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Is There a Connection Between Violent Crime and Watching Porn?

There is a common behavior among people who commit heinous crimes—they often have a high interest in porn and a long history with it. But is it as simple as that?

By September 10, 2019June 30th, 2020No Comments

The purpose of this article is not to infer that those who watch porn will become violent criminals. There is simply no way to know if watching pornography will give someone the motivation to rape, murder, or anything else for that matter. The purpose of this article to talk about what we do know, and to give visibility to the existing science and research.

Are studies starting to show how pornography is related to violent sexual behavior? Yes, in a way.

Watching even nonviolent pornography is correlated with the consumer being more likely to use verbal coercion, drugs, and alcohol to push women into sex. [1] An analysis of 33 different studies found that exposure to both non-violent and violent porn increases aggressive behavior, including having violent fantasies and even actually committing violent assaults. [2] As a start, that’s pretty compelling evidence.

Related: How Violent Porn Fueled A 400% Rise In Child-On-Child Assaults In The UK

Still, consider how it’s no surprise then that people who already have violent tendencies are perhaps more affected by pornography.

We recently posted our interview with Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted by Brian Mitchell at age 14 in 2002, held captive, and repeatedly raped and tortured over the course of nine months. She was finally rescued when she was spotted in public with Mitchell. In the interview, Elizabeth talks about how pornography made her “living hell worse.”

One day, he pulled out a magazine filled with hardcore pornography and forced her to look at it and then reenact it. Here’s her story, in her own words.

Of course, we are not claiming that pornography automatically turns people into kidnapping rapists, because the reality is that probably 99.9% of the people who look at pornography are regular every day people with regular every day lives, people who are not going to go out and commit a crime because of what they watch online.

However, as research and current events are showing, there is a common behavior among people who commit heinous crimes–they often have an unusually high interest in porn and usually have a long history with it that typically extends back to their childhood.

Related: How My Partner’s Violent Porn Habit Fueled His Anger And Aggression

A popular example that we see used all the time to “prove” that porn causes violent behavior is the infamous story of serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy.

Did porn turn Ted Bundy into a rapist and killer?

There’s been a lot of talk since we became an organization 10 years ago about how the crimes Ted Bundy is known for today may connect with a deep, dark porn past. Where does this shocking information come from?

In the last interview he gave before he was executed, he talked extensively about the impact porn had on him in his formative years and how he became desensitized to the objectification and abuse of women early on.

“The most damaging kinds of pornography are those that involve violence and sexual violence,” he said.

But this is a serial killer we’re hearing from who also had sociopathic tendencies, likely telling well-known anti-porn activist Dr. James Dobson what he wanted to hear, so we need to take what he said in this interview with a grain of salt—while also considering the facts.

Before we go any further, we should note that we do not believe a porn habit automatically turns people into serial killers without any other factors. We also do not believe every porn consumer will develop violent tendencies, nor will every consumer become addicted.

Related: Is There A Connection Between Porn Themes And Sex Offender Characteristics?

That being said, there are massively important facts about how violent porn—which has become mainstream—impacts our world today in measurable, real ways.

Whether porn drove Brian Mitchell to abuse Elizabeth or Ted Bundy was telling the truth in his last interview or not, there’s a lot of research to take into consideration. Here are three points worth considering.

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1. Even non-violent porn can affect consumers

Consider that even non-violent porn has been shown to have effects on consumers.

The vast majority of porn—violent or not—portrays men as powerful and in charge; while women are submissive and obedient. [3] Watching scene after scene of dehumanizing submission makes it start to seem normal. [4] It sets the stage for lopsided power dynamics in couple relationships and the gradual acceptance of verbal and physical aggression against women. [5] Research has confirmed that those who consume porn (even if it’s nonviolent) are more likely to support statements that promote abuse and sexual aggression toward women and girls. [6]

2. Consuming violent porn is connected with aggressive behavior.

But porn doesn’t just change attitudes; it can also shape actions. Study after study has shown that consumers of violent and nonviolent porn are more likely to use verbal coercion, drugs, and alcohol to coerce individuals into sex. [7] And multiple studies have found that exposure to both violent and nonviolent porn increases aggressive behavior, including both having violent fantasies and actually committing violent assaults. [8]

In 2016, a team of leading researchers compiled all the research they could find on the subject. [9] 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.”

RelatedWhy Does Porn Get A Free Pass To Capitalize Off Of These Unacceptable Categories?

If you’re wondering how sitting in a chair consuming porn can actually change what a person thinks and does, the answer goes back to how porn affects the brain (See How 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. [10] This is why movies can make us cry or feel angry or scared. Essentially, mirror neurons let us share the emotion of other people’s experiences as we watch. So when a person is looking at porn, he or she naturally starts to respond to the emotions of the actors seen on the screen. As the consumer becomes aroused, his or her brain gets to work wiring together those feelings of arousal to what is seen happening on the screen, almost as if he or she was actually having the experience. [11] So if a person feels aroused watching a man or woman get kicked around and called names, that individual’s brain learns to associate that kind of violence with sexual arousal. [12]

To make matters worse, when porn shows victims of violence who seem to accept or enjoy being hurt, the viewer is fed the message that people like to be treated that way, giving porn consumers a sense that it’s okay to act aggressively themselves. [13]

BHW - General

3. Porn convinces consumers that violence is sexy and acceptable.

Consumers might tell themselves that they aren’t personally affected by porn, that they won’t be fooled into believing its underlying messages, but studies suggest otherwise. There is clear evidence that porn makes many consumers more likely to support violence against women, to believe that women secretly enjoy being raped, [14] and to actually be sexually aggressive in real life. [15] The aggression may take many forms including verbally harassing or pressuring someone for sex, emotionally manipulating them, threatening to end the relationship unless they grant favors, deceiving them or lying to them about sex, or even physically assaulting them. [16]

Related: The Alarmingly Similar Ways Porn And “Fifty Shades” Romanticize Abuse

And remember that porn use frequently escalates over time, so even if consumers don’t start out watching violent porn, that may change. (See Why Consuming Porn Is An Escalating Behavior.) The longer they consume, the more likely they’ll find themselves seeking out increasingly shocking, hardcore content. [17]

Not surprisingly, the more violent the porn they consume, the more likely they will be to support violence and act out violently. [18] In fact, one study found that those with higher exposure to violent porn were six times more likely to have raped someone than those who had low past exposure. [19]

What does all of this matter to the average consumer?

So, did porn make Ted Bundy into what he grew to be? Did Brian Mitchell become what he was because of porn’s influence?

We know this will sound lame, but there’s no real way for us to know. But if he did have a heavy porn habit, it likely didn’t sway him away from his already dangerous tendencies given what we know from decades of research by major institutions.

Not only that, we do not believe every porn consumer is going to turn into a Ted Bundy or Brian Mitchell because of the availability and accessibility of violent porn—but that doesn’t make porn blameless or harmless. It can no longer be denied that pornography is hitting society with a tidal wave of dehumanizing violence, and we’re just beginning to understand the real-life impacts of it.

You don’t have to agree with the research to understand something else important: it makes no sense for our society to accept the messages of porn, while at the same time calling for full gender equality and an end of sexual assault. Many of those who acknowledge Bundy or Mitchell’s violent behavior will likely also log on to their favorite porn site days or hours later and consume content that fetishizes disturbing sexual abuse, and worse.

RelatedAn Author’s Disturbing Experiences Interviewing Porn Producers At The Adult Entertainment Expo

A large portion of the porn consumed by millions of people every day is reinforcing the message that humiliation and violence are normal parts of what sex is supposed to be. [20] It’s wiring the minds and expectations of the upcoming generation, making it harder for many young people to prepare for loving, nurturing relationships [21] and leaving both women and men feeling like they can’t express the pain it’s causing them. [22]

This is why we exist, as an organization, to raise awareness that porn is anything but harmless personal entertainment. Given the growing body of research, porn is, at best, a sure way to hurt your relationships, and at worst, a normalizer and fueling factor of sexual violence. Consider the facts before consuming.

Citations

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] 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.V4i4.184; 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. Doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.960908; Layden, M. A. (2010) Pornography And Violence: A New Look At The Research. In Stoner, J. & Hughes, D. (Eds.), The Social Cost Of Pornography: A Collection Of Papers (Pp. 57-68). Princeton, N.J.: Witherspoon Institute; Ryu, E. (2008). Spousal Use Of Pornography And Its Clinical Significance For Asian-American Women: Korean Woman As An Illustration. Journal Of Feminist Family Therapy, 16(4), 75. Doi:10.1300/J086v16n04_05; Shope, J. H. (2004). When Words Are Not Enough: The Search For The Effect Of Pornography On Abused Women. Violence Against Women, 10(1), 56-72. Doi:10.1177/1077801203256003
[4] 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. Doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.960908; Weinberg, M. S., Williams, C. J., Kleiner, S., & Irizarry, Y. (2010). Pornography, Normalization And Empowerment. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 39 (6) 1389-1401. Doi:10.1007/S10508-009-9592-5; Doring, N. M. (2009). The Internet’s Impact On Sexuality: A Critical Review Of 15 Years Of Research. Computers In Human Behavior, 25(5), 1089-1101. Doi:10.1016/J.Chb.2009.04.003; Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence Of Unrestrained Access To Erotica On Adolescents’ And Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality. Journal Of Adolescent Health, 27, 2: 41–44. Retrieved From Https://Www.Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov/Pubmed/10904205
[5] 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., & 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. Doi:10.1353/Csd.2004.0019; 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. Doi:10.1111/J.1460-2466.1995.Tb00711.X
[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. Doi:10.1002/Ab.20328; 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(2), 119–131. Doi:10.1353/Csd.2004.0019; Zillmann, D. (2004). Pornografie. In R. Mangold, P. Vorderer, & 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 & J. Bryant, (Eds.) Pornography: Research Advances And Policy Considerations (P. 155). Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.
[7] 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; Doi:10.1080/01639625.1994.9967974; Check, J. & Guloien, T. (1989). The Effects Of Repeated Exposure To Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, And Erotica. In D. Zillmann & 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. Doi:10.1080/00224498809551459
[8] 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.12201; 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.V4i4.184; 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.X
[9] 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.12201
[10] Rizzolatti, G. And Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review Of Neuroscience 27, 169–192. Doi:10.1146/Annurev.Neuro.27.070203.144230
[11] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered In The Context Of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767. Doi:10.3402/Snp.V3i0.20767; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
[12] 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. Doi:10.1007/BF01542673
[13] 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(1-2), 67. Doi:10.1080/13552600008413310
[14] 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., & Conrad, S. (2000). The Effects Of Viewing R-Rated Movie Scenes That Objectify Women On Perceptions Of Date Rape. Sex Roles, 43(9-10), 645–664. 10.1023/A:1007152507914; Weisz, M. G. & Earls, C. (1995). The Effects Of Exposure To Filmed Sexual Violence On Attitudes Toward Rape. Journal Of Interpersonal Violence, 10(1), 71–84; Doi:10.1177/088626095010001005; 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; Doi:10.1080/10683169408411937; 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. Doi:10.1177/088626092007004002; Check, J. & Guloien, T. (1989). The Effects Of Repeated Exposure To Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, And Erotica. In D. Zillmann & J. Bryant (Eds.) Pornography: Research Advances And Policy Considerations (Pp. 159–84). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Check, J. & Malamuth, N. M. (1985). An Empirical Assessment Of Some Feminist Hypotheses About Rape. International Journal Of Women’s Studies 8, 4: 414–23.
[15] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., & Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography And Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting The Relationship In Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression And Behavior 36(1), 14–20. Doi:10.1002/Ab.20328; Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography And Violence: A New Look At The Research. In J. Stoner & 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. Doi:10.1080/01639625.1994.9967974; Check, J. & Guloien, T. (1989). The Effects Of Repeated Exposure To Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, And Erotica. In D. Zillmann & 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. Doi:10.1080/00224498809551459
[16] 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.12201; 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.V4i4.184; Barak, A., Fisher, W. A., Belfry, S., & 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. Doi:10.1300/J056v11n01_04
[17] Park, B. Y., Et Al. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review With Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. Doi:10.3390/Bs6030017; Kalman, T.P. (2008). Clinical Encounters With Internet Pornography. Journal Of The American Academy Of Psychoanalysis And Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(4) 593-618. Doi:10.1521/Jaap.2008.36.4.593; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
[18] 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. Doi:10.1002/Ab.20328.; 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.X
[19] 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. Doi:10.1080/01639625.1994.9967974
[20] Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s Effect On Interpersonal Relationships. In J. Stoner & 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.
[21] Yoder, V. C., Virden, T. B., & Amin, K. (2005). Internet Pornography And Loneliness: An Association? Sexual Addiction And Compulsivity, 12, 19-44. Doi:10.1080/10720160590933653; Brooks, G. R., (1995). The Centerfold Syndrome: How Men Can Overcome Objectification And Achieve Intimacy With Women. San Francisco, CA: Bass.
[22] Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography And Violence: A New Look At The Research. In J. Stoner & 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.
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