Pornography does not cause sexual violence, according to new research

A large-scale meta-analysis aims to disprove the notion that pornography consumption causes sexual aggression and violence.

Pornography does not cause sexual violence, according to new research
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  • The potential link between pornography consumption and sexual aggression and/or violence has been studied for decades, with the earliest research dating back to the 1970s.
  • A 2020 meta-analysis study published in the Journal of Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, aims to entirely disprove the notion that there is a link between pornography and sexual aggression or sexually aggressive crimes.
  • The CDC suggests that while "exposure to sexually graphic media" may be a factor in sexual aggression, it's not the cause nor the only factor that should be considered.

The question "does pornography lead to sexual assault?" has been asked by many researchers and outlets over the years—from previous studies done on the topic, to Huffington Post think pieces. Whether pornography contributes to sexual aggression has been a subject of research for decades, with scholars not being able to come to a consensus over whether or not the two are in any way linked.

    Does pornography cause sexual violence?

    porn dialogue windows open on computer

    Is there any truth to the notion that pornography causes sexual violence?

    Credit: ninefotostudio on Adobe Stock

    The anti-pornography group, Fight the New Drug, is dedicated to confirming this theory, with mass-spread articles that heavily suggest consuming porn can (and will) lead to sexual violence.

    We have seen a similar question being posed across all spectrums of the entertainment world:

    • "Do violent video games lead to violence in kids?"
    • "Do graphic violence scenes in movies promote and encourage violence?"

    How does what we consume, whether it be pornography, video games, or movies, impact our actions in the real world?

    Many studies in the past have attempted to draw a line (or erase the link entirely) between violence and pornography with no success on either side. This 2000 study by Raquel Kennedy Bergen and Kathleen A. Bogle collected data from 100 survivors of sexual abuse. Twenty-eight percent of respondents reported that their abuser used pornography and 12 percent of female respondents explained that pornography was imitated during their abusive incident.

    More recently, a separate 2019 study of almost 600 male Croatian secondary school students (between the ages of 15-17) explored the link between sexually aggressive students and pornography. While teenagers who showed signs of sexually aggressive behavior were more likely to use pornography, the researchers were unable to find any apparent link showing pornography had caused the behavior. In fact, it was found that people who were sexually aggressive were those who were already predisposed to aggressive acts.

    The consensus with many of these studies is that while porn can be particularly enticing to individuals who are prone to becoming or have in the past become sexually aggressive, there is no concrete evidence that porn has caused or worsened their sexual aggression.

    A new study hopes to disprove this notion once and for all.

    The most recent research on this topic is a 2020 meta-analysis study published in the Journal of Trauma, Violence, and Abuse. The current meta-analysis examined experimental, correlational, and population studies of the pornography/sexual aggression link dating from the 1970s until 2020. Several notable things were discovered in this meta-analysis that ultimately weakens the connection between pornography consumption and sexual aggression.

    This meta-analysis examined decades of work, some of which suggested there is a link between pornography and sexual violence in real life and some of which suggested there is not. In the cases where the studies were conducted over a longer period of time, the link was weakened.

    Violent pornography was correlated with sexual aggression, but the evidence was unable to distinguish between selection effect compared to socialization effect.

    "Selection effect" is defined as the bias that's introduced when a methodology or analysis is biased towards a specific subset of a target population.

    "Socialization effect" is defined as the process of learning throughout a larger process of learning. For example, as we begin to study more about the link between sexual violence and porn, we learn more about both of those things which can then impact how we view the results of these studies.

    Studies that employed higher levels of best practices tended to provide less evidence of a potential link.

    "Best practices" can be defined as a systematic process used to identify, describe, combine, and disseminate effective and efficient clinical strategies. Some of the "best practices for conducting research" include things like observing regulations during your research, reviewing protocol with all team members regularly, ensuring that each team member has the most current information, creating and using proper tools to assist in research, etc.

    The studies that employed higher levels of best practices for research tended to also be the studies that provided less evidence of any potential link between pornography and sexual aggression.

    Sexual violence is not caused by one specific factor, suggests the CDC

    agenda calendar with "risk factors" written on the slip

    Credit: Iryna on Adobe Stock

    Does pornography cause sexual violence? The evidence suggests not. The CDC has put together a list of "risk factors" that can be linked to a greater likelihood of sexual violence perpetration.

    While "exposure to sexually explicit media" is on this list, there are also many other factors that can contribute, such as:

    • Alcohol and/or drug use
    • Lack of empathy
    • Delinquency
    • General aggressiveness and acceptance of violence
    • Hyper-masculinity
    • Suicidal behavior
    • Prior sexual victimization or perpetration
    • Hostility towards women
    • Early sexual initiation
    • Preference for impersonal sex and/or sexual risk-taking

    Additionally, there are several "community" (or environmental) factors that can also contribute, such as:

    • Poverty
    • Lack of employment opportunities
    • Lack of institutional support
    • General tolerance of sexual violence within the community
    • Societal norms that support sexual violence
    • Weak laws and policies relating to sexual violence
    • High levels of crime

    "During the past few years many states have declared that pornography is a public health crisis," said Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, to The University of Texas at San Antonio.

    "Dr. Hartley and I were curious to see if evidence could support such claims—at least in regard to sexual aggression—or whether politicians were mistaking moral stances for science. Our evidence suggests that policymakers should examine other causes of sexual aggression and that beliefs about pornography may be driven more by methodological mistakes than sound science."

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