With the advent of the internet, and high tech phones, pornography became significantly easier to access and the porn industry has grown exponentially. Currently in the United States the pornographic film industry is centered in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, with an estimated 200 production companies in the region employing as many as 1,500 performers, making up to 11,000 films and estimated to earn as much as $13 billion a year. This is believed to be larger than Hollywood.
So pornography is popular, but some say that pornography has a variety of harmful effects, which argues for it being illegal.
The sociological objection is that pornography decreased respect for long-term, monogamous relationships, and attenuates a desire for procreation. Pornography can “potentially undermine the traditional values that favor marriage, family, and children”, and that it depicts sexuality in a way which is not connected to "emotional attachment, of kindness, of caring, and especially not of continuance of the relationship, as such continuance would translate into responsibilities"
The religious/conservative objection is similar to the sociological objection. They argue that this industry undermines the family and leads to the moral breakdown of society. They say that it is amoral, weakens family values, and is contrary to the religion's teachings and human dignity.
Some feminists argue that it is an industry which exploits women and which is complicit in violence against women, both in its production (where they charge that abuse and exploitation of women performing in pornography is rampant) and in its consumption (where they charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment). They charge that pornography contributes to the male-centered objectification of women and thus to sexism.
Other objections are that the sex industry is sometimes connected to criminal activities, such as human trafficking, illegal immigration, drug abuse, and exploitation of children (child pornography, child prostitution). However these effects are related not so much to pornography as to prostitution.
How valid are these criticisms?
I will only address the consumption issue, not the criticisms around its production.
Firstly (using the General Social Survey) I found no relationship between being pro the legality of porn, or propensity to watch porn, and pro social behaviors e.g. volunteer work, blood donation, etc.
We can dismiss the feminist (and sociological) charges of porn increasing sexual violence and leading to sexism. The USA, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands (2) and Japan were just some of the countries that suddenly went from no legal pornography to quite widespread availability and consumption of it. These studies all found that greater availability of, and exposure to, pornography does not increase the rate of sexual assaults on women, and probably decreases it (3). Japanese porn is quite frequently violent and yet even there rape decreased from an already very low base. It’s interesting that an increase in porn exposure decreases sexual violence only, and has no effect on other crime. Economists would put this down to a substitution effect.
Several countries have sex offender registers – mainly of pedophiles. A wide variety of professions are represented on these registers. Members of professions that supposedly promote morality e.g. clerics or teachers, are quite common on it yet conspicuously absent from such registers are men who have worked in the porn industry.
This study (1) found no relationship between the frequency of x-rated film viewing and attitudes toward women or feminism. From the GSS (controlling for IQ, education, income, age, race and ideology) I found that those who are pro the legality of porn are less likely to support traditional female roles, more likely to be against preferential treatment of either gender, and to find woman’s rights issues more frequently salient. Although I found that women’s rights issues are less salient to male watchers, and female watchers are less likely to think women should work, I also found that watching porn is unrelated to negative attitudes toward women and feminism.
In short exposure to and tolerance of pornography does not cause anti-social behavior (and may even reduce it in relation to sex) and does not get in the way of pro social behavior either.
The sociological and religious charge that pornography undermines monogamy and family values does however receive support. From GSS (and controlling for IQ, education, income, age, race and ideology) I found that men who are pro legalizing porn are less likely to marry and are more pro cohabitation. There was no such association for women. A higher propensity to watch porn movies is also associated with a lesser likelihood of marrying but is unrelated to cohabitation attitudes - in both men and women. So a pro porn attitude is consistent with a reduced respect for marriage.
Both genders also tend to have fewer kids in marriage, if they are pro the legalizing of porn. However, for men, a higher propensity to watch porn movies is associated with having MORE children within marriage. Note that pro legal porn attitudes and porn movie viewership is not associated with having children out of wedlock – for men its associated with a lower chance of that happening – so porn doesn’t lead to that kind of irresponsible behavior.
Possibly part of this general pattern, I found that both being pro the legality of porn and watching porn are related to lower voting rates in general elections.
I found no relationship to a variety of ‘family values’ type questions e.g. importance of family, or to the value of relationships and friendship.
Being pro the legality of porn, and porn viewing, are associated with unhappiness with the family or marriage – especially for men. Those who are pro porn also tend to have a greater number of sexual partners and are more likely to have a sexual affair. This supports the 1984 and 1988 discoveries of Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant (4) that the effects of repeated exposure to standard, non-violent, commonly available pornography includes: increased callousness toward women; distorted perceptions about sexuality; devaluation of the importance of monogamy; decreased satisfaction with partner’s sexual performance, affection, and appearance; doubts about the value of marriage; and decreased desire to have children. Later research studies further confirm their findings.
I’ve already mentioned that exposure to porn doesn’t increase anti-social behavior or reduce pro-social behavior. However it does have a clear effect on satisfaction with relationship institutions and personal relationships. It can make a person think that what they have is poor in comparison. Naturally they’ll be unhappy if they think what they have is wrong, or can’t be improved upon. Some things can’t be improved upon, but in principle others can. I imagine it’s mostly those things possible in principle but unlikely in practice, that makes porn viewers especially unhappy.
Typically at this point the therapist says “therefore stop watching porn and learn to be happy with what you have”. The assumption here is that the solution to unhappiness always lies in going back to the pre-shock situation. While this may sometimes be the best option it is not always and necessarily the best option. Sometimes embracing the shock will not only solve the unhappiness but raise the relationship to a new high. For example what if the other partner comes to the party and is willing to try some of the pornographic possibilities? There are some findings that viewing porn together as a couple can provide some shared excitement and adventure, and lead to a more closely bonded and satisfactory relationship. Isn’t that a better result than what the therapist had in mind?
Suppose we divide people into 4 groups – don’t watch porn & think porn should be illegal to all, have watched or seen porn & think porn should be illegal to all, don’t watch porn but think it shouldn’t be illegal to all, and watch porn & think it shouldn’t be illegal to all. Suppose further that the men and women marry randomly with respect to those categories.
There will be no marital happiness issue if both partners do not watch porn, or both have seen it and want it banned, or if one partner has seen porn but that partner wants it banned. Naturally there would also be no issue if both partners watched porn and both want it legalized. That would be an example of the high adventure marriage mentioned above. The other combinations will result in unhappiness. If one partner watches porn and wants it legal, while the other wants porn to be illegal to all, then the outcome is bound to be unhappy. Finally, if only one partner watches porn but both want it legalized then there is potential for the non-watching partner to join the party. Based on those assumptions I did some number crunching using the GSS data for married people.
The marriages would distribute as follows
- 70.8% ‘no problem low octane’
- 14.3% ‘unhappy by reason of porn’
- 12.6% ‘unhappy by reason of porn with potential to convert to the ‘no problem high octane’ sort.
- 2.3% ‘no problem high octane’
Restricting things to those marriages where some sort of porn viewing is happening I get
- 16% no problem low octane
- 41% unhappy
- 36% potentially happy
- 7% happy high octane.
In theory 26.9% of marriages (14.3% unhappy plus 12.6% potentially happy) could face unhappiness due to the effect of porn. The generally accepted solution of asking the porn watcher to make a sacrifice, and move toward accepting a low octane marriage, is fairly negative. When there is no potential for the other partner to join the party this is a neutral-lose situation. For an economist this is akin to supporting declining industries, which is not in the best long term interests of stakeholders or the overall economy. Chances are there is a fundamental mismatch of outlook within the marriage and both would be better off ending it and searching for a better match. Potential partners who share the porn watcher’s outlook do exist in numbers sufficient to make a high octane life a real possibility. It’s not clear why preserving a low octane marriage is necessarily better.
When there is potential for the other partner to join the party the potential outcome is win-win but the standard solution is lose-lose. Attempting to convert the non-viewer is a better option. If that partner doesn’t prove to be open to joining the party then the situation changes to the former i.e. maybe it’s best to move on.
The anti-porn perspective on this is that porn negatively influences 27% of marriages and positively influences 2.3% marriages – a ratio of 11.7 bad to good - so exposure to it must be denied. The perspective argued above says that porn improves or has the potential to improve 14.9% of marriages and make 14.3% of marriages unhappy – a ratio of 0.96 bad to good and that even the bad isn’t necessarily bad, if moving on to find greener grass is accepted as an option.
The sociological and religious critique would say, correctly, that porn undermines the value of monogamy, marriage, children and a certain kind of staid vanilla sexuality. However they assume that these things are all indisputably good, or better than the alternatives. The Smart Vote (direction of difference between intelligent and stupid opinion) strongly contradicts that assumption. It says not getting married, cohabiting and having fewer children (both in and out of wedlock) are the smarter things to do.
It’s also smarter to accept (if not practice) alternative sexuality e.g. homosexual sex, swinging, BDSM, impersonal recreational sex, general sexual permissiveness, etc - especially if one controls for confounding factors.
As we shall see the Smart Vote is also pro porn being legally available.
The Smart Vote and Pornography
The General Social Survey has a number of questions on pornography. There are four questions on the effect of pornography – does pornography lead to rape, does it undermine morality, is it a useful source of sexual information, and is it an alternative sexual outlet? The GSS also asks whether pornography should be legal and whether the respondent had viewed an X-rated film during the previous year. I converted each of these to a common scale – a percentage between the most pro and most anti positions, with a higher number meaning more pro.
Before looking at these questions I looked at the Smart Vote on how important pornography should be, how well informed one claims to be, and how firmly one should hold one’s opinions. I found that the more intelligent don’t think issues about pornography totally unimportant but they don’t think it much more important than that. They are well informed on issues on pornography but do not claim to know all they need to, and say that while they are unlikely to change their minds on any of the issues there is a chance they will. The least intelligent option is to regard pornography as one of the most important issues or completely unimportant, and be very unlikely to change one’s views, while being extremely uninformed about pornography.
In the graph below I plot the mean scores on each of the main questions for each intelligence level.
Intelligent opinion is that exposure to pornography doesn’t cause harm, at least in the form of rape or undermining morality. This is pretty much in line with the results of the studies mentioned above. On the other hand intelligent opinion is also very slightly against the view that porn has benefits in the form of useful information or being an alternative outlet. In light of the above it should be no surprise that intelligent opinion is in favor of porn being legal. The Smart Vote though is for porn being illegal for those younger than 18 rather than for it to be legal for everyone. Actually watching pornography appears to have no relationship to intelligence.
It is possible however that there is no direct relationship and that these results could however be due to something else - like class, gender or age interests etc. To test this I ran multiple regressions on all these questions controlling for education, income, age and ideology separately for each gender – for whites only, to control for race too. Men are more positive about porn on every question than women.
Among men, only ideology matters with respect to any possible benefits of pornography. Only liberals think it provides useful information or serves as an outlet. Among women, younger and less intelligent women are more likely to agree with liberals.
The Smart Vote holds up strongly on pornography not causing harm – for both men and women – and younger, more educated, higher earning and more liberal people agree that pornography doesn’t cause rape.
The patterns are the same on the issue of pornography not undermining morality and the opinion that porn should be legal. The Smart Vote holds up very strongly again. Younger and more liberal people are more likely to accept both. More educated men are more likely to accept them too but income is not significantly related. Higher earning women are more likely to agree but education levels are not significantly related.
The Smart Vote says pornography is not harmful (and probably not beneficial either) but it cannot tell us which particular choice about pornography consumption is best. Older, and more conservative, men and women are less likely to consume pornography. More educated and lower earning women are also less likely to view X-rated films. In contrast higher earning women with less education are more likely to view X-rated movies.
The smart approach to pornography is to regard its consumption as a minor, largely harmless issue, and making it illegal for adults is stupid. The actual personal consumption of pornography is neither correct nor incorrect, in spite of its proven potential to change relationships.
1. Voluntary Exposure to Pornography and Men’s Attitudes Toward Feminism and Rape, Kimberley A Davies, The Journal of Sex Research, Vol 34 No 2, 1997, 131-137.
2. Pornography and rape: theory and practice? Evidence from crime data in four countries where pornography is easily available. Katchisky B. International Journal of Law Psychiatry, 1991: 14(1-2), 47-64.
3. The pleasure is momentary …. The expense damnable?: The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Ferguson CJ, Hartley RD, Aggression and Violence Behavior 2009, 14(5): 323-329.
4. Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations by Jennings Bryant, Dolf Zillmann.