A selection of shocked humans. Photo: Getty

Let’s not get too prudish about pornography

Even on a subject that can generate pearl-clutching, good policy-making wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the benefits, writes Jenesa Jeram

When I was a kid, I was the last of my friends to learn what a BJ stood for. Of course, I pretended I knew, because that’s what kids do. It’s quite possible that even if someone had educated me, I wouldn’t have believed them. Though quite frankly, I’m not sure my life has improved significantly having now learnt the proper meaning.

It appears kids today might not have the luxury of being so naïve. To steal Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft’s phrase, kids are facing an “avalanche of porn”.

The comments respond to a new report from the Censor’s Office looking into Kiwi’s porn viewing preferences using viewer stats from PornHub. It found that New Zealanders are big into step-family porn (46% of the 200 most watched videos), are not really into non-consensual behaviour (35%), nor the aggressive stuff (10%).

A recent commentary on The Spinoff, responding to the same report, calls for a national conversation on pornography, and recommends better sexuality education that accounts for what young people experience and engage with online. Samantha Keene wrote that people should not panic about the step-porn, but goes on to claim the non-consensual nature of porn should be the focus of our attention, and that “the findings about low levels of aggression in pornography from this report should also not lead us to a false sense of security about pornography”.

Of course, anything that involves risks to kids automatically raises alarms. And risks to kids almost always lead to blunt regulatory tools to solve the problem. Judge Andrew Becroft has already jumped the gun by recommending the 18-year-old “age gate” proposal as an immediate and practical step that could be taken – a policy that has caused implementation headaches in the UK. Concerns about children is also the reason the internal affairs minister, Tracey Martin, said “she would not rule out any measure, including age gates, and hoped to announce something on the matter next year.”

I have no argument with the idea of updating sex education to account for the digital era. But I will argue that the detriments of pornography deserve a bit of scrutiny before pulling out the big regulatory guns.

First, let’s look at the content of porn: is it that bad? Three studies are cited relating to the “aggression” that is apparently rampant in porn. The first, and purportedly most cited study, found that 88.2% of porn scenes contained physical aggression.

The numbers seem big. But it depends on what you consider aggression.

Spanking (35.7%), gagging (27.7%), and open-hand slapping (14.9%) were the most frequently observed physically aggressive acts. To be honest, I’m not clutching my pearls at this revelation. It’s certainly not nice and lovely in a kittens-and-ponies kind of way. But I guess, considering all the handwringing, I was expecting something a lot uglier and a lot more violent (although even the thought of gagging makes me want to sympathy gag).

Perhaps then, the problem isn’t the aggressive acts per se, but the treatment of women. But as it turns out, in most cases, (95% of the time) women reacted to aggression with pleasure or neutrality. Consent is also important: are the acts non-consensual? On this, the study did not observe depictions of rape or scenes that perpetuated the “rape myth” (in which the target first expresses pain or resistance to male dominance but eventually expresses enjoyment), a finding that is shared with other recent studies. It has been suggested that this shift has occurred because people have become more educated about women’s rights and sexual assault.

The other two studies cited showed similar results, but with even less “aggression”. The second study found that 43% of the videos in the sample included visible aggression, and the vast majority of videos portrayed consent. The final study found that except for spanking and gagging, violence occurred rather infrequently, and non-consensual sex was relatively rare.

These findings are remarkably consistent. A 2018 report (titled Harder and harder) looked at whether aggressive porn was increasing (it wasn’t), and whether viewers had a preference for it. The report found that aggression, and in particular non-consensual aggression, “were less likely to be viewed than videos with no aggression and were less likely to receive favourable reviews from viewers”. The report argues “the fact that women display pleasure in the large majority of videos, and that the majority of these pleasure displays do not follow aggressive acts, sends a message that women’s sexual pleasure is important after all.”

So, studies have found that aggression in pornography does occur but is typically not hardcore violence and is typically consensual or pleasurable. Not everyone will be convinced this is reason to relax. A related issue is how this content affects behaviour. Does the content of porn adversely affect real life interactions? And most concerningly, does it perpetuate real-life aggression and violence?

A 2009 literature review of the causal relationship between exposure to pornography and sexual aggression provides reason for scepticism. In fact, it argues that available data and extant research “seem to lead to a discounting of the notion that pornography has causally increased the prevalence of sexual assaults and rapes”. A caveat would be that the studies span a long time-range so not all of the studies in the review would account for today’s pornography landscape.

There is definitely room for more research in this area, especially given a lot of past studies on pornography and real-world effects suffer serious methodological inadequacies.  This means re-opening the hypothesis that porn causes real-world harm. Contrary to much of today’s commentary, the hypothesis shouldn’t be taken as a given.

Finally, a discussion of good policy-making wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the benefits (or for the nerds: utility) of an activity – it’s the “benefit” part of cost-benefit analysis after all. Now, I know taking into account the enjoyment people derive from an activity has fallen terribly out of fashion in some academic/policy circles. It’s why people advocate for anti-fat and anti-sugar and anti-salt and anti-smoking and anti-drinking and anti-anything-pleasurable regulations.

Yet it has to be said: some people – perfectly normal non-threatening people – enjoy porn. Porn makes some people happy (for want of a better euphemism). You won’t necessarily see people announcing it to the nation on breakfast television or marching in the streets, but I do assure you that these people exist. Heck, New Zealand didn’t become 13th in the world per capita for frequency of visits to Pornhub by sitting on our hands. And it’s not just about men. 39% of New Zealand Pornhub viewers are women, which is well above the world average of 26%.

So if we’re going to have a national conversation about porn, let’s start by ensuring risks are given accurate weight, and the benefits aren’t thrown out the window completely.

And once that research is all done and dusted, it’s time to move on to the next big area of inquiry: are New Zealanders concealing a deeply held desire to have sex with their family members? I suggest raising that one at the family Christmas dinner.


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