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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Pornography: The Victims of a “Victimless Practice”

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

When progressives resist efforts to outlaw pornography, they lecture the public on the dangers of censoring a form of free expression that—so long as those producing it are consenting adults—victimizes no one. But progressives’ defense of pornography as victimless looks less and less credible as researchers uncover ever more evidence that pornography actually does harm to both those who view it and those close to them. The latest evidence that porn hurts people comes in a study recently completed by researchers at Harvard and Boston Universities, a study concluding that adolescents who view pornography are especially likely to suffer abuse from their dating partners.

The Harvard and Boston scholars launch their study acutely concerned about adolescent dating abuse (ADA). Sobering statistics indicate that “approximately 21% of girls and 10% of boys who attend high school in the U.S. experience either physical or sexual ADA each year,” especially alarming numbers given that previous studies have established that “sequelae of ADA can be severe and may include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, antisocial behavior, suicidal thoughts, injury, and death.” No wonder that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified ADA as “a public health priority.”  

To address that priority, the authors of the new study examine the relationship between ADA and pornography. This relationship certainly deserves scrutiny in light of “scientific evidence support[ing] the contention that exposure to some forms of sexually explicit material . . . may inspire copycat acts of sexualized violence or degradation, or increase sexual aggression.”

To gauge the linkage between ADA and adolescent viewing of pornography, the researchers analyze data collected in 2013-2014 from 72 economically deprived youth, mostly Blacks and Hispanics, living in inner-city Boston. These data reveal a strong linkage between adolescent viewing of pornography and adolescent dating abuse. The researchers calculate that—compared to study participants who had not experienced dating aggression—ADA victims viewed pornography “approximately twice as often per week (2.4 vs. 1.1 times, p = 0.06), twice as often per month (8.3 vs. 3.8 times, p = 0.05), and approximately 2.6 times [as] frequently per year (37.1 vs. 14.0 times, p < 0.05).” 

The ugly copy-cat effects of pornography—anticipated by the researchers—show up clearly in this new study. The authors of the study report that “50% of ADA victims and 32% of non-victims reported that they had been asked to do a sexual act their partner saw in pornography.” Unsurprisingly, most of those receiving such requests (58%) “did not feel happy to have been asked.”

As they sift through the other unsettling findings in the data, the researchers draw attention to the “worrisome” fact that 10% of the participants in this study reported viewing pornography in their public high school, even though Massachusetts (where this study was conducted) requires public schools to use Internet filtering to prevent students from accessing pornography. Also troubling to the researches was the finding that 6% of study participants had “asked a sibling or other person younger than 18 years old to watch pornography,” so causing underage youth to watch “potentially harmful” material and exposing themselves to prosecution for violating the law by involving a young person in such an activity.

Understandably, the researchers see in their findings reason to give “clinicians, educators, parents, and other youth-serving professionals . . .  guidance about how to talk factually with youth about present-day pornography, its potential impacts, and what they can do if they are being pressured to watch or perform pornographic acts.” The listing of parents as the last-named group in a list of “youth-serving professionals” may strike readers as peculiar. But, unfortunately, for elite academics, parents may count as little more than an afterthought, even when—as in this case—their own data suggest the importance of parents: this study reveals that victims of adolescent dating violence were “less likely to report that parents or guardians were primary sources of information [about sex] (18% vs. 29%)” than were non-victims. But the deep moral confusion among the academic elite emerges most clearly when the Harvard and Boston scholars argue that professionals should take as their “ultimate goal [that] of creating effective, evidence-based violence prevention and pornography literacy interventions.”

Pornography literacy interventions? Adolescents threatened by dating aggression are ill-served by academic elites bandying vapid phrases that fit smoothly in bureaucratic agendas but do nothing to reinforce parental influence in sexual education, and do even less to extinguish the toxic influence of pornographers.

(Emily F. Rothman and Avanti Adhia, “Adolescent Pornography Use and Dating Violence among a Sample of Primarily Black and Hispanic, Urban-Residing, Underage Youth,” Behavioral Sciences 6.1 [2016]: 1, Web, emphasis added.)