Pornography is more widespread, normalised and extreme today than at any time in history .

The large-scale private use of hardcore pornography by millions of people has public ramifications. The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors shaped by pornography use have a profound impact on not only users’ private relationships, but also their professional and social relationships. Pornography use, to varying degrees, shapes the lens by which users view, interact, and construct the world. NCOSE 1

Although generally regarded as harmless fantasy, a bit of fun and a matter of individual choice the reality is that pornography ‘transforms the sexual politics of intimate and public life.’2 Today’s pornography is characterized by ‘unchecked encounters with others who can be subordinated to violent and sexual desire.’ 3 There is a vast and growing body of research showing the extensive and multifarious harms of pornography both to individual users and to society at large. It’s time to take this issue seriously.

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‘No matter how real and harmful it gets, pornography…is this parallel universe in which everything that happens becomes harmless and unreal.’ 4

I meet woman after woman who went into this industry, thinking they were going through consent. They’re young. They don’t know what they’re up against 5. Gail Dines

In pornography, it’s impossible to know for sure whether production was consensual.
There’s an assumption that women performing in pornography are adult, paid actors who have given their full and free consent, even when they engage in extreme, violent and painful sex acts. However, there is no way of knowing this with complete certainty; in fact, there’s ‘widespread evidence of force and coercion- beginning, of course, with the materials themselves.’ 6 Even if a woman appears to show distress, it’s impossible to know whether this is all part of the act, as rape or abuse-themed pornography is now commonplace.

Pornography includes recordings of sex-trafficked and prostituted women.
Nearly half of all sex trafficking victims report that pornography was made of them whilst they were in captivity7. Pornographic images or videos are often the ‘fringe products’ of trafficked individuals.

Women in Europe and the UK are sometimes defrauded or coerced into performing pornography. Targeted individuals are typically psychologically or emotionally vulnerable, and easily lured by the promise of ‘fame’, ‘glamour’ and ‘easy money’, which of course are fictions peddled by the pimps and traffickers. 8. Sometimes, they’re promised a ‘modeling gig’; one-time agreements that can turn into situations of blackmail and coercion 9.

‘Consent’ is a slippery term.
Ex-pornography performers frequently report how they “[sign] up for one thing (a porn scene as it was described… for a certain amount of money)” but are then, “forced to do something else while the cameras roll.”10

I’ve never received a beating like that before in my life. I have permanent scars up and down the backs of my thighs. It was all things that I had consented to, but I didn’t know quite the brutality of what was about to happen to me until I was in it. 11 Alexander, porn performer

The testimonies of women who’ve come out of pornography build a picture of an industry culture that often pressurises performers to act out things they’re not comfortable with, with the incentive of extra cash coupled with the threat of losing their job, losing pay or being sued if they protest.

The growth of ‘amateur porn’ has led to the production and distribution of indecent images without the victim’s knowledge or consent.
This phenomenon covers everything from celebrity sex tapes and ‘deep-faking’ to ‘upskirting’ and revenge porn. There are even dedicated blogs and websites encouraging viewers to maliciously upload material of their partners or ex-partners. 12

Performing in pornography can leave women with physical and psychological trauma.
Porn performers are frequently expected to engage in rough, unprotected high-risk sexual acts and to endure violence such as choking and beating. This can lead to bruising, scars and vaginal, anal and throat tears, anal relapses and a high risk of STDs.

In spite of some attempts at regulation, most men in pornography do not wear condoms. Often, the industry fails even to adhere to its own standards: ‘Condom use is reported to be very low in heterosexual adult films, with only 17% of performers using condoms. And performers… reported feeling pressured to work without condoms to remain employed.’ 13

To cope with the demands of the acting in porn, performers often resort to drug and alcohol abuse, which is rife throughout the industry. 14

I lay there covered in bodily fluids, saliva and sweat from 25 different men. I was disgusted, sore, defiled, and void of all emotion. A part of me died that day; my soul was shredded and divided up among the men I had just sold my body to.” 15 Ex-porn performer, Jan E. Villarubia

Financial exploitation is commonplace
Women in the porn industry tend to enter when they’re young and financially-insecure, with limited job options. This makes them desperate and ripe for manipulation and exploitation 16. Pay is relatively low, generally working on a sliding scale according to the level of pain, risk and degradation involved.  

Pornography preys on vulnerability
The conditions leading to entry into pornography are much the same as the those leading to entry into prostitution and include:

  • Poverty
  • Vulnerability to deceptive job offers
  • Racism
  • Lack of educational and job training opportunities
  • Childhood physical and sexual abuse
  • Childhood neglect
  • Sexual harassment
  • Abandonment
  • Culturally mainstreamed contempt for women and girls
  • Selective manipulation by sexual exploiters who are businessmen 17.

“And even when I’m 60, I’m still going to have this porn on the internet, it’s like having a virus or something that never goes away.” Ex porn performer Vanessa Bellemont (Alexa Cruz) 18

Involvement in the porn industry curtails future employment prospects
Competition in the porn industry is fierce and the average ‘career’ is extremely short. According to the only major survey of its kind 19, porn performers only work for between 6-18 months. When they leave, they often take their financial insecurities with them, alongside the addictions and mental health problems they’ve acquired along the way20.

“I thought this would be a part-time job, but I was so naive to think I could do that . . . you can’t just do a part-time job, you have to constantly be your porn alter ego.” Ex porn performer Miriam Weeks (Belle Knox)

It’s difficult to go on to lead a ‘normal’ life after acting in porn. As ex-President of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee Ela Darling says, “It’s not like you can stop being a porn star and be a teacher.21 Commenting on the choices made by young people wanting to enter the porn industry, porn performer Lily Cade says: “There are lots of people who make bad decisions with their lives by doing this. They’re just closing down doors for their life for like a thousand dollars here and there.”22

Because pornography on the internet can never be permanently erased, a woman who regrets her involvement in the industry has to live with the risk of being discovered online for the rest of her life. 23  For women who are trafficked, pornographic images can become a way for pimps and traffickers to exert control through blackmail and the threat of exposure.

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Pornography causes lasting changes to the brain.24
Neuroscientists have recently found that the brain is constantly changing and rewiring throughout a person’s lifetime (and particularly in youth) 25. Neural pathways are strengthened or lost through use or neglect. Like other addictive substances, pornography is very effective at forming new, long-lasting neural pathways which can overpower others.26For this reason, studies show that ‘those who consume pornography more frequently have brains that are less connected, less active, and even smaller in some areas.27

Pornography is like an addictive drug. Of all internet activities, searching for pornography has the most addictive potential and leaves users most at risk of Compulsive Internet Use 28. Dozens of neuroscience-based studies (MRI, fMRI, EEG, neuropsychological, hormonal) 29 support the notion that “Internet pornography addiction fits into the addiction framework and shares similar basic mechanisms with substance addiction” and “has similar neurological effects to substance addiction.”30

Some people say, ‘Hey, man … you can’t really be addicted to pornography.’ But I’m gonna tell you something: If day turns into night and you are still watching, you probably have got a problem. And that was me. It changes the way you think about people. People become objects. People become body parts; they become things to be used rather than people to be loved. It affected everything. My wife was literally like, ‘I don’t know you anymore. I’m out of here.’ I had to change. I literally had to go to rehab for it. Terry Crews 31

Summary: how pornography causes addiction Watching pornography triggers the brain’s reward centre, releasing a flood of dopamine and other pleasure chemicals 32 designed to provide motivation for things that improve health and chances of survival (e.g. food, sex, etc.) 33. However, with porn and other addictive substances that have no healthy reward attached, the brain is effectively hijacked: the dopamine creates a high and triggers cravings for more.

Because of its endless novelty, pornography triggers an unnaturally high and long-lasting release of dopamine in the brain compared with natural, real-life experiences. Dopamine then stimulates the production of the chemical DeltaFosB 34, which builds new neural pathways, connecting the addictive substance to pleasure and making the user more likely to return to it. If enough of it builds up, DeltaFosB becomes ‘the molecular switch for addiction 35, causing lasting changes in the brain that leave the user more vulnerable to addiction36. This is a particular risk for young people, since the reward centres in developing brains respond 2-4 times more powerfully and release higher levels of dopamine and DeltaFosB 37.

As a reaction to high levels of dopamine, the brain tries to defend itself by releasing the chemical CREB 38. This slows the pleasure response, which means that the addictive substance has less of an effect over time. This is known as the build up of “tolerance”.

I’ve worked with students who have flunked their degree because of it. Business people who have been sacked from work because they’ve been using the office computer, or just not doing their job. People who have lost relationships. Sex Therapist Paula Hall. 39

Porn addiction leads to desensitization from other kinds of pleasure
The ‘tolerance’ users build up from repeated overloads of dopamine means that porn addicts struggle to feel normal without the dopamine high40 they get from watching porn. They no longer take the same pleasure they once did in other things and spend increasing time alone watching porn. This in turn has a significant effect on family, social and work life.41

Porn addiction escalates tastes and preferences (tolerance) 42 
‘Tolerance’ is part of any addiction and helps to explain why users of porn become gradually desensitised to tamer ‘vanilla’ sex acts and require more novel, extreme and violent content in order to achieve the same level of arousal 43.

Although most users start out watching porn that’s aligned to their morals and sexual tastes, over time they tend to become habituated to watching material they once found unethical or inappropriate. This is known as ‘blunting’. It’s a strong effect that’s not limited to men, and it tends to happen without the user even realising 44.

Porn addiction can provoke shame and revulsion 45
In one study, pornography addicts identified a dissociation between desiring but not liking the sexually explicit materials they consumed. Dr Gail Dines writes: “Some of the worst stories I hear are from men who have become so desensitized that they have started using harder porn and end up masturbating to images that had previously disgusted them. Many of these men are deeply ashamed and frightened as they down know where all this will end. Phil told me, “Sometimes I can’t believe the porn I like. I feel like a freak.””

Porn addiction leads to poor mental health
Addiction has serious consequences on social integration and mental health 46. According to a recent study, “…Cybersex compulsives and at-risk users… invest an inordinate amount of their time, money, and energy in the pursuit of Cybersex experiences with negative intrapersonal ramifications in terms of depression, anxiety, and problems with felt intimacy with their real-life partners…” 47Heavy use of pornography is also associated with higher reported poor mental/emotional health and decreased cognitive function 48. Some of its effects include:

  • Loneliness 49
    “Pornography promotes an understanding of sexuality and relationships that is corrosive to connection because it doesn’t promote people, only parts. Hence, in the most intimate of circumstances, actual intimacy is elusive—because pornography doesn’t support or advocate emotional connection and whole relationships.” 50
  • Depression 51
  • Reduced self-esteem, poor body image and increased anxiety in romantic relationships. 52
    “What I hear most is that these men feel like sexual losers… They worry they’re not good-looking enough, smooth enough, or masculine enough to score, and since the porn view of the world suggests that women are constantly available, these men are bewildered by rejection.”53Dr Gail Dines
  • Poor working memory and concentration. 54
    Heavy use of pornography has a negative effect on working memory, which is essential for understanding, reasoning, problem solving, learning and development of speech, and decision making. 55
  • Impulsivity.
    Porn addicts are more likely to engage in short-sighted behaviours which yield short-term gains while failing to consider long-term consequences.56

Porn consumption is associated with risky sexual behaviour
Heavy users of pornography are much more likely to engage in casual, promiscuous, and paid-for sex, and in risky sexual behaviours (e.g. sex without a condom, anal sex, group sex) 57. They’re also more likely to have intercourse without a condom and subsequently contract STDs.58

 

The consensus in research is that, in spite of increasing sexual desire, pornography consumption is associated with significantly lower sexual and relational satisfaction (especially in men). 60

Pornography reduces sexual satisfaction. 61
Masturbating regularly to pornography strengthens the cues that associate sexual arousal with the specific pornographic imagery.62 Meanwhile, because the neural pathways connecting arousal to things like touch, kissing and seeing in real life aren’t being used, pornography becomes the only thing that arouses, and the preferred source of sexual satisfaction. 6364  Women who watch porn also report being less satisfied with their sex lives. 65 

Pornography leads to erectile dysfunction 66
Previously, erectile dysfunction was considered an age-related problem. However, there are now there are as many British men in their teens and twenties suffering from erectile dysfunction as there are men in their fifties and sixties: ‘The cause is almost always early-life and unchecked access to unlimited porn.’ 67 Globally, since the sharp increase in Internet porn, the rate of erectile dysfunction has jumped from 2-3% to 13%. 68

Pornography quashes sexual creativity
Pornography presents a kind of sex that is ‘debased, dehumanised, formulaic…based not on individual fantasy, play, or imagination, but one that is the result of an industrial product created by those who get excited not by bodily contact but by market penetration and profits.’ 69

Research shows that the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he is to deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal. 70 One man reported, “It can be a kind of problem to think about porn as much as I do, especially when with my girlfriend. It means I am not really present with her, my head is somewhere else.” 71

Pornography reduces men’s attraction to their partners
After watching pornography, men rate themselves as feeling less ‘in love’ with their partners, and as finding them less sexually attractive. 72 Women often recognise that they are being unfavorably compared to the impossible ideal portrayed in pornography and erotica.

“The fact that I trusted him with my physical and emotional self has left me shattered especially when he did not deny my body DISGUSTED him because I did not look like the internet [surgically enhanced and airbrushed] females he spent every night with.” 73

Pornography hurts partners
More often than not, pornographic materials are used outside of the relationship, in private, and often without the knowledge of the romantic partner. Many women are upset by the combination of secrecy, sexual activity outside the relationship and the user’s perceptions of the alternative ‘reality’ portrayed in pornography.74

Often women report feeling shocked, hurt, and confused when they learn of the nature and extent of their partner’s sexual activities. One study reports that the partners of those with pornography or sex addictions experience, ‘feelings of hurt and betrayal, lowered self-esteem, mistrust, decreased intimacy, anger, feelings of being unattractive and objectified, feeling their partners had less interest in sexual contact, pressure from the partner to enact things from the online fantasy, and a feeling that they could not measure up to the women online.’ 75

Pornography leads to less relationship satisfaction. 76
Sometimes, when used by both partners together, pornography can seem to have a positive effect in the short term. However, as time goes on, it lowers relationship satisfaction, emotional closeness, and sexual satisfaction.

Watching pornography also increases the chance of infidelity; unmarried couples who watch porn together experience twice the rate of infidelity in couples who watch it individually and alone, and three times more than couples who don’t watch it at all. 77

Pornography has a strong negative effect on marriage
Viewing pornography increases the chance of couples breaking up78 and decreases the chance of them getting married 79. For married couples, research shows that starting to watch pornography doubles the probability of divorce, for both men and women. There’s also a strong negative correlation between porn consumption and marital quality over time 80, not least because porn users are more open to the idea of extramarital affairs. 81

 

Pornography is sexist and misogynistic
In pornography, sexism is fundamental trope. Whether or not it’s violent, pornography tends to portray masculinity as something, ‘embodied through violence, hostile attitudes towards women, and gender inequality’ 82 and women as one-dimensional sex objects serving men’s aggressive sexual appetites.

How many men leave the pornographic world and seamlessly move into the real world and see that which we a call a fantasy in pornography is experienced in the real world? The Price of Pleasure 83

Studies show that regular pornography consumption leads men to hold sexist and misogynistic attitudes, expecting their partners to be less assertive and less independent of men. 84

…in today’s mainstream pornography, aggression against women is the rule rather than the exception… hostile, aggressive content is so prevalent in contemporary pornography that it would be hard for a regular consumer to avoid it. Rebecca Whisnant Watching porn strengthens the myth of women’s unconditional sexual availability. 85
In pornography, a women is portrayed as perfect, surgically-enhanced body parts to be used in any way men want. She has ‘no bodily integrity, boundaries or borders that need to be respected.’ The process of dehumanising a person makes violence against them much more acceptable.86

Porn Normalises violence against women
A 2007 content analysis of the 50 best-selling adult videos, nearly half of the 304 scenes analysed contained verbal aggression (for example, name calling or verbal threats), while over 88% showed physical aggression (including hair pulling, open-hand slapping or spanking, choking, and whipping). Seventy percent of aggressive acts were committed by men and 87% of acts were committed against women. ‘

‘The pornography industry recognises the popularity, and thus profitability of violence in pornography in a hyper-competitive online marketplace. Pornographer, Joe Gallant said: “… I think the future of American porn is violence. I see the signs of it already… the culture will become much more accepting of gang rape movies and abuse movies.’ 87

Pornography increases the risk of sexual offenses
Although critics argue that ‘blaming porn’ shouldn’t leave individuals unaccountable for criminal behaviour, studies have confirmed that there’s a firm association between frequent porn consumption and increased verbal, physical and sexual aggression. 88 A review of multiple studies concluded: ‘exposure to non-violent and violent pornography results in increases in both attitudes supporting aggression and in actual aggression.’ 89

This effect is strongest in men with a propensity to aggression. Although not a singular, direct cause for sexual assault, if a man has other risk factors for committing sexual violence- for example hostile masculinity or a preference for impersonal sex- the frequent consumption of pornography dramatically increases the likelihood he will commit sexual violence. 90

Pornography erodes empathy to victims of sexual violence
Studies suggest that men who watch mainstream porn show a greater intent to commit rape if they know they could get away with it than men who don’t watch it. Men who watch sadomasochistic/ rape-themed porn are significantly less willing to intervene in situations of sexual violence; they’re also more likely to accept rape myths and show greater intent to rape. 91

The violence and misogyny present in pornography would be unacceptable in any other social context. In one study,  Dutch filmmakers asked men if stories they read were from pornography plots or real #MeToo accounts; the men couldn’t tell the difference. One is entertainment, the other illegal sexual assault. There’s a disconnect between pornography and the ‘real world.’ 92

Prolonged exposure to porn makes both men and women less likely to both identify sexual assault and to intervene as a bystander. It also causes users to show less compassion towards victims of sexual violence and exploitation, and more likely to trivialise rape and sexual child abuse as criminal offences. 93

Pornography reinforces Rape Culture
Watching porn increases the likelihood of someone using verbal coercion, drugs or alcohol to get someone to have sex with them. 94 It also makes it less likely that the user will even be able to distinguish rape from other sex. 95

Clearly, not all men who use porn rape, but what porn does is to create what some feminists call a “rape culture” by normalising, legitimizing, an condoning violence against women. In image after image, violent and abusing sex is presented as hot and deeply satisfying for all parties. These messages in porn chip away at the social norms that define violence against women as deviant and unacceptable. Gail Dines

Pornography increases sexual violence towards intimate partners. 96
The use of pornography by batterers significantly increased a battered woman’s odds of being sexually abused. Pornography use alone increased the odds by a factor of almost 2, and the combination of pornography and alcohol increased the odds of sexual abuse by a factor of 3. 97

Pornographic fantasies inspire violent sex offenders
One study states how, ‘sexual fantasies are an important component of sexual crimes…A sense of sexual entitlement paired with use of pornography may lead to coercive and forced sexual contact.’ 98  Net Nanny lists and quotes from more than a dozen famous violent offenders and serial killers who were addicted to pornography.99

You keep craving something which is harder, something which gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where pornography only goes so far… I’ve lived in prison for a long time now.  And I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence just like me. And without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography-without question, without exception-deeply influenced and consumed by an addiction to pornography…. Sex killer Ted Bundy 100

Pornography models women’s passive acceptance of sexual aggression
Analysis of the most popular porn videos, where 87% of violence was shown towards women, 95% of the responses from these women were neutral or positive. 101 This is the model influences what men and women perceive as normal. As Gail Dines writes: ‘[p]ornography takes violence against women and it sexualises it, and when you sexualise violence against women, you render the violence invisible.’ 102

In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator reported by the victims is consumption of porn by the offender. We have seen a rise in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent. Di Macleod, Director, Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence 103

Pornography inspires painful or degrading sexual acts
Watching pornography can condition men to demand the ‘Porn Star Experience’ from women, forcing them to act out things that they’ve seen on screen, even if those acts are dangerous, painful or degrading.

According to a recent study, ‘[p]ornography is frequently cited as the ‘explanation’ for anal sex, and that ‘people must like it if they do it,’ contradicting the expectation that it will be painful for women. Men also are expected to persuade or coerce reluctant partners, which has become normalized as well as ‘accidental’ penetration. 104 Pornography also conditions women to feel obliged to comply with such demands from men. 105

 

 

Pornography is difficult for children to avoid
Pornography is not intended for children. And yet, the reality is that many children are accessing it, since (according to the title to a review by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner on pornography), ‘Basically… porn is everywhere.’ 106

Many children stumble upon pornography by accident. In a recent survey of young people in the UK, only 22% reported to have first come across porn when actively looking for it. 62% said they’d first seen porn when they weren’t expecting to, or because they were shown it by someone else. 107 In 2013/14, a report by the charity ChildWISE revealed the website Pornhub was named in the top five favourite sites by boys aged 11-16. 108

Because pornographic depictions are pervasive in popular culture, and because online porn is often free and easily accessible via streaming and mobile devices, it’s difficult for caregivers and parents to manage the risks of children accessing pornography.109

Popular porn culture shuts out caregivers
Monitoring children’s online activity is a huge concern for parents, teachers and caregivers. Corporate culture effectively endorses children’s secrecy: ‘The official advertising worldview is that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor.’ Watching online porn is associated with young people reporting a poor emotional bond with their caregiver. 110

Watching pornography is a normalised ‘right of passage’ for boys
Research points to the way that boys are ‘shoved, coerced, seduced, and manipulated into conformity’ with a masculinity that’s ‘strong, powerful and unemotional.’ 111  Watching pornography is one of the ways in which adolescent boys ‘prove their manliness’ and gain peer acceptance and status.112

‘Children are being transformed into living advertisements for the global pornography industry. Branded by Playboy and other sexed-up corporations, they are taught that consumer obedience is a form of rebellion, and that the only authority worth following and imitating is the very corporate culture that creates and feeds off their hopes, fears and desires while repackaging their feelings as hypersexualised consumer products.’ Gail Dines113

Early exposure to porn has long-lasting consequences
Targeting boys is an important strategy for the porn industry, since those who watch pornography when they’re young are more likely to be heavy, lifelong consumers. At a life stage where boys form crucial attitudes, preferences and expectations for their future, pornography’s influence is particularly strong and long-lasting. 114

The industry is deliberate and sophisticated in drawing in boys and men so that they move from ‘curious clicker’ to ‘member clicker’. Jennifer Johnson describes how ‘… men are drawn into the online commercial pornography network, where they find themselves enmeshed in a well constructed set of relationships designed to extract maximum profits through the circumscription of consumer choice. The structure of the network is designed to prevent ‘leavers’… by restricting and/ or obfuscating (male) consumer choice.’ 115

Adolescent boys’ still-developing brains are more susceptible to addictions and pornography’s other harmful psychological effects. 116 Boys exposed to pornography at a young age not only use it more as adults, but are also likely to have pornographic ideas invade their ‘real-life’ sexual experiences, lowering their levels of sexual satisfaction. 117 Their tastes are also more likely to escalate to ‘deviant’ material (in particular, material depicting the abuse of animals and children).118

Pornography harms young women
Although hardcore pornography users are typically male, young women are increasingly likely to seek it out. 119 As with boys, pornography consumption reduces adolescent girls’ satisfaction with their sex lives. 120

It is well documented that sexual media, particularly sexualised representations of girls and women, can encourage girls and young women to see themselves primarily in sexual terms, to equate their worth and appeal with narrow standards of physical attractiveness, and to see themselves as sexual objects … 121

Pornography increases children’s risk of sexual exploitation
It’s been shown that women exposed to pornography as children are more likely to accept rape myths and to have sexual fantasies that involved rape. 122 Along with poverty and substance abuse, children growing up in a home where pornography is regularly consumed are far more likely to be trafficked at some point in their life. 123

Pornography is shaping adolescents’ nascent ideas about sex, sexuality and appropriate sexual behaviour. 124
According to the UK’s Big Talk Education Report, for many boys, pornography is the main source of information about sex and sexual behaviour: ‘Questions like “Is it ok for me to cum over my girlfriend’s face?” are not unusual, as is the apparent normalisation of anal sex.’125

A report published by the National Union of Students found that 60% of students surveyed use pornography to find out more about sex, with three quarters agreeing it provided unrealistic expectation 126.

Pornography consumption is linked to initiating sex at an earlier age, multiple sexual partners, more frequent practice of anal sex, use of psychoactive substances, and lack of protection against STIs: ‘All the work done in this area is in fact unanimous in concluding that pornography is a pervasive influence on young people.’ 127

Pornography breeds body dissatisfaction
Internet pornography has been shown to normalize the notion that women are sex objects among both adolescent boys and girls. 128 The surgically-enhanced porn-star body becomes not just an ideal but also a norm. A recent survey of UK school children revealed that, ‘[b]oth sexes are unimpressed with normal breasts, which- unlike porn stars’ silicone-boosted chests- are often not symmetrical and sit down, not up.’ 129

I just picked up from somewhere that it wasn’t neat enough or tidy enough and I think I wanted it to be smaller. People around me were watching porn and I just had this idea that it should be symmetrical and not sticking out. ‘Anna’ describing how (aged 14) she wanted to have labiaplasty 130

Watching porn lowers women’s body image and makes men more critical of their partners’ bodies.131 The discrepancy between porn bodies and ‘real’ bodies drives and supports a huge market in everything from Brazilian waxes, breast implants and cosmetic surgery for women’s genitals to weight-loss drugs, make-up, hair products and Botox.

Pornography pressurises girls accepting ‘porn sex’
A recent UK survey found that 44% of men who watched porn aged between 11–16 reported that online pornography gave them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.132 Another survey found many young women feel under pressure to play out the “scripts” their male partners had learnt from porn, and badgered into having sex in uncomfortable positions, faking sexual pleasure and consenting to perform unpleasant or painful sex acts. 133

Melinda Tankard-Reist writes: ‘For many girls, naming and expressing emotional or physical pain is the new taboo because it transgresses the make porn script of a continually up-for-it girl who takes it with a smile. The message is that men and boys must be able to get sexual release whenever they need to, and that women should accept men’s need for porn.134

A GirlGuiding study found that 71% of girls aged 17-21 think that pornography gives out confusing messages about sexual consent and that it makes aggressive behaviour towards women seem normal.135

Pornography leads to peer-on-peer sexual harassment and assault.
Studies show that adolescent consumption of pornography is associated with more permissive sexual attitudes, stronger gender-stereotypical sexual beliefs, more sexual intercourse, more casual sex and higher levels of sexual aggression.136

Porn shuts down a boy’s natural feeling, as it places little value on intimacy, empathy or respect of partners in pornography material. A growing body of research also shows that viewing porn is likely to make boys more sexually aggressive, to do whatever they feel they can get away with, and to want to act out what they have seen. Michael Flood 137

Pornography leads to young people creating ‘DIY’ porn
The prevalence of online pornography is associated the rise of home-made porn and sexually-explicit messages (or “sexts”). Girls often send sexts in the full knowledge that they will likely be passed around and shared with others; since many see it as a way to secure status and peer-approval, the risks are higher in girls who are sensation-seeking, have psychological difficulties, and engaged in more risk-taking activities.138

The consequences of creating such self-produced sexual images are largely negative. 139
Sexting is also strongly correlated with having had sexual intercourse, recent sexual activity, alcohol and other drug use before sexual intercourse, as well as having multiple recent sexual partners.140 It also leaves young girls open to a higher risk of victimisation and exploitation through things like ‘sextortion’, sexual harassment and online grooming. In a teen magazine article on sexting ‘horror stories’, 18-year-old Devin describes a familiar scenario: “A boy at my school made a private social media account that contained nudes from a ton of girls. He sold the account’s password to other boys for profit.”141

Porn consumption increases risky sexual behaviors:
Internet pornography use is linked to increases in problematic sexual activity at younger ages, and a greater likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behavior (e.g. casual sex, multiple sex partners, anal sex, group sex, and using substances during sex as young adolescents).142 There’s also a correlation between pornography consumption and delinquent/criminal adolescent behaviour, including sexual offenses.143

Pornography is often used to groom child victims of sexual abuse
Pornography is often an important ‘teaching tool and recipe book’ for abusers.144 Being forced to watch hours of pornography is also a means by which trafficked girls and women are ‘broken into’ sexual slavery and taught what they’re expected to do: ‘The girls and women are expected to visualize, and then act out what they’ve seen. Such experiences and images are imprinted on the girls’ and women’s minds and psyches.’145

Mainstream online porn connects with deviant and child abuse pornography
Internet pornography demonstrates the extent of adult sexual interest in children, not only in drawing those with existing paedophilic interests, but it also contributing to the crystallization of those with no explicit prior sexual interest in children.146

Few sex offenders who who watch pornography depicting the sexual abuse of children are exclusively interested in this kind of material; most also consume hardcore pornography featuring adult performers and animals.147 Interviews with sex offenders reveal how a pattern of prolonged exposure to pornography leads to gradual desensitisation and an escalation of tastes that can lead to the development of paedophilic desire. 148

For example, ’John’ from North Wales reports how his porn addiction escalated to the point where he started seeking out child abuse images: “Looking at porn gave me an instant fix and I became addicted. …It freaked me out, I knew it was wrong and I was waiting for the police to come and kick my door down, but as time went on the barrier just wore down. I didn’t care, I had no fear.” 149

The pornography legitimises and normalises sexual desire for children
In 1996, the Free Speech Coalition (the porn industry’s lobbying group) fought for the legal definition of child pornography to be changed, a woman in porn can be childified and dressed up to look under-age, as long as she is actually 18. The result is ‘pseudo-child pornography’ where over-18s are childified to look much younger.

This kind of pornography is an increasingly popular mainstream category, with hundreds of thousands of websites selling the idea of illicit sex with under-age girls. Gail Dines writes: ‘Once he clicks on these sites, the user is bombarded, through images and words, with an internally consistent ideology that legitimizes, condones, and celebrates sexual desire for children.150

Incest-themed pornography is very popular- and its popularity is increasing. Porn performer Gia finds the trend disturbing: “One fan told me that he and his wife conditioned their son his whole life until he was old enough to join them in bed. That really got to me. I almost felt like I was helping this kid get sexually abused.151

Pornography is racist
Contemporary pornography is not only sexist but also the most openly racist mass-media genre in contemporary society. Robert Jenson writes: ‘Pornography is one media genre in which overt racism is still routine and acceptable. Not subtle, coded racism, by old-fashioned racism- stereotypical representations of the sexually primitive black male stud, the animalistic, black woman, the hot Latina, the Asian geisha.’152

Racism’s presence in pornography has the potential to, ”breathe new life into old stereotypes that circulate in the mainstream”153. A recent UK report points out how its construction of racial minorities in a degrading, stereotypical way has social implications: “ What does that mean to a young black woman in Hackney who is seeing herself represented in that way? What does it do to the young black man who sees himself represented as a thug?”154

Why shouldn’t people do what they like in private, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone? What’s the harm?
Firstly, there is often a blurring of lines between the “people in private” and the pornography industry at large. Criticism of “pornography” doesn’t focus on the actions of individual consumers but instead focuses on a global, profit-driven industry that uses hyper-sexualised images and videos to create a commodified sexuality that’s damaging to real-life attitudes, relationships and behaviours.

The large-scale private use of hardcore pornography by millions of people has public ramifications. The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors shaped by pornography use have a profound impact on not only users’ private relationships, but also their professional and social relationships. Pornography use, to varying degrees, shapes the lens by which users view, interact, and construct the world. NCOSE

Secondly, the idea that porn ‘doesn’t hurt anyone’ is simply not true. Research consistently shows the harmful mental, physical and emotional effects of porn155 on both those who watch it (including lowering sexual satisfaction, causing addiction and erectile dysfunction, etc.) and on those involved with its production (including the high risk of STDs, physical injury, PTSD, substance abuse, etc.)156

Pornography also fuels the wider sex industry, increasing demand for prostitution which met by the trafficking and exploitation of some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals. Because of its high social cost, any discussion of pornography cannot be restricted to the realm of individual choice and ‘free speech’.Thirdly, the harms of pornography are not limited to those who choose to be involved in or with it. Directly and indirectly, pornography has a huge affect on the lives of people all across the world. Although it’s normally watched in private and the industry is hidden from view, it is nonetheless an extremely powerful influence on Western society, impacting popular culture and shaping our ideas about gender, sex and sexuality.

Whatever you think about adult film, it is one of the most consumed forms of media in the world. Pornhub, the popular pornography website, draws 80 million visitors a day. Exact figures for the size of the industry are scarce, but experts put total sales around a billion dollars a year. Plus, studies show that adult film has become a form of sex education for young people around the world. New York Times 157

Pornography’s always been around- so isn’t it normal?
This depends on your definition of pornography. Are you talking about a strip tease from the 1890s where the mere suggestion of bare skin was considered erotic? Few people would consider this to be “porn” in today’s terms. It’s clear that even though erotica may have been around for hundreds of years if not longer, it’s difficult to argue that “porn has always been around” in its current form.

This is an important caveat; a criticism of the porn industry is not a criticism of erotic cave drawings from 20,000 years ago. The porn industry is exactly that: a profit-driven system that churns out commodified, monetized sexuality, increasingly extreme to meet the escalating demands it creates. This industry has only been in existence for the past few decades. The internet has been a game-changer, opening up half of the world to free and unlimited hard-core pornographic material. This is unprecedented, hense its labelling as the ‘largest unregulated social experiment in human history.’ 158

Pornography is between consenting adults; so isn’t it their choice? Don’t the performers enjoy it?

It is a trap that a lot of young girls in eastern Europe fall into and I feel very lucky to have survived the experience, because many girls don’t. When you see these girls in the pictures smiling almost like they are happy having their clothes off and being exposed like this – it is the biggest lie of all. I have never met a single girl who was happy to be doing that job. Contrary to popular belief these girls don’t make a lot money doing this and they end up broken inside and left with no self-confidence or feelings of self worth. Many of them turn to drugs and alcohol to help numb the pain.159

The myth that performers enjoy pornography is as pervasive as it is inaccurate. Of course, good porn performers have to look as if they’re enjoying it, even when they’re not. And conceding that some performers may profit or enjoy aspects of what they do does not negate the prevalent abusive, exploitative and coercive practices common throughout the industry. Whilst most of the women in pornography tend to defend the industry whilst they’re in it (for obvious reasons), a few years after they leave, many will speak out about the trauma they endured.

The myth that porn performers enjoy what they do is certainly convenient for consumers. Ultimately, watching pornography fuels the sky-high demand for more- a demand that is met by a largely unregulated industry that involves exploitation and trafficking. As Dawn Hawkins, Executive Director of National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said she had talked to over 20 porn performers who all shared stories about being forced and coerced many times over: “Drugs, alcohol, physical abuse, blackmail, threats, fake legal documents, deceitful enticing, promises of fame and money and so much more are used to get the girls to perform what and how the producers desire.” 160

Isn’t pornography a ‘safe’ release for sexual tension that could otherwise lead to sexual assault and rape?
The argument that porn acts as a “safety valve” for sexual assault and/or rape has picked up traction in recent years. The idea goes, instead of letting pent up sexual tension get the better of you, why not watch porn to “release” the tension and as a consequence, you won’t assault or rape somebody. As societies gain access to more pornography, rates of sexual assault and rape go down.

Aside from the fact that this is problematic in implying that the “default state” of men involves a natural predisposition to sexual violence, it also paints an inaccurate and misleading picture. At best, it confuses correlation and causation, and at worst it is flat-out wrong, since some studies show the opposite: a link between an increase in sexual violence and the consumption of pornography.

Leading researcher Dr John Foubert explains:

“I have studied how to end sexual violence for 25 years. It wasn’t until 10 years ago when I came to the realization that the secret ingredient in the recipe for rape was not secret at all, though at the time it was rarely identified. That ingredient, responsible for giving young men the permission-giving beliefs that make rape so much more likely and telling young women they should like it, is today’s high speed Internet pornography.

There are also methodological issues that need to be taken into account; for instance, sexual assault and sexual violence remains under-reported, with up to 83% of victims not reporting their experiences of sexual assault to the police. Immediately this places a limitation on the accuracy of any data gathered. How could you measure the link between pornography and sexual assault if you don’t have accurate statistics for sexual assault in the first place? All in all, it is certainly not statistically proven that there is any meaningful link between pornography use and a decrease in sexual violence.” 161

Can pornography be empowering for women?
Statistics that women as making up almost 30% of worldwide viewers of pornography, and the success of porn performers is typically made in reference to the women are often taken as evidence that pornography can be ‘empowering’ for women. But what does ‘empowering’ actually mean? How are we defining empowerment: economic success? A feeling of individual wellbeing?

The feminist defense of pornography is part of a wider narrative that co-opts the language of female liberation, empowerment and choice in relation to hyper-sexualised culture and the widespread objectification of women. It’s certainly convenient to have ‘feminist’ views that happen to be money-making, popular and supportive of the status quo. However, such views are often short-sighted since and refuse to see the wider social picture or to engage with the evidence of harm.

While it is true that some female performers have profited from their involvement in pornography production, fame and financial gain do not mitigate the physical and mental harms they may have endured along the way. Once they’re out of the industry, many former porn performers speak of being famous and wealthy but isolated, unhappy and addicted to drugs.

And while it’s also true that an increasing (though still relatively small) proportion of pornography consumers are women who say they find watching pornography enjoyable and empowering, there’s evidence that it causes the harms as it does to male consumers.162 Plus, there are many other women for whom pornography is a source of insecurity and distress. Is it right to disregard their concerns?

Ultimately, the effects of pornography on women extend far beyond those directly involved with it. In pornography, women are consistently portrayed physically flawless, continually up-for-it and submissive to men’s aggressive sexual demands, participating any sexual act, no matter how painful or degrading. They rarely complain or react against the aggression they encounter. It may be defended as ‘fantasy’ but pornography has real, far-reaching consequences for how we perceive women, both within relationships and in the wider culture:

  • Research shows that pornography consumption makes men feel less ‘in love’ with their partner, less physically attracted and less satisfied with ‘real life’ sex (read more in our Harms to Relationships section)
  • Pornography also affects how women perceive themselves; many recognise that they are compared unfavorably to the women in porn and feel under pressure to accept men’s sexual aggression.
  • Pornography also normalises sexual violence and aggression towards women, which leads to rape-supporting beliefs, an erosion of empathy and compassion, and an increase in sexist and misogynistic attitudes (read more in our Harms to Women section).

The fact that pornography may benefit some individuals women in some ways (e.g. through financial gain, or by making some female consumers feel good about themselves), such benefits do not mitigate its harms. Examining the net effect of pornography on women, few could argue that it is ‘empowering’ overall.

In pornography, ‘women’ bodies are stripped, exposed and contorted for the purpose of ridicule to bolster that ‘masculine esteem’ which gets a kick out and sense of power from viewing females as anonymous, panting playthings, adult toys, dehumanised objects to be used, abused, broken and discarded. Brownmiller 163

What about feminist porn?
The very existence of so-called ‘feminist’ porn recognises that the vast majority of pornography is a long way from being ‘female friendly’. Some argue that pornography can portray the women within it in a more positive, empowered light, and are optimistic about making the industry as a whole fairer, less exploitative and male-centric. In the New York Times, Mireille Miller-Young even goes so far as to claim that “[t]he Internet is fast democratizing the porn business.” 164

Whist this optimism is admirable, it’s important to point out that, as a market-driven democracy, by far the most popular kind of pornography involves humiliation, name-calling and sexual violence against women. It’s also becoming narrower, more hard-core and more extreme. So-called ‘feminist’ porn is not really catching on and therefore has very limited influence on what the average viewer is watching.

What’s more, there are many who regard the very notion of ‘feminist porn’ as oxymoronic, since pornography is all about turning an anonymous female body into an object of sexual arousal. The female body is reduced to a tool for sexual gratification. It’s certainly an improvement if they’re not being physically and verbally abused, but ultimately pornographers are still profiting off the prostituted bodies of women.

Cf. Why “feminist-porn” is an oxymoron, with Gail Dines

Is porn addiction a real thing?
In short, yes. Rates of men seeking help for their compulsive pornography viewing have soared in recent years 165, and official health organisations are beginning to recognise pornography addiction as a real (and treatable) medical condition.

This has been a relatively slow process, partly because of our changing understanding of addiction. There’s been a huge amount of evidence to show that, contrary to our previous assumptions, addiction does not just apply to substances but also to behaviours (such as gaming, gambling and watching pornography) 166. Indeed, behavioural addictions cause similar chemical reactions in the brain and similar patterns of compulsive behaviour to substance addictions.

The International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), the international “standard diagnostic tool for epidemiology, health management and clinical purposes” maintained by the World Health Organization, now recognises the diagnosis of “Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder,” which includes pornography issues 167. There’s also increasing reference to the neurobiology of sex and pornography addiction in updated psychiatry textbooks written by and for physicians.

Some textbooks and bodies have yet to include the diagnosis of pornography addiction (notably, the DSM which has recently recognised “behavioural addiction”), but this in no way reflects a lack of evidence that it exists. 168

Can you oppose pornography and still support free speech?
Yes, of course. For those that oppose pornography, the issue is rarely boiled down to something as simplistic as saying pornography should just be banned and that’s the end of it. The aim is to educate people about the harms of pornography, and the violent and abusive behaviour it’s not only built upon, but reinforces upon watching.

If, upon learning about these issues, people still decide to watch or create pornography, then ultimately there isn’t much that can be done to stop it, particularly in the digital age where pornography is increasingly prevalent.

However, this does not do away with obligation to talk about these harms and to try to reduce them. After all, don’t we all want to live in a world where people can be free from abuse, violence and harmful behaviours?

Doesn’t anti-porn mean anti-sex?
Nope! Opposing the commercialisation and industrialisation of sex does not mean that you oppose sex outright. After all, would you call those the oppose sweatshop practices “anti-clothes” or those who oppose fast-food “anti-eating”?

Sex has existed outside of the porn industry since the dawn of humanity (literally!). When we talk about opposing pornography, it’s an opposition to commercially abusive practices and the attitudes that these propagate, such as misogyny and violence against women , not to mention the health harms that pornography introduces into people’s lives. In essence, it isn’t really anything to do with sex at all.

If people are bothered about pornography, shouldn’t they just not watch it?
If people who were bothered about something just decided to ignore it, would we ever get anything done? After all, the same question could be asked of those who oppose the education about the reality of the porn industry; could they just not listen to us?

We live in a highly individualistic society that promotes individual choices, rights and freedoms and is often blinkered to wider social consequences. Unfortunately, the effect the porn industry are felt by everyone in Western society, regardless of whether they watch it or not. Therefore, we should all get to have a voice in the debate.

Those who choose to interpret Freedom of Speech in absolute terms see it as their own individual right to do and say and read and view whatever the like regardless of how their speech and actions may affect others. It is this absolute focus on the individual that is unsustainable due to the fact that it takes little account of the rights of others. When one person demands the right to do whatever he/she likes, it follows that others will be affected and, in many cases, have their own rights to freedom of speech curtailed. 169

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