December 18, 2018

Increasing evidence suggests that pornography use may cause individual and relational distress. A recent meta-analysis suggested that male pornography use in particular may have small-but-consistent negative links with relationship and sexual dissatisfaction. As such evidence accumulates, scholars and other advocates who wish to promote pornography use as a healthy expression of individual sexuality have shifted tactics. For some, the battle cry has shifted away from the argument that pornography is inherently good or bad to an argument that the “type” of pornography viewed matters most. Specifically, some now advocate that mainstream pornography may indeed be degrading of women and objectifying the bodies of the actors involved in ways that undermine healthy intimacy. But, they say, if we simply had better porn that avoided these negative characteristics, the negative effects would go away. Put another way, if we can find healthy strategies of viewing porn and then educate the public about these methods, people will begin to have a healthier and happier experiences with pornography.

A recent study led by Sara B. Chadwick of the University of Michigan took this premise and ran with it. In this qualitative study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Chadwick and her colleagues examined “how women actively participate to construct the experience of watching pornography in ways that facilitate positive outcomes.” The 73 women who participated in the study were put into one of 13 focus groups, ranging from three to nine women, and asked to discuss their experiences with sexual pleasure and erotica.

Let us pause for a moment and note the leading nature of this research aim. Qualitative research is, at its core, about searching for and understanding meaning in people’s lives. It is a “bottom-up” approach to research where scholars attempt to explore a topic in ways that allow the participants’ experiences to take center stage. Yet, in this study, the scholars place immediate restriction on their participants by focusing their discussion only on positive outcomes. At least, that’s the assumption the reader is left with from the study. Were the participants allowed to discuss negatives? Were the questions asked of the focus groups neutral? Unfortunately, we don’t know. The authors of the study never reveal the nature of the questions asked during their focus groups, the first of several problematic aspects of this study.

The authors’ sampling methods further damaged the study’s usefulness and generalizability. Sexuality is a sensitive topic and getting a sample of research participants that is diverse and representative of the general population is challenging. How did the authors of this study attempt to overcome this obstacle? With ads posted on Craigslist, a theme that appears to be emerging among skewed research articles. They also limited their sample to women who had sexual experience (sorry abstainers) and who did not have any history of abuse (so that results “reflected non-abusive experiences”). Unsurprisingly, their sample skewed heavily toward those with education and a whopping 38% were sexual minorities. In other words, the reference to “women’s” engagement with sexual media in the study’s title should likely have an asterisk next to it, as the women being studied appear to be unrepresentative of the population at large.

What is perhaps most surprising are the conclusions the authors attempt to make, considering their extremely non-generalizable sample, whose members may or may not have been asked leading questions. The authors noted that many of the women described finding or viewing pornographic content that may have had a negative influence on their lives. Yet, they concluded that such negative experiences were avoidable, noting that “…despite these risks, women used strategies to negotiate negative content and maintain positive experiences.” To the authors, the potential negative influence of pornography was simply something to be side-stepped, similar to how one might simply avoid the apple with the rotten spot at the local grocery store. They further concluded:

“[O]ur findings also showed that women acknowledged the riskiness of porn and that they actively engaged in strategies to negotiate negative pornographic content and maintain positive experiences.”

What the authors mean when they note such positive experiences is subjective and vague. It appears as if the authors view positive experiences as the absence of negative experiences. If women do not sense a negative effect, pornography must not have one. This focus on subjective well-being may have some merit but clearly does not negate the potential impact that viewing pornography can have on sexual function, relational well-being, or individual mental health.

From a feminist perspective, the authors’ conclusions can be very empowering. The pornography itself doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it! Women are portrayed as agents of power, able to shape their own experience. As the authors note:

“This highlights how, rather than being passive receiver [sic] of unexpected negative content, women can consume pornography in purposeful ways to shape their own experiences.”

While it may feel good to empower women in such a way based on this small and unique qualitative sample of subjective opinions, the empirical evidence paints a different picture. Other studies have suggested that women who view pornography may have issues with self-esteem and depression. Speaking more relationally, women in relationships with men who view pornography may be less inclined to engage in intimate behaviors with partners. While each of these studies has its limitations, empirical evidence clearly exists that the effect of viewing pornography for women goes well beyond if they enjoyed the experience.

The conclusions of this particular study are based on the assumption that if women feel emboldened to be active consumers of pornography, and pornographic content is designed to give women what they are looking for, its use can be a positive, healthy, and affirming activity for individuals and couples. Of course, there’s one important and vital problem with that assumption: Almost no empirical evidence exists to suggest this would happen. While researchers have begun to explore how varying types of content may influence outcomes, this research has suggested that doing so may uncover more, not fewer, negative effects. For example, while mainstream pornography viewing appears to be detrimental when men are the partner viewing, a recent study suggested that less-explicit sexual media (think Game of Thrones, soft-core porn, or Fifty Shades of Grey) may have a more negative effect on women than men.

While the true effect of pornography appears complicated, making any conclusions based on a skewed and small sample population — who may have been set-up to talk about positive experiences — gives us little real information on which to draw strong conclusions.

Image Credit: Matthew Bowden, via Wikimedia Commons // CC

About the Author

Brian J. Willoughby, Ph.D. is currently an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Dr. Willoughby is considered an international expert in the field of couple and marital relationships, sexuality, and emerging adult development. His research generally focuses on how adolescents, young adults, and adults move toward and form long-term committed relationships.

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