Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 39, Issue 6, pp 1389–1401

Pornography, Normalization, and Empowerment

Authors

    • Department of SociologyIndiana University
  • Colin J. Williams
    • Department of SociologyIndiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis
  • Sibyl Kleiner
    • Department of SociologyIndiana University
  • Yasmiyn Irizarry
    • Department of SociologyIndiana University
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10508-009-9592-5

Cite this article as:
Weinberg, M.S., Williams, C.J., Kleiner, S. et al. Arch Sex Behav (2010) 39: 1389. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9592-5

Abstract

Opponents and proponents of erotic representations (referred to hereafter as “pornography”) have described the effects of pornography from their perspective. Little, however, has been done in the way of research to investigate these claims from the consumer’s point of view. This especially has been so regarding the positive impact of such consumption on a person’s sex life. Using a study group of 245 college students, we examined this question in a framework of scripting theory. We wanted to see whether viewing pornography appeared to expand sexual horizons through normalization and facilitate a willingness to explore new sexual behaviors and sexual relationships through empowerment. The data supported this viewpoint and further showed the effects to be mediated by gender and sexual preference identity. They suggested, however, that established scripts were extended rather than abandoned. We conclude with connections between our findings and the widespread viewing of pornography in contemporary society.

Keywords

PornographySexual scriptsGenderSexual preferenceNormalizationEmpowerment

Introduction

Pornography is intertwined in the sexualities of many people. Although the consumption of pornography in the United States is difficult to measure, Rich (2001), has estimated that $10-$14 billion annually is earned from “video pornography…porn networks and pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, Internet Web sites, in-room hotel movies, phone sex, sex toys and…magazines….[P]ornography is a bigger business than professional football, basketball and baseball put together.” Rich goes on to point out that: “People pay more money for pornography in America in a year than they do on movie tickets, more than they do on all the performing arts combined” (p. 462).

Despite pornography’s central place in American entertainment, it still is the focus of great social controversy. On the one hand, pornographic images have been attacked as a source of social and moral evil and, on the other, have been defended as contributing to sexual liberation. Attacks on pornography come from both religious conservatives, who see pornography as encouraging impersonal, casual sex, and from feminists who claim that pornography makes the plight of women worse by encouraging misogynist, sexist, and patriarchal attitudes. This is seen as leading to the objectification of women, a loss of respect for them, and to rape and violence against them (Dworkin, 1981; Paul, 2005; Porn, Feminism, and the Meese Report, 1987).

Although the attacks on pornography have centered on the fear of its supposed negative effects, there has been little empirical investigation of whether and how such effects may occur. Moreover, when this has been attempted, results that do not support pornography’s negative image are often ignored or argued away. For example, the in-depth research of the 1970 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography showed no causal link between pornography and violence (e.g., Goldstein, Kant, Judd, Rice, & Green, 1971). Failure to find negative effects in the 1970 research was displeasing to those with an anti-pornography agenda (Rubin, 1984), and for whom being anti-porn was part of a wider conservative agenda. This shows how anti-pornography sentiments do not necessarily rest on empirical evidence. Rather, a negative effect is often believed to be the case whether or not supporting evidence exists—especially if this fits a particular world view.

This can also be the case for those who take a liberal point of view toward pornography. Defenders of pornography have been firm in asserting the benign or positive effects of pornography without strong empirical evidence to support their claims. Other arguments that are common by defenders are directed at the issue of censorship and the fact that the anti-pornography focus is primarily “violent porn” and “child porn” rather than what the majority of adults view (Klein, 2006). One interesting change in the liberal view is the increasing support it receives from feminists. Earlier (second wave) feminists were characterized by their anti-pornography platform, but a generation change has give rise to a “third wave feminism” (Bailey, 1997) in which female sexuality is re-interpreted as a means of self-definition and expression (see Alfonso & Triglio, 1997). Thus, Beggan and Allison (2002) characterize the movement as “…expand(ing) the boundaries in which women are free to express their sexuality” (p. 104)—which includes their consumption of pornography (Chapkis, 1997; McElroy, 1995). The change is seen as “a method of empowerment for women” to control their own sexuality (Beggan & Allison, 2002, pp. 106–107). These issues of boundaries and empowerment will be considered later in this article. At this point, we note the emergence of the claim that pornography is educational, that it allows individuals to explore in a safe way new forms of sex (Barbour, 1995; Duncan & Donnelly, 1991; Duncan & Nicholson, 1991), especially for women, whose sexual expression historically has been discouraged (Palac, 1995; Tanenbaum, 2004; Tiefer, 2004).

It is difficult to discern a “winner” in these battles. The technological revolution, particularly the Internet, has increased the availability of pornographic images to more people than has existed at any other time. At the same time, anti-pornography forces have worked hard to pass laws to restrict the viewing of pornography (especially child pornography). What remains true is that there is insufficient empirical research on many of these issues. The work done on mainstream pornography has usually looked at its possible negative effects (for a review of this literature, see Davis & Bauserman, 1993). Little work has been done on the supposed “educational” effect as claimed by some of the above commentators. Research on this topic would fit neatly into one of the major schemas in sex research, “sexual scripts,” offered by Gagnon and Simon (1973), which centers on the acquisition of cognitive schemes that connect to sexual desires and behaviors. Extant research illustrates the plausibility of such an approach and provides a direction to follow. Some studies suggest that while pornography use does not directly increase sexual satisfaction (Štulhofer, Buško, & Landripet, 2008), both men and women attribute positive influences to pornography (Ciclitira, 2004; Hald & Malamuth, 2008; Loftus, 2002; Shaw, 1999). These tend to be effects that represent a qualitative broadening of sexual horizons, such as learning new forms of sexual behavior or finding new resources for fantasy construction (Tiefer, 2004). Several recent studies also replicate older findings that pornography use is associated with quantitatively greater levels of activities, such as masturbation, as well as overall numbers of partners (Janghorbani, Lam, & The Youth Sexuality Study Task Force, 2003; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Lewin, 1997; Traeen, Sorheim-Nielsen, & Stigum, 2006), suggesting an expansion of sexual horizons. Given pornography’s potential as a resource for exploring sexuality (Attwood, 2005), greater attention to the correlates of pornography use is warranted.

Of course, we do not want to propose a simplistic model. The effects of viewing pornography can be seen as wholly absent, wholly negative, wholly positive, or a mixture of positive and negative. Examples of these different points of view can be found in Shaw (1999) for the putative effects on women and Hardy (1998) for the putative effects on men. The movement from exposure to pornography toward actual sexual experimentation may be complex. For example, people who try out pornographic scenarios can end up feeling ridiculous (Morrison & Tallack, 2005). The unrealistic portrayal of sexuality was also noted by Paul (2005). In this article, we are concerned only with examining any positive effects while also recognizing that a person may feel it has had negative effects or no effects at all (cf. Parvez, 2006).

Nor do we expect the effects of pornography viewing to be uniform, but rather to be mediated by other variables (for one list of such variables, see Hald & Malamuth, 2008). In the present research, we will consider gender and sexual preference identity as mediating variables.

Gender has been shown to be a consistent predictor of both the consumption of pornography (Janghorbani et al., 2003) and its effects (Hald & Malamuth, 2008). Gender has also been shown to relate to the appeal of pornographic themes—with men on average preferring more hard-core and women, more soft-core, themes (Hald, 2006; cf. Janssen, Carpenter, & Graham, 2003). Compared to women, men have also been shown to find pornography more sexually exciting and enhancing (Traeen, Spitznogle, & Beverfjord, 2004).

The second mediating variable, sexual preference identity, has been neglected in mainstream pornography research (Morrison & Tallack, 2005). Yet, it is important as it allows for a consideration of the effects of gender nonconformity on sexuality. Thus, non-heterosexual people are freer from traditional gender roles; for example, non-heterosexual women are less subject than heterosexual women to the expectations of “ideal femininity” (cf. Gordon, 2002) and any double standard attached to it. In this instance, it could mitigate the traditional expectation that “good girls” do not show too much interest in pornography or sexual variety (cf. Tanenbaum, 2004). Moreover, Stein (1997) described how younger lesbians in the 1990s created a more sexualized lesbian subculture in which they did not model themselves after the more sexually restricted lesbians of the past. This led to more sexual experimentation, including the increased use of pornography, which can help to explain the adoption of more expansive sexual scripts (heralded in the lesbian publication, On Our Backs) with a wider variety of sexual acts and partners seen as appropriate (cf. Califia, 1980, 1994).

Theoretical Considerations

As previously mentioned, the influence of pornography on shaping sexuality can be conceptualized in terms of the development of a person’s “sexual scripts” (Gagnon & Simon, 1973). From this perspective, persons are engaged in defining situations as sexual through developing “organized cognitive [sexual] schemas” (Gagnon, 1990, p. 6), which they have learned and elaborated. Pornography is an important source through which individuals can acquire or reinforce sexual scripts (for one approach using script theory, see Štulhofer et al., 2008). It can present appealing views of a variety of sexual behaviors as well as portraying the pleasure possible from activities like oral sex, anal sex, a variety of coital positions, etc. Nothing about this process, however, is automatic. As Simon and Gagnon (1987, p. 365) point out, “Scenarios have to be tried on for confirmation and possibly modified where stress or discomfort on either interpersonal or intrapsychic levels is experienced.” In addition, the scripting schema does not deal with the processes that are involved in making a script “work.”

We believe it is unassailable that the central function of pornography is the creation or enhancement of sexual fantasy and/or arousal. That is, it presents bodies, behaviors, and situations in a way that is intended to sexually inspire or excite the viewer, regardless of whether such bodies, behaviors, and situations would be available or even desirable for the viewer to experience in real life. Thus, the discussion of the social utility of pornography centers on the acceptability of sexual arousal and what it leads to. The question becomes: How does pornography come to have a socializing effect on its viewers through the development of sexual scripts?

We offer the following theoretical considerations on how sexually explicit images could have a positive effect on a person’s sexuality. Pornography can promote a “sensual slide” from everyday life into an erotic reality through the erotic construction of time, space, persons, and situations in sexual depictions (Davis, 1983). It provides both the presentation of idealized bodies and the opportunities to visualize them in a variety of sexual situations performing an abundance of sexual acts—many of which could be considered to transgress mainstream culture. Collectively, this expansive set of sexual possibilities presented in pornography has been called a “pornotopia” (Marcus, 1966; Peckham, 1969; Williams, 1999). One key to porn’s popularity is a “validation of the viewer’s vision of erotic abundance” (Klein, 2006, p. 138).

We consider two major processes as operative with regard to the effects of viewing pornography. The first we refer to as “normalization.” The more frequently a person enters the world of pornotopia, the more s/he will view a variety of sexual behaviors as being normal. That is, what may have once been seen as odd becomes viewed as a variation of normal behavior—in this instance, “normal” sexual behavior (cf. Rubington & Weinberg, 1996), which has a decreasing capacity to shock or offend (for a different conceptualization of this in terms of “satiation,” see Zillmann & Bryant, 1984).

The second process that the consumption of pornography can promote is a sense of erotic empowerment, the ability not only to create or alter sexual scripts but also a desire to act on them. Thus, in the words of Palac (1995), “Once I figured out how to use porn and come…my life was irrevocably changed…. For the first time in my life, I felt sexually autonomous” (pp. 34–35). According to Klein (2006), the “paradigm of pornography’s truths is what sex therapists try to get couples to understand…[that] the keys to satisfying sexual relationships are self-acceptance and self-empowerment…” (p. 137). Often this is done by projecting oneself into the scene as a participant (Hardy, 1998; Loftus, 2002); hence, the strong association between pornography and self-masturbation. Persons become empowered by the fantasy of “easy sex,” free from the real life concerns such as anxieties over attractiveness, performance and, especially, entangling relationships (see a description of the parameters of “easy sex” in Weinberg & Williams, 1975). A feeling of such erotic empowerment also can transfer to a person’s actual sex life. What is learned from the sexual scenes experienced in pornography can give a person both the interest in, and the confidence to experiment with, sexual behaviors s/he had previously never tried. While we will examine such effects in a positive framework, they can also be considered as negative consequences (e.g., for adolescents and young adults, see Zillmann, 2000).

We do not, however, see people as cultural dopes (Garfinkel, 1967). We do not believe that people indiscriminately and automatically take on the behaviors they see in erotic representations, but rather select those that fit in most easily with other aspects of their social and sexual socialization (on the domestication of pornography, see Juffer, 1998). For example, the social location of our study group may well serve to limit the degree to which pornography modifies their sexual lives. Thus, we suggest that they may increase the variety of sexual behaviors they engage in by integrating them into their existing sexual scripts without much damage to core aspects of such scripts.

Research Questions

To summarize the above, we present the following research questions:
  • Normalization question. Is the greater frequency of pornography consumption associated with expanding the boundaries of what is considered acceptable sexual behavior?

  • Empowerment question. Is the greater frequency of pornography consumption associated with engaging in a greater variety of sexual behaviors and is it also associated with an expansion of the boundaries of who would be considered an acceptable sexual partner?

  • Gender question. Are the answers to the above questions mediated by the gender of the consumer so that such effects are more likely to appear for one gender rather than another?

  • Sexual preference identity question. Are the answers to the above questions mediated by the sexual preference identity of the consumer so that such effects are more likely to appear for one sexual preference identity than another?

Method

Participants

The data used for the research come from a study of students at a midwestern state university. Although a study group of college students limits the social class background and the age range of participants, pornography use is more common among younger adults and among those with greater education (Buzzell, 2005). As the purpose of this study was to examine how the use of sexually explicit materials was related to sexual attitudes and behaviors, for our purposes it was desirable to analyze the data from a study group that contained a higher concentration of pornography users than would be found in the general population.

Two data collections were conducted: In the first (labeled “the quantitative research”), we used closed-ended questions in a self-administered questionnaire to discover whether associations existed between the frequency of viewing pornography and the variables reflecting normalization and empowerment. The study group was comprised of students who were recruited from sociology courses containing 50 or more students. In the initial phase of data collection, gathering a student study group that contained at least as many women as men and represented a variety of sexual identities was of great concern because the relationship between pornography and women’s sexuality, and more so gay/lesbian/bisexual pornography use, have been largely ignored in prior empirical research (Plante, 2006). To aid in the recruitment of gay, lesbian, and bisexual identified participants, we described the research at meetings of such students and sent announcements to university gay, lesbian, and bisexual email distribution lists. All students were offered the choice of either a $10 phone card or a $10 Starbucks gift certificate for their participation in the study.

Of the 172 participants in the study group obtained in these ways, 101 were women and 71 were men. Sixty-nine women identified themselves as heterosexual and 32 as non-heterosexual (14 identified as lesbian and 18 as bisexual). Among the men, 52 identified themselves as heterosexual and 19 as non-heterosexual (16 identified as gay and 3 as bisexual). The ages of study participants ranged from 18 to 34 years with a mean of 21.3. Two-thirds of the persons in the study group were between the ages of 18 and 22. Ethnically, 70% described themselves as White, 6% Latino/Hispanic, 15% African American, and 10% in some other way. Finally, using parental education as an indicator of social class background, over half of both mothers and fathers had a college degree. Although we found a greater proportion of African Americans among the heterosexual women and a slightly older average age for the non-heterosexual men, these differences in social characteristics by gender and sexual preference identity did not prove to be significantly related to the responses given to the questions.

The second data collection (labeled “the qualitative research”) was conducted several semesters after the first one. We believe that any study of the effects of pornography should include a strong qualitative aspect in which the research participants themselves provide their own interpretations of the experience (see arguments for this by Attwood, 2005). Thus, we wanted to see, in the participants own words, how viewing pornography can relate to normalization and empowerment which, in turn, can relate to one’s sexual life. We provided an open-ended questionnaire to students in their classes to voluntarily and anonymously complete. This additional phase of data collection was intended to obtain a more in-depth view of the putative effects of viewing pornography from firsthand accounts of viewers. A total of 73 students completed and returned these questionnaires. In order to keep the questionnaire short, gender and sexual preference identity were the only demographics requested. Of the 73 participants, 74% were women and 26% were men (similar to the gender distribution in the classes). Ninety-three percent of the women identified as heterosexual, 4% as lesbian, and 6% as bisexual. Sixty-three percent of the men defined as heterosexual, 21% as gay, 11% as bisexual, and one as queer.

Procedure

In the quantitative study, participants were interviewed by six well trained undergraduate interviewers (three women and three men) in a larger study covering a number of topics in addition to the topic of this article (Weinberg & Williams, 2005). Participants were matched to an interviewer by gender, and were asked whether they would rather be interviewed by a heterosexual or non-heterosexual person. Throughout the training, pre-testing, and data collection stages, all interviews were carefully reviewed and any problems discussed with the interviewers. We also talked to study participants after each interview; all rated their interviewer as competent and the experience as enjoyable. To gather data for the part of the study on pornography viewing and its relationship to sexual variables, we used a closed-ended self-administered questionnaire that was handed to the study participant by the interviewer, answered privately by the participant, put in and sealed in a large envelope we gave to them, and then handed back to the interviewer. This questionnaire contained items meant to measure attitudes toward the appeal of a variety of sexual practices, the number and type of sexual experiences engaged in during a set time period, and the social relationship between the study participant and his/her sex partner(s).

In the qualitative study, students who wished to participate in the study took a questionnaire that was available at the end of class time, completed it outside of class, and returned it anonymously to a collection box in the main office of the Sociology Department.

Measures

The Quantitative Study

For the quantitative part of the research, principal components factor analyses (varimax rotation) were carried out to aid in the construction of composite measures. One composite was related to pornography viewing and was comprised of two items: In the last 12 months, how many times have you viewed an X-rated movie or video? In the last 12 months, how many times have you viewed soft or hard-core porn in magazines or on-line (alpha = .75). There were 11 response categories for each item ranging from 0 to over 100. Means and SD for the each of the four gender-sexual preference identity subgroups are shown in Table 1. The only significant difference in pornography viewing was across gender (p ≤ .05)—with men viewing pornography more frequently than women.
Table 1

Means and SD for pornography use (past 12 months) by gender and sexual preference identity

Frequency of viewing pornography

Women

Men

Combined

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

M

SD

M

SD

M

SD

M

SD

M

SD

No. times viewed X-rated film or videoa

2.06

1.85

2.59

1.66

5.38

3.05

6.11

3.03

3.61

2.90

No. times viewed magazines or onlinea

2.20

1.41

3.44

2.78

6.15

3.51

7.37

2.75

4.20

3.49

Pornography composite

2.13

1.79

3.02

1.93

5.77

2.74

6.74

2.55

3.90

2.87

N

69

 

32

 

52

 

19

 

172

 

All means statistically significant across gender at p ≤ .05

aIndividual Items: 0, 1, 2, 3 = (3–5), 4 = (6–10), 5 = (11–15), 6 = (16–20), 7 = (21–30), 8 = (31–50), 9 = (51–100), 10 ≥ 100

Another set of variables was constructed from a list of items that were rated in terms of their appeal. The study participants were informed that these ratings need not necessarily correspond to actual behaviors or plans to engage in such behaviors. The response categories were: 1 = very appealing, 2 = appealing, 3 = neither appealing nor unappealing, 4 = unappealing, 5 = very unappealing. Scores were reversed so that a higher value indicated greater appeal. These composite measures based on the factor analyses noted above (factor loadings, Cronbach’s alpha, and the items contained in the composites are provided in the Appendix) were as follows: Composite #1: Appeal of Using a Vibrator/Sex Toy; Composite #2: Appeal of Oral-Genital Activity; Composite #3: Appeal of Anal Activity; Composite #4: Interest in Third Parties (e.g., watching others, engaging in group sex).

In regards to reporting actual behavior, we asked about the number of times they had engaged in particular acts—with 11 response categories ranging from 0 to over 100. For acts of partnered sex, in general, we also asked the number of persons they had engaged in the act within the last 12 months—with 9 response categories ranging from 0 to over 30. For anal sex, we asked this with regard to their lifetime. Based on principal components factor analyses, the following composites (which combined number of partners and frequency) were constructed for sexual behaviors: Composite #1: Self-Masturbation; Composite #2: Manual Sex; Composite #3: Oral Sex; Composite #4: Coitus; Composite #5: Anal Sex (see Appendix for factor loadings, Cronbach’s alpha, and detailed item listings).

The final measures were about the social relationship participants had with their sex partner(s). The categories of sex partners presented to study participants included: didn’t know or had met that day (e.g., Spring Break); knew as a friend or acquaintance but hadn’t “dated”; were on a first “date” with; had previously “dated” (not the first date or was an ex-partner or boyfriend or girlfriend); were significantly involved with at the time (partner/boyfriend/girlfriend). After questions on the number of sex partners for various sexual activities (in the last year, except for anal sex where we used “lifetime”), we then asked how many of these persons fell into each of the above social relationship categories. Thoits (1995) found that recall error increased the most after a 12-month period. Thus, we restricted our time period to “the last 12 months” with only one exception—the measure for anal sex. We extended the time period for this event to “lifetime” because of its relatively low incidence and the assumption that the young age of the study participants would make it fairly easy for them to recall the approximate number of such experiences.

The Qualitative Study

The qualitative study contained the following open-ended questions:
  1. 1.

    How has pornography affected your attitudes toward specific sexual acts (e.g., to find them more or less appealing)? Describe what this change in attitude/appeal has been and how pornography came to change it.

     
  2. 2.

    How has viewing pornography affected your actual sexual behaviors (e.g., the particular sexual acts that you engage in)? Describe what this change in sexual behavior has been and how pornography came to change it.

     

Analysis

For the quantitative part of the research, ordinal logistic regressions were run to explore the associations between frequency of pornography viewing (composite) and the other variables. Statistically significant beta coefficients between the frequency of pornography viewing and any of the other variables do not necessarily indicate causality in a particular direction. Our interpretation of the direction of these relationships is based on results from the qualitative data collection, which described the perceived effects from viewing pornography. This does not mean that in some cases the direction could not be a different or a more interactive one.

In order to account for the possibility of other variables entering the relationship between pornography viewing and the other variables, in the quantitative part of the research, we controlled in all of our models for demographic factors other than gender and sexual preference identity that could be confounding variables—viz., year in college, age, and religiosity (and although there was a fairly strong correlation between year in college and age, no collinearity was found in any of the models using variance inflation factors). For this study group, controlling for these variables did not change the results.

For the qualitative research, answers to questions 1 and 2 were read over a number of times and the data coded in terms of the themes of normalization and empowerment. We coded statements as illustrating “normalization” when they described how viewing pornography had made the study participant see certain behaviors as more “normal” or “less strange” or “less perverted” then they had before such viewing. We coded statements as illustrating “empowerment” when the participant noted how viewing pornography increased her/his confidence or courage in trying a particular sexual behavior. There was almost complete agreement between the two authors who did the coding; in the few cases where there was not, after discussion, we decided that these statements were too vague to be coded as one or the other. The qualitative material was used to interpret the casual direction underlying the associations found in the quantitative study.

Results

Does Pornography Consumption Increase the Appeal of a Variety of Sexual Behaviors?

As shown in Table 2, for all four gender-sexual preference identity groups, we found positive associations between the greater viewing of pornography and a more expansive sexuality in terms of what were considered appealing acts. For all four groups, the frequency of viewing pornography was related to the appeal of the sexual presence of a third party (i.e., watching other people engage in sexual activity both in porn videos and watching them in-person, and in having sex with more than one person at a time). For two of the four groups (the exception being non-heterosexual women and men), there was also a positive relationship between the frequency of viewing pornography and the appeal of using a vibrator/sex toy (i.e., using one on themselves or having a sex partner use a vibrator or other sex toy on them). For the two groups of men as well as the heterosexual women, there was also an association between the frequency of viewing pornography and the appeal of anal sex (i.e., giving and receiving manual anal stimulation and engaging in anal intercourse). Finally, for the heterosexual women, the frequency of viewing pornography was related to the greater appeal of oral sex (performing and receiving).
Table 2

Ordinal logistic regression beta coefficients and odds ratios: appeal of various activities by frequency of viewing sexually explicit materials

Appeal composites

 

Women

Men

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

Use of a vibrator/sex toya

0.40*

1.50

0.36

1.44

0.23*

1.25

0.24

1.27

Oral-genital activitya

0.36**

1.44

−0.24

0.79

0.15

1.16

0.19

1.20

Anal activitya

0.28*

1.33

0.27

1.31

0.37**

1.45

0.63**

1.87

Interest in third partiesa

0.53***

1.70

0.70**

2.02

0.29**

1.34

0.51*

4.00

No statistically significant differences across gender or sexual preference

* p ≤ .05; ** p ≤ .01; *** p ≤ .001

aComposite range: 1 = very unappealing – 5 = very appealing

The qualitative data provided many comments on how the exposure to pornography altered study participants’ views of what had been considered odd, unusual, or deviant. For example, one woman described how anal sex became normalized: “I think porn has helped to open my eyes….Anal sex no longer seems mysterious, [it] just seems normal.” Another woman reported how seeing many acts of fellatio led her to see it in a new way: “Blow jobs don’t seem as much of a gross thing as they used to seem (probably because there is oral sex in just about all porn).” A third woman also noted how seeing sexual acts visually portrayed made them more real and less unusual: “Viewing pornography has made more sex acts (fellatio, cunnilingus) more appealing. Before I didn’t know what it [oral sex] looked like…watching made it real.”

Particularly supportive of our theoretical ideas were many comments that compared what they had learned from their earlier sexual socialization and their exposure to pornography. Thus, a man described how he came to see the sexual perspective of his parents differently: “Since I am a very sexual being, it [pornography] helps me to know that what I see is not an abnormal act like my parents told me.” In the words of a woman: “Coming from a home where talking about sex was discouraged, I was taught that any sex, let alone ‘kinky’ sex, was bad. Pornography allowed me to see that these that these variations are ok, more normal, and often very enjoyable. I have become more open, accepting, and interested in most sexual acts because of porn.”

Does Pornography Consumption Increase the Types of Sexual Behaviors Engaged In?

If the frequency of viewing pornography increases the appeal of various behaviors, does this translate into a similar relationship in promoting expansiveness in engaging in the sexual behaviors themselves? We first examined this relationship with solo sex and then partnered sex.

Solo sex, i.e., self-masturbation, is the most common sexual act associated with viewing pornography (Polsky, 1998) and the most direct in its connection to pornography’s presentation of a pornotopia. As shown in Table 3, for three of the four gender-sexual preference identity groups (the exception being the non-heterosexual women), there was a significant relationship between the frequency of viewing pornography and the frequency of self-masturbation.
Table 3

Ordinal logistic regression beta coefficients and odds ratios: sexual behaviors by frequency of viewing sexually explicit materials

Sexual behavior composites

Women

Men

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

Self-masturbationa,b

0.55***

1.73

0.25

1.28

0.92***

2.51

0.66*

1.93

Manual sexa,c

0.21

1.24

0.28

1.33

0.12

1.13

0.28

1.32

Oral sexa,b

0.26**

1.29

0.17

1.18

0.20*

1.22

−0.01

0.99

Coitusa,d,e,f,g

0.25*

1.29

0.86**

2.37

0.21*

1.24

−0.22

0.81

Anal sexb,e,h

0.31*

1.36

0.74**

2.09

0.39**

1.48

0.03

1.03

* p ≤ .05; ** p ≤ .01; *** p ≤ .001

aTime period is past year

bComposite range: 0–10

cComposite range: 0–8

dBeta coefficients statistically significant across gender at p ≤ .05

eBeta coefficients statistically significant across sexual preference at p ≤ .05

fBeta coefficients for gender/sexual preference interaction statistically significant at p ≤ .05

gComposite range: 0–7

hTime period is lifetime

We also found a significant relationship between pornography viewing and the frequency of heterosexual coitus for three of the four groups (in this case, the non-heterosexual men being the exception). The strength of this relationship was significantly different across the gender-sexual preference identity groups with the non-heterosexual women having the strongest relationship followed by the heterosexual women. Significant relationships between the frequency of anal sex and the frequency of viewing pornography were also found for three of the four groups (the non-heterosexual men again being the exception). In addition, we found that for the heterosexual women and men, there was a significant association between the frequency of viewing pornography and the frequency of oral-genital activity.

A relationship between the frequency of viewing pornography and an expansion of one’s sexuality, then, is not confined to sexual fantasies or interests. In general, both the frequency of solo and partnered sex were significantly related to the frequency of pornography viewing, viz., more self-masturbation, oral sex, heterosexual coitus, and anal sex.

We previously showed with the qualitative data that pornography can widen a person’s sexual horizon through the normalization of various sexual acts. When it comes to translating these new perspectives into behavior, however, we argued that pornography seems to function not only as a learning experience, but a source of erotic empowerment for the viewer—building up the confidence to try new things. These theoretical interpretations also received support from the data of the qualitative study.

Many study participants made comments such as the following. From a woman: “Porn has served as a source of ideas for me to try.” From another woman: “Watching porn…caused me to be more experimental.” And from a man: “It helped me broaden what I do sexually.”

Learning about oral-genital activity was most frequently cited in this regard, as illustrated in the response of one woman: “Everything I know about oral sex I learned from porn.” Other new behaviors referred to included learning new sexual positions. In the words of one man, “I like to try a lot of positions that I’ve seen on some of these videos.” And, from another man, “There were things and positions I would never have thought of that after seeing it I thought I have to try this out.” An interest in trying anal sex was also mentioned by some of the study participants. In the words of one woman: “Anal sex in porn made me curious so I have tried it several times and I enjoy it.”

We were especially struck by the number of women who voiced a sense of empowerment that was attributed to their pornography viewing. One woman said, “It allowed me to be more open to trying new things. I am more willing to try something to see if I like it, instead of being scared of trying and never doing it.” And another woman: “I am now more open to different sex acts. I like to be adventurous and try new things.” A third woman stated it this way: “Watching porn… [led me to be] less afraid to be loud, made me feel less guilty about wanting sex, wanting pleasure, and directly asking for it.” Such confidence was not confined to women. One man had this to say:

Because I watch so much porn, I have confidence when I give oral sex to my female partner. If anything, it’s made me more confident in my decision making in a sexual situation….Without porn, I probably never would have been confident enough to perform cunnilingus on a female.

Thus, as well as increasing the range of their sexual behaviors, feelings of empowerment also were associated with the more frequent viewing of pornography.

Does Pornography Consumption Expand the Boundary for Acceptable Sex Partners?

As a consequence of increased normalization and empowerment, does more frequent viewing of pornography expand the boundaries of with whom a person will engage in sex (e.g., to include people who are strangers or acquaintances)? As presented in Tables 4, 5, and 6, we found that the more frequent consumption of pornography was related to a greater number of partners heterosexual women had oral and coital sex with. The greater number of partners, however, was restricted to “significant others” and did not reflect experiences with a greater number of “casual sexual partners.”
Table 4

Ordinal logistic regression beta coefficients and odds ratios: relationship to the number of partners they performed oral sex on (past 12 months) by frequency of viewing sexually explicit materials

Social relationship

Women

Men

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

Didn’t know or met that daya

0.17

1.19

0.66

1.93

0.15

1.16

0.26

1.30

Knew as a friend or acquaintance but never datedb

0.26

1.30

0.49

1.63

0.16

1.17

0.09

1.10

Were on a first date withc,d

0.51

1.66

1.74

5.70

0.05

1.05

0.01

1.01

Had previously dated (was not the first date or was an ex-partner/boyfriend/girlfriend)e

0.11

1.11

0.55*

1.73

0.04

1.04

0.51

1.67

Were significantly involved with at the timed

0.31*

1.37

−0.21

0.81

0.20

1.23

0.18

1.20

* p ≤ .05; ** p ≤ .01; *** p ≤ .001

aRange: 0–15

bRange: 0–8

cBeta coefficients statistically significant across gender at p ≤ .05

dRange: 0–5

eRange: 0–3

Table 5

Ordinal logistic regression beta coefficients and odds ratios: relationship to the number of partners they received oral sex from (past 12 months) by frequency of viewing sexually explicit materials

Social relationship

Women

Men

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

Didn’t know or met that daya

0.13

1.14

0.35

1.42

0.10

1.11

0.23

1.27

Knew as a friend or acquaintance but never datedb

0.05

1.05

0.48

1.62

0.20

1.22

0.01

1.01

Were on a first date withc

0.03

1.03

−0.06

0.94

0.03

1.03

Had previously dated (was not the first date or was an ex-partner/boyfriend/girlfriend)d

0.04

1.04

0.55*

1.74

0.01

1.02

0.22

1.25

Were significantly involved with at the timee

0.41*

1.51

−0.14

0.87

0.21

1.23

0.10

1.11

Note: Models that did not converge are noted with dashes. No statistically significant differences across gender or sexual preference

* p ≤ .05; ** p ≤ .01; *** p ≤ .001

aRange: 0–12

bRange: 0–8

cRange: 0–10

dRange: 0–3

eRange: 0–5

Table 6

Ordinal logistic regression beta coefficients and odds ratios: relationship to the number of partners they engaged in coitus with (past 12 months) by frequency of viewing sexually explicit materials

Social relationship

Women

Men

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

Heterosexual

Non-heterosexual

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

β

OR

Didn’t know or met that daya

0.21

1.23

0.64

1.89

0.05

1.05

0.10

1.11

Knew as a friend or acquaintance but never datedb

−0.09

0.91

0.35

1.42

0.17

1.19

Were on a first date withc

0.04

1.04

0.00

1.00

Had previous dated (was not the first date or was an ex-partner/boyfriend/girlfriend)d

−0.07

0.93

0.92*

2.50

−0.05

0.95

Were significantly involved with at the timea,e,f

0.39**

1.48

0.54*

1.72

0.10

1.10

−6.14

0.00

Note: Models that did not converge are noted with dashes

* p ≤ .05; ** p ≤ .01; *** p ≤ .001

aRange: 0–5

bRange: 0–8

cRange: 0–1

dRange: 0–2

eBeta coefficients statistically significant across gender at p ≤ .05

fBeta coefficients statistically significant across sexual preference at p ≤ .05

We obtained a similar result for the non-heterosexual women with regard to the number of “significant others” as coital partners. Additionally, however, we also found relationships between the extent of pornography viewing and oral and coital sex with partners with whom they were not in a significant relationship. This relationship with heterosexual intercourse reflected the bisexual interests of many of the non-heterosexual women.

For both groups of men, however, there was no significant relationship between frequency of pornography viewing and their number of sex partners or the social relationship with their sexual partners. Thus, the results on partners illustrate that the association with pornography consumption was mediated by gender and sexual preference identity—having more of an effect on the women than the men and, among the women, with differences between the heterosexuals and the non-heterosexuals.

Discussion

The quantitative data showed a relationship between the viewing of pornography and the variables of sexual appeal and behavior. The qualitative data helped support our contention that the viewing of pornography can broaden the appeal, and practice, of a variety of sex acts. In other words, pornography’s profusion and dissemination of sexual scripts seems to have, for some, a liberalizing effect. For example, for heterosexual men, there was an association between the frequency of viewing pornography and the appeal of using a vibrator, which parallels the common depiction of the use of vibrators in pornography. Generally, these findings were consistent with our theoretical assumptions that pornography can shape a person’s sex life through the normalization of sexual behaviors and a feeling of empowerment that makes certain types of sexual experimentation more probable. The normalization of pornography did not, however, necessarily lead to the desire and empowerment to engage in sex with partners outside of a relationship. The relationship between the frequency of viewing pornography and the greater appeal of a variety of sexual activities did not differ by gender or sexual preference identity. Women did, however, show more behavioral associations with the greater viewing of pornography than did the men. Sexual preference identity also affected the relationship with sexual behaviors.

The above findings suggest a number of things. First, the relationship between pornography consumption and number of coital partners for the heterosexual women was restricted to their significant relationships. We interpret this as an extension of their sexual script rather than a leap to a radically different one; namely, they still follow a norm of “relationship sex.” The finding of an association between pornography consumption and the greater likelihood of performing coitus on a first date or with someone they previously dated on the part of non-heterosexual women can be seen as reflecting a less conventional gender script. Finally, the interaction between gender and sexual preference identity showed that non-heterosexual women and men differed more in associations between pornography consumption and frequency of heterosexual coitus than did heterosexual women and men. This finding for non-heterosexuals has also been found in other research (Bell & Weinberg, 1978). It has been interpreted as involving women’s history of accommodation to the other sex and their greater conformity to societal expectations (the traditional script of women servicing men).

Before discussing the wider implications of these results, a number of caveats should be made about this study. First, our study was limited by the nature of the study group, college men and women, who lived in a milieu where erotic images were widely available and sexual norms relatively permissive (Armstrong, Hamilton, & Sweeny, 2006). This will affect the generalizability of the findings. For example, Parvez (2006) has shown that social class background differentiates women’s enjoyment of pornography. Second, the data are open to different interpretations based on one’s sexual values. Individuals with conservative values may differ in their perspective from those who are more liberal (such as our participants) in their interpretation of the expansion of sexual repertoires as positive. Rather, this could be viewed as reflecting an unhealthy focus on the sexual. So too may greater acceptance of pornography be interpreted from a conservative point of view as desensitizing and contributing to undesired effects (see Hald & Malamuth, 2008), whereas those with more liberal sexual values see pornography as an important part of their sexual learning experiences. A third caveat is a cross-sectional study such as this one does not allow us to definitively know the causal direction of relationships. For example, it could be that some people who have developed their sexuality and sexual repertoire to a greater degree are also likely to view pornography more. This could be the interpretation given to the finding in a Norwegian study by Traeen et al. (2006) that experience with group sex predicted the amount of exposure to pornography. Or it could be that some persons with a stronger interest in sex have both a greater interest in viewing pornography as well as finding more appeal in and engaging more frequently in a variety of sexual activities. Haavio-Mannila and Kontula (2003) found the viewing of pornography to be frequent among highly sexually-active individuals in a Finnish study group. There is no reason, then, to believe that there is a monolithic casual relationship. Our interpretation, one that receives support from the qualitative data, is that, for some people, viewing pornography plays a role in making a variety of sexual acts more appealing as well as creating a greater desire to experiment with them.

On a broader level, we can say that the expansion of pornography in the U.S. has not abated despite the attempts of its opponents to restrict its spread (Klein, 2006). According to Paul (2005), for large segments of the population, viewing pornography is so common that it has become a routine part of sexual socialization. We agree. It is the rare student, for example, who has not seen pornography or does not know how to access it (e.g., on her/his laptop). As pornography becomes more a part of mainstream culture (and mainstream culture has become more pornographic), permissive sexual scripts have become widely disseminated. Scripts such as “sex is fun,” “sex need not be saved for marriage,” and “sex should be available and imaginative” are increasingly dispersed, which can affect, as suggested by our findings, a greater appeal and more frequent practice of a variety of sex acts. This seems to be especially the case for women. Research has shown an increase in the viewing of pornography by women (Ciclitira, 2004) and the incorporation of pornography into their sex lives with their partners as well as in solo sex. This is again in line with our findings and supports Tiefer’s (2004) view that pornography and self-masturbation can play an important part in women’s sexual learning.

The growth of free and amateur pornography that is now available also provides new ways of consumption undreamt of by those involved in the pornography debates of the 1970s. Thus, “pornotopia” has expanded its boundaries to intersect more with the outside world. In this way, pornography has played an important role in the widespread normalization of sexuality in postmodern societies (referred to by McNair, 1996, as “pornographication”). Whether this is followed in the larger society (i.e., beyond college campuses and in older age groups) by more varied sexual practices is not easy to estimate. Certainly this is possible. As noted in the Introduction, though, we do not see people as cultural dopes (Garfinkel, 1967): they seem to consume pornography like any other cultural product in the postmodern marketplace. It may be important and influential at different times in their lives (e.g., while in college) and in different situations (e.g., after divorce), and may induce a person to experiment a few times with unconventional sexualities (e.g., swinging, SM), but it will always be just one element, and not necessarily the most important one, in their sexual socialization. Gagnon (2004) noted that in postmodern societies there is an increasing “disconnection between the amount of erotica and the absolute conventionality of…people” (p. 320). Moreover, survey research results in the U.S. adult population do not show a large number of people experiencing a personal pornotopia, even though their sexual horizons have been expanded (Laumann et al., 1994). Pornography will continue to retain its symbolic uses as a signifier of wider social concerns but, as its mostly benign effects are increasingly recognized, it will, we expect, cease to be demonized. Gagnon and Simon (1970) have referred to written pornography as a “paper tiger.” Perhaps they could speak similarly today, this time referring to a “pixel tiger.”

Acknowledgments

An early version of this paper was presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality meetings, Las Vegas, November 2006. We are indebted to The Kinsey Institute for the Study of Sex, Gender, and Reproduction for its graduate student grant to Sybil Kleiner for her work on the study, and to the Editor and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions for improving the paper.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010