Pornography's Social Cost

William E. May
© 2011 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Fondation

In May, 2010 my article, "The Social Costs of Pornography" was posted on It summarized a 61 page booklet, The Social Costs of Pornography: Findings and Recommendations published that year by the Witherspoon Institute. Later in 2010 the Witherspoon Institute published a book of over 260 pages entitled The Social Costs of Pornography: A Reader, with a Foreword by Jean Bethke Elshstain and an Introduction by James R. Stoner and Donna M. Hughes.

This article will present some of the extensive evidence provided by the Reader of current scientific studies to show that use of pornography causes terrible harms to millions of people today. Because of the Internet and other new technologies those harms now affect more and more people who can access "hardcore" porn instantly from around the world.

Evidence of Pornography's Harms Presented by Essays in the Reader's Part One

1. Norman Doidge's "Acquiring Tastes and Loves: What Neuroplasticity Teaches Us About Sexuality and Love" shows these harms from the perspective of a scholar who is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and expert on environmental factors in shaping the neurology of the brain. The current porn epidemic graphically shows that sexual tastes can be acquired. "Pornography delivered by high speed Internet connections satisfies the prerequisites for neoplastic change of the brain." Pornography might seem to be purely instinctive, as pornographers want us to believe. But, Doidge argues, this is not true, because if it were pornography would be unchanging. In reality the content of pornography is dynamic, and changes in its content can lead to the development of acquired tastes. Thirty years ago "hardcore" pornography meant the presentation of sexual intercourse between two aroused partners, displaying their genitals, while "softcore" meant pictures of women in various states of undress, baring their breasts. But hardcore has evolved. Today it is dominated by the "sadomasochistic themes of forced sex, ejaculations on women's faces, and angry anal sex, all involving scripts fusing sex with hatred and humiliation." And today the comparatively tame softcore pictures of bygone years now appear everywhere -- "in the pornification of everything, including television, rock videos, soap operas, advertisements, etc."

During the mid-to late 90s Doidge treated or evaluated many men who had acquired a taste for a kind of pornography that troubled or even disgusted them, had disturbing effects on their sexual excitement, their interpersonal relationships, and sexual potency. "While it is usually difficult to get information about private sexual mores, this is not the case with pornography today because its use is increasingly public. This shift is illustrated by the change from calling it 'pornography' to the more casual term 'porn.'"

This has all resulted in today's cultural situation wherein, as Stoner and Hughes say in their summary of Doidge's essay in the Introduction, "men find that pornographic attitudes have invaded their minds and relationships as well as their computers…. As men's use of pornography increases they become more desensitized and find it more difficult to achieve satisfaction and intimacy with their wives. Clinical findings reveal that pornography use can become addictive, and users find it very hard to stop even when facing the loss of their relationships, families, and jobs."

2. Mary Ann Layden's "Pornography and Violence: A New Look at the Research" is especially illuminating. Layden emphasizes that pornography is a potent teacher of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes toward women and children, interpersonal relationships, and the meaning of human sexuality.

Contemporary pornography, especially that readily accessible to adolescents and adults (and even children) on the Internet, reinforces the "rape myth" that women themselves are to blame for their being raped because deep down they want to be raped and ask to be raped by dressing and acting provocatively. Research she cites shows that "males shown imagery of a woman aroused by sexual violence and then shown pornography that involved rape were more likely than those who hadn't [been shown the pornography] to say that the rape victim suffered less, that she enjoyed it, and that women in general enjoy rape." And this is precisely what pornographers want males to believe and act on.

A meta-analysis of 33 studies showed that exposure to either violent or non-violent pornography increases acts of sexual violence. Taken as a whole, they indicate that many kinds of pornography and frequent use of pornography are connected to both violent fantasies and actual violent sexual assaults, with violent pornography having the greatest negative effect.

Studies also show that male porn users end up viewing women simply as objects for their gratification; they become emotionally detached from others, concerned only to satisfy their lustful desires. As a result of this the women whom they abuse, whether prostitutes or their wives, suffer severe depression, guilt feelings, and similar harms.

Evidence of Pornography's Harms Detailed in the Reader's "Appendix: Selected Recent Findings"

Here is a sampling of the findings in the 66 studies (the names of the studies are italicized) summarized in the Appendix.

The Butner Study Redux: a report of the incidence of hands-on child victimization by child pornography offenders. This showed that almost 98% of persons imprisoned for child pornography who entered therapy without known hands-on victim offenses actually had child hands-on victims.

Linking male use of the sex industry to controlling behaviors in violent relationship. According to this, male domestic violence offenders who used pornography and frequented strip joints use more controlling behaviors, and engage in more sexual abuse, stalking, and marital rape than do males who do not do so.

Use of pornography and self-reported engagement among adolescents. This demonstrated that reading and viewing pornographic material (magazines, comics, films, and videos) was linked to forced sex for both male and female adolescents. It also showed that male users of porn were more likely to become the victims of forced sex, i.e., sodomy.

Adult social bonds and use of internet pornography. This showed that "persons ever having an extra-marital affair were 3.18 times more apt to have used cybernet porn than ones who had not had affairs."

The use of sexually explicit stimuli by rapists, child molesters, and non-offenders. This showed that sex offenders have a high rate of use of hard-core pornography: child molesters (67%), rapists (83%), incest offenders (29%) whereas only a minority (13%) of non-offenders used this material. The pornography used was often adult and consensual in nature.

The three essays in Part Two give reasoned arguments showing that pornography is intrinsically evil and therefore harmful. Essays in Part Three show that, since current constitutional doctrine protects pornography, its opponents must change public opinion and develop political strategies to change the legal climate.