porn and harmful sexual behaviours

New UK Government Reports on Pornography and Harmful Sexual Behaviours

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The issue of violence against women and girls in today’s society is extremely serious. Figures for domestic violence, non fatal and fatal sexual strangulation and general sexual harassment continue to rise at an alarming rate, especially in lockdown. Two recently published literature reviews on the relationship between pornography’ use and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours for the first time sought the views of the frontline workers who deal with those abused and the abusers. These reviews found the following: that the majority of frontline workers dealing with those abused spontaneously cited pornography as an influential factor for harmful sexual attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls. The interviews were conducted with frontline workers across social, justice, and medical sectors.

However we must ask the question, why did it take the UK government a year from completion of these reports in February 2020 to their publication in 2021? Surely we can’t blame Covid-19 and Brexit for everything. Is this repeated shelving of the porn problem by the successive UK governments an indicator of how little women and children mean to them? First the age verification for porn legislation was kicked into the long grass, now this delay in publication of two important reports.

Missed Opportunity

While these reports are useful in pointing to pornography as a factor, they represent a lost opportunity for the UK government to understand why pornography is such a key driver of these harmful attitudes and behaviours. This is because the literature reviews commissioned were based on social science research only. The key research into the impact of pornography is to be found in the behavioural addiction literature where a link between reduced executive brain functioning (which includes the ability to feel compassion for others) and increased impulsive behaviour is to be found.

The first report

The first report, prepared for the Government Equalities Office, is on The relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours. It is a helpful summary of some research in the field.

“The purpose of this report is to provide primary evidence to the Government Equalities Office (GEO) on the relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual behaviours towards women, from the perspective of those who work with individuals who have exhibited, or are at risk of exhibiting, this behaviour. As the sensitive nature of the topic makes it difficult to study experimentally, this report focuses on the voices of those working in the field in order to fully understand the issue. To this end, 20 interviews were conducted with frontline workers across social, justice, and medical sectors.

Summary of key findings:
  • The majority of frontline workers spontaneously mentioned pornography as an influential factor for harmful sexual behaviours towards women and girls. All acknowledged it as a factor when it was later introduced into the discussion.
  • Frontline workers highlighted a range of factors that play a role in harmful sexual behaviours towards women and girls. The interrelation of these factors, including pornography, contributes to a conducive context facilitating these behaviours.

The focus of the report is centred on the experiences and opinions of these frontline workers, often reflecting many years in their current profession and/or in different roles within the field. It does not represent the first-hand perspective or views of high risk individuals, nor those of the women who have been perpetrated against. It must be noted that, due to the fact that the clients with whom the Frontline Workers work have already displayed harmful sexual behaviours towards women and girls, the clients discussed are not typical of the general population.

A number of frontline workers described how their clients had become desensitised to the sexual content they consumed online which led to an escalation in the kind of content sought out – to videos showing more extreme subjugation of women.

Factors affecting harmful sexual attitudes

Other influential factors highlighted by the frontline workers as contributing to harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls can be grouped into individual, community and society-level factors.

For factors that contributed at an individual level (such as sexual preoccupation, social isolation, and adverse traumatic childhood experiences), pornography can provide an outlet to act out and self-soothe.

For contributing factors at a community level (such as machismo and strict gender norms), pornography can fuel ‘locker room’ banter and prime social symbols of success.

And for contributing factors at a cultural level (such as sexualised media and lack of education/dialogue on healthy sexual relationships), pornography can reinforce and normalise sexual and aggressive behaviour, and reflect and fuel problematic narratives.

harmful sexual behaviours
The Second Report

The second report is The relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual behaviours and deals with the attitudes and behaviours of adult males. This seems to be a more useful direct contribution to the literature, as little has been published on the relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual behaviours towards women, from the perspective of those who work with individuals who have exhibited, or are at risk of exhibiting, this behaviour.

This review found evidence of an influential relationship between use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women. While the nature and strength of the relationship varies by study, the finding holds across multiple methodologies. A direct causal link cannot be established between these two variables as this would require impractical and unethical study conditions (forced exposure to pornography). The relationship is stronger for the use of violent pornography in particular. Findings suggest that pornography, alongside a number of other factors, contributes to a conducive context for sexual harm towards women.

Scope

The focus of this review is on legal pornography use and legal, yet harmful, attitudes and behaviours towards women. It focuses on the attitudes and behaviours of adult males. Evidence investigating the use of illegal pornography, including child pornography, was not included.

Findings

From the literature reviewed, four key attitudes and behaviours emerged where there is evidence for an influential relationship between the use of pornography and harmful attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls:

Viewing women as sex objects

The review found evidence of a significant relationship between the use of media that objectifies women (which includes pornography) and seeing women as sex objects. Seeing women as sex objects was in turn correlated with harmful attitudes towards women; specifically, attitudes supporting violence against women.

Shaping men’s sexual expectations of women

Literature reviewed showed the influence of pornography in providing a template for actual sexual behaviour. This has if men expect to play out violent and/or degrading interactions portrayed in pornography. There is evidence that use of pornography is associated with greater likelihood of desiring or engaging in sexual acts witnessed in porn, and a greater likelihood of believing women want to engage in these specific acts.

Acceptance of sexual aggression towards women

The review found a significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women, with this relationship being significantly higher for sexually violent pornography.

Perpetration of sexual aggression

The review found evidence of an association between pornography and an increased likelihood of committing both verbal and physical acts of aggression, with a significantly stronger correlation with the use of violent pornography. Use of violent pornography and prior exposure to parental spousal abuse were the two strongest predictors of a first sexually violent act. The use of violent and degrading pornography was also found to be significantly associated with reduced self-reported willingness to intervene in a potential act of sexual violence.

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