It’s no secret that some porn is violent, but most people think that’s something different from mainstream pornography—something out on the fringe. Not all porn is the same, its defenders say. People can choose what they like, and if they’re into violent stuff, that’s their business, right?

It’s true that not all porn is the same, but the reality is that the majority of even the most mainstream porn is packed full of women being physically and verbally abused—and watching it takes a serious toll on the user.

A few years ago, a team of researchers looked at the most popular porn films—the ones bought and rented most often. [1] From that group, they randomly picked 50 and analyzed them. Of the 304 scenes the movies contained, 88% contained physical violence. On top of that, 49% contained verbal aggression. In total, only one scene in 10 didn’t contain any aggression, and the typical scene averaged 12 physical or verbal attacks. One action-packed scene managed to fit in 128.

Unlike violence in regular movies where someone gets punched, gets mad, and fights back, 95% of the victims of aggression in the porn scenes either were neutral or responded with pleasure. And while the targets were women 94% of the time, when a man was the victim, he was four times more likely than his female costars to be upset at his attacker.

In other words, in porn, women are getting beat up and they’re smiling about it.

For porn users, even those that manage to avoid violent material, it’s difficult not to be influenced. Study after study has found that watching even non-violent porn is correlated with the user being more likely to use verbal coercion, drugs, and alcohol to push women into sex. [2] And those who consistently look at non-violent porn are more likely to support statements that promote abuse and sexual aggression of both women and girls. [3] Much of even non-violent porn portrays a power difference between partners where men are in charge and women are submissive and obedient. Viewing this type of dehumanizing submission makes dominance seem normal and can set the stage for eventual acceptance of verbal and physical aggression. [4]

And the changes don’t always stop with the user’s attitude. An analysis of 33 different studies found that exposure to both non-violent and violent porn increases aggressive behavior, including both having violent fantasies and actually committing violent assaults. [5]

Not surprisingly, the more violent the porn, the more likely the user is to support and act out violence. [6]

If you’re wondering how sitting in a chair watching porn can actually change what a person thinks and does, the answer goes back to how porn changes the brain (See Porn Changes the Brain). Our brains have what scientists call “mirror neurons”—brain cells that fire not only when we do things ourselves, but also when we watch other people do things. [7] This is why movies can make us cry or get scared; or why some people can get so emotionally involved in watching a football game on TV. When a person is watching porn, their brain is busy wiring together whatever is happening on the screen to sexual arousal—in many ways just like if a person was actually doing what they are watching. [8] So if they’re watching a woman get kicked around and called names while feeling aroused, they’re more likely to associate that kind of violence with being sexy. [9] Even when porn isn’t violent, viewers are learning to see other people as nothing more than objects made to be used for sexual pleasure. [10]

To make matters worse, when porn shows the victims of violence accepting or enjoying being hurt, the person watching is learning that people want and like to be treated that way, giving viewers added permission to act that way themselves. [11]

That education leads to behavior changes that range from being more likely to verbally harass women, [12] to problems as serious as rape. The scary truth is that both non-violent and violent porn make users more likely to support violence against women and to believe that women enjoy being raped, [13] and those beliefs have been found across several research studies to be predictive of a person being sexually aggressive in real life. [14] With violent and rape porn, the associations get particularly strong. [15] In fact, one study found that those who reported higher past exposure to violent porn were six times more likely to report having raped someone than those that had low past exposure. [16]

Of course, not every porn watcher is going to turn into a rapist, but that doesn’t mean pornography use isn’t still associated with a wave of violence on a massive scale. The vast majority of the porn viewed by millions of people every day is teaching that humiliation and violence are a normal part of what sex is supposed to be [17]—and that education is changing what happens in bedrooms around the world. [18] It’s making it harder for many men to feel aroused unless they can do the things they’ve seen in porn [19], and it’s leaving women feeling like they can’t express the pain it’s causing them. [20] And the more porn teaches us that aggression is a part of sex, the more that violence is being made invisible. [21]

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[1] Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Chyng, S., and Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update. Violence Against Women 16, 10: 1065–1085.

[2] Boeringer, S. B. (1994). Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Associations of Violent and Nonviolent Depictions with Rape and Rape Proclivity. Deviant Behavior 15, 3: 289–304; Check, J. and Guloien, T. (1989). The Effects of Repeated Exposure to Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, and Erotica. In D. Zillmann and J. Bryant (Eds.) Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations (pp. 159–84). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Marshall, W. L. (1988). The Use of Sexually Explicit Stimuli by Rapists, Child Molesters, and Non-Offenders. Journal of Sex Research 25, 2: 267–88.

[3] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., and Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression and Behavior 36, 1: 14–20; Berkel, L. A., Vandiver, B. J., and Bahner, A. D. (2004). Gender Role Attitudes, Religion, and Spirituality as Predictors of Domestic Violence Attitudes in White College Students. Journal of College Student Development 45:119–131; Zillmann, D. (2004). Pornografie. In R. Mangold, P. Vorderer, and G. Bente (Eds.) Lehrbuch der Medienpsychologie (pp.565–85). Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe Verlag; Zillmann, D. (1989). Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography. In D. Zillmann and J. Bryant (Eds.) Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations (p. 155). Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

[4] Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Berkel, L. A., Vandiver, B. J., and Bahner, A. D. (2004). Gender Role Attitudes, Religion, and Spirituality as Predictors of Domestic Violence Attitudes in White College Students. Journal of College Student Development 45:119–131; Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., and Giery, M. A. (1995). Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of the Rape Myth. Journal of Communication 45, 1: 5–26.

[5] Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., and Giery, M. A.  (1995). Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of the Rape Myth. Journal of Communication 45, 1: 5–26.

[6] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., and Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression and Behavior 36, 1: 14–20; Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., and Giery, M. A.  (1995). Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of the Rape Myth. Journal of Communication 45, 1: 5–26.

[7] Rizzolatti, G. and Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169–192.

[8] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 101.

[9] Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books; Malamuth, N. M. (1981). Rape Fantasies as a Function of Exposure to Violent Sexual Stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior 10, 1: 33–47.

[10] Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 80; Berkel, L. A., Vandiver, B. J., and Bahner, A. D. (2004). Gender Role Attitudes, Religion, and Spirituality as Predictors of Domestic Violence Attitudes in White College Students. Journal of College Student Development 45:119–131.

[11] Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s Effect on Interpersonal Relationships. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 89-110). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Marshall, W. L. (2000). Revisiting the Use of Pornography by Sexual Offenders: Implications for Theory and Practice. Journal of Sexual Aggression 6, 1 and 2: 67.

[12] Barak, A., Fisher, W. A., Belfry, S., and Lashambe, D. R. (1999). Sex, Guys, and Cyberspace: Effects of Internet Pornography and Individual Differences on Men’s Attitudes Toward Women. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 11, 1: 63–91.

[13] Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Milburn, M., Mather, R., and Conrad, S. (2000). The Effects of Viewing R-Rated Movie Scenes that Objectify Women on Perceptions of Date Rape. Sex Roles 43, 9 and 10: 645–64; Weisz, M. G. and Earls, C. (1995). The Effects of Exposure to Filmed Sexual Violence on Attitudes Toward Rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 10, 1: 71–84; Ohbuchi, K. I., et al. (1994). Effects of Violent Pornography Upon Viewers’ Rape Myth Beliefs: A Study of Japanese Males. Psychology, Crime, and Law 7, 1: 71–81; Corne, S., et al. (1992). Women’s Attitudes and Fantasies About Rape as a Function of Early Exposure to Pornography. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 7, 4: 454–61; Check, J. and Guloien, T. (1989). The Effects of Repeated Exposure to Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, and Erotica. In D. Zillmann and J. Bryant (Eds.) Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations (pp. 159–84). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Check, J. and Malamuth, N. M. (1985). An Empirical Assessment of Some Feminist Hypotheses About Rape. International Journal of Women’s Studies 8, 4: 414–23.

[14] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., and Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression and Behavior 36, 1: 14–20; Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Boeringer, S. B. (1994). Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Associations of Violent and Nonviolent Depictions with Rape and Rape Proclivity. Deviant Behavior 15, 3: 289–304; Check, J. and Guloien, T. (1989). The Effects of Repeated Exposure to Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, and Erotica. In D. Zillmann and J. Bryant (Eds.) Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations (pp. 159–84). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Marshall, W. L. (1988). The Use of Sexually Explicit Stimuli by Rapists, Child Molesters, and Non-Offenders. Journal of Sex Research 25, 2: 267–88.

[15] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., and Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression and Behavior 36, 1: 14–20.

[16] Boeringer, S. B. (1994). Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Associations of Violent and Nonviolent Depictions with Rape and Rape Proclivity. Deviant Behavior 15, 3: 289–304.

[17] Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s Effect on Interpersonal Relationships. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 89-110). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books; Layden, M. A. (2004). Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science and Space, U.S. Senate, Hearing on the Brain Science Behind Pornography Addiction, November 18.

[18] Ryu, E. (2004). Spousal Use of Pornography and Its Clinical Significance for Asian-American Women: Korean Women as an Illustration. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 16, 4: 75.

[19] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.

[20] Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Wolf, N. (2004). The Porn Myth. New York Magazine, May 24.

[21] Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s Effect on Interpersonal Relationships. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 89-110). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute.