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A study in The Journal of Sex Research reinforces the libertarian view that pornography “artists”, purveyors and users should be left alone, free to engage in their private activities without censorship or harassment by the state. The study is entitled “Is Pornography Really about ‘Making Hate to Women’? Pornography Users Hold More Gender Egalitarian Attitudes Than Nonusers in a Representative American Sample“. It can be downloaded free-of-charge at the link. Here’s the abstract:

According to radical feminist theory, 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 over whom men should have complete control. Composite variables from the General Social Survey were used to test the hypothesis that pornography users would hold attitudes that were more supportive of gender nonegalitarianism than nonusers of pornography. Results did not support hypotheses derived from radical feminist theory. Pornography users held more egalitarian attitudes—toward women in positions of power, toward women working outside the home, and toward abortion—than nonusers of pornography. Further, pornography users and pornography nonusers did not differ significantly in their attitudes toward the traditional family and in their self-identification as feminist. The results of this study suggest that pornography use may not be associated with gender nonegalitarian attitudes in a manner that is consistent with radical feminist theory.

The study did not deal with child pornography in any way. The study focused strictly on attitudes toward women among porn users in general, attitudes that are clearly relevant to divergent opinions regarding the need for activist social policy with respect to adult pornography:

Some clinicians, researchers, and social commentators have adopted the view that pornography can improve sexual functioning by providing frank sexual information, reducing shame and anxiety associated with sex, and invigorating libido (… citations). In contrast, others have cautioned that the use of such materials can be associated with risky sexual behavior, poor mental health and well-being, degraded relationship functioning, and, of course, sexual aggression (… citations).

The authors, Taylor Kohuta, Jodie L. Baera and Brendan Watts, quote feminist Gail Dines as an example of the rhetoric used by porn prohibitionists:

Porn is the most succinct and crisp deliverer of a woman-hating ideology. While we have other places that encode such an ideology, nowhere does it quite as well as porn, as this delivers messages to men’s brain via the penis—a very powerful method.

The paper includes a lengthy review of previous research on pornography, sexual attitudes, and “non-egalitarian” attitudes toward women. Earlier research was generally based on small samples or those confined to limited demographic segments, but support for the radical feminist view was inconsistent at best.

Kohuta, et al, attempt to extend earlier work with a large sample of males and females (porn is viewed by both genders) from the General Social Survey (GSS), described in detail at the link, and a more thorough set of attitudinal measures. The five measures are listed in the abstract quoted above. In none of the five cases did the use of pornography correspond to “less egalitarian views” toward women, and in three cases it corresponded to more egalitarian views, though I’d quibble with the abortion measure, which might not be meaningful in that context.

The findings are robust to gender and run contrary to the assertions of radical feminists and other moralistic busybodies: pornography does not encourage “woman hatred” or attitudes that might lead to aggressive behavior toward women, nor is viewership of porn consistent with a predisposition toward those attitudes:

Of the five high-powered statistical tests conducted in this study, a total of three tests indicated that individuals who had viewed a pornographic film in the past year held more egalitarian attitudes than those who had not—a pattern of results that directly contradicts the predictions generated from radical feminist theory. Of the remaining two tests, neither was statistically significant. Taken together, the results of this study fail to support the view that pornography is an efficient deliverer of ‘women-hating ideology’.

Instead of demonstrating strong associations between pornography use and support of nonegalitarianism, if anything the current findings actually suggest weak associations in the opposite direction. Compared to nonusers, participants who reported viewing a pornographic film in the previous year also reported more positive attitudes toward women in positions of power, less negative attitudes toward women in the workforce, and less negative attitudes toward abortion…. 

The authors make a strong value judgment by assuming that a favorable attitude toward abortion represents a more egalitarian attitude toward women. They rationalize this treatment by noting that radical feminists consider “reproductive autonomy” to be a critical test of gender equality. However, abortion is not always a decision made solely by the woman. Furthermore, porn viewers of either gender, and participants in recreational sex, are likely to find the idea of a pregnancy something of a buzz kill, so the attitude maybe one of convenience. More fundamentally, abortion involves the rights of a human fetus versus the right of the parent(s) to terminate the pregnancy. If one’s ethical convictions are such that the fetus’ rights are paramount, it may not reflect a non-egalitarian attitude toward women.

I find the other four attitudinal measures used in the study unobjectionable. Identification as a “feminist” might mean different things to different people, but it nearly always means a generally strong support for women’s rights. In any case, those four tests indicate no association between porn use and an attitude favoring an inferior role for women in society.

Pornography use was defined by Kohuta, et al by whether the subject admitted to viewing any X-rated film over the past year. There was no distinction between different types of porn, such as depictions of sadomasochism, violent sex, or nonconsensual sex. Therefore, the study does not address whether a taste for these forms is associated with less egalitarian attitudes toward women. Whether viewership of porn or violent forms of porn is associated with acts of aggression against women is much harder to establish. However, as a general question, the attitudes found to be associated with porn in this study suggest that users are unlikely to be inclined toward nonconsensual sex or aggression toward women.

Porn viewers obviously find the subject matter entertaining; it may appeal to their fantasies and might serve as a prelude to sex. Whether those are “prurient” interests is a subjective matter. Porn viewing is a private activity that shouldn’t matter to anyone else. Whether they admit it or not, most adults have had at least a peak at porn, perhaps unintentionally. It might have offended them, but they know how to avoid it; if they have children they should know how to utilize parental controls. I’m skeptical that it hurts anyone. Those who like it even a little bit should be able to enjoy it privately.

In 2012, Eugene Volokh wrote a practical criticism of an idea in the Republican Party platform that “current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced”, as well as an earlier Bush Administration effort to crack down on porn. He concluded that such policies could have three possible outcomes:

1) The crackdown on porn is doomed to be utterly ineffective at preventing the supposedly harmful effects of porn on its viewers, and on the viewers’ neighbors [because porn is available from many foreign and domestic sources].
2) The crackdown on porn will be made effective — by implementing a comprehensive government-mandated filtering system run by some administrative agency that constantly monitors the Net and requires private service providers to block any sites that the agency says are obscene.
3) The crackdown on porn will turn into a full-fledged War on Smut that will be made effective by prosecuting, imprisoning, and seizing the assets of porn buyers.

Volokh’s conclusions apply to all forms of porn, not just non-violent porn. He underlines the draconian implications of attempts to censor porn:

I’m asking: How can the government’s policy possibly achieve its stated goals, without creating an unprecedentedly intrusive censorship machinery, one that’s far, far beyond what any mainstream political figures are talking about right now?

While Volokh does not address the question of whether porn users have a constitutional right to do so, the First Amendment should protect it as free expression. The paper discussed here implies that porn is no threat to women based on the attitudes expressed by users in the GSS. This is consistent with the libertarian principle that free people must be unencumbered by any authority in their choice of entertainment.