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The porn problem


by Roslyn Phillips

It’s official: smoking in films influences teens. Newspapers around the nation on 11 June 2003 reported a new study—published online that day in The Lancet—which surveyed 3500 adolescents who had never smoked, and assessed their exposure to smoking in movies. A follow-up survey some time later found that those who had watched ‘hard-smoking’ movies were up to three times more likely to take up the habit themselves. Health groups have called for an ‘R’ rating on all films with frequent smoking scenes.

These research results—showing that children copy what they see—should come as no surprise. They follow many studies on media violence conducted in the US and the UK which indicate that viewing violent material contributes to aggressive behaviour in children. Not all become aggressive, of course, but there is a positive correlation between media violence and aggression.

For instance, Dr William Belson, an Australian, conducted a large UK study, Television and the Adolescent Boy.1 1,565 London boys aged 13 to 16 were extensively questioned and matched with a set of 217 variables associated with violent behaviour.

Belson set out to test not only whether more television violence was associated with more aggression (it was), but also the reason. Do boys who are naturally aggressive simply watch more violent television? Belson found that this is not the case. Rather, he found that long-term exposure to televised violence increases the degree to which boys engage in violent behaviour. In other words, television violence makes naturally aggressive boys become even more violent.

US researchers Dr Leonard Eron and Dr Rowell Huesmann did a 22-year longitudinal study on the link between childrearing practices and adult criminal behaviour.2 They concluded that there is a significant relationship between television viewing at age eight and the seriousness of criminal convictions by the age of 30.

Given this research, which shows fairly convincingly that what we see affects what we do, I can’t agree with those who suggest3 that there is “very, very little evidence at all to support any causal link between violence, sex or sexual violence viewed, and the behaviour of a person”.

When I have talked to people with similar views, and mention studies like Belson, Eron and Huesmann, I find they tend to back down and say, “Well, I agree that violent films are harmful—but not sex films”.

But the principle is the same. Although fewer studies have been done on pornography, those conducted with sound methodology have found, not surprisingly, that viewing sexually explicit material does affect attitudes and behaviour.

Professor James Check undertook research for a Canadian inquiry into pornography and prostitution.4 His experimental data revealed that those who had been exposed to degrading non-violent pornography subsequently reported twice the likelihood to rape and to force unwanted sexual acts on women, than subjects who had not been so exposed.

Frequent users of pornography (who viewed porn videos at least once a month) had the most striking inclinations towards sexually aggressive behaviour, and were more likely to accept rape myths such as ‘women who say no really mean yes’ and ‘women secretly long to be raped’.

US researchers Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant tested the effect of exposure to pornography on social and sexual mores.5 They found that prolonged consumption—one hour per week for six consecutive weeks—had a powerful adverse effect on evaluations of the desirability and viability of marriage. Among the subjects in the experiment, endorsements of marriage dropped from 60 per cent in the control groups to 38 per cent in the treatment groups.

The most dramatic finding was in the area of desire to have children. Prolonged consumption of pornography reduced the desire for male offspring by 31 per cent, and for female children by twice that amount: 61 per cent. Indeed, male consumers expressed little desire for female offspring altogether. The desire of females for offspring of their own kind, after consumption of pornography, shrank to one third of its normal strength.

Zillman and Bryant also found that prolonged consumption of pornography greatly reduced sexual satisfaction and sex-related personal happiness. They said, “Presumably pornography is initially consumed in hopes of increasing sexual satisfaction. But consumers eventually compare appearance and performance of pornographic models with that of their intimate partners, and this comparison rarely favours their intimate partners ... The result is dissatisfaction with their partners and perhaps with sex at large”.

The research by Check and Zillman and Bryant compares well with studies on the link between reported rape rates and the availability of pornography in different communities. Psychologist Dr John Court, currently a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia, has done some pioneering work in this field.

The most dramatic effect was observed in the 1970s in South Australia, after hard-core pornography was made freely available under the Dunstan government. Until that time, reported rapes (per head of population) had remained fairly low and stable, with similar statistics in Queensland. However after hardcore porn was legalized in SA, the figures of reported rapes rose significantly. In contrast the Queensland figures rose only slightly.6

The evidence is in. What people see influences their attitudes and behaviour.

It was no doubt for this reason that the apostle Paul urged Christians to “flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Tim 2:22). Instead, he encouraged them to focus on those things that are “true, noble, pure, lovely and excellent” (Phil 4:8).


1. Dr William Belson, Television Violence and the Adolescent Boy, Gower Publishing Co., London, 1978.
2. David Scott (ed), ‘Symposium on Media Violence and Pornography’, Proceedings and Resource Book, Media Action Group Inc., Toronto, 1984.
3. Mike Lynch, The Briefing #297, June 2003, p. 16.
4. James V. P. Check, The Effects of Violent and Non-Violent Pornography, submitted to the Department of Justice for Canada, 1985.
5. Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant, ‘Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography’, in Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein (eds), Pornography and Sexual Aggression, Academic Press, London, 1984, pp. 115-138.
6. Dr John Court, Pornography and Rape: Evidence of a Link, Australian Festival of Light Resource Paper, August 1980.
Mrs Roslyn Phillips is Research Officer for Festival of Light Australia, 4th Floor, 68 Grenfell Street, AdelaideSA5000 http://www.fol.org.au
This article was first published in The Briefing in 2003.
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