SEX

Does Porn Make You More Aggressive?

A study finds a link between adult material and acts of aggression—but not all researchers buy it

SEX
(Photos: Dreamstime, Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Jan 02, 2016 at 11:55 AM ET

Millions of Americans watch porn—but whether that’s actually harmful remains a longstanding debate. One new study says yes, finding a link between viewing adult material and committing acts of sexual aggression, including rape.

The paper, published in the Journal of Communication, is a meta-analysis of 22 studies from seven different countries. The collected data looks at self-reports of pornography consumption and acts of sexual aggression, including sexual harassment and the use of force or threats to, as the study puts it, “obtain sex.” The researchers, from Indiana University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, found that “consumption of pornography was associated with an increased likelihood of committing actual acts of sexual aggression.”

This builds on past meta-analyses finding greater exposure to pornography among sex offenders and associations between porn-viewing and more accepting attitudes toward violence. One unique aspect of the current paper is that it found no significant difference in the porn-aggression correlation between men and women. It also found no disparity in the aggression link when it comes to pre- and post-Internet porn.

The researchers acknowledge that the causes of sexual aggression are complex and that “many pornography consumers are not sexually aggressive.” But they ultimately conclude that “the accumulated data leave little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression than individuals who do not consume pornography or who consume pornography less frequently.”

There is disagreement on that point, though. “I find the evidence to be non-convincing,” said Chris Ferguson, and associate professor of psychology at Stetson University, who has studied the issue. “I’m going to put my twenty dollars down and say I could probably use the same data that these authors have, control for other variables and find nothing.”

In 2009, Ferguson’s own research found that as pornography consumption in the United States has gone up over time, rates of rape have actually gone down. Other studies, including international ones, have reported similar findings. Fergusion argues that this population-level approach is more reliable than self-reported data on extreme behaviors,” like sexual violence. He points to the phenomenon of “mischievous responders,” study participants who lie, just for laughs. It’s particularly a problem when it comes to studies looking at adolescents, as several papers do in the meta-analysis.

Needless to say, the argument is far from over. “This is something that ping-pongs back and forth—one study says one thing, another study says another thing,” he said. “This is a debate that’s gone on for decades, and it’s going to continue going on for decades.”