Pornography: Destructive or harmless?

Basis for evaluation

Earlier this year the legal battle (Cause for Justice and 2 Others v ICASA and ODM and Others) to remove pornography from pay television in South Africa concluded with the suspension of StarSat’s adult content bouquet. In the process, however, it became clear that diverging camps submit not only strong opinions to the pornography debate, but also offer opposing versions of scientific backing for the costs and benefits of pornography to both individuals and to society. Proponents believe that viewing pornography reaches beyond an expression of individual free speech, but also go as far to suggest that it is also necessary to educate individuals regarding “healthy sexuality”. Opponents often enter the conversation on moral grounds and seek to defend the social fabric undergirded by family values and healthy marital relationships. Many studies do illustrate relationships between pornography consumption and social ills, though opposing opinions find equal support in the academic literature. On balance, where does all the conflicting evidence leave us, and can we adequately assert that pornography is harmful to both individuals and society?

Psychologists, sociologists, economists and medical experts are perhaps the best-placed to answer questions on social impacts of many kinds. Yet, they often do not have the benefit of laboratory settings to isolate the exact mechanisms by which phenomena lead to certain outcomes, and to establish whether they are in fact causally linked. This is precisely why the scientific literature on pornography often reaches polarized conclusions, which in some senses leaves us in the same place where value-based opinions do. Does viewing pornography raise the risk of committing sexual violence/rape/misogyny for any given person, or does it only enhance existing behavioural patterns among those who already have a proclivity to commit such offenses? This conflict in opinions is often raised in relation to the widely-cited confessions of serial killer Ted Bundy, who claimed that pornography played a defining role in his decision to kill multiple women. Many would assert that Bundy was already at a risk for violence, and that pornography was merely a catalyst and not a primary cause for his actions. The trouble is that it is difficult to distinguish between these two possibilities, but that such strong testimony cannot be ignored or dismissed.

Any correlations observed in data collected outside of the experimental setting could be consistent with either explanation. In the latter case, claims that pornography could be beneficial for some individuals would be consistent with such evidence, but only because the burden of proof often lies on dispelling the opposite (and not because the benefits have actually been scientifically validated). Convincing experimental evidence is lacking due to the ethical considerations of exposing subjects to pornography. Where this is possible, can one generalize small studies to the entire population? As Gary Wilson states in his widely viewed TED talk on the topic, the study of pornography in an experimental setting is complicated by one simple fact: pornography viewing is so endemic today, that there is no longer an uncontaminated control group to which one can compare porn users. The scientific literature therefore does not prove or disprove opinions on pornography conclusively, leaving the gap open for value-based public debate and legal argument. In fact, the outcome of the South African court battle turned on legal fundamentals, with value claims and scientific evidence only playing a subsidiary role in the judgment of Judge Lee Bozalek.

So what do we know about the influence of pornography? Let us first turn to the experiences of groups and individuals, before moving on to more formalized evidence. Anecdotal accounts might take us far in establishing “collective will” and “collective experience” of society, even if it is not verifiable scientifically. Note, however, that this short article in no way covers the topic exhaustively, and cannot offer a final say on the issue. This article simply creates an awareness of the experiences of many, and also highlights a small sub-section of the academic literature on the topic, to deepen understanding of the risks that adult content may pose to communities and homes.

2 The “popular” case against pornography

In an interview late last year with Themba Wakashe, head of South Africa’s Film and Publications Board (FPB) (the organization tasked with deciding which visual content is beneficial to viewers across the country) he observes with respect to employees who must evaluate the merits of pornographic material:

“Most of the time people [employees of the FPB] are curious about watching porn,” Wakashe said. “But it is actually the most challenging aspect of our professional lives because you cannot watch and classify porn without it affecting you. People have to get debriefing sessions – a form of therapy.”

Allegedly pornography affects even employees of the FPB, individuals who are routinely exposed to the most explicit genres in their professional capacities. These effects are apparently not positive, but require some “form of [corrective] therapy”. Pornography viewing is not akin to consuming just any other media: it affects viewers at a deeper emotional level, regardless of whether this is considered by any party to be “good” or “bad”. Hence, value-based arguments should at least weigh into the argument, if such claims are to be taken seriously and such concerns are to be addressed.

The Conservative government in the UK enacted a nationwide pornography internet “filter”, by which individuals have to specifically “opt in” to unlock access to online adult content. Many commentators view this as censorship and the paternalistic imposition of values that are not universal to all citizens. Yet, the administration has pursued this legislation to the intended benefit of society at large, based on concerns of harm. For instance, the UK’s childline has launched a Fight Against Porn Zombies (FAPZ) campaign, in response to the “thousands of children” who claim that they are… ”confused, upset, feel like they have to behave or look like porn stars to have relationships and at the worst end are in danger of engaging with harmful sexual behaviour.” The concern is that younger children are increasingly forming their sexual attitudes and identities on unrealistic depictions of “superstar” pornographers. Such sentiments have also been famously expressed by former “lad magazine” Loaded editor Martin Daubney, who undertook an about-turn on pornography. His claims on the change in a new generation’s sexual attitudes and experiences have resulted in a television series that illustrates not only the pervasiveness of pornography, but how norms have become more extravagant and lead to destructive outcomes for individuals:

“…[We] discovered that there were many young lives seriously blighted by an excessive, unhealthy relationship with pornography that can begin when they are as young as 12. We learned that some had lost their jobs, others had broken relationships, failed exams, or got into serious debt through using porn.”

In South Africa access to pornography is easy, and concurrently rape and sexual violence are widely prevalent. Logic (without further investigation) suggests that the two trends may go hand in hand. But are they causally linked? While not definitive for the final verdict of his trial, evidence of Oscar Pistorius’ pornography use on the night that Reeva Steenkamp was shot, implied that some underlying expectation existed to link his violent actions to viewing adult content. This embodies the crux of popular arguments: viewing pornography degrades males’ views of females, and may lead to unloving actions and even damage to marriages. But are these popular arguments and concerns congruent with valid scientific evidence?

3 Researchers’ case for and against pornography

The Witherspoon Institute has issued an extensive summary of findings[1] , highlighting various costs of pornography to society (even to those not directly engaged in its usage). These costs are purported to outweigh the benefits that some users perceive to enjoy. The following sections provide highlights of the literature that finds evidence to oppose pornography use.

3.1 Perceived Harms and Benefits of Pornography for Self

One influential study uses survey data to argue that pornography usage does not affect individuals negatively, but in fact improves individuals’ satisfaction with their lives in general, and more particularly with their sex lives[2]. By this evidence, pornography supposedly does not reduce self-worth, nor does it negatively influence individuals’ (self-rated) views of the opposite gender. Is pornography therefore good to serve the “self”, and should governments deny individuals this right to a “better”, more pleasurable life?

Importantly, individual perceptions do not consider whether their own actions could affect others. The same study refers to “third person effects” which suggest that people are prone to think that they themselves are relatively immune to (negative) influence by media, while they perceive others to be at greater risk. Individuals therefore also tend to underestimate the potential risks of pornography consumption on themselves, for which some men have reported negative effects[1]. In any debate, one should emphasise the responsibility that pornography users have on those around them.

For instance, the same study[1] reports that individuals who perceive pornography to portray realism of sexuality were less likely to experience positive effects of its consumption, confirming that pornography promotes fantasy rather than realism. Men’s fantasies in this study were more inclined to be volatile, as they reported greater positive, but also larger negative effects of consumption than women. Pornography is therefore an escape that promotes non-realistic expectations of true sexual encounters. As explained below, unrealistic perceptions also extend to other individuals, and also affect them through men’s attitudes towards rape.

3.2 Harm to others

The most pertinent concern is whether pornography consumption heightens the risk of committing rape and other forms of sexual violence. Expert evidence by Marelene Wassermann (Dr Eve) put forward during ICASA hearings, suggests that there is no causal link between pornography consumption and sexual violence. This tenuous link has been explored extensively in a non-experimental literature, with many authors finding no support for the hypothesis. Limited experimental evidence does, however, find that there is a causal link between[3], and is arguably the better method to be used in social science applications. However, as noted above, this type of evidence is more difficult to obtain, and often requires replication before being accepted as scientifically sound.

The most recent review of the literature adds new non-experimental evidence to the table[1] and corrects problems with previous overviews: the result is that the non-experimental evidence does agree with experimental studies, and that pornography (and importantly in this context, even pornography of the non-violent type) is associated with aggressive attitudes.

Furthermore, studies that tend to find zero or positive effects of pornography on individuals, are often conducted in settings where society is more likely to be equal or trusting. Hald & Malamuth (2008)[2] argue that many studies that do not find a link between pornography and violence are conducted in societies with low violence levels to start with, and where trust between citizens is high. The authors[2] warn explicitly that in violent societies, perceptions of pornography will likely lean towards negative views. By implication, South Africa – a highly unequal country with low trust levels – should be studied as a separate case. Is pornography likely to be a greater “trigger” for violence there, or is it possible that it is only perceived with greater negativity?

Rachel Jewkes’ comments about the high incidence of rape in South Africa are considered authoritative in the scientific community. Dr Eve, referring to Jewkes, noted in the public consultations before ICASA, that gender roles (especially a lack of female empowerment) are more important than pornography in determining sexual violence in South Africa. While the causal link between pornography and rape is not universally accepted in the academic community, it is also the case that this link has also not been conclusively dispelled. This point is often missed in the discussion, and it is assumed that the burden of proof lies with showing that pornography causes harm, instead of proving that it does not. Is it possible to show that pornography influences South Africans’ views of gender power relations, and that pornography therefore has an indirect effect on sexual violence? Indeed, Jewkes[4] herself advocates the reduction in pornography as one factor in combatting violence between partners; she proposes that pornography objectifies and disempowers women, which is in itself a direct cause of gender violence. The lack of consensus on the effects of pornography on rape is therefore rooted in the imperfections of the scientific process: neither proponents nor opponents can affirm that their views are verifiable. This leaves open the possibility that the consumption of adult content potentially does comply with the views held by many in South Africa.

3.3 Attitude Changes and Harm Towards Others

One particular factor that is consistently found to be influenced by pornography is attitudes towards rape and intention to commit sexual assault, both of which signal potential dangers to others. These are significantly influenced even by mainstream, non-violent pornography[5], though the effects are more severe for individuals who viewed sadomasochistic and rape content. Given the context of this study (in the USA, where rape statistics are considerably lower than in South Africa), the fact that transition to actual sexual abuse after viewing pornography is not widespread, is no surprise, but potentially a higher risk in South Africa, where altered attitudes are also likely to move into violent action.

While some evidence concludes that pornography has positive impacts on individuals’ attitudes about their own well-being and sex lives (as noted above), this ignores that people unknowingly (and involuntarily) also change their attitudes towards others, as noted by Foubert et. al. (2011). Given that “third person effects” are known to be operational in individuals’ perception formation based on media intake, it is no surprise that individuals tend to underestimate the negative effects of pornography on themselves, and simultaneously are subject to desensitisation in their attitudes towards others.

The same work[4] suggests that pornography usage is associated with greater propensity to divorce and commit infidelity. Reviews of the literature[6] confirm that pornography usage by one partner reduced sexual intimacy and leads women to feel objectified, and in many cases distressed when male partners use pornography. The research confirms that while pornography is not the direct cause of many divorces, it triggers behaviour that has traditionally led to the failure of marriages. Figures quoted by lawyers state that a majority of divorce cases involve the use of pornography[5].

While this line of reasoning also does not provide causal evidence, it does underscore that even if individuals are not negatively affected in their own perceived well-being, they influence family structures and others poorly in the long-run. Evidence shows that women who are already battered, had a greater risk of being sexually abused once their partners used pornography; this effect is present even when alcohol abuse was absent[7]. Hence, allowing an individual the right to harm him or her self may also negatively affect those in immediate contact with that person (though this is not the choice of that person).

3.4 Physiological Harm, Addiction and the Inability to Make Rational Decisions

If individuals attach high benefits of pornography to themselves while inducing a negative change in attitude towards others, it is necessary to understand how these perceptions are formed. New experimental evidence proposes that pornography stimulates an impulsive part of the brain rather than a “thinking” part. Cambridge University neuroscientist, Dr Valerie Voon, has recently shown that pornography effects the brain in similar ways as alcohol and drug use would, with behavioural impulses rather than rational decisions dominating. This work has been featured widely in the media[8]. Published evidence also supports that the brain changes physiologically in response to these stimuli and fuels addiction behaviour. D.L. Hilton[9] notes that,

“Instead of wanting that which will enhance survival, the addicted are motivated to want even when it is clearly harmful, a neuroplastic process that recalibrates the hedonic set point.”

Furthermore, Dr Nora Volkow, who heads the USA’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, has advocated for pornography to be added to the list of addictions with which her organization is concerned, thereby acknowledging that this fits into a similar medical category to addictions to drugs and alcohol[10]. In fact, addictions cause changes in the physical properties of the brain, with reductions in volumes of frontal lobe regions of the brain that usually regulate reason and judgment. Pornography has been shown to be no different, in that the brain is plastic and subject to the same transformations as for other addictions.

Hence, newer research supports the possibility that pornography reduces individuals’ ability to critically assess harm (at the very least in attitude) towards others, while focusing on the impulsive benefit to themselves.

4 Concluding remarks

In a society where many do not share the same values, it is difficult to arrive at conclusions that are universally shared. Authorities therefore face a difficult task in deciding why some decisions should be pursued and why others should be abandoned. The effect of adult content on society represents one of these controversial policy choices, which has no unanimous scientific backing to guide decision makers. In a pluralistic society, where values often diverge among sub-sections of the population, one needs to consider not only the benefit to individuals with diverse preferences, but also the “social good”. Do the choices of individuals have unforeseen consequences that affect others negatively, or should individual rights enjoy unrivalled precedence? In the case of pornographic broadcasting, society is confronted with exactly this choice. The apartheid government’s choice to outlaw adult content can easily be confounded with the many other detrimental policies it implemented, with the conclusion that no “paternalistic” government should decide on individuals’ viewing habits. However, should bodies such as the FPB and Child Line not protect the vulnerable in society? While no causal links have been established to link pornography usage to harm, no causal studies have shown the opposite either. Can we then safely dismiss the many accounts of the bad experiences of pornography users and their friends and families?


[1] Eberstadt, M. and Layden, M.A., (2010), The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations. Princeton: Witherspoon Institute.

[2] Hald, G.M. and Malamuth, N. (2008), Self-perceived Effects of Pornography Consumption, Archive of Sexual Behaviour. 37:614-625.

[3] Hald, G.M., Malamuth, N.M. and Yuen, C., (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggressive Behaviour. Vol 32: 14-20.

[4] Jewkes, R., 2002. Intimate partner violence: causes and prevention. The Lancet. Vol 359.

[5] Foubert, J.D., Brosi, M.W. and Bannon, R.S., 2011. Pornography Viewing among Fraternity Men: Effects on Bystander Intervention, Rape Myth Acceptance and Behavioral Intent to Commit Sexual Assult. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. Vol 18(4): 212-231.

[6] Manning, J.C., The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, Vol 13(2-3): 131-165.

[7] Shope, J.H., When Words Are Not Enough: The Search for the Effect of Pornography on Abused Women. Violence Against Women. Vol 10: 56-72.

[8] See for instance

[9] Hilton, D.L.,  (2013), Pornography addiction – a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology. Vol 3.

[10] Hilton, D.L. and Watts, C., (2011), Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective. Surgical Neurology International, Vol 2:19.

The discussion in this article is exploratory and does not claim to be exhaustive. It also does not necessarily represent the views of Cause For Justice or its management. The intention is to create a basis for further discussion on the potential dangers of pornography to society, but also to place the discussion in the context of peer reviewed material.

         About the Author: Dieter von Fintel, Researcher



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