pornography has grown more and more sexually explicit

November 30, 2012 5:49 am

Pornography is a delicate matter
I
INTRODUCTION
Pornography, films, magazines, writings, photographs, or other materials that are sexually explicit and intended to arouse sexual excitement in their audience. Deriving from the Greek words pornē(“prostitute”) and graphein (“to write”), the word pornographyoriginally referred to any work of art or literature dealing with sex and sexual themes. Pornography is one of the most controversial forms of expression. Societies have long debated whether pornographic works should be subject to censorship, and the question of how to distinguish between artistic works and pornography has perplexed governments ever since they began to take freedom of expression seriously. In addition, the social consequences of pornography have become the subject of intense debate.
Pornography is not the same thing as obscenity, although people often use the terms interchangeably. Obscenity is a legal concept that applies to those forms of pornography that society considers the most harmful to sexual morality, and that it punishes under criminal law. In the United States, for example, the Supreme Court limits the definition of obscenity to “hard-core” pornographic depictions, meaning extremely explicit portrayals of sex. Thus, pornography is illegal only if judged to be obscene.
Many feminist thinkers, such as Americans Gloria Steinem, Catharine MacKinnon, and Andrea Dworkin, have proposed another definition of pornography, distinguishing it from erotica. Such thinkers define pornography as the “sexually explicit subordination of women” and view it as a form of discrimination against women, not simply a violation of traditional moral norms. Erotica, on the other hand, is sexually explicit material that portrays men and women in postures of equality and mutual respect.
Although little is known about the origins of pornography, it is as old as written records. The ancient Greeks used pornographic themes in songs in Dionysian festivals, and ancient Romans painted pornographic pictures on walls in the ancient city of Pompeii. Pornography was also prevalent in some ancient Eastern cultures, such as those of India, Japan, and China. In medieval Europe, authors used bawdy ballads and verses to ridicule the church, and Il decamerone (1353; The Decameron) by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio was licentious in nature. It was not until the 1800s, however, that pornography began to become a social problem, primarily because the spread of technology—such as printing, photography, and motor vehicles—made it more readily available and because of the growth of democracy and individual freedom.
II
PORNOGRAPHY AND CULTURE
The content of pornography is a function of many things, including culture, history, biology, and technology. Over time, pornography has grown more and more sexually explicit as producers have taken advantage of the freedoms that accompanied the spread of democracy. Although sexual desire is instinctual and biological, representations of sex are shaped by cultural factors, such as the nature of the relationship between men and women, ideals of sexuality, symbols of power and attractiveness, the nature of moral values, the extent of individual liberty, and the availability of various forms of technology.
Some pornography is an expression of the sexual fantasies of the mainstream social order, whereas other types of pornography are more “transgressive,” representing unconventional or dissident forms of sexuality. In both cases, the content of pornography is a reflection (positive or negative) of the culture from which it arises. For example, some scholars have pointed out that pornographic portrayals in the United States have emphasized sexual competition and aggression more prominently than do portrayals in less competitive societies. And some cultures, such as Japan, have been more tolerant of child pornography and violence, although Japanese laws have recently attempted to restrict such material.
Legal definitions of pornography are also a function of culture and politics. Although pornography has grown more explicit and has become more available since the early 20th century, this trend has been punctuated by several episodes of governmental crackdowns on pornography that were due to political movements and reactions to unsettling social change. For example, the rise of antismut societies in the United States, Britain, and Canada between the 1890s and 1920s was partly a response to concerns about the breakdown of moral and social order wrought by economic expansion. The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in 1992 to ban degrading and dehumanizing pornography was related to the mobilization of a feminist and conservative political alliance. A similar movement in the United States, where the civil liberty tradition is stronger, failed to influence the courts.
III
LEGAL STATUS
Since the beginning of the 20th century, court decisions have generally narrowed the range of pornographic material that can be considered obscene or illegal. Each country has its own approach to the law, however, and there is little international coordination despite the fact that pornographic material can be sent instantly anywhere in the world over the Internet.
Child pornography is illegal in nearly all countries, although enforcement varies across the globe. Most countries agree on the basic definition of child pornography: sexually explicit material made with actual minors, usually under 16 to 18 years of age, as subjects. Some countries, including Canada and Germany, prohibit “virtual” child pornography in addition to the “actual” variety. Virtual pornography comes in two forms: depictions in which adult models are made up to look like children, and artistic or computer simulations of children involved in sexual activity. Laws against virtual child pornography are controversial because they can cover a broad range of material, thus raising concerns about their impact on freedom of expression. In addition, the harm caused by virtual child pornography is less direct and obvious than that caused by actual child pornography.
A
United States
A1
Legislation
The Congress of the United States passed the first federal obscenity law as part of the Tariff Act of 1842, barring the importation of all “indecent and obscene prints, paintings, lithographs, engravings, and transparencies.” However, very little obscenity prosecution took place in the United States until after the Civil War (1861-1865). In the late 19th century, prosecutors grew more active as the production of pornographic material increased and new antivice and antismut groups pressured them to bring cases. The most prominent such group was the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which was the offspring of America’s leading antivice crusader, Anthony Comstock.
The so-called Comstock Law, an 1873 amendment to the 1865 Postal Act, prohibited sending any obscene material through the domestic mails, including materials dealing with abortion or birth control. This act made Comstock a special agent to the post office with personal authority to enforce the law. By the time of his death in 1915, Comstock had spearheaded hundreds of successful prosecutions in the name of moral decency, many of which involved works of considerable literary merit. “Comstockery,” as this came to be known, declined after 1920 with the advent of the modern civil liberties movement, but as late as the 1930s classic works such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), by English novelist D. H. Lawrence, and An American Tragedy (1925), by American novelist Theodore Dreiser, were found obscene. It was not until the 1950s, when social mores and court decisions grew more clearly liberal in this domain, that such works enjoyed unambiguous protection against censorship.
Congress passed 20 obscenity laws between 1842 and 1956, most of which were variations of or amendments to the original Comstock Law. Later, Congress passed a series of antipornography and anti-indecency laws dealing with new forms of technology and with the protection of children. The Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977 prohibits anyone from employing or inducing a minor to participate in sexual conduct or in the making of pornography. In 1988 Congress passed legislation against “dial-a-porn” companies that made it illegal to make indecent or obscene phone calls over state lines for commercial purposes. (In 1989 the Supreme Court struck down the part of the law that dealt with indecency.) The Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 made it illegal to distribute or receive child pornography, including virtual child pornography, by any means. (However, in 2002 the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the law that banned virtual child pornography.) Penalties for violation of these various laws range from a few years to 30 years in prison, depending on the circumstances.
The widespread availability of pornography on the Internet has led to a number of legislative attempts to prevent children’s access to it. However, opponents have challenged these laws on the grounds that they are overly broad and infringe on freedom of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In 1996 Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), making it a crime to send any obscene or indecent messages over the Internet knowing that the recipient is under 18 years of age. After the Supreme Court unanimously ruled this law unconstitutional in 1997, Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (known as “son of CDA”), which required commercial Web sites to ensure that children could not access material deemed “harmful to minors.” The act also prohibited, among other things, material that “depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact.” In 1999 a federal appeals court blocked that law as well, citing free-speech concerns. The Children’s Internet Protection Act, passed in 2000, required all public schools and libraries that receive federal technology funds to install filtering software designed to block access to pornographic sites. A coalition of civil liberties groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, argued that filtering software was imprecise and blocked access to Web sites that have nothing to do with pornography. In 2002 a federal judicial panel struck down the Children’s Internet Protection Act, finding that filtering software blocked Web sites whose content was constitutionally protected. However, in 2003 the Supreme Court reversed the lower court and ruled that the law was constitutional and was justified by the government’s legitimate interest in protecting children from harmful materials. The Court noted that the law allowed librarians to enable access to blocked Web sites at the request of patrons, thereby protecting patrons’ First Amendment rights.
A2
The Two Commissions
Two national commissions appointed to study the effects of pornography in the United States show how tolerance of such material ebbs and flows. In 1970 the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, created by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, found no evidence that pornography caused crime or delinquency among adults and youths. Although the commission supported laws prohibiting sales of pornographic materials to children, it recommended eliminating all legal restrictions on the use by consenting adults of sexually explicit books, magazines, pictures, and films. This position was consistent with the dominant liberal view of the time and with much of the social science and psychological literature that was then available. Although the commission’s findings were widely reported, politicians rejected them.
In 1985 Attorney General Edwin Meese III formed another national commission to study the effects of pornography. By this time, society had changed in several ways. Pornography had become even more available; a new generation of social science studies suggested a link between exposure to violent or degrading pornography and male aggression against women in laboratory settings; and new conservative and feminist movements were joining hands to attack pornography. In addition, the membership of the new commission was decidedly more conservative than that of the 1970 commission. Not surprisingly, the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, also known as the Meese Commission, reached strikingly different conclusions than did its predecessor. In its 1986 report, the commission concluded that violent pornography and degrading pornography (pornography showing the “degradation, domination, or humiliation” of women) cause violence and discrimination against women and an erosion of sexual morality. The Meese Commission’s report suffered the same fate as that of the 1970 commission, being largely ignored.
A3
Major Court Decisions
In 1896 the United States Supreme Court, in the cases Rosen v. United States and Swearingenv. United States, ruled that the definition of obscenity should be the same as the one stated in a famous 1868 English case, Regina v. Hicklin. That case defined obscenity as material that has a tendency “to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” Judges could rule a work obscene if even isolated passages fit this definition. This broad test changed in the early 1930s as courts grew more concerned about protecting serious literary treatments of sexual themes. A major turning point took place when federal courts overturned the government’s ban on Ulysses (1922), a book by Irish writer James Joyce that many scholars now consider the most important novel of the 20th century. In the 1933 case United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses,” federal judge John Woolsey declared Ulysses nonobscene and rejected the Hicklin “bad tendency” test in favor of a test that focused on the author’s pornographic intent and the effect on the average reader of the work taken as whole.
In the 1957 case Rothv. United States, which involved a Comstock Law prosecution, the Supreme Court ruled that obscene materials are not protected by the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press. In its decision, the Court also established a new test for obscenity: “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.” (Prurient means marked by impure or unwholesome sexual desire.) This obscenity standard was the first designed to protect the First Amendment rights of materials dealing with sex in a manner not appealing to a prurient interest. Before this time, courts based their interpretations of obscenity on their reading of the relevant statutes without reference to the First Amendment.
During the 1960s the Supreme Court developed more liberal tests for obscenity, and the market in pornography exploded in the wake of the sexual liberation movement. In the 1973 case Miller v. California, a somewhat more conservative Court settled on a three-part test that is now the foundation of obscenity doctrine in the United States: (1) whether the work, taken as a whole, would be prurient according to the average person applying contemporary community standards; (2) whether the work describes sex acts in a patently offensive way; and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Essentially, this test restricts obscene material to “hard-core” pornography that shows sex acts or displays of genitals in a patently offensive way. Although the Miller definition seems to balance libertarian and conservative moral values, it has proved difficult to apply in practice and has not had much impact on the growth and availability of hard-core pornography.
In the 1985 case American Booksellers Association v. Hudnut, a federal appeals court struck down an Indianapolis antipornography ordinance that employed the feminist definition of pornography as the “sexually explicit subordination of women.” The court ruled that the ordinance violated the First Amendment because it was inconsistent with obscenity doctrine and constituted punishment of speech with a particular viewpoint. Experts pointed to the case as evidence that U.S. courts, in determining obscenity, still focus on prurience and have refused to make violence or degradation elements of obscenity law.
In the 2002 case Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, the Supreme Court ruled that two parts of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 violated the First Amendment. The act went beyond previous laws by prohibiting “any visual depiction” that “is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” The Court held that the act’s ban on virtual child pornography, such as computer-generated sexually explicit images of minors, was unconstitutional because pornography could be banned only if it used real children or met the legal test for obscenity. It also invalidated a ban on presenting youthful-looking adults as children in pornographic materials. The Court noted that the act was so broadly worded that it prohibited not only child pornography but also forms of expression with serious literary, artistic, or political value.
The Court’s decision in United States v. American Library Association in 2003 upheld the Children’s Internet Protection Act, the third attempt by Congress to restrict pornography on the Internet. The act required schools and libraries to install filtering software on public Internet terminals as a condition for receiving federal technology funds. Concerns about the software blocking nonpornographic Web sites were misplaced, the Court ruled, because the law allows libraries to restore access to blocked Web sites upon the request of a patron for “bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” The burden placed on these library patrons, the Court said, was “comparatively small” given the legitimate interest of the government in shielding children from inappropriate sexual material.
B
Canada
For most of the 20th century, Canadian obscenity law resembled United States law. The Postal Service Act (1875) and the Customs Act (1879) prohibited the transmission and importation of obscenity through the mails, and in an 1892 addition to the criminal code, Parliament provided criminal punishment for the public sale or exposure of any obscene book. Courts interpreted obscenity and indecency along the lines of the 1868 Hicklin case, which criminalized materials tending to “deprave or corrupt.” As in the United States, an antivice movement influenced prosecutions between 1892 and 1920, and a period of liberalization followed between 1920 and 1950.
In the 1950s concern over the rise of pornographic magazines led Canadian authorities to strengthen obscenity laws. Because the Constitution of Canada did not formally protect freedom of expression until 1982, courts did not limit such movements in the name of constitutional principles, as they began to do in the United States. A 1959 law defined material as obscene if the “dominant characteristic” of the material “is the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence.” This definition is much more expansive than obscenity doctrine in the United States, which does not include crime, violence, horror, or cruelty.
In the 1960s libertarian movements arose in Canada, as they did in the United States, but Canadian movements were less powerful than those in the United States, and the courts were less accommodating of them. Then, in the 1980s, coalitions of conservatives and feminists began pressuring lawmakers to strengthen obscenity law by outlawing violent and degrading pornography. The 1985 report of the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, also called the Fraser Commission, advocated criminalizing such material, but Parliament did not follow suit. However, courts began incorporating the feminist approach on their own in the mid-1980s.
In the 1985 case R. v. Towne Cinema, the Supreme Court of Canada adopted the view that pornography degrades and dehumanizes women, but it was not until R. v. Butlerin 1992 that the Court defined material as obscene if it contains sexual violence, is degrading or dehumanizing, or involves sexual portrayals of children. Canada’s child pornography laws are similar to those in the United States, except that Canada also prohibits virtual child pornography.
Canada has protected pornography and obscenity much less than the United States has. Consequently, pornography is less extensively available in Canada than it is in the United States. However, the restrictions on pornography in Canada have not gone unchallenged. Some scholars have charged that the Butler decision has sanctioned prosecutions of bookstores dealing with gay and lesbian themes, as well as other crackdowns.
C
Other Countries
Legal approaches to pornography and obscenity vary around the world. Britain, for example, designates something as obscene based on its content and on the way it is distributed. Material is obscene if it is likely to corrupt a typical viewer, based on the medium. Thus, something that is not obscene in print might be obscene over the Internet because of the ease with which the Internet can be accessed. Germany, however, makes no distinction between the Internet and other forums. The German constitution imposes a duty on the German legislature to protect youths’ and individuals’ personal honor against the dangers associated with certain forms of speech, so German laws restrict violent materials as well as obscene materials. Denmark, on the other hand, repealed its obscenity laws in 1969.
Approaches to pornography in non-Western societies vary according to societal norms. In authoritarian regimes such as China and Singapore, materials are very restricted. The Chinese Communist government maintains tight control over expression and normally does not allow distribution of sexually explicit material, especially if the government believes the material is detrimental to the Chinese Communist Party’s notion of a good citizen. Until recently, Japanese law tolerated child pornography; the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) estimated in 1998 that up to 80 percent of Internet sites with child pornography originated in Japan. Prior to 1999, the only Japanese statute prohibiting actual child pornography was very limited in its reach, applying only to children under 13 who filed complaints within six months of an incident. A general criminal obscenity law protected minors over 13, but it also specified that the material must depict sexual organs to be considered illegal. Consequently, pornographic materials in Japan often resorted to showing other sexually oriented depictions of children, including abuse or torture, to avoid running afoul of the law. In 1999, partly in reaction to international pressure, Japan’s parliament passed a new law banning the distribution, sale, or public display of child pornography on the Internet or in other forums, as well as the production or possession of child pornography for the purpose of these activities. Penalties for the violation of the law range up to three years in prison and a substantial fine. However, critics complained that it did not criminalize possession of child pornography for private use.
IV
PREVALENCE AND AVAILABILITY
Both the availability of pornography and the growth of the pornography industry have exploded since the 1950s. These trends reflect an increased demand for pornography, greater social and legal tolerance, and the emergence of new technologies for distribution.
In the United States, the pornography industry went “above ground” in the 1950s with the creation of Playboy,which was the first mass-marketed “girlie magazine” (see Playboy Enterprises). By the 1970s many other magazines were available that had much more explicit and hard-core content. Hard-core pornographic movie theaters emerged for the first time in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the mid-1980s, however, pornographic magazines and movie houses were beginning to decline as new technologies emerged that made private viewing possible, especially videocassette recorders (VCRs) and cable television. Since the 1990s the Internet has increased the availability of pornography in the United States and many other countries.
Pornography in the United States is now a multibillion-dollar business. In 1996 Americans spent more than $8 billion on hard-core pornographic materials, such as videos, adult cable programs, computer pornography, sex magazines, and peep shows. About 25,000 stores sold hard-core videos. In 1992 Americans rented 490 million hard-core pornographic videos, a substantial increase from the 75 million rented in 1985. A 1997 study of pornography on the Internet found approximately 34,000 pornographic Web sites. Some studies have maintained that organized crime is deeply involved in the making of hard-core pornography in the United States, Japan, and elsewhere.
Various efforts have been made to control the spread of pornography on television, in movie theaters, and on the Internet. Many countries, such as the United States and Britain, permit restrictions on the content of certain forms of broadcasting beyond those allowed for newspapers, books, and other mediums of expression. (Cable television, however, is exempt from such regulation in the United States.) In addition, broadcasters often engage in self-regulation. Governments have also moved to restrict movie theaters and sex shows by enforcing basic obscenity laws, enacting zoning laws that limit the number of such establishments, and, when relevant, enforcing hygiene laws.
The Internet has posed special problems in two respects: It is easily accessible by minors and it makes it easy to transfer materials over national boundaries with the mere click of the computer mouse. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 in the United States restricted sending sexually indecent statements or images to minors, but the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional for being too broad and vague and thereby abridging the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. Congress subsequently passed new legislation to address this problem. Other countries have passed similar laws. To protect international boundaries, Germany has passed laws that hold local Internet access providers liable for the content of material that enters Germany from servers outside the country, a policy that has been challenged as a threat to the free market created by the Internet. Child pornography on the Internet poses a serious problem. In Japan, for example, where laws against child pornography were fairly weak until recently, a police study in 1997 found that of 3,000 pornographic Japanese Web sites, 40 percent showed images of children. In response to this problem, Japan passed a law in 1999 that outlawed child pornography on the Internet. France has punished Internet access providers that have allowed child pornography to enter France through their systems. Efforts at international policing have yet to make much headway because obscenity and child pornography standards are national, not international.
In the United States and elsewhere, libraries have encountered complaints and regulations, mostly at the state level, designed to limit the access minors have to pornography on library computers. Libraries have defended themselves on First Amendment grounds, and for the most part they have prevailed in court. They have also purchased filtering software designed to restrict minors’ access to certain kinds of sites. Such self-regulation holds promise, although critics of filtering software note that it also blocks many nonpornographic Web sites. For more information on legislation limiting the availability of pornography, see the Legal Status section of this article.
V
ATTITUDES TOWARD PORNOGRAPHY
Attitudes toward pornography generally can be classified into one of four major perspectives: conservative, feminist, postmodern, and liberal. Tensions among these viewpoints have only increased with the quantum leap in availability of pornography on the Internet.
A
Conservative Perspective
The conservative view is based on the traditional foundation of obscenity law, which focuses on how pornography corrupts moral virtue and social order. It takes the position that sexual desire should be restrained by rationality, interpersonal commitment, and responsibility, qualities that are preserved by marriage and commitment to the family. Pornography is a social ill because it encourages impersonal desire and recreational sex, thereby coarsening the relationship between men and women and undermining marriage. In this view, pornography also contributes to sexual violence. The conservative view may be based on religion or on secular moral theory. In the United States, several major religious activists have worked in the antipornography movement, but evangelicals of the New Right have been the most influential, especially since the 1970s.
B
Feminist Perspective
The mainstream feminist perspective rejects the moral and religious views of the conservative approach, focusing instead on how pornography contributes to the inequality and subordination of women in society. In this view, pornography is not about sex but about power; pornography reflects and reinforces male power and sexuality by depicting women as sex objects who exist to fulfill the pleasure of men. Some feminists distinguish pornography from erotica, which is defined as portraying women as equal to men. Not all feminists favor restrictions on pornography, however. Feminists who are against censorship believe that antipornography feminism interprets pornography too narrowly and that it has a repressive potential that allies it with conservatism. Anticensorship feminists, such as American lawyer Nadine Strossen (elected president of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1991), maintain that all forms of censorship endanger women’s equality. In their view, women and minority groups have historically relied upon free speech to promote their claims, so they have joined hands with liberals and civil libertarians in opposing procensorship feminism.
C
Postmodern Perspective
Postmodern critics of censorship, such as Canadian scholars Brenda Cossman and Shannon Bell, accuse both conservatives and procensorship feminists of adopting too simplistic a view of sex, equality, and government controls. Postmodernism is skeptical of all-encompassing explanations of complex social phenomena, so its advocates tend to eschew strong positions on either side of the censorship debate. According to the postmodernist perspective, pornography has many meanings and effects, so it is irresponsible to reduce it to one dominant meaning. Postmodernists also identify with marginalized groups, and they argue that the alliance between feminists and conservatives in Canada has led to repression of gay and lesbian bookstores in the aftermath of the Supreme Court of Canada’s profeminist decision in the 1992 case R. v. Butler. (For more information on the Butler case, see Canada subsection in the Legal Status section of this article.)
D
Liberal Perspective
The liberal and civil libertarian approach tolerates any consensual or voluntary form of adult sexual activity, as long as it does not directly harm others. In this view, making or viewing pornography is a legitimate expression of individual preference. Like postmodernists, liberals tend to interpret pornography relativistically, holding that its meaning and effects often lie in the eye of the beholder. But whereas postmodernists would allow a limited role for state regulation, liberals reject state restrictions on individual choice. Liberal commentators tend to be critical of claims concerning the harmful effects of pornography, whether moral or scientific, whereas postmodernists hold that pornography has harmful as well as beneficial effects.
VI
EFFECTS OF PORNOGRAPHY
The question of how pornography affects human behaviors and attitudes has been a considerable source of controversy and public concern. Opponents of pornography believe it encourages immorality, sexual violence, and negative attitudes toward women, while defenders see pornography for adults as a harmless diversion that may serve to relieve sexual tensions.
Because violent pornography is generally considered more harmful than nonviolent material, the prevalence of violent pornography has become a central issue in considering the overall effects of pornography. However, the findings are inconclusive and sometimes contradictory. Some investigators claim that up to 10 percent of all pornography depicts sexual violence, whereas others maintain that the proportion is as low as 1 percent.
The 1986 U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography concluded that violent pornography “bears a causal relationship to antisocial acts of sexual violence” and that degrading pornography “bears some causal relationship” to violence, sexual aggression, and negative attitudes, such as the myth that women enjoy being raped. Research conducted on subjects (usually male college students) in carefully controlled laboratory settings has provided some support for this assessment of violent pornography, but less support for the commission’s conclusions about nonviolent degrading pornography. To isolate the influence of different factors, experimenters typically expose groups of men to one of four types of films: violent and sexually explicit, violent but not sexually explicit, sexually explicit but not violent, and neither sexually explicit nor violent. After exposure to the films, experimenters often measure subjects’ aggression by testing their willingness to administer simulated shocks to a female colleague of the researchers.
Studies indicate that men who viewed films that were both violent and sexually explicit recorded the highest levels of aggression, followed by those who viewed sexually explicit but nonviolent films. Men record the highest levels of aggression after viewing pornography that portrays women as being sexually aroused by the violence perpetrated against them. According to American researchers Edward Donnerstein, Daniel Lenz, and Steven Penrod, “It is this unique feature of violent pornography—the presentation of the idea that women find sexual violence arousing—that plays an important role in producing violent pornography’s effects.” However, studies have found little correlation between purely erotic nonviolent films and violence or aggression against women.
Although research provides some support for the view that violent pornography is harmful, critics advise caution about these findings for several reasons. First, the evidence shows only correlation between two factors and does not prove that one causes the other. Second, laboratory experiments are done in artificial settings and do not necessarily reflect behavior in the real world. Subjects who behave aggressively in the laboratory do not expect negative consequences as they might in the real world, and subjects might perceive that experimenters condone or even encourage aggression. Also, subjects might not believe that they are inflicting real harm. Third, some studies have demonstrated that the effects of violent pornography usually wear off once subjects leave the lab, suggesting a transient effect. Finally, no studies have measured the long-term effects of exposure to pornography. These long-term studies are necessary before researchers can adequately assess the effects of pornography.
In summary, some evidence exists that exposure to violent pornography, and perhaps also to degrading pornography, causes violence and aggression against women. However, the evidence is inconclusive, and other studies have found no such effects.
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