Use and Harms of Pornography

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A Confusing World

To say the least, pornography is a controversial and confusing subject. Researchers, politicians, pornography producers, pornography consumers, those acquainted with consumers, and those passively exposed to erotic media (through everyday movies, advertisements, and internet pop-ups) have differing opinions and values toward pornography.

Supporters of pornography argue, "It's my choice and my right. People have been doing this for centuries - it's just what people do. It's all in good fun, and I'm not hurting anyone. So what could be the harm in using it?" Some think of pornography as sinful and immoral, while others think it can bring couples together. Politicians bicker about it. Pornography-producers, movie-makers, and owners of various franchises depend on mild to highly erotic images to sell their products. With an obvious motive for promoting a no-harm image, such businessmen minimize the negative effects of pornography to consumers. Those trying to understand the role of pornography, can be left feeling confused and lost.

The remainder of this article will briefly look at the meaning and prevalence of pornography as well as a more in depth look at the harmful effects of pornography use.

It should be known that it is not the author's intent to put down or degrade those who use pornography, but rather to build understanding and compassion between family members who otherwise may be feeling ashamed, confused, and alone.

The Meaning of Pornography

Sexual addictions specialist, Dr. Victor Cline, describes the origin and meaning of the word "pornography":3

The word 'pornography' comes from the Greek words 'porno' and 'graphic' meaning 'depictions of the activities of whores'.... In common parlance [or, phraseology], it usually means 'material that is sexually explicit and intended primarily for the purpose of sexual arousal....' (¶ 4)3

Rory Reid, sexual compulsions specialist, extends this meaning: "Pornography is any visual or written medium created with the intent to sexually stimulate. If the work was not intended to stimulate but nevertheless causes sexual arousal in an individual, it constitutes pornography for that person. If you find yourself asking whether a work is pornographic, the question itself suggests the material makes you uncomfortable. That should be enough to tell you to avoid it"7 (p. 47).

Birch, a director of a Christian-based therapeutic and educational agency for families, remarks: "our culture is filled with images of sexuality. Some of these images portray healthy sexuality. Many, however, depict inappropriate, obscene and sometimes perverse perspectives on sexuality, depictions that are commonly regarded as pornography"2 (p. 18).

Prevalence of Pornography Use

Ina day where sexually explicit images are easy to access through home computers, cable stations, 900 numbers, the near-by gas station, or the next door neighbor, it is naive to assume a friend or loved one has never had experience with, or been tempted by, some kind of pornography. Dr. Laaser, executive director of the Christian Alliance for Sexual Recovery, reported during a U.S. Congressional hearing that the average age a person in the U.S. is first exposed to pornography is approximately five years old.5

How is Pornography Harmful?

Frank York, former editor in Public Policy for Focus on the Family (a pro-family political and educational organization) as well as writer and researcher on pornography, and Jan LaRue, Chief Counsel, Concerned Women for America, assert, “The most common damage, the one that affects everyone who views porn, is that it warps the person's perception of people, relationships, and sex"8 (p. 14). Pornography teaches unrealistic and inappropriate sexual expectations, decreases satisfaction with monogamy and lowers family loyalties, objectifies and degrades women, links sex with violence and children, encourages promiscuity, and increases susceptibility to sexually acting out in ways harmful to others.3

Gary R. Brooks, psychologist and assistant chief of the psychology service at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Temple, Texas, calls the effect of pornography on people's perceptions "The Centerfold Syndrome." In his book, The Centerfold Syndrome, Dr. Brooks explains that pornography alters people’s perceptions in the following ways:

  • Voyeurism. Pornography teaches its users to focus on looking at people instead of forming real relationships.
  • Objectification. Men, women, and children are portrayed as sexual objects, whose worth lies in the size and shape of their body parts.
  • Validation. After repeatedly seeing people in an idealized form, pornography users begin to judge people's worth by their physical attractiveness. They feel masculine or feminine only when they are with beautiful people, and are less likely to be committed when their partner goes through life-changes (age, childbearing, etc.) that decrease their youthfulness or good looks. 
  • Trophyism. Romantic partners are trophies to be displayed and owned, not to be treated as real people.
  • Fear of true intimacy. Because people portrayed in pornographic pictures have no demands or expectations beyond sexual-arousal and pleasure, pornography users do not learn how to form real relationships with others. They do not learn how to be selfless, sacrificing, and committed; thus, they come to fear true intimacy that requires them to relate emotionally and spiritually.

The sexual promiscuity encouraged by pornography also increases out-of wedlock pregnancies and the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Teens are particularly vulnerable to this. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education: "Adolescents have the highest STD rates. Approximately one fourth of sexually active adolescents become infected with an STD each year, accounting for 3 million cases, and people under the age of 25 account for two thirds of all STDs in the United States"1 (¶ 2).

Lastly, pornography use can develop into a compulsion. A compulsion is the intense urge to do a certain behavior regardless of negative consequences. Compulsions can be so powerful that people often feel helpless to deny them.

Many researchers, clinicians and organizations think of compulsive pornography use as an addiction. Like a cocaine addict is driven to use cocaine at any cost, so will a pornography addict seek out sexual material despite feelings of guilt, destruction of family relationships, divorce, overwhelming debt, and legal consequences (like jail time) for illegal activities associated with pornography(such as downloading or transmitting child porn over the internet). Pornography compulsions are very difficult to break, but it can be done. Learning to overcome compulsions usually takes a long time and often requires the help of a qualified therapist.

With these kinds of consequences, parents, spouses, and children need to be educated on the harmful effects of pornography. Parents and spouses should learn how to detect signs of pornography use in the home, how to protect their family from pornography before it becomes a problem, and how to handle the problem should they learn a loved one has become involved with pornography.

Gender Differences

Dr. Al Cooper, formerly the clinical director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center, conducted one of the largest studies of internet sexuality to date.4 He surveyed 9,300 respondents on a 59-item survey on the MSNBC website and found that 83% of pornography consumers were male and 17% were female. Some researchers have commented that the ratio of male to female users has changed over the last four years, with greater numbers of women consuming pornography.6

Research has shown that men and women are generally interested in different kinds of sexually-arousing material. Dr. Cooper found that men were much more visually stimulated and tended to prefer websites with pornographic pictures. On the other hand, women were stimulated by romance and emotional connection. So they generally favored sexual chat rooms where they could interact and develop relationships.4

Conclusion

We may try to convince ourselves that pornography is just harmless fun, but research and experience are showing us otherwise. Pornography has both subtle and blatant negative consequences. People who claim to use pornography for fun may want to consider the following questions:

  • What are the subtle ways pornography is changing me and my approach to relationships? Is it drawing me closer to others or pulling me away?
  • What is pornography teaching me about sexual relationships and about the worth of people in general?
  • How does my pornography use affect my partner?
  • Is it really possible to separate what I repetitively and regularly see in a pornographic movie, website, or chat room from the way I look at and treat other people?  

Comparing a genuinely intimate relationship with a pornographic relationship is like comparing a diamond to a stone. One is infinitely more lovely, satisfying, and valuable than the other. So, why would someone be willing to give up a brilliant diamond for a dull stone?

More often than not, regular pornography use is about trying to fill unmet needs. You may ask yourself, what is lacking in this person's life that he or she is trying to replace through using pornography?

  • Are they lonely?
  • Do they fear being in an intimate relationship?
  • Are they lacking the opportunity or skills to form a close relationship?
  • Are they trying to calm some inner anxiety?

Many resources are available to those seeking to learn more about pornography. For an extensive list of resources, see the article, "Helpful Resources for Pornography Addictions and Other Problematic Sexual Behaviors" found at this website.

Other resources are:

Self-help Literature

  • False Intimacy by Dr. Harry Schaumburg
  • Out of the Shadows by Dr. Patrick Carnes
  • Don't Call It Love by Dr. Patrick Carnes

Websites

Written by Amber Brewer and Rachel Jamieson, Research Assistants, and edited by Jill C. Manning and Rory C. Reid, Sexual Addiction Therapists in Private Practice, and Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education (2001). Sexuality, contraception, and the media
  2. Birch, P. J. (2002). Pornography use: Consequences and cures. Marriage and Families, 18-25.
  3. Cline, V. B. (2002). Pornography's effects on adults and children.
  4. Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 1(2), 181-187.
  5. Laaser, M. (2000).  The availability of obscene material on the internet. Hearing of Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, May 23.
  6. Morahan-Martin, J. (1998). The gender gap in Internet use: Why men use the internet more than women|A literary review. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 1, 3-10.
  7. Reid, R. C. (2005, February).  The road back: Abandoning pornographyEnsign, 47.  
  8. York, F. & LaRue, J. (2002). Protecting your child in an x-rated world: What you need to know to make a difference.  Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.