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How Porn Can Hurt Consumers’ Empathy and Compassion

Research routinely shows that frequent porn consumers are more likely to sexually objectify and dehumanize others. How?

By February 2, 2019No Comments
porn can cause you to lose your compassion and empathy for other people

Empathy is one of humankind’s best traits. We are capable of caring about the unique hardships of other people, even people we have never met. That emotional capacity connects us to the world around us and fuels important causes every day.

This empathic love of others leads to humanitarian aid organizations, anti-human trafficking task forces, and child labor law reformation around the globe, and hundreds of powerful pro-human movements and initiatives.

So wouldn’t it make sense for this human quality to support behavior that grows compassionate love and discourage behavior that diminishes it?

Porn weakens feelings of compassion and humanity

Porn can directly weakens empathy in consumers.

Pornographic scripts—continually suggested normalized patterns of behavior—are inherently objectifying. Despite efforts to curb sexual violence, there remains a high prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, sexual harassment in work settings, and sex trafficking around the world.Gervais, S. J., & Eagan, S. (2017). Sexual objectification: The common thread connecting myriad forms of sexual violence against women. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 87(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000257COPY 

On the surface, these different forms of sexual violence may not appear to be connected to each other. But, in truth, experts are increasingly recognizing that they may all stem from one common source—sexual objectification. Sexual objectification occurs when people perceive others as sex objects, rather than complex human beings deserving of dignity and respect. In fact, in a review of research on sexual violence, two leading experts called sexual objectification the “common thread” that connects different forms of sexual violence.Gervais, S. J., & Eagan, S. (2017). Sexual objectification: The common thread connecting myriad forms of sexual violence against women. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 87(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000257COPY 

And as University of Bath psychology professor Sam Carr says, empathy and sexual objectification are incompatible. To objectify someone is to strip them of their human qualities, those very qualities that invoke our empathy.

Related: How Porn Can Normalize Sexual Objectification

Basically, porn teaches the brain: people are objects for use. Why feel compassion for an object?

And in case you’re thinking that this emotional block happens just toward the people in porn scenes and goes no further, Sam Carr theorizes the exponential effects. Consuming porn teaches the brain this “reality” that lacks empathic concern. The brain does not distinguish between using this new reality with porn actors and using it with the rest of the world. These relational attitudes, Carr says, become embedded in the psyche.

If sexual violence starts with viewing others as sexual objects, then it’s important to discuss the role pornography can play. Research consistently shows that porn can play a big role in teaching viewers to consume people as products for their own personal sexual satisfaction, which can ultimately have unhealthy consequences for individuals, relationships, and for the cultures in which we live.Skorska, M.N., Hodson, G., & Hoffarth, M.R. (2018). Experimental effects of degrading versus erotic pornography exposure in men on reactions toward women (objectification, sexism, discrimination). The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 27, 261 - 276.COPY Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? Media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536-545. doi:10.1037/vio0000198COPY 

BHW - The Heart

To love or to use others?

Porn kills love of others in multiple ways as a result of this mental reprogramming.

Research shows that porn consumption and the resulting attitude of sexual objectification lead to higher levels of violence and aggression, especially toward women. People whose brains are affected by porn are more likely to act out those same pornographic “scripts” in real life, using romantic partners or even strangers for their own pleasure.

In fact, research routinely shows that frequent porn consumers are more likely to sexually objectify and dehumanize others,Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, Facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058COPY Skorska, M.N., Hodson, G., & Hoffarth, M.R. (2018). Experimental effects of degrading versus erotic pornography exposure in men on reactions toward women (objectification, sexism, discrimination). The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 27, 261 - 276.COPY Zhou, Y., Liu, T., Yan, Y., & Paul, B. (2021). Pornography use, two forms of dehumanization, and sexual aggression: Attitudes vs. behaviors. Null, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2021.1923598COPY  more likely to express an intent to rape,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552COPY  less likely to intervene during a sexual assault,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552COPY Foubert, J. D., & Bridges, A. J. (2017). What Is the Attraction? Pornography Use Motives in Relation to Bystander Intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 32(20), 3071–3089. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515596538COPY  more likely to victim-blame survivors of sexual violence,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552COPY Loughnan, S., Pina, A., Vasquez, E. A., & Puvia, E. (2013). Sexual Objectification Increases Rape Victim Blame and Decreases Perceived Suffering. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(4), 455–461. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684313485718COPY  more likely to support violence against women,Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2016). Men's Objectifying Media Consumption, Objectification of Women, and Attitudes Supportive of Violence Against Women. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(4), 955–964. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0644-8COPY Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536-545. doi:10.1037/vio0000198COPY  more likely to forward sexts without consent,van Oosten, J., & Vandenbosch, L. (2020). Predicting the Willingness to Engage in Non-Consensual Forwarding of Sexts: The Role of Pornography and Instrumental Notions of Sex. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(4), 1121–1132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01580-2COPY  and more likely to commit actual acts of sexual violence.Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12201COPY Rostad, W. L., Gittins-Stone, D., Huntington, C., Rizzo, C. J., Pearlman, D., & Orchowski, L. (2019). The association between exposure to violent pornography and teen dating violence in grade 10 high school students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(7), 2137-2147. doi:10.1007/s10508-019-1435-4COPY Goodson, A., Franklin, C. A., & Bouffard, L. A. (2021). Male peer support and sexual assault: The relation between high-profile, high school sports participation and sexually predatory behaviour. 27(1), 64-80. doi:10.1080/13552600.2020.1733111COPY Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, Facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058COPY 

Related: I Stopped Watching Porn When I Stopped Objectifying Women

See how unlikely it is for someone to learn dehumanizing realities from porn and then practice empathy, love, and compassion towards other people when they get offline?

This is not to say that people who consume porn never show love at all, though the brain adapts to what it takes in. So taking in objectification video after video puts mental, emotional, and psychological barriers between the porn consumer and his or her capacity for empathic love.

Fast Facts

For the love of strangers

But porn doesn’t just encourage non-loving behavior in consumers. It also can diminish one’s ability to feel for people victimized by others’ non-loving behavior, such as abuse victims.

Porn desensitizes consumers to dehumanizing behavior. This could lead to a serious lack of love for those who have experienced trauma and degradation—people who need love, care, and respect more than anything.

And it isn’t just others you know well who need you to hear their stories with love, like coworkers or romantic partners. From the girl walking down the street past you to the woman being trafficked a hemisphere away, it is healthy and helpful to truly hear their stories, see their situations, and take them seriously.

Consumers may feel less compassionate concern for strangers’ plights if their brain is undergoing porn’s relentless school of objectification.

Back to those amazing traits unique to human beings—empathy, compassion, love. It’s one of the craziest awesome things we do when we stand up in genuine concern for people we don’t know at all. When we hear a story about a people group that isn’t our own that’s suffering from violence or exploitation and we are moved with love and care for them—that’s authentic humanity and real love.

It’s worth considering what it takes to grow that compassion and ditch callousness. It is, after all, difficult to use other people for hours on a computer and then turn around to selflessly fight for other peoples’ safety, happiness, and value.

Related: Are You Objectifying People Without Realizing It?

Compassionate love enriches the world, others’ lives, and our own lives, while objectification leads to isolation and suffering.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that research shows that feeling sexually objectified is linked to a variety of negative psychological outcomes including body shame,Miles-McLean, H., Liss, M., Erchull, M. J., Robertson, C. M., Hagerman, C., Gnoleba, M. A., . . . Papp, L. J. (2015). “Stop looking at me!” Interpersonal sexual objectification as a source of insidious trauma. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39, 390–404. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314561018COPY  eating disorders,Tylka, T. L., & Van Diest, A. M. K. (2015). You looking at her “hot” body may not be “cool” for me: Integrating male partners’ pornography use into objectification theory for women. Psychology of Women Quarterly,39, 67–84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY  and depression.Jones, B. A., & Griffiths, K. M. (2015). Self-objectification and depression: An integrative systematic review. Journal of affective disorders, 171, 22–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2014.09.011COPY 

Fortify

Porn’s unloving stance toward the world

Also worth noting: the porn industry as a whole does not infuse love into the world. It does the opposite.

The porn industry directly fuels human trafficking. It exploits rather than protects children. And it capitalizes on the addictive nature of its material to get consumers coming back for more.

There’s a lot of suffering and injustice in the world. Consuming porn gives social and financial support to an industry that contributes to those global problems.

Consider ditching porn out of love for yourself, your romantic partner, and your friends, but also for love of strangers near and far. Choose love that stands up for authentic humanity, freedom from oppression, and genuine connection.

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