The Social Costs of Pornography

 
 

Last week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Witherspoon Institute reported a set of scholarly findings and recommendations on the social costs of pornography.

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In December 2008 a diverse collection of scholars, medical practitioners and journalists gathered in Princeton, New Jersey, to begin an initial inquiry into the social toll of the consumption of pornography on men, women and children. The participating scholars came from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Psychiatrists, legal scholars, doctors, and economists assembled a rigorous analysis of the neurological, psychological, economic, social, political, legal and philosophical dimensions of pornography use. The result was released on March 16, 2010, when the Witherspoon Institute presented The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations.

Three important observations about the document deserve to be made. First, it presents diverse professional and expert consensus on the social ramifications of internet pornography, a consensus at odds with much received opinion on the issue. Second, some implications of the empirical evidence presented in the document will cause controversy, in part because of a prevailing libertarian sensibility with respect to the consumption of pornography. Finally, much further research needs to be done given the relatively recent rise of internet pornography and the challenge of obtaining reliable data from both producers and consumers of internet pornography.

Underlying much of public opinion on pornography is an understanding of pornography consumption as harmless entertainment, benign sexual expression or marital aid. However, this view is complicated by the ubiquity of increasingly immediate, realistic, and visceral pornographic material, and the growing body of empirical evidence establishing the harms pornography creates for those who produce and consume pornography as well as for those who live and work in the same households, businesses, and communities as pornography users. Within these two observations are important specific assertions, some of which can be found here and all of which are fully documented in A Statement of Findings and Recommendations.

With the arrival of the internet age, people of all ages, genders, and classes now have an almost unlimited access to pornographic content that is tailored to every acquired taste and fantasy. The material’s immediate accessibility is enhanced by seemingly endless development of more vivid, more realistic digital media and an industry that accounts for almost one-fifth of all movie rentals in the United States. In the midst of these technical advances, the therapeutic and medical communities report an increasing presence of (and audience for) “hard-core” pornography. If, as some suggest, we are standing on the edge of a new 3-D media revolution, even more dramatic pornographic experiences may soon be available.

The ubiquity of pornography in the internet age is accompanied by a growing body of evidence indicating that no gender or age group remains unaffected. Much of the social harm associated with pornography consumption seems to spring from its psychological nature as an intense behavior-teaching and permission-giving experience within the highly effective teaching context of sexual arousal, where actions are demonstrated, repeated, encouraged and/or proscribed via information-rich images.

The neuroscience of pornography consumption is revealed by empirical studies. Some studies show that pornography use undermines marital and other intimate relationships of its users, can make men sexually incompetent with a real partner, and for some can lead to growing attractions to images and behaviors of a “hard-core” nature. Women not only face new expectations of sexual behavior, they also are confronted with increased chances of divorce, infidelity, and less happy marriages. Children, adolescent boys in particular, are more inclined to violence, aggression and sexual coercion of peers, are more susceptible to sexual coercion by peers and adults. Adolescent girls are more inclined to tolerate emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Finally, while much research needs to be done in this area, it appears that pornography continues to be a factor in human trafficking for sexual exploitation. In summary, pornography has social costs for these involved at the primary level (consumers and producers, be they men, women or children) and secondary level (usually women and children).

These findings, more fully explored in A Statement of Findings and Recommendations and its associated research, are deeply troubling. The diverse group of scholars who signed the document agrees that a change in public expectation and information about the social costs of pornography consumption–partly modeled on the successful campaign against tobacco of the last five decades–is needed. While they do not all agree on all of the recommendations in the document, they offer several proposals to help demonstrate the type of approach that is needed. Some of the document’s recommendations include:

  • an increased awareness on the part of the therapeutic community to the harms of pornography consumption as well as further research in this area;
  • increased attention on the part of education professionals to this body of research and the dangers and challenges facing adolescent adults;
  • an increased interest on the part of journalists in the consequences of pornography’s ubiquity and an undertaking of rigorous investigative journalism on the pornography industry;
  • a rigorous response of the private industry to pornography use in the workplace and an awareness of employees with pornography problems;
  • a “deglamorization” of pornography use and material on the part of popular culture and celebrities
  • and finally, a vigorous engagement of this issue on the part of the local and federal governments, including: legislation to make pornography no more legal on standard servers used by ordinary people than it is in the mail; use of the bully pulpit for a public campaign to show that pornography—even when it does not satisfy the narrow, legal definition of “obscene”—is not necessarily “speech” as protected by the First Amendment; labeling of all “adult” material (print and digital) with a warning about the addictive potential of pornography and consequent possible psychological harm to the consumer; the redevelopment and deployment of the Department of Justice unit dedicated to the prosecution of obscenity to address the specific and multifaceted phenomenon of internet pornography; and the creation of a new, private (civil, not criminal) right of action, called the “negligent exposure of a minor or an unwilling adult to obscene materials.”

 

The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations has been written with the understanding that society will be better off if the facts about pornography use and its consequences are widely and effectively circulated so that people from all walks of life can take account of them. Given the pornography industry’s interest in the development of new and more vivid technological advances in media, it is more important than ever that families, pastors, therapeutic practitioners, education professionals, corporate leaders, and public servants become more aware of the devastating social consequences of pornography’s ubiquity in the internet age.

There are some signs that progress is being made. The psychiatric and therapeutic professions have recently begun to make certain observations regarding the costs of pornography consumption on an individual’s behavior. The American Psychiatric Association in their recently released proposed revision to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has for the first time included specific references to pornography as a possible factor in “Hypersexual Disorders.” Should this revision remain in the final manual, it will be an important first step in enabling individuals and families to seek specific treatment and insurance coverage for behaviors resulting from or directly associated with the consumption of pornography.

I encourage you to consider the findings and recommendations found in the full document, available online along with video presentations from the consultation and consultation drafts of the research papers.

P. Langdale Hough is the assistant director of the Witherspoon Institute.

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