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What's the harm in a bit of porn?

 

Finally, it seems, there is a conversation about the elephant in the domestic violence room. We don’t need more statistics to prove that addiction to alcohol, gambling and illegal drugs plays a huge role in domestic violence. But what about addiction to pornography? World-wide, hundreds of millions of people, mostly male, are easy prey for the peddlers of online pornography. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry that feeds the appetite of both the curious and the insatiable with much of the former camp moving swiftly to the latter.

As of January 2023, porn sites are getting more visitors than Amazon, Twitter and Netflix combined, with somewhere between 46-74 per cent of men and 16-41 per cent of women watching porn regularly (although some estimates go as high as 91.5 per cent and 60 per cent respectively).

Porn is sometimes described as a supernormal stimulus, taking our brain’s natural desire for intimacy and providing us with an exaggerated hyper-real version, thus altering what our brains perceive to be normal. In 2014, neuroscientists based at the University of Cambridge ran an experiment on impulsivity, compulsion and addiction found that people with ‘compulsive sexual behaviour’ like porn addiction showed different patterns of brain activity when viewing erotic images compared to ‘healthy’ controls. Similar patterns can be seen in the brains of drug addicts. This has led many researchers to conclude that porn ‘hijacks’ the brain and alters the way users think.   

According to research, porn consumers are more likely to ‘sexually objectify and dehumanize others, more likely to express an intent to rape, less likely to intervene during a sexual assault, more likely to victim-blame survivors of sexual assault, more likely to support violence against women, more likely to forward sexts without consent, and more likely to commit actual acts of sexual violence.’ In the research, that last point comes up often: frequent users of pornography are more likely to engage in physically aggressive sex acts. 

Psychologist Prof Neil Malamuth of the University of California says decades of research have revealed that for men, ‘excessive viewing of pornography is consistently associated with sexist attitudes, coercive acts, aggressive behaviour and other dangerous outcomes’. 

However, the silence around any negative social effects of our digital lives being saturated in pornography has been deafening. Until now, why has there – in Australia at least – been almost no public conversation on this? Why has it rarely been linked to family violence? Why are we so afraid to discuss this elephant?

Could it be that we don’t want to condemn the consumption of pornography because that would make us hypocrites? Or is it just that what we choose to do online is ‘our’ business, that we have a right to indulge our lust privately, that we are looking only at non-violent pornography? Because most studies and surveys focus on the link between violent pornography and partner (or other) abuse, including rape and murder, do we justify our own choices by saying ‘Well, we’re hurting no one.’?

 

'Around 45 per cent of pornographic material depicting physical violence or aggression, with males overwhelmingly the perpetrators and women the victims. This violence is not only shown without repercussions, but violence is often shown to be welcomed by the victims.'

 

That argument is becoming harder to make, with around 45 per cent of pornographic material depicting physical violence or aggression, with males overwhelmingly the perpetrators and women the victims. This violence is not only shown without repercussions, but violence is often shown to be welcomed by the victims.

Defenders might argue that there remains a chicken and egg question: does consuming pornography make men violent or do violent men tend to watch pornography?

Among the vast body of research, a 2016 meta-analysis presenting aggregated data from 22 studies across seven countries, confirming a significant association between pornography consumption and committing acts of sexual aggression, with a notable emphasis on the exacerbating role of violent content in pornography. Results were consistent across various studies and geographical locations. The authors suggested a need for policy interventions and educational programs aimed at mitigating the consumption of violent pornography and addressing its potential to foster sexually aggressive behavior.

If the links between porn consumption and violence weren’t clear before, they are now. 

And if that wasn’t enough, all major porn sites have had issues with featuring child sexual abuse material, nonconsensual content, and abuse. With consistent issues in content moderation on websites, there’s still no way to guarantee whether the material being watched has been produced legally or ethically.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, many men dismiss this issue. Although there are notable exceptions, such as Tanya Plibersek, Melinda Tankard Reist and Chanel Contos, it seems that many women are also reluctant to speak out against this social evil. Might it not be time then to enlist the voices, and especially the public voices, of women who, in growing numbers, are victims of this? That’s not to say women are to blame. Men, for the most part, are responsible. Proportionally speaking, we are the addicts; we are the perpetrators; we make the disastrous choices that create the sometimes horrific damage.  

Though the form the addiction takes may vary, addiction to internet pornography is common, particularly among men. For many, it is difficult to let go of because it is so easily accessible. That’s not to say that everyone who looks at online pornography is, or becomes, an addict. But like the compulsive drinker, gambler or drug user, that likelihood increases with every viewing.

Given the pervasiveness of pornography, and the extent to which pornography is consumed by people under 18, this is a conversation long overdue. And it’s a conversation that more men and more women need the courage to lend their voices to. 

The federal government has thankfully begun to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue. Only this month, Albanese announced $6.5m to fund a pilot program to prevent children from accessing pornography as a response to the domestic violence problem in Australia. Its not perfect, but it should count as movement in the right direction. 

Compulsive porn consumption is not the sole or even primary cause of domestic violence. No one is suggesting that. But only by addressing the role porn plays as an underlying and unspoken part of the domestic violence problem can we reasonably expect to attain a healthier society, and a less violent one. 

 

 

 


Bill Farrelly is a retired Sydney Morning Herald journalist.

David Halliday is editor of Eureka Street.  

Topic tags: Bill Farrelly, David Halliday, Pornography, Violence, DV, Australia

 

 

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Existing comments

This is an excellent and much needed article, but I think the effects of freely available legal pornography and its ramifications are far more widespread and even worse than you mention. In the 18th, 19th and 20th Century until the advent of the internet, real pornography was only available 'under the counter' and depraved sex exhibitions only available at brothels for the rich who were in the know. Now they are easily accessible. They degrade the producers, the performers and the viewers.
This is a multibillion dollar business. In California I believe there is more porn produced than mainstream film and some porn producers even claim training subsidies for their technical staff. I agree real counter measures, such as training and rehabilitation, should be provided. The time to act is now. Tomorrow may well be too late.


Edward Fido | 30 May 2024  

I suspect there is a reluctance for many to discuss this issue in the same way that there is a reluctance for many to discuss clergy sexual misconduct against adults: there are so many people who are either themselves involved in extra-marital affairs (if your married) or sexual activity (if your a cleric), and in regard to pornography, so many people who are caught up in it. That's why. I'm sure of it. For many then, to point the finger then at the problem is to be pointing three fingers back at one's self.


Dr Stephen de Weger | 31 May 2024  
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Thanks to the authors for raising and addressing a social evil that expands by public neglect of its seriousness - an expansion not unrelated, I suggest, to the notion of 'My body, my right to do what I want with it' promoted in widespread pro-abortion propaganda.


John RD | 03 June 2024  

'that we are looking only at non-violent pornography? Because most studies and surveys focus on the link between violent pornography and partner (or other) abuse, including rape and murder, do we justify our own choices by saying ‘Well, we’re hurting no one.’?'

The 45% of pornographic material that depicts physical violence or aggression is wrong because the 55% of pornographic material that depicts no violence is wrong.

A 'progressive' outlook that seeks to stigmatise pornography which includes sexual violence is only supporting the existence of a legalised pornography which depicts no violence. 'Links', 'association', etc. are weasel words. Pornography is a sin not because God says so but because in God's plan of creation, there is a causation (not 'association', 'correlation', 'link' or what have you) between pornography and a definable harm.

The job of a Catholic journal is to explain this causation and sell the plausibility of the explanation to its reading public. A 'progressive' journal, operating from what essentially is a libertarian position, can only propagate fudge because, at the end of the day, it is stuck with the position that physically non-violent pornography is fine.

Start with the idea that the violence of objectification is not physical.


roy chen yee | 01 June 2024  

The article is timely if a bit 'off the polite agenda' as Weger might more fairly have observed. A pity, then, that his remarks, like his grammar, miss their target.

Pornography has indeed made its 'false consciousness' mark, particularly since the Sixties, when I first encountered 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' for critique in an Eng Lit unit at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Our guest lecturer was the esteemed Terry Eagleton of Cambridge and, prior to that, St Francis Xavier College, Liverpool. Eagleton was the bete noir of Leavisites for whom the fixed literary canon for Eng Lit commenced with Chaucer and ended with Shakespeare.

Hitherto distracted by stylism and exuding all the characteristics of a classical education gone wrong, Eagleton's influence breathed new life into 'ways of seeing and knowing', opening up Connie Chatterley's experience of being forced into a loveless marriage with Sir Clifford to a new appreciation of Lawrence's then ground-breaking work, hitherto consigned to the under-the-counter 'dirty book' section of public libraries, where lonesome elderly men were able to satisfy their curiosity even at risk of 'warting' a furtive knuckle or two.

So also has it been for pornography, readily available for those without education, but no more than that.


Michael Furtado | 04 June 2024  

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