Journalism, Media, recent, Sex, Social Science

Anti-Pornography Campaigners’ Pseudo-Scientific Treadmill

Recently it was reported that Pornhub had made a short adult film featuring a couple having sex on a polluted beach. If this seems like an odd (and frankly unsexy) idea, then bear in mind that every time the video is watched, Pornhub will donate money to Ocean Polymers, a non-profit company that seeks to remove plastic waste from the ocean. Porn companies aren’t generally known for their charitable giving, but if pornography is going to make buckets of money, why not siphon some of that off to good causes?

As if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, two columnists in the Spectator announced that they were entirely opposed to this idea. The authors are not entirely clear about what’s wrong with Pornhub donating part of its profits to charity, other than that they think pornography is bad and shouldn’t exist in the first place. This is a bit of a non-sequitur, but it is one that relies on dubious claims about pornography’s range of negative causal effects.

Do the data support the idea that porn can have negative influences? For the most part, the Spectator article cites anti-porn activist groups and websites, Twitter polls, Wikipedia, and anecdotes. Even the National Center on Sexual Exploitation isn’t, in fact, a government agency but an anti-porn lobbying group (formerly named Morality in Media).

Although not a central focus of the Spectator’s piece, an age-old critique of pornography is that such media might contribute to violence toward women or misogyny. This is probably the most researched area in pornography effects, and one that gets the most attention. As with all areas of social science, finding absolute consistency is difficult. Further, much of the research is hampered by serious theoretical and methodological limitations that make conclusions difficult.

Criminologist Richard Hartley and I reviewed this literature about 10 years ago and found little evidence that consuming pornography is causally linked to aggression toward women. What is clear is that cross-nationally, more permissive attitudes toward pornography are correlated with steep declines in rape and other kinds of violence toward women. Regarding attitudes more generally, some evidence suggests that pornography consumption may actually be related to greater egalitarianism. None of this is necessarily causal, of course. More egalitarian attitudes toward women and greater tolerance of sexualized media may go hand-in-hand as part of a more liberal society. However, we just don’t see evidence that the widespread availability of pornography that began in the 1990s unleashed a mass wave of violence toward women. So, this issue is most easily laid to rest.

The Spectator article focuses a bit more on outcomes such as pornography addiction and erectile dysfunction. It’s important to note that pornography addiction isn’t a recognized diagnostic category. Undoubtedly, some people overdo porn to the point that it impacts their lives.  However, that’s true for many other pleasurable activities—ranging from food to exercise, work, shopping, even dancing and fishing—and there’s no particular evidence that pornography is especially addictive. Recent efforts to claim other technology such as video games might be addictive resulted in significant controversy among scholars. Framing media as addictive is largely a mistake. Usually, in cases where an individual overdoes a pleasurable activity, it is a consequence rather than the cause of other underlying mental health issues. Over-indulgence can be an escape from pain. Getting to the root of that pain is often more helpful than scapegoating technology.

More intriguing is the article’s claim that pornography use is associated with erectile dysfunction. Is porn making it more difficult for us men to have sex? Research in support of this claim is currently lacking. One 2015 study found little evidence that pornography use was associated with sexual dysfunction among young, heterosexual men. Another 2015 study found that viewing pornography had little impact on erectile dysfunction and actually increased sexual desire among young men. Other evidence suggests nuanced relationships between pornography, masturbation, and relationship intimacy. Pornography can sometimes be used to fulfill desires not met in a struggling relationship, but to suggest that pornography is the root cause does not appear to be warranted. This is an interesting area for further study, but to claim without qualification that pornography use is associated with erectile dysfunction is not defensible from the available data.

So, pornography does not in fact “fr[y] our brains as well as our sexual drives” as the Spectator article claims.

The authors are arguably on firmer ground when discussing the health and well-being of those who perform in pornography. Given the social stigma still widely associated with the profession, it should not be surprising that performers frequently feel marginalized and, as such, bereft of government protection from predatory business practices. Further, there is undoubtedly a selection effect at work, whereby individuals with preexisting mental health or substance abuse issues may be more likely, as a consequence of their own stigmatization, to find themselves involved in sex work than individuals without them.

Part of the problem is that society tends to affect concern about the welfare of sex workers, on one hand, and then shun them when they attempt to rehabilitate themselves on the other. For instance, former pornographic actress Bree Olson has said that society’s shunning of her and fellow actresses was far worse than her experiences in the industry itself. Other actresses report similar difficulty transitioning back to regular careers after a time in porn, with the subsequent societal shaming far more serious than their experiences in porn itself. It’s hypocritical for society to argue that sex work is bad because former performers will be shamed, but then create exactly those shaming conditions.

There’s a great argument to be had for finding ways to provide extra support for workers in the porn industry, including aiding them in transitioning to regular society when they retire. This should include access to mental health and health services, financial training, and help in planning to transition out of sex work. However, most pornographic performers are contractors and finding a system for protecting contractors requires a lot of thought. It may be possible to work with the porn industry to, for instance, provide mental health, substance abuse, and health services in exchange for guaranteeing First Amendment protections for porn.

First, though, we need to drop the dialogue that pornography is a public health crisis, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. At present, at least 16 US states have declared porn a public health issue, efforts that were in large part driven by the pressure group National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media) according to news media. This simply creates greater stigma for porn workers and makes helping them more, not less, difficult. It’s not difficult to identify the social pressure that result in bad law: few politicians want to take a strong stand in defense of pornography. That would be catnip to their opponents in the next election cycle.

Unfortunately, this creates a treadmill of nonsense pseudo-science claims about the impact of pornography that dates back to the Meese Commission of the 1980s, at least. This commission, under the auspices of the Reagan administration, declared pornography a menace to society, but was so stacked with anti-porn crusaders and so resistant to actual data, it is largely considered an embarrassment among media researchers today. And yet, we’ve learned very little over the ensuing 30 years.

It’s fine to be morally opposed to porn, of course. But there’s little evidence it’s harmful in a public health sense. Further, if we’re concerned about the welfare of pornographic performers, the first step we need to take as a society is to develop the ability to welcome them back into society once they decide to retire. Until we are willing to take these steps, not much is going to change regarding our societal attitudes toward porn.

This also means that accepting efforts by porn distributors to engage in charitable practices isn’t a bad thing. Sure, these efforts are probably cynical and more concerned with public relations than saving the planet. But looking down our noses at such efforts merely isolates the porn industry further. If a hand is extended, we should take it. Only then can dialogue, particularly that directed toward improving the lot of sex workers, truly begin.


Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide KingsHis forthcoming book How Madness Shaped History will be out in January 2020You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111


  1. I’d say the first step is to make it as unpalatable as possible to work in porn, which includes keeping the stigma. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, after all.

    Efforts to normalise “sex work” can only lead to more “sex work,” which is great for the men who need to pay to get any, but not so much for the women or society at large. A real effort to help these women would be to catch them before they make the desperate decision to take on their first gig and divert them towards healthier career and lifestyle choices. That means addressing single motherhood, education, and drug addiction.

  2. I’m not anti-porn, but I believe porn does have negative effects. I’ve seen them. Friends of mine have experienced them. The primary complaint being that continual usage creates a need for more and more specific, risky, or idiosyncratic porn to stimulate - which, in turn, means that their normal, girl-next-door wife or girlfriend is no longer sexually interesting to them and they can’t perform. You can get a group of psychologist together and debate the science and semantics of whether porn addiction is really addiction, but I’ve had a friend literally cry over lunch because no matter how he tried he felt powerless to abstain from porn, even though he knew it was ruining his marriage.

    It seems disingenuous to dismiss these struggles by simply saying, “where an individual overdoes a pleasurable activity, it is a consequence rather than the cause of other underlying mental health issues.” This is a conversation killer. It’s like telling an alcoholic that alcohol isn’t his real problem, it’s his addictive personality that’s causing him issues. Well, how about it’s both?

    Porn is enjoyable, but it has negative consequences. Ignoring those consequences and writing them off as scientifically unverifiable doesn’t help anybody. The question is: how much negative will we as a society endure to have access to the enjoyment? I contend that that is a more fruitful discussion than asserting that porn is perfectly harmless.

  3. Acting in porn pays more than a job at Walmart. That’s always going to be a powerful inducement, especially for a certain type of woman with little education and no real goal in life.

  4. Then all of life is bad. We get used to anything, and thus get less pleasure from exposure that isn’t novel. Humans are bad.

    If you were to watch a sunset every night, you’d get bored with sunsets.
    If you have a warm and sunny day every day, you’ll stop appreciate it being warm and sunny.
    Love blueberry pie? Try eating it daily.

    It’s not anything that’s bad just because some consume too much of it. Are cars bad because some drive too fast? Words are bad because some are hateful?

  5. That won’t happen any time soon.

    If there is one sure intersection between feminism on the left and fundamentalist religion on the right, it is this: sexual activity is to be moderated and controlled by society.

    Shaming, shunning and public expressions of physical disgust are the customary mechanisms of this control in the West. Add murder in certain other countries.

  6. The most relevant criticism I’ve ever read. Thank you.

    Being old enough to remember how promiscuous average people tended to be before the advent of AIDS, I venture to say that it’s the same dynamic.

    The malady consists of very simple Pavlovian programming, and the cure is episodic abstinence. Without the normalcy of regular intervals of unstimulated nerve endings, sensation becomes progressively dampened in its efficacy. It’s not complicated, but it can be very challenging to many.

  7. I like your post, but I will cavil a bit over the following:

    I suppose what is important here who addresses these problems. I am very dubiuos about government being involved, as experience shows governments, if only subconsiously, prefer to create these problems, so that they will have a clinet-base for all the useless bureaucrats and social workers.
    The best we can do is to ensure that government welfare policies don’t encourage these problems.
    The only real way to address these problems is to change social attitudes so that the upper middle classes stop indulging the underclass. Respectability needs to be restored. It would have to replace PC, however, and I’m afraid our puritanical progressives these days couldn’t cope with any old-fashioned morality, even though their moral outlook is in so many ways a distorted version of the Victorians’ mores.

  8. I find it interesting that people of all political persuasions are convinced that certain speech, music, art, literatures or porn can cause harm, but that they will pick and choose the type of expression they abhor and pretend that others have no effect.
    Hene, a person who into rap will laugh at the idea that the nasty lyrics over a noisy beat will have any negative effect on people, whilst believeing that any mention of the word ‘‘nigger’’ by a white granny will cause irreparable harm. And the granyy of course will be the reverse.
    Others of course beleiev that speech is also a power for good. Thus they spread the Word of the Gospels.
    It all comes down to the fact that many if not most people wish to ban or at least diminish that which they don’t like.
    I have no problem with this, as long as they say something like: ''I find X offensive and believe it does the following harm to people and/or society. I therefore think people should think about not sayin, watching or believing in X. I don’t think the government should force you to stop X.""

  9. Perhaps, but only to the degree that mood-altering drugs without physical dependency characteristics are pseudo addictions. The addiction is to elevated neurotransmitter levels, not the media itself. The media itself acts like Pavlov’s bell. It’s an associative trigger that represents a feedback mechanism.

  10. Based on my own observation of the acuity displayed in numerous other posts you’ve made, Codadmin, I can’t help concluding that it’s primarily because you simply haven’t taken time from your other interests to consider it. The neurotransmitter and Pavlovian conditioning aspects are as far as my considerations have taken me (The Pavlovian conditioning is something I’ve been convinced of since 1980.) I’d be very interested in any speculations you’d care to share.

    1. Being the oldest member of the Quilette circle I remember SCIENTIFIC proofs that tobacco smoking does not produce cancer. Later it occurred that it does and that the research was sponsored by tobacco industry. I am sure, that author’s SCIENTIFIC research is of the same validity and credibility, although the sponsor is not the same, and the ways of sponsoring are much more tricky now that then. It takes honesty and common sense to notice, that author’s conclusions oppose the bulk of clear evidences of the misery of all kind at the personal and social level caused by the pornography.

    2. The read (comments even more) made me aware of what kind of world we live in. The basic principle ruling this world is the pleasure principle, or even less - the “gratification principle”, because even pain and the humiliation can be gratifying in this world, where “the two consenting adults” are justified performing any kind of kink under the slogan “volenti non fit iniuria”. Where the recourse to the human dignity, honesty, decency (qualities that reveal human greatness and uniqueness) is regarded as puritan evil and the assault at the basic freedoms.

  11. All of life is economic duress, as these people would define it.

    Which, for some of them, is the endgame…

  12. Pornography has been around since the earliest homo sapiens (and neanderthal). All societies practice some form of pornography. Even the Puritans and Victorian’s had their form (read some of the erotic literature of the Victorian era). Prostitution was wide spread and legal for most of history. In some societies and periods in history prostitutes were even honored. You will never make it unpalatable enough to eradicate it

  13. Yes and no. The question is what causes the signaling and is it more intense than other stimuli that cause the same issues.

    Here’s a couple of things that human males come programmed for. 1. We get a dopamine hit when we see nude members of the sex we are interested in. 2. We are novelty seeking, often extremely so. This also provides dopamine.

    In other words, you can get a reward from looking at naked women, but it is enhanced when you look at lots of different ones in succession. Ever gotten into that Pinterest haze where you keep clicking on stuff much longer than you should, and eventually realize that half an hour has passed when you only meant to spend 5 minutes? That’s because Pinterest is built to trigger your novelty seeking rewards and mechanisms. We look for new information constantly as humans. (it is also one of the reasons I deleted Pinterest.)

    When you add that to our dopaminergic rewards for seeing women, the more nubile and less clothed the better, that’s a powerful stimulus. It does cause people to act stupidly at times, too.

    However, when is it an addiction? When something else is lacking in your life that you try to fix with pornography. In other words, when you try to use it as a coping mechanism to make you feel better about X.

    There is a great book called a billion wicked thoughts. It discusses what each group uses as porn and some of why. Great read.

  14. Sorry for late reply.

    The problem I have with the Pavlovian theory is that porn isn’t a random substitute for the act.

    Porn isn’t a ringing bell that reminds you of a previous sex act. Porn is a hyper-realistic, visual interpretation of the sex act that stimulates on visceral level. It also, almost always, has an end result…ejaculation.

    A Pavlovian response rarely gets satisfied, and so isn’t even close to being as powerful.

    Porn is a physical, bodily addiction. And should be treated as such. For example, if you went on holiday in the mountains and had no internet connection, you would quickly get over your social media addiction, in fact it would be a relief. But if you were a porn/sex addict you would still have sex on the brain, and regardless of WiFi connection, you can still satisfy it.

    Sex is always there, regardless of porn. What porn does is turn up the volume to maximum. And it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to turn the sound down.

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