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Does Porn Fuel Rape Culture and Sexual Assault on College Campuses?

The sheer volume of porn featuring violence and objectification of its subjects fuels a toxic mentality that normalizes abuse.

What does sexual assault have to do with pornography? Well, turns out they’re more closely linked than people think.

It’s no secret that sexual assault on college campuses is a very serious issue.

In September of 2015, The New York Times reported that a survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities (AAU) showed more than about 23% of female college undergrads at leading universities reported being sexually assaulted by force or when they were incapacitated. This included everything from unwanted touching to rape.

In 2020, a follow-up report was published by the AAU that stated:

“The overall rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent since the student enrolled at the school was 13%, with the rates for women, [transgender/nonbinary/genderqueer individuals], and undergraduate students being significantly higher than for men and graduate/professional students… For the schools that participated in both the 2015 and 2019 surveys, the rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent increased from 2015 to 2019 by 3 percentage points for undergraduate women, 2.4 percentage points for graduate and professional women, and 1.4 percentage points for undergraduate men.”

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Out of a sample of over 100,000 individuals, the numbers from the AAU report make it clear who the most vulnerable population for sexual violence victimization is on college campuses: “The estimate for women undergraduates is nearly three times higher than for women graduate and professional students (25.9% vs. 9.7%).”

RelatedWhy You Can’t Consistently Fight Sexual Abuse Without Also Fighting Porn

(Keep in mind that only 2-8% of rapes are falsely reported, the same percentage as for other felonies. That’s about the same rate as false reports of robbery or stolen cars.)

In other words, according to nearly every national study, an undergraduate woman has between a 1 in 10 and 1 in 6 chance that she will experience rape or attempted rape while in college.

It’s very clear that something very toxic is happening on college campuses. At the very place where students are supposed to be free to learn, discover themselves, and make lifelong friends, instead, too many are being faced with life-changing violence and degradation.

Sigma Nu Fraternity at Old Dominion University in Virginia welcomes new freshman with these disturbing banners.

Sigma Nu Fraternity at Old Dominion University in Virginia welcomed new freshman with these disturbing banners a few years ago.

With more and more survivors coming into the spotlight, universities are forced to acknowledge the problem and work to combat it.

In order to do so, many universities have made attempts to better educate their students on consent (which is incredibly important), yet they seem to be ignoring a toxic everyday activity that is undoubtedly playing a huge role in the normalization of sexual assault: pornography.

If you didn’t know before, college students watch a lot of porn.

RelatedDoes Porn Really Decrease Rates Of Sexual Assault?

One survey polled about 2,500 university students from across the UK, half of whom were between the ages of 16 and 19, and found that 80% of men and 45% of women admitted to regularly watching porn

Colleges in the United States are no different. For example, according to Pornhub “students returning to Ole Miss cause an incredible 35% increase in Pornhub traffic within Oxford, followed closely by Auburn University which increases Auburn, Alabama traffic by 31%.” In other words, that’s a huge spike in web traffic from those areas from college students alone. And it’s the same with big schools all over the country.

Correlation is not causation, of course. How could the national issue of sexual violence on campuses be directly linked to watching porn and porn culture? Let’s review some facts and stats.

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Unacceptable in reality, celebrated in fantasy

Rape Culture is commonly defined as a “social environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

Note that rape culture also applies to male victims of rape and sexual assault.

We don’t have to look any further than the mainstream porn industry to see where sexual violence against women is normalized and excused.

Related: Is Rape Culture Real? Let’s Take A Look At The Evidence

Consider the titles of popular porn videos that can be found with a simple Google search: “Stupid wh— taught to listen as she is f— in the a—,” 2.9M views. “Drunk s— degraded and gets what she deserves.” “Wh— raped and humiliated.” These are just the start of easily accessible porn videos with millions of views that fetishize, normalize, and even celebrate sexual violence against women, selling it as a fantasy instead of the real nightmare that it is.

The sad fact is, violent videos that normalize and fantasize abuse are more of the rule and less of the exception in today’s violent mainstream porn.

Here’s some research to back that up.

One team of researchers 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 45.1% of Pornhub videos and 35.0% of videos on XVideos 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 more than 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 

Violence in porn isn’t a rare exception, it’s the selling point.

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.

And multiple studies have found that exposure to both violent and nonviolent porn is associated with increased aggressive behavior, including both having violent fantasies and actually committing violent assaults.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:10.1111/Jcom.12201Copy  DeKeseredy, W. (2015). Critical Criminological Understandings Of Adult Pornography And Women Abuse: New Progressive Directions In Research And Theory. International Journal For Crime, Justice, And Social Democracy, 4(4) 4-21. Doi:10.5204/Ijcjsd.V4i4.184Copy Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., & Giery, M. A. (1995). Exposure To Pornography And Acceptance Of The Rape Myth. Journal Of Communication, 45(1), 5–26. Doi:10.1111/J.1460-2466.1995.Tb00711.XCopy 

In 2016, a team of leading researchers compiled all the research they could find on the subject.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:10.1111/Jcom.12201Copy  After examining twenty-two studies 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 [favorable] to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression.”

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Porn and violence fuel each other

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: Is There A Connection Between Porn Culture And Rape Culture?

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, 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 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.

Addressing a real part of the problem

With our generation being raised on porn and with reportedly 64% of college-age consumers watching pornography weekly,Michael Lahey, Porn University: What College Students Are Really Saying About Sex on Campus (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2009).Copy  is it any wonder that this dehumanizing violence keeps happening?

No, not even close to every porn consumer will become a violent rapist. It can’t be ignored, even still, that porn often normalizes and fantasizes the realities of sexual assault and sexual violence.

Ending sexual assault as a society needs to include recognizing a fueling factor of this existing violence: porn.

Related: Does The Porn Industry Really Care About Empowering Women?

If we’re really going to tackle the issue of sexual abuse as a society, we need to be aware of all the places where this harmful behavior is normalized, and even promoted. The same kind of behavior that many college sexual assault and rape survivors endured is easily accessible for anyone with internet to watch.

How is that acceptable? This is why we’re speaking out and shining a light on the connection between porn and making fantasy out of abusive situations.

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