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How Porn Can Promote Sexual Violence

As few as 1 in 3 and as many as 9 in 10 porn videos depict sexual violence or aggression. That’s especially concerning, considering that research indicates that these sexually violent narratives can bleed into consumers’ attitudes and behaviors.

By May 14, 2021June 3rd, 2021No Comments
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Did you know that the average internet user spends over 40% of their waking hours online?DataReportal. (2020). Digital 2020 global digital overview. ( No. 1). Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/DataReportal/digital-2020-global-digital-overview-january-2020-v01-226017535COPY  40%! That’s a lot of time on the internet. Whether streaming a new Netflix series, scrolling through social media, or sending memes to friends, everything we consume communicates a message. So, does the media we consume online actually have an effect on us, or is it passively consumed and then quickly forgotten? Countless researchers have been asking similar questions since the dawn of the internet, and according to their findings, the short answer is “yes”—our internet consumption has an effect on the way we think and behave. From poorer mental healthHökby, S., Hadlaczky, G., Westerlund, J., Wasserman, D., Balazs, J., Germanavicius, A., Machín, N., Meszaros, G., Sarchiapone, M., Värnik, A., Varnik, P., Westerlund, M., & Carli, V. (2016). Are Mental Health Effects of Internet Use Attributable to the Web-Based Content or Perceived Consequences of Usage? A Longitudinal Study of European Adolescents. JMIR mental health, 3(3), e31. https://doi.org/10.2196/mental.5925COPY  to more negative body image,Fardouly, J., & Vartanian, L. R. (2016). Social media and body image concerns: Current research and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 9, 1-5. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.09.005COPY Aparicio-Martinez, P., Perea-Moreno, A. J., Martinez-Jimenez, M. P., Redel-Macías, M. D., Pagliari, C., & Vaquero-Abellan, M. (2019). Social Media, Thin-Ideal, Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating Attitudes: An Exploratory Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(21), 4177. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16214177COPY  studies are increasingly clear that what people consume online has the potential to affect them—both positively, and negatively. So, with that in mind, considering that an estimated 91.5% of men and 60.2% of women consume porn, let’s take a few moments to examine how porn may be affecting its consumers.Solano, I., Eaton, N. R., & O'Leary, K. D. (2020). Pornography Consumption, Modality and Function in a Large Internet Sample. Journal of sex research, 57(1), 92–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2018.1532488COPY 

Violence in porn

To start, let’s talk about the content of porn. Is it mainly sensual but explicit sex, or is extreme content common? One team of researchers with the same question analyzed hundreds of the most popular porn scenes and found that 88.2% contained physical violence or aggression while 48.7% contained verbal aggression.Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C. & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update. Violence Against Women, 16(10), 1065–1085. doi:10.1177/1077801210382866COPY  Another study estimated that nearly 40% of videos analyzed on Pornhub contained visible aggression or violence, while 25% contained verbal aggression.Shor, E., & Seida, K. (2019). 'Harder and Harder'? Is Mainstream Pornography Becoming Increasingly Violent and Do Viewers Prefer Violent Content? Journal of sex research, 56(1), 16–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2018.1451476COPY  And yet another study suggested that 33.9% of videos on two of the world’s most popular porn sites depicted violence or aggression.Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0COPY  And as each of these studies agreed, women were almost always the targets.

Did you follow that?

Even by the lowest estimate, that still means that 1 in every 3 porn videos depicts sexual violence or aggression.Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0COPY  In fact, according to a study that analyzed porn titles alone, 1 out of every 8 titles suggested to first-time users on porn sites described acts of sexual violence.Vera-Gray, F., McGlynn, C., Kureshi, I., & Butterby, K. (2021). Sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online pornography. The British Journal of Criminology, azab035. doi:10.1093/bjc/azab035COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Normalize Sexual Objectification

While some studies have examined violence in porn by analyzing the content of porn videos, others have estimated the prevalence of violence in porn by asking porn consumers how frequently they see certain types of behaviors depicted in the porn they watch. For example, a recent Australian study found that 70% of young people reported frequently seeing men as dominant, 34% frequently see women being called names or slurs, and 11% reported frequently seeing violence or aggression toward a woman that was nonconsensual. Another 13% of young people reported seeing aggressive nonconsensual sex “occasionally” when they watch porn, so together the study found that 1 in 4 young people have had repeated exposure to depictions of violent, nonconsensual sex within the last year of their lives.Davis, A. C., Carrotte, E. R., Hellard, M. E., & Lim, M. (2018). What Behaviors Do Young Heterosexual Australians See in Pornography? A Cross-Sectional Study. Journal of sex research, 55(3), 310–319. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2017.1417350COPY 

While the amount of violence shown in porn is troubling, what is perhaps even more disturbing is the portrayed reactions to that violence. One study found that 95% of the targets of violence or aggression in porn appeared either neutral or appeared to respond with pleasure.Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C. & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update. Violence Against Women, 16(10), 1065–1085. doi:10.1177/1077801210382866COPY  In other words, porn is sending the message that sexual violence is just a part of sexual pleasure.

Porn consumers’ attitudes toward sexual violence

So how does this normalization of sexual violence affect porn consumers? Well, according to neuroscientific studies, with repeated exposure to porn, consumers can become desensitized to some sexual content and may need to consume increasingly extreme content in order to get the same rush as before.Banca, P., Morris, L. S., Mitchell, S., Harrison, N. A., Potenza, M. N., & Voon, V. (2016). Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of psychiatric research, 72, 91–101. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Become An Escalating Behavior

By watching scene after scene of dehumanizing or violent content, it can start to seem normal.Daneback, K., Ševčíková, A., & Ježek, S. (2018). Exposure to online sexual materials in adolescence and desensitization to sexual content. Sexologies, 27(3), e71-e76. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sexol.2018.04.001COPY Ezzell, M. B., Johnson, J. A., Bridges, A. J., & Sun, C. F. (2020). I (dis)like it like that: Gender, pornography, and liking sex. J.Sex Marital Ther., 46(5), 460-473. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2020.1758860COPY  In fact, research indicates that 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, M.N., & Hoffarth, M.N. (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 Adolescent Research, 32(20), 213–243. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558414547097COPY  more likely to victim-blame survivors of 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 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 

In 2016, a team of leading researchers performed a meta-analysis of quality studies on the connection between porn and sexual violence. After analyzing relevant studies on the topic, they concluded that the research left “little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression.”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 

Research also suggests that increased pornography consumption is associated with the enjoyment of degrading, uncommon, or aggressive sexual behaviors.Ezzell, M. B., Johnson, J. A., Bridges, A. J., & Sun, C. F. (2020). I (dis)like it like that: Gender, pornography, and liking sex. J.Sex Marital Ther., 46(5), 460-473. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2020.1758860COPY  Another study indicated that teens often report trying to copy porn in their own sexual encounters, and that the pressure to imitate porn was often an aspect of unhealthy relationships.Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). 'Without Porn… I Wouldn't Know Half the Things I Know Now': A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of sex research, 52(7), 736–746. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2014.960908COPY  And according to a UK survey of over 22,000 adult women, 16% reported having been forced or coerced to perform sex acts the other person had seen in porn.Taylor, J., & Shrive, J. (2021). ‘I thought it was just a part of life’: Understanding the scale of violence committed against women in the UK since birth. VictimFocus. Retrieved from https://irp.cdn-website.com/f9ec73a4/files/uploaded/Key-Facts-Document-VAWG-VictimFocus-2021a.pdfCOPY 

Of course, not all porn features physical violence, but it’s important to recognize that even non-violent porn has been shown to be associated with negative effects like increased sexual aggression.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  And whether or not porn portrays sexual violence, it often glorifies other toxic narratives, including racism, sexism, incest, and the fetishization of marginalized people.

Related: How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding Of Healthy Sex

Now, we want to be very clear in saying that porn does not automatically turn consumers into rapists—porn consumers are not necessarily going to go out and sexually abuse someone just because they watched porn. What we are saying is that porn is playing a role in normalizing sexual violence, which can have devastating real-world consequences. Regular porn consumers might tell themselves that they aren’t personally affected by porn or the toxic messages it perpetuates, but research suggests otherwise. There is no guarantee that porn won’t affect a consumer’s attitudes about sex in unhealthy ways.

A significant portion of the porn consumed by millions of people every day reinforces the message that sexual violence is a normal part of what “good sex” is supposed to be, making it more challenging for many young people to prepare for healthy sexual relationships where their consent and boundaries are respected. As our society continues to reckon with rape culture and the things that perpetuate it, it’s important that we start to recognize the role that porn plays in normalizing sexual violence. Saying no to porn and its problematic narratives helps to build a healthier world.

Need help?

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