness and can be found at
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