Pornography, Health Consequences of
Social scientists use the term pornography in reference to media content designed to sexually arouse consumers via the presentation of nudity and graphic sexual acts. Pornography depicts behaviors that, if enacted by viewers, may adversely impact their health and the health of others. Consequently, health communication scholars have conducted studies designed to provide insight into whether pornography affects viewers' health-related behaviors. Potential impacts on sexual aggression and sexual risk (i.e., sex associated with outcomes such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, or STIs) have been particular foci. This entry explores the prevalence of pornography consumption, the messages pornography sends regarding sexual aggression and sexual risk, and the possible effects of viewing pornography on sexually aggressive and sexually risky behavior.
Youth across cultures consume pornography. A study of emerging adults in the United States found that about 90 percent of males and 30 percent of females reported consuming pornography. A cross-cultural study found that Peruvian emerging adults are even more likely to consume pornography than emerging adults in the United States. A study of Taiwanese adolescents found that more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent of females reported consuming pornographic films. A study of Dutch adolescents found that about 70 percent of males and 40 percent of females reported consuming pornography.
A few studies have assessed pornography consumption among older adults. Although consumption declines with age, some older adults do consume pornography. National research conducted in the United States among adults as old as 89 found that between the years 2000 and 2010, about 35 percent of men and 15 percent of women reported viewing a pornographic movie in the prior year. National research conducted in the Netherlands among adults whose average age was 48 found that in the past six months about 45 percent of men reported viewing pornographic pictures and more than one in 10 women reported viewing pornographic videos.
Why have some health communication scholars hypothesized that pornography affects consumers' behavior? The answer lies in the concept of sexual scripts. Sexual scripts are socially constructed instructions for sexual behavior. Sexual scripts provide individuals with expectations for their own sexual behavior and the sexual behavior of others. Sexual scripts also signal the outcomes of particular sexual behaviors. Pornography can teach consumers new scripts, activate already learned but currently dormant scripts, and encourage the utilization of scripts by portraying particular sexual behaviors as normative and rewarding.
Content analyses of books, magazines, movies, and online content have found that scripts featuring aggression against women are common in pornography. Pornography titles are sometimes unabashedly misogynistic. A recent analysis of aggression in best-selling pornographic videos found that approximately nine in 10 scenes contained acts of physical aggression such as spanking, gagging, open hand slapping, hair pulling, and choking. Approximately one in two scenes contained verbal aggression, such as women being called “bitch” or “slut.” Recipients of aggression reacted with pleasure or neutrality 95 percent of the time.
Content analyses of pornography have also found scripts for sexual behaviors associated with increased STI and pregnancy risk, such as condom-less sex, sex with strangers, and sex with multiple partners. For instance, a recent study of pornographic films found that penile-vaginal intercourse was condom-less in 97 percent of scenes and penile oral sex was condom-less in 100 percent of scenes.
A number of experiments and surveys support the hypothesis that pornography consumption leads to the adoption of sexually aggressive scripts for some consumers. Both experimental and survey studies have tested associations between pornography consumption and attitudes supporting violence against women, such as rape myth Page 1080 | Top of Articleacceptance and acceptance of interpersonal violence (such attitudes are predictive of sexually aggressive behavior). A recent meta-analysis of 17 experimental studies found that exposure to pornography led to more support for violence against women. A recent meta-analysis of nine survey studies found that participants who reported higher levels of pornography consumption also expressed more support for violence against women.
Longitudinal studies have found that earlier pornography consumption predicts later sexually aggressive behavior. A three-wave, two-year national study of U.S. adolescents found that males' later sexually aggressive behavior (e.g., forcing sexual behavior on an unwilling partner) was predicted by their earlier consumption of pornography. A two-wave, two-year regional study of U.S. adolescents found that males' later sexually harassing behavior (e.g., groping, use of sexually abusive language) was predicted by their earlier consumption of pornography. Attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and sexually aggressive behavior have been correlated with pornography consumption in other countries as well (e.g., China, Japan, Netherlands, and Sweden).
Pornography consumption has also been associated with risky sexual behavior. Surveys of adolescents and adults find that the probability of having multiple sexual partners increases as the frequency of pornography consumption increases. That these associations simply indicate that individuals predisposed toward casual sex gravitate to pornography seems unlikely. Recent longitudinal studies of casual sex attitudes and behaviors carried out in the United States and the Netherlands found that prior pornography consumption reliably predicts subsequent casual sex attitudes and behaviors, but not vice versa. Finally, with only some exceptions, studies have found that pornography consumers are less likely to use condoms.
Health communication researchers have increasingly considered the possibility that consuming pornography increases the probability of adverse health outcomes. Content analyses indicate that aggression against women and risky sex are common components of pornographic scripts. Correspondingly, pornography consumption has been associated with aggressive attitudes, aggressive behaviors, and sexual risk behaviors in multiple studies. A fair amount of experimental and longitudinal research has been conducted, suggesting pornography's causal influence.
Paul J. Wright
Indiana University, Bloomington
See Also: Media Content, Impact of ; Meta-Analysis ; Sexual Assault ; Sexual Health .
Malamuth, Neil, Martin Hald, and Mary Koss. “Pornography: Individual Differences in Risk and Men's Acceptance of Violence Against Women in a Representative Sample.” Sex Roles, v.66 (2012).
Perrin, P. C., et al. “Health Education's Role in Framing Pornography as a Public Health Issue: Local and National Strategies with International Implications.” Promotion & Education, v.15/1 (2008).
Wright, Paul. “U.S. Males and Pornography, 1973–2010: Consumption, Predictors, Correlates.” Journal of Sex Research, v.50 (2013).
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6500500437