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National Study Finds Porn Linked to Sexual Aggression and Coercion in Relationships

By April 5, 2021No Comments

There's a vast amount of research on the harmful effects of pornography, and it's important that this information is accessible to the public. Weekly, we highlight a research study that sheds light on the expanding field of academic resources that showcase porn's harms. These studies cover a wide range of topics, from the sociological implications of pornography to the neurological effects of porn-consumption.

The full study can be accessed here.

Diverse Sexual Behaviors and Pornography Use: Findings From a Nationally Representative Probability Survey of Americans Aged 18 to 60 Years

Authors: Debby Herbenick, Tsung-Chieh Fu, Paul Wright, Bryant Paul, Ronna Gradus, Jill Bauer, and Rashida Jones

Published July 2020

Peer-Reviewed Journal: The Journal of Sexual Medicine (2020) 17:623-633

Background

Researchers and journalists have considered whether and how pornographic content and other erotic media may influence people’s interest in or engagement in certain sexual behaviors. These behaviors are sometimes described as reflecting “pornographic sexual scripts” owing to their prevalent depiction in mainstream pornography. Such behaviors include hair pulling, slapping, spanking, facial ejaculation, anal sex, and choking, among others. The present study adds to the existing literature by assessing the prevalence of such behaviors in a U.S. nationally representative probability sample.

To the extent that population-level sexual behaviors may have changed, sexual scripts offer a means of considering such changes and their influences. Sexual scripts are socially constructed ideas or guidelines for sexual behavior; they address how sex unfolds and with what consequences. The sexual script acquisition, activation, application model (3AM) of sexual media socialization proposes that greater exposure to pornography could lead to a greater likelihood of certain sexual behaviors, including those associated with risk. The model has been used in research demonstrating how such risks may be mitigated by other factors.

For example, in a recent study, it was found that adolescents’ pornography use was related to condomless sex only when parents engaged in little to no sexual health communication with their children.

Because people’s sexual scripts can influence their sexual attitudes, beliefs, and ideas about how to behave in partnered sex, the 3AM hypothesizes that sexual media consumption can result in people learning new sexual scripts (sexual script acquisition), the priming of sexual scripts they have previously acquired (sexual script activation), and the utilization of sexual scripts that may then direct their sexual practices or how they feel about others’ sexual practices (sexual script application). In convenience samples, greater pornography use has been associated with a range of sexual behaviors associated with pornographic sexual scripts.

The purpose of the present study was to describe, in a U.S. nationally representative probability sample of Americans aged 18 to 60 years, (i) the self-reported prevalence of diverse sexual behaviors, focusing on those associated with pornographic sexual scripts and grouped here as dominant and target behaviors; (ii) the age at first exposure to pornography as well as the prevalence, range, and frequency of pornography use; (iii) the extent to which past year pornography use frequency is related to engagement in dominant and target sexual behaviors; and (iv) the extent to which lifetime range of pornography use is related to engagement in dominant and target sexual behaviors.

Methods

Data are from the 2016 National Survey of Pornography Use, Relationships, and Sexual Socialization (NSPRSS), a population-based probability survey of 18- to 60-year-old individuals living in the United States. Data collection occurred in fall 2016 and was conducted by Ipsos (formerly GfK Research) using KnowledgePanel, a probability-based online panel constructed using address-based sampling and is thus designed to be nationally representative of noninstitutionalized individuals living in the United States. KnowledgePanel samples have been used for numerous U.S. nationally representative probability surveys on diverse topics including sexual health and behavior.

In all, 6,535 individuals were recruited; 3,622 (55.4%) clicked on the survey link and viewed the study information sheet; and 2,533 (44.9% of those invited) agreed to participate and proceeded to complete the confidential online survey. We suggested that individuals take the survey in a private space. Survey completion times were a median of 15 minutes. Ipsos prepared poststratification statistical weights to adjust for nonresponse or under/over-coverage. Weighted data were used for quantitative analyses.

Results

Using data from a U.S. nationally representative probability survey of 18- to 60-year-olds, the present study describes the prevalence of diverse sexual behaviors, including those associated with what has been called “pornographic sexual scripts.” Significantly more men than women reported having engaged in at least one dominant sexual behavior such as choking, name-calling, spanking, and pressuring someone sexually. In addition, significantly more women than men reported experiencing at least one target behavior, such as having been choked, spanked, sexually pressured, or name-calling.

Women were significantly more likely than men to be called a name during sex such as “bitch,” “slut,” or “whore” (26.1% women vs 13.6% men). Prior research indicates that name-calling is prevalent in porn and that commonly used words are “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore.” This same research shows that female targets of these terms are generally depicted as responding positively, which—as the 3AM would predict—may potentially influence viewers to incorporate name-calling into their sexual scripts. Although some people (especially women) use terms such as “slut” and “whore” to refer to themselves or close friends in an effort to reclaim these words, verbal harassment related to sexual behavior (eg, referring to someone as loose, promiscuous, a slut, and so on) is more commonly applied by men to female targets. Such harassment or name-calling tends to be viewed as harmful or insulting to women when occurring in schools or social settings. Little is understood about how people experience name-calling as part of partnered sexual experiences.

We were struck that one-fifth of women with oral, vaginal, or anal sex experience reported having been choked as part of sex. As no previous population health studies have assessed the prevalence of choking as part of partnered sexual interactions, we cannot know to what extent this may represent a change in population level sexual repertoire. We acknowledge that choking and other forms of asphyxiation are not new, have been previously documented in the literature, and have been previously connected to learning from sexually explicit materials. However, we also note that temporary choking/strangulation has been reported as part of college sexual assaults and in other cases has resulted in death.

In addition, 27% of women and 31% of men who had sex with men reported that a male partner had tried to have anal sex with them without first asking or discussing. This has implications for sexual assault and coercion as well as risk of sexually transmitted infections, since one cannot negotiate condom use if one has not first been given an opportunity to consent to or express interest in a sexual behavior. Although anal sex has become increasingly prevalent, it remains an infrequent behavior in male-female dyads and one for which condoms are less often used as compared with vaginal intercourse.

Consistent with prior research, we found that most respondents reported having seen porn and that the mean age of first exposure to porn was in early adolescence for men but in later adolescence for women. Most respondents watched porn on free sites and via a smartphone; print and paid porn sites were uncommon. These findings underscore the value of contemporary content analyses of porn available through free websites. Among respondents who reported having seen porn, more men than women reported having seen each of the porn types assessed. More than half of male viewers had seen 5 of the 8 genres queried. While it was least common to have seen porn showing simulated rape, even that was not rare as one-fifth of men reported having seen it as did more than 11% of women.

In regard to the relationship of porn use and dominant/target sexual behaviors, we found relationships with both past-year frequency of porn use and lifetime range of porn use and participants’ reporting of dominant and target sexual behaviors. These findings are mostly consistent with findings from convenience samples that have found a relationship between porn use and either engagement in or appeal of dominant sexual behaviors. Subsequent research is needed to further investigate the extent of the effect of porn use on engagement in aggressive/rough sexual behaviors.

Although we lack historical benchmarks to compare many of these sexual behaviors at the population level, we believe that some of these sexual behaviors (eg, choking, aggressive fellatio) may have increased in prevalence over at least the past 10 to 15 years. This is supported by data showing that the greatest lifetime prevalence for most of the behaviors associated with the pornographic sexual script is reported by adults between 18 and 29 years. Regardless of whether our data reflect increasing prevalence, they clearly indicate that a substantial percentage of Americans report having engaged in behaviors often perceived as rough, aggressive, and/or associated with sexual harassment or violence (eg, anal sex without first asking or discussing). Viewed and the dominant and target behaviors. Clinicians, educators, and researchers have unique and important roles to play in continued understanding of these sexual behaviors in the contemporary United States.

The full study can be accessed here.

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