‘Let’s Talk about Sex (on Screen), Baby’

Family First New Zealand has recently launched a petition for an inquiry into the impacts of pornography. Their petition calls for “an expert panel [to] be appointed to investigate the public health effects and societal harms of pornography to both children and adults, and to make policy recommendations to Parliament”. The website hosting their petition claims that “men who view pornography regularly have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexuality, including rape, sexual aggression, and sexual promiscuity” and that ongoing use of pornography “results in stronger perceptions of women as commodities”.

But what really are the impacts? And why, when pornography has existed for centuries, is Family First New Zealand only now calling for an inquiry?

Thanks to the internet, pornography is more available and accessible than ever before. Whilst many reading this will remember the days of pornography in print formats, such as Playboy or Penthouse magazine, pornographic internet tube sites such as Pornhub appear in the top 150 globally accessed websites. To put into perspective how popular internet pornography is, we only need to look at the amount of traffic to these websites. At its peak in the 1970s, Playboy magazine had a monthly circulation of 7 million copies (Gunelius, 2009). In 2016, Pornhub.com recorded an astonishing 23 billion visits to their website, amounting to a total of 64 million visits per day. What Playboy was able to achieve per month, Pornhub is able to achieve in just under three hours. And it seems that New Zealanders are particularly fond of consuming pornographic content, coming in 5th for per capita page views globally.

Image taken from: http://www.pornhub.com/insights/2016-year-in-review

Given the fondness of New Zealanders for streaming sexually explicit content, we should be asking questions about the impacts of pornography on New Zealanders. For the first time ever I think I partially agree with Family First. But where my views diverge from theirs is with the types of questions we need to ask about the impacts of pornography.

In the background information for those wishing to sign their petition, Family First New Zealand solely provide information about the negative impacts of pornography. There’s no mention of pornography potentially having positive impacts for users, nor is there much mention of the possibility that women may watch, or enjoy, pornography too. This is a narrow, one-sided view of an area that is so subjectively experienced.

Instead of thinking about pornography in such a narrow way, it is important that we consider all views and focus on the facts. We cannot ask questions about the impacts of pornography if we presume all of the impacts are already negative, or that pornography is a ‘public health crisis’.  Before we even start thinking about the impacts, we need to identify what we even mean when we talk about pornography. What are we referring to? What is included? Where do we draw the line? Is a sexy selfie sent to your partner pornographic?

Without a doubt, research suggests that pornography can have negative impacts for users, particularly for children and young people (Flood, 2007; 2009). Concerns have been raised that exposure to pornographic content could encourage them to engage in unethical or risky sexual behaviours or influence their sexual preferences (Marston & Lewis, 2014), as well being associated with a younger age of sexual debut (Morgan, 2011).

However, whilst the media might lead us to believe that all young people are viewing pornography, adopting sexist ideologies and having risky sex, there is research that suggests young people can, and are, critically engaged with pornography. In fact, research with young people directly suggests that some of them are over pornography and tired of the stereotypical portrayals within it (Mattebo et al., 2012).

To suggest that only young people view pornography would also exclude the majority of pornography users. Whilst 18-25 year olds may well form a large chunk of pornography users, some research with couples of all ages finds that viewing pornography as a couple is not related to lower relationship functioning (Maddox, Rhoades & Markman, 2011), and could even have beneficial impacts for relationships by enhancing sexual communication (Daneback, Træen & Mansson, 2009). Further, research with users of pornography actually found they held more gender egalitarian attitudes, particularly around supporting ideas about women in positions of power, working out of the home and toward abortion, than non-pornography users (Kohut, Baer & Watts, 2016). Of course, there is research that suggests pornography can have a negative impact on couple relationships too, such as it being a source of marital distress, especially for women who feel that internet pornography use is as damaging as real-life sexual infidelity (Manning, 2006).

The point here is that there are two sides to every coin. For every study that finds negative impacts, another can identify a range of positive impacts for users of pornography too.

There is little research in New Zealand about the impacts of pornography on users, despite our high rates of usage. My PhD research is investigating the impacts of pornography for heterosexual New Zealanders between the ages of 18 and 30 in New Zealand and hopes to provide some answers to some of the questions Family First is asking. I am currently recruiting for participants for this study and am keen to include a wide range of voices and perspectives on pornography. If you, or someone you know, would like their voice heard, then please do get in touch.

Samantha Keene is a PhD student at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. Her PhD research focuses on the meanings and impacts of pornography for emerging adults. Her research interests are in pornography, violence against women, student populations and sex work. You can find her on Twitter by searching @Miss_Keene

References

Daneback, K., Træen, B., & Mansson, S. (2009). Use of Pornography in a Random Sample of Norwegian Heterosexual Couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 746-753Flood, M. (2007). Exposure to pornography among youth in Australia. Journal of Sociology, 43(1), 45-60. doi:10.1177/1440783307073934

Flood, M. (2009). The harms of pornography exposure among children and young people. Child Abuse Review, 18(6), 384-400. doi:10.1002/car.1092

Gunelius, S. (2009). Building brand value the Playboy way. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kohut, T., Baer, J. L., & Watts, B. (2016). Is pornography really about “making hate to women”? Pornography users hold more gender egalitarian attitudes than nonusers in a representative American sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(1), 1-11.

Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing sexually-explicit materials alone or together: associations with relationship quality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(2), 441-448. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9585-4

Mattebo, M., Larsson, M., Tyden, T., Olsson, T., & Haggstrom-Nordin, E. (2012). Hercules and Barbie? Reflections on the influence of pornography and its spread in the media and society in groups of adolescents in Sweden. The European Journal of Contraceptive & Reproductive Health Care, 17(1), 40-49. doi:10.3109/13625187.2011.617853

Morgan, E. M. (2011). Associations between young adults’ use of sexually explicit materials and their sexual preferences, behaviors, and satisfaction. Journal of Sex Research, 48(6), 520-530.

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