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How Porn can Fuel Sexual Violence by Lessening Empathy in Consumers

The data is clear: porn has the ability to kill empathy in consumers. Considering how empathy is essential to love, this hurts the bond partners have.

By September 30, 2020September 15th, 2021No Comments
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FTND note: the point of this article is not to imply in any way that every porn consumer will turn sexually violent, nor to say that behind every sexually violent crime is a porn habit. This is not supported by research, even though there is a clear connection between sexual violence and porn.

The definition of love, according to John Welwood’s book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, is simple. The author and psychotherapist writes that love is “a potent blend of openness and warmth, which allows us to make real contact, to take delight in and appreciate, to be at one with ourselves, others, and life itself.”

If love encapsulates all that relationship is, empathy, according to licensed marriage and family therapist Carin Goldstein, “is truly the heart of the relationship.”

As psychotherapist Cindy Sigal adds, “Empathy bridges the divide between being separate individuals with different backgrounds, feelings and perspectives.”

But what happens when there is no empathy in a relationship?

Sigal has a response for this too: “Without empathy, we can’t make [the] real contact” associated with what makes up all that love is.

In other words, empathy is the glue that not only keeps relationships alive, but permits them to thrive. Research and personal accounts have shown that porn, on the other hand, kills empathy, thereby putting the relationship in danger of being killed, too.

Here’s how.

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How porn can kill empathy

Psychology and education lecturer at the University of Bath, Sam Carr writes, “In short, empathy and sexual objectification are incompatible.”

He continues:

“There is evidence that when observers hone in on a woman’s physical appearance, she becomes ‘less human’ and ‘more object’ in the eyes of the observer. Under a sexually objectifying gaze, women’s bodies momentarily become the ‘property’ of the observer—whether they have consented or not. Psychologists have also argued that pornographic scripts emphasise culturally accepted standards of beauty. They also propagate the myth that women (and men) have insatiable sexual appetites, and glamorize sexual novelty and sex outside of a romantic relationship. Such narratives tend not to involve affection, intimacy, or expressions of love in any ‘real’ sense.”

There are two things that occur in the brains of people as they consume porn that lead those people to relate to others with lower levels of empathy.

The first thing that happens in the brain when someone consumes porn is the creation of “mirror neurons,” or brain cells that fire not only when we do things ourselves, but also when we watch other people do things. Effectively, these neurons give us the ability to step into the shoes of the person or character we are watching, and feel what they’re feeling.

This may lead us to feel fear as we watch—spoiler alerts—Thanos learns of the plot to reverse The Snap in “Avengers: Endgame,” or it may cause us to cry through the opening scene of “Up” as Carl loses his wife of many years, Ellie. To learn more about mirror neurons, watch episode 2 of our three-part docuseries, Brain, Heart, World.

However, when a porn consumer watches porn, due to the way the brain is wiring itself, they begin to associate their arousal with what is occurring on the screen. So, if a porn consumer begins to feel aroused watching someone get beaten up and called names, that individual’s brain will learn to associate similar kinds of violence with sexual arousal. Make sense?

Related: Objectification Vs. Empathy: Consuming Porn Lessens The Ability To Relate To Others

The second thing that happens in the brains of porn consumers is known as desensitization, and it goes hand-in-hand with mirror neurons’ effect. At the same time the consumer’s brain is rewiring itself to associate arousal with violence, their brain will become more and more accustomed to the extreme images on screen. This newfound toleration can lead the consumer to require greater amounts of porn, in addition to more hardcore or extreme versions of it, in order to experience the same “high.”

In severe cases, because of porn’s ability to desensitize, the material is even used as a way to get sexual abuse victims to comply with a trafficker or predator’s wishes.

Now, empathy would permit someone to “experience” the sexual violence portrayed in porn videos and hurt along with those who are being hurt. Unfortunately, however, mirror neurons’ effect combined with desensitization makes that very difficult to do.

These impacts result in porn fueling existing mistreatment and assault issues in society, particularly of women.

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Porn consumption is positively correlated with sex crimes

How does the normalization of sexual violence affect porn consumers, generally?

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 Normalize Sexual Objectification

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.

Sadly, these are only a few of the numerous studies that support the connection between porn and sexual violence.

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Porn lowers the porn consumer’s view of women

There is also existing data that points to the consumption of filmed sexual violence feeding sexist attitudes, including, but not limited to, normalizing dehumanizing submission and altering behavior in such a way that makes the porn consumer more likely to engage in coercive and aggressive sexual behavior.

This information further suggests that sexual objectification and empathy are, in fact, incompatible.

If you want to hear a story from a survivor of sexual assault, check out this exclusive interview we produced with singer-songwriter Bri Ray about how sexual violence has affected her.

Why this matters

Of course, not all porn consumers become abusive or violent. That being said, the data is clear: porn has the ability to lessen empathy in consumers. Considering how empathy is essential to love, this hurts the bond partners have, or can have.

Take the story of “Sarah,” for example.

At the age of 17, Sarah entered her first serious relationship with “Eli.”

As their relationship became more physical, Sarah began to notice that the way Eli touched or kissed her wasn’t intimate or naturally affectionate. Rather, he was possessive, aggressive, and demanding. Eli would pin her arms down, pull her hair, grab her body too hard, and bruise her back from pushing her against walls.

Related: Why It’s Important Not To Judge Someone By Their Porn Struggle Alone

Sarah would later find out that her boyfriend was spending hours and hours every day consuming violent and rape-filled porn.

And this led Eli to treat Sarah as a sexual object, instead of a human being he loves.

It’s for Sarah and those whose stories are like hers that we shine a light on the research that shows how porn fuels existing issues of violence and, in turn, empties the world of empathy.

Embrace love and empathy, not porn.

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