Recently it was reported that Pornhub had made a short adult film featuring a couple having sex on a polluted beach. If this seems like an odd (and frankly unsexy) idea, then bear in mind that every time the video is watched, Pornhub will donate money to Ocean Polymers, a non-profit company that seeks to remove plastic waste from the ocean. Porn companies aren’t generally known for their charitable giving, but if pornography is going to make buckets of money, why not siphon some of that off to good causes?
As if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, two columnists in the Spectator announced that they were entirely opposed to this idea. The authors are not entirely clear about what’s wrong with Pornhub donating part of its profits to charity, other than that they think pornography is bad and shouldn’t exist in the first place. This is a bit of a non-sequitur, but it is one that relies on dubious claims about pornography’s range of negative causal effects.
Do the data support the idea that porn can have negative influences? For the most part, the Spectator article cites anti-porn activist groups and websites, Twitter polls, Wikipedia, and anecdotes. Even the National Center on Sexual Exploitation isn’t, in fact, a government agency but an anti-porn lobbying group (formerly named Morality in Media).
Although not a central focus of the Spectator’s piece, an age-old critique of pornography is that such media might contribute to violence toward women or misogyny. This is probably the most researched area in pornography effects, and one that gets the most attention. As with all areas of social science, finding absolute consistency is difficult. Further, much of the research is hampered by serious theoretical and methodological limitations that make conclusions difficult.
Criminologist Richard Hartley and I reviewed this literature about 10 years ago and found little evidence that consuming pornography is causally linked to aggression toward women. What is clear is that cross-nationally, more permissive attitudes toward pornography are correlated with steep declines in rape and other kinds of violence toward women. Regarding attitudes more generally, some evidence suggests that pornography consumption may actually be related to greater egalitarianism. None of this is necessarily causal, of course. More egalitarian attitudes toward women and greater tolerance of sexualized media may go hand-in-hand as part of a more liberal society. However, we just don’t see evidence that the widespread availability of pornography that began in the 1990s unleashed a mass wave of violence toward women. So, this issue is most easily laid to rest.
The Spectator article focuses a bit more on outcomes such as pornography addiction and erectile dysfunction. It’s important to note that pornography addiction isn’t a recognized diagnostic category. Undoubtedly, some people overdo porn to the point that it impacts their lives. However, that’s true for many other pleasurable activities—ranging from food to exercise, work, shopping, even dancing and fishing—and there’s no particular evidence that pornography is especially addictive. Recent efforts to claim other technology such as video games might be addictive resulted in significant controversy among scholars. Framing media as addictive is largely a mistake. Usually, in cases where an individual overdoes a pleasurable activity, it is a consequence rather than the cause of other underlying mental health issues. Over-indulgence can be an escape from pain. Getting to the root of that pain is often more helpful than scapegoating technology.
More intriguing is the article’s claim that pornography use is associated with erectile dysfunction. Is porn making it more difficult for us men to have sex? Research in support of this claim is currently lacking. One 2015 study found little evidence that pornography use was associated with sexual dysfunction among young, heterosexual men. Another 2015 study found that viewing pornography had little impact on erectile dysfunction and actually increased sexual desire among young men. Other evidence suggests nuanced relationships between pornography, masturbation, and relationship intimacy. Pornography can sometimes be used to fulfill desires not met in a struggling relationship, but to suggest that pornography is the root cause does not appear to be warranted. This is an interesting area for further study, but to claim without qualification that pornography use is associated with erectile dysfunction is not defensible from the available data.
So, pornography does not in fact “fr[y] our brains as well as our sexual drives” as the Spectator article claims.
The authors are arguably on firmer ground when discussing the health and well-being of those who perform in pornography. Given the social stigma still widely associated with the profession, it should not be surprising that performers frequently feel marginalized and, as such, bereft of government protection from predatory business practices. Further, there is undoubtedly a selection effect at work, whereby individuals with preexisting mental health or substance abuse issues may be more likely, as a consequence of their own stigmatization, to find themselves involved in sex work than individuals without them.
Part of the problem is that society tends to affect concern about the welfare of sex workers, on one hand, and then shun them when they attempt to rehabilitate themselves on the other. For instance, former pornographic actress Bree Olson has said that society’s shunning of her and fellow actresses was far worse than her experiences in the industry itself. Other actresses report similar difficulty transitioning back to regular careers after a time in porn, with the subsequent societal shaming far more serious than their experiences in porn itself. It’s hypocritical for society to argue that sex work is bad because former performers will be shamed, but then create exactly those shaming conditions.
There’s a great argument to be had for finding ways to provide extra support for workers in the porn industry, including aiding them in transitioning to regular society when they retire. This should include access to mental health and health services, financial training, and help in planning to transition out of sex work. However, most pornographic performers are contractors and finding a system for protecting contractors requires a lot of thought. It may be possible to work with the porn industry to, for instance, provide mental health, substance abuse, and health services in exchange for guaranteeing First Amendment protections for porn.
First, though, we need to drop the dialogue that pornography is a public health crisis, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. At present, at least 16 US states have declared porn a public health issue, efforts that were in large part driven by the pressure group National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media) according to news media. This simply creates greater stigma for porn workers and makes helping them more, not less, difficult. It’s not difficult to identify the social pressure that result in bad law: few politicians want to take a strong stand in defense of pornography. That would be catnip to their opponents in the next election cycle.
Unfortunately, this creates a treadmill of nonsense pseudo-science claims about the impact of pornography that dates back to the Meese Commission of the 1980s, at least. This commission, under the auspices of the Reagan administration, declared pornography a menace to society, but was so stacked with anti-porn crusaders and so resistant to actual data, it is largely considered an embarrassment among media researchers today. And yet, we’ve learned very little over the ensuing 30 years.
It’s fine to be morally opposed to porn, of course. But there’s little evidence it’s harmful in a public health sense. Further, if we’re concerned about the welfare of pornographic performers, the first step we need to take as a society is to develop the ability to welcome them back into society once they decide to retire. Until we are willing to take these steps, not much is going to change regarding our societal attitudes toward porn.
This also means that accepting efforts by porn distributors to engage in charitable practices isn’t a bad thing. Sure, these efforts are probably cynical and more concerned with public relations than saving the planet. But looking down our noses at such efforts merely isolates the porn industry further. If a hand is extended, we should take it. Only then can dialogue, particularly that directed toward improving the lot of sex workers, truly begin.
Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide Kings. His forthcoming book How Madness Shaped History will be out in January 2020. You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111