This Guest Piece Was Written By Mahri Irvine, PhD, Director of Campus Initiatives at the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault and Expert on Gender-Based Violence. 10 Minute Read. Trigger warning for graphic descriptions of sex acts, sex abuse, and pornographic scenarios.
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Is Pornography “Just a Fantasy”? Comparing Pornographic Themes and Sex Offender Characteristics

This article contains graphic descriptions of sex acts and pornographic scenarios, and summarizes some key points about pornography and perpetrators of sexual violence. I hope this article will help you better understand some connections between pornography and sexual violence.

What do we know about pornography?

Mainstream, popular pornography websites consistently feature videos that promote sexual violence and violence, more often than not against women.

Many of these videos specifically and intentionally promote violent themes including: incest; fathers and stepfathers raping their children; groups of men raping unwitting female victims; abduction and rape; and tricking women into sex by lying to them. Mainstream porn also normalizes and promotes extremely violent behaviors like strangulation; forcing a woman to gag on an object or during oral sex; simultaneously forcing penises or objects into women’s mouths, vaginas, and rectums; and humiliating, belittling, and yelling at women.

Mainstream, popular porn also regularly depicts the following scenarios: women always wanting sex; women saying “no” and initially resisting sex, but eventually changing their minds and enjoying forced sex; and women enjoying humiliating situations, strangulation, and other physical assaults.

Additionally, porn usually focuses on men’s sexual pleasure; women’s orgasms and sexual pleasure are depicted far less frequently than men’s orgasms and sexual pleasure in pornography. A rigorous research study found that the vast majority (88%) of the most popular mainstream porn films showed acts of violence. [8]

Numerous other research studies have found that pornography eroticizes, sexualizes, or normalizes violence, especially sexual violence against women and children, and consumption of pornography makes men less likely to engage in bystander intervention.

Check out these research studies and resources compiled by Fight the New Drug, Dr. John Foubert, and Dr. Michael Flood.

What do we know about perpetrators of sexual violence?

We have ample research that provides us with insights into the psychological and cultural characteristics of perpetrators of sexual violence. This research can help us understand the motivations and rationales of perpetrators.

I have included just a few references in this article, but there are many more that relate to each one of the topics addressed here. For a helpful overview of a variety of research studies about sexual offenders, I recommend reading A Systematic Qualitative Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Sexual Violence Perpetration. [19]

First, there are several important things to know about perpetrators of sexual violence:

  • The vast majority of sexual offenders are men. [6]
  • Somewhere between 6% to 43% of men are perpetrators of various forms of sexual violence; the estimated number of offenders is so wide-ranging in part because research studies use different definitions of rape and sexual violence, and include perpetrators who use different tactics ranging from physical force and drugs to psychological and verbal coercion. [2] [11] [12] [22]
  • Most perpetrators are “repeat offenders,” which means that these men tend to victimize multiple people. [11] [12] [15] [22]

The language that I use in this article is heteronormative; I am exclusively discussing male sexual offenders and the impact of pornography on men. There are some women who perpetrate sexual violence, and many (younger) women watch pornography. However, because the vast majority of offenders are men, I have chosen to write specifically about parallels between the themes in pornography and the characteristics of male offenders.

What are some characteristics of perpetrators?

It is important to understand that there is not just one “perpetrator profile”; we do not have a checklist that we can use to easily identify a perpetrator of sexual violence. However, research has helped us understand that perpetrators do tend to have certain psychological and cultural characteristics.

For example, one of the most well-known and well-supported theories for sexual aggression is referred to as “the confluence model.” The confluence model makes connections between many different risk factors for sexual violence, and concludes that men tend to behave in sexually violent ways due to two different pathways: hostile masculinity and impersonal sexual orientation. [14] The confluence model also acknowledges the impact of adverse childhood experiences, like physical and sexual abuse, on men’s pathways to sexual violence.

So, let’s go into some more detail about characteristics of perpetrators. Again, it’s important to understand that there is not just one “perpetrator profile” in which we can check off boxes to identify a sexual predator, but many offenders have at least some of the following psychological or cultural characteristics:

  • Hostile Masculinity: Men who have “hostile masculinity” characteristics tend to be angry toward women and/or distrust women; believe in traditional gender norms including the notion that men should be dominant and aggressive; have a desire to dominate and control women; and are likely to believe rape myths, especially rape myths about women’s sexual behaviors and desires. [1] [4] [5]
  • Belief in Rape Myths: Rape myths are “attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” [13] Examples of rape myths include: women say “no” when they secretly mean “yes”; women who dress provocatively, flirt, or drink want to have sex; women secretly enjoy being sexually assaulted; men have a hard time understanding women and communicating with women; and men commit rape because they cannot control their sexual impulses or because they are influenced by drugs. Some researchers refer to rape myths as “rape-supportive attitudes.” [2] [9] [18] [21]
  • Impersonal Sex: Men who have a tendency for impersonal sex tend to prefer short-term, frequent, and casual sexual relationships instead of long-term monogamous relationships; do not view sex as an activity that creates emotional closeness between people; view sex as a game to be won or sex as something to be accomplished; and are likely to support the legalization of prostitution. [1] [9] [16]
  • Lack of Empathy: Researchers do not all agree on the definition of empathy, but most researchers would agree that empathy consists of at least two things: an ability to recognize and understand another person’s emotions, and an ability to experience similar emotions in response to recognizing another person’s emotions. When people lack empathy, it is difficult or perhaps even impossible for them to recognize and understand how someone else is emotionally feeling. [4] [7] [9] Objectification and dehumanization of women may also relate to a lack of empathy for women. A recent research study found that men who implicitly dehumanize and objectify women are more willing to rape and sexually harass them. [17]
  • Sexual Narcissism: Men who are sexually narcissistic are willing to manipulate people in order to gain sexual access; believe that they are entitled to sex and have a right to the fulfillment of their sexual desires; have a lack of empathy for their sexual partners and devalue the feelings of their sexual partners; and have grandiose, inflated perceptions about their own sexual skills. [23]
  • Lack of Emotional and Social Attachments: Research also indicates that some sexual offenders come from neglectful or abusive childhoods. [5] [20] [22] Neglect or abuse in childhood might cause some men to have difficulties developing healthy emotional attachments to people.

How might pornography affect men’s perpetration of sexual violence?

Some research studies have demonstrated that consumption of pornography will make men less likely to intervene as bystanders, [10] and there are numerous research studies showing connections between sexual violence and pornography.

Supporters of porn often say that it would be impossible to prove that consumption of pornography causes men to become sexually violent. Other people say that even if there are obvious connections between porn and sexual violence, we are dealing with a “chicken and the egg” question. In other words, we can only prove correlation, and not causation; we can never definitively prove that consumption of pornography causes men to become sexually violent, because it is very possible men who were already sexually violent also enjoy watching pornography.

Even with the limitations of research, however, we can engage our critical thinking skills and identify parallels and similarities between what we know about perpetrators of sexual violence, and what we know about the themes and ideas that are promoted in pornography.

  • Hostile Masculinity: Porn routinely promotes characteristics of hostile masculinity, including depictions of men being angry at women and men seeking revenge on women through painful, unwanted, or humiliating sexual acts. Pornography also frequently promotes traditional gender norms, including the belief that men should be aggressive and dominant, while women should be passive and compliant. It seems likely that if men consistently receive these messages about how men and women are supposed to behave, they will be influenced by these messages in some way. Research about perpetrators reveals that some men view rape as a way to punish women for being assertive, being opinionated, or acting in ways that do not match stereotypical feminine behaviors.
  • Rape Myths: Pornography routinely promotes rape myths, especially myths related to women saying “no” when they secretly mean “yes” and women secretly, or eventually, enjoying physical and sexual assaults, even when they are being humiliated or hurt. If men frequently watch porn that promotes ideas that women enjoy sexual violence and humiliation, they must certainly internalize those ideas to some extent, even if they say that they understand pornography is “just a fantasy.” Many female survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence report that male perpetrators made it clear that they believed in rape myths, especially the myth that women actually want sex even when they say no or use nonverbal communication to try to stop the perpetrators. This exact same situation is frequently depicted in pornography.
  • Impersonal Sex: Pornography promotes casual, fast, impersonal sexual interactions between people. In porn, the characters often do not know one another or have just met, and the plots—if we can be generous enough to say that porn videos even have plots—focus primarily on sexual interactions, especially penetration. Porn’s promotion and normalization of violence, humiliation, and degradation also encourages consumers to think about sex as a game or a competition; in some content, men compete against one another to humiliate or hurt women, while in other content, men work together to assert their dominance and authority over women. All of these behaviors depict impersonal sex: sex that is quick, casual, and disconnected from human emotions like love, friendship, respect, and empathy.
  • Lack of Empathy: Just as pornography promotes impersonal sex, it also frequently encourages consumers to have a total lack of empathy and emotional connection to people as human beings who are worthy of respect. The promotion of a lack of empathy seems abundantly clear: porn directors and producers develop films with themes about incest, child sexual abuse, abduction and confinement of women, torture, humiliation, ejaculation onto women’s faces and breasts, rough and painful anal sex, groups of men penetrating women’s orifices as forcefully as possible—it is very evident that the people who make porn are not striving to encourage empathy among their consumers.
  • Sexual Narcissism: Pornography encourages consumers (both men and women) to focus on men’s sexual pleasure, and often portrays pleasure as forceful penetration and ejaculation. Porn’s constant prioritization of men’s pleasure, along with its constant devaluing of women’s feelings, undoubtedly encourages men to focus on themselves instead of on their partners. Men who are sexually narcissistic believe that they are entitled to sex; such an attitude of entitlement is obviously a red flag for sexual violence perpetration, and it is also a risk factor for physical violence against women, including femicide. For example, consider domestic terrorists like Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger, who murdered women because they were seeking revenge on women who would not have sex with them. Both of these men felt entitled to sex, and when they could not convince women to have sex with them, they sought revenge through murder.
  • Lack of Emotional and Social Attachments: This characteristic could connect to having a lack of empathy and being predisposed to impersonal sex. Pornography usually encourages consumers to focus on men’s sexual pleasure, and sends the message that men’s sexual pleasure, especially orgasm, is a goal to be achieved; porn does not usually promote messages about mutually pleasurable sexual activities in which all people feel respected, happy, and fulfilled. If men are already struggling with forming strong emotional and social attachments, especially because of child neglect or abuse, it is possible that pornography might validate or normalize their lack of healthy attachments to other people. This is because pornography frequently promotes sexual and interpersonal behaviors that discourage people from emotionally connecting with one another. Rather than encouraging men and women (or same-sex couples) to view sex as a way to emotionally connect with other people, pornography sends the message that impersonal sexual activities and violent behavior are normal and acceptable.

Drawing connections between sexual violence and themes in mainstream porn

In summary, pornography frequently promotes hostile masculinity, rape myths, sexual narcissism, and a lack of empathy, and encourages consumers to view sex as an impersonal activity that is devoid of emotional and social attachments.

Conducting research about the impact of pornography is difficult for many different methodological and ethical reasons. Pro-pornography advocates often argue that pornography is just a harmless fantasy. However, as illustrated in this article, there are obvious parallels between the psychological and cultural characteristics of sexual offenders and the prevalent themes in mainstream pornography.

Related: Porn Myth: “Every Desire Can And Should Be Satisfied, No Matter How Harmful”

If you are concerned about rape culture and sexual violence, it is important to ask yourself this question: Even if pornography is just a fantasy and a form of harmless entertainment, why do we think it is acceptable for men to fantasize about and be entertained by violence against women? Why do men think that the common themes found in mainstream pornography—ejaculation on women’s faces, humiliation of women, strangulation, gagging, incest, rape, gang rape, abduction, tricking women into sex, painful anal sex, and multiple men simultaneously penetrating all of a woman’s orifices—are acceptable forms of “fantasy”?

Why would men want to fantasize about behaviors that, in the world outside of pornography, are investigated and prosecuted as violent crimes?

Related: Why Does Porn Get A Free Pass To Capitalize Off Of These Unacceptable Categories?

Rather than spending time watching the promotion of messages that clearly connect to sexual violence, men could instead choose to spend their time building meaningful, emotional, healthy relationships with women and other men.

Every day, we have many opportunities to make choices about how we spend our time and energy. The hope is the info in this article has helped give you some insights into how the messages of pornography are eerily similar to the cultural and psychological characteristics of sexual offenders, and helped you critically think about the decisions you make in your everyday life and supporting toxic porn culture.

Get Involved

Make a commitment to fight sexual exploitation. SHARE this article and raise awareness that fighting against sex trafficking means fighting against porn, too.

If you’re interested in working directly with sex trafficking survivors, HELP International and FTND are offering an all-expense paid volunteer trip to Nepal to the grand-prize winner of our #StopTheDemand campaign. Our Co-Founder and President Clay Olsen is volunteering at the Nepal Shelter in June, and the #StopTheDemand campaign winner will work alongside our Executive Director Natale McAneney during the 11-day August volunteer trip being given away.

About the Author

Dr. Mahri Irvine is an anthropologist who studies and teaches about gender-based violence in the United States. She currently serves as the Director of Campus Initiatives at the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault, and she is an adjunct faculty member for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at American University. You can learn more about Dr. Irvine here, or contact her at [email protected].

Citations

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