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Pornography May Have Harmful Effects on Certain Male Consumers--A Sociological Perspective

Updated on December 19, 2010

There may be no simple answer to the broad question of whether or not pornography is harmful. To prove that it is unconditionally harmful would require the use of universal and objective standards by which to make such a judgment. Rather than attempting to validate any such universal standards, I will attempt to demonstrate that, within specific contexts, and by specific pragmatic standards of what constitutes "harm", pornography can harm certain individuals or groups. In different contexts, pornography might be harmless or even beneficial to other groups or individuals. This article will focus on how modern hard-core pornography may harm certain heterosexual male consumers who use it regularly, and by extension, harm women with whom such males interact sexually.

Human sexuality generally involves interactions between pairs or small groups of individuals. Hard-core pornography functions by enabling the user to create a purely subjective fantasy in which he/she is a participator in whatever sexual interaction is portrayed. This article will examine the interplay between the interactive nature of sex, and the entirely subjective nature of sexual fantasy during pornography use. The following sociological issues will be central to this analysis: self-concept formation, role taking/making while viewing pornography, and social construction of reality (via situation definition) during sexual interactions. Therefore, a symbolic interactionist perspective will be maintained.

Two of the more prevalent claims in favor of the supposed harmlessness of pornography have been: 1. Pornography has educational value and 2. Pornography provides a beneficial "outlet" for sexual drives (Cottle, Searles, Berger, & Pierce, 1989, p. 305). The conception of pornography as sex education has even contributed to recommendations for social policy. Tjaden (1988) noted that the 1970 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography decided that pornography has educational value, and that this determination was one reason that the commission opposed the criminalization of pornography (p. 208). The commission's recommendations were not arbitrary; the idea that pornography is a significant source of sexual information has been backed by research. For example, a majority of male respondents to a survey conducted by Tjaden (1988) indicated that, for at least certain aspects of sexuality, pornography was "a primary or secondary source of information" (p. 210).

Significantly, the recommendations of the 1970 commission were published nearly forty years ago, when online pornography consumption was not even a consideration in determining the extent to which pornography provided society with sexual information. In stark contrast, of the participants in a recent survey of university students, over sixty-two percent of females and over ninety-three percent of males had been exposed as teenagers to pornography on the Internet (Sabina, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2008, p. 691). Pornography must, therefore, be far more a source of sexual information today than it was in 1970. This would seem to make the recommendations of the 1970 Commission all the more valid for modern society.

Another common defense of pornography, as mentioned earlier, states that it provides a harmless outlet for sexual tension. Gever (1998) goes so far as to claim that this outlet reduces sex crimes by allowing would-be criminals to satisfy their urges in fantasy rather than by acting out (as cited in Cothran, 2002, p. 54). This claim is also supported by research, such as Kutchinsky's (1973) famous study of how the incidence of sex crimes declined in Denmark in the years following the country's legalization of hard-core pornography during the late 1960s (as cited in Segal, 1990, p. 34). This decline, however, could well have corresponded to the fact that many other sexual activities were also decriminalized at that time, and thus these activities no longer factored into the reported sex crime rate (Cline, 2001, p. 9). Additionally, Kutchinsky (1971) himself reported differences in the way sex crime cases were handled by law enforcement, causing a lower percentage of these crimes to be officially reported. (as cited in Cline, 2001, p. 9)

In opposition to research supporting the idea that the outlet given by pornography use is harmless or beneficial, other research demonstrates ways that this "outlet" may harm the user. A recent study revealed a negative correlation between men's use of pornography and "genital esteem" (favorable attitudes towards one's genitals). For many male participants, a negative correlation also existed between pornography use and "sexual [self-]esteem", a value gauged with survey questions such as, "I am a good sexual partner". (Morrison, Ellis, Morrison, Bearden, & Harriman, 2006, no page numbers given in electronic document)
A study by Snell and Papini (1989) lends indirect support to the 2006 study just mentioned. The earlier study examined sexual (self-)esteem, sexual depression (unhappiness centered around one's sexuality), and sexual preoccupation (extent to which one thinks/fantasizes about sex)(Snell & Papini, 1989, p. 256). The study revealed that as men's level of sexual-preoccupation increased, their level of sexual-depression increased, and their sexual esteem decreased. (Snell & Papini, sex preoccupation, p. 261). Since one thinks/fantasizes about sex while viewing pornography, pornography use must increase levels of sexual-preoccupation.
Today, pornography depicting almost any sexual behavior (as long as minors do not perform), is legally available in the United States to any adult who wishes to view it. This author believes that this permissive social policy has two primary causes: 1. The failure of many traditional arguments against pornography--these include claims that pornography fuels aggression towards women, or is harmful in how it may affect society's "moral fabric"--to maintain a strong consensus among scholars over the years and 2. The ambiguity of current obscenity laws. Although the First Amendment guarantees certain freedoms of expression, it is arguable that some room does exist for laws which limit certain forms of expression, including obscenity. However, our definition of "obscenity" (given by the Supreme Court in Miller v. California) involves subjective values like "offensive" and "artistic" (as cited in Koppelman, 2005, p. 1637). As these terms do not denote any objective standard, they leave questions of what is "obscene" open to argument.

This author does not advocate government censorship of pornography involving consenting adults, but does recommend that consumers be better informed about ways that pornography can cause harm. First, the sex education it provides is often miseducation. Pornography is produced for sexual arousal, and what consumers find arousing is not necessarily educational. Many scenes feature penetration, or even group sex, without the use of condoms. If such behavior was mimicked in real life, it could result in unwanted pregnancies and the transmission of diseases. In most scenes, women seem unrealistically easy to please, moaning and shouting ceaselessly through entire films, as if the mere act of penetration causes women to experience perpetual orgasms. In reality, intercourse usually doesn't provide the type of clitoral stimulation which, according to Masters and Johnson (1970), most women need to achieve even one orgasm, let alone multiple orgasms (as cited in Hansell & Damour, 2008, p. 377). On the other hand, most pornography treats cunnilingus (which does consistently provide the stimulation needed to cause orgasms) as unimportant, giving it far less camera time than fellatio or vaginal/anal penetration. A study by McKee (2005), which analyzed the content of numerous pornographic materials, supports this claim (p.284).

The male performers in pornography regularly achieve instant erections, have penises that are larger than average (although there may be no serious studies that attempt to prove this), and are able to maintain a very fast pace of intercourse for long periods of time without ejaculating. However, many men actually need time to attain an erection, and can not maintain a fast pace for very long without ejaculating. Men who gather their sexual information from pornography may overestimate (as many men do) both the average penis size and the overall value that women place on large penises. In pornography, it appears that "bigger is always better" for women. In reality, the average woman does not place much value on very large penises, which may even make intercourse uncomfortable for many women (Pertschuk, Trisdorfer, & Allison, 1993, pp. 2-3).

Social analyst Warren Farrell (1986) has suggested that pornography may reflect male feelings of inadequacy in the face of modern gender roles; men who feel deficient in qualities that are socially determined to attract women for real sexual interactions may escape from feelings of powerlessness via pornography (as cited in Berger, Searles, & Cottle, 1990, p. 34). Pornography depicts women as very sexually accessible, and seduction as uncomplicated. Social norms regarding mate-seeking are generally ignored. Women appear attracted to any male, regardless of his intelligence, sense of humor, or appearance. These women rarely investigate a man's career or social status. Snell and Papini's (1989) research that linked sexual depression with sexual preoccupation concluded that this link might reflect a male "attempt to compensate for feelings of sexual inadequacy" (p. 262). As stated earlier, pornography use must increase sexual preoccupation.

The negative correlation between pornography use and genital esteem/sexual esteem shown in the 1989 and 2006 studies may suggest that some men who view pornography make unfavorable sexual comparisons between themselves and the male performers, resulting in a damaged self-concept pertaining to their genitals or their sexual capability. It may also indicate that men with poor sexual self-concepts are more likely to limit their sex lives to fantasy (Morrison, Ellis, Morrison, Bearden, & Harriman, 2006, no page numbers given in electronic document). This avoidance of real sexual encounters may represent an evasion of performance anxiety centered around such encounters.

Instead of functioning as a harmless "outlet for sexual tension", pornography is likely to harm men who use it to soothe a poor self-concept regarding their abilities to obtain or satisfy women in face-to-face interactions. Often, factors contributing to poor sexual self-concepts should be addressed directly, rather than be covered with cosmetic "porn band-aids". For example, if a man is very obese, and thus feels unable to attract women, it would be in the interest of his health for him to examine the lifestyle that caused his obesity. If a man repels women by never following through with anything he starts or ever keeping a job, it may benefit him to face the reasons behind his consistent lack of follow-through. If a man is in good health, is intelligent, and has a good career, but still dreads any interaction with the opposite sex (and even the same sex), he might be diagnosed with acute social anxiety and treated with psychotherapy and/or medication. By directly addressing these kinds of underlying causes for poor sexual self-concepts, it is possible for the individual to develop a more positive self-concept. Anything that enables one to simply ignore their poor self-concept only serves as an impediment to this needed development.

For men with poor sexual esteem and/or low genital esteem, the continual use of pornography in lieu of face-to-face sexual activities may result in a viscous cycle by which these men are strongly conditioned to continue avoiding sexual encounters. First, pornography would provide sexual pleasure, free from feelings of anxiety or awkwardness. Second, pornography could increase performance anxieties at the outset of any face-to-face sexual interaction by shaping the way the individual defines the situation.

Subjectively becoming a participant in pornographically portrayed sexual interactions, the heterosexual male viewer imagines himself through the perspectives of the women "he" is vicariously satisfying. He enters their perspectives via their expressive symbols--constant moaning, screaming, and dirty-talk--that he interprets as favorable responses to "his" large and constant erection, and "his" tireless jackhammer tempo of performance. In response to his perception of himself through female performers' perspectives, he then constructs his own sexual role: to maintain porn-star levels of sexual performance in order to satisfy women. He then carries this role--constructed in response to a manufactured simulation of interaction, not through any real social interaction--into real sexual interactions. He defines these real situations the same way he defined situations in his imaginary sexual interactions, and this definition is likely to be very different than his sexual partner's definition.

Real sexual interactions differ from simulations, and often lack the porn symbols--screaming and dirty-talk--for "female satisfaction"; the male may interpret this absence as "female not satisfied". Further, he attempts to play a role that his partner may not desire from him, and which he is unable to perform outside of fantasy. All of this can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy: the male's fear that he will not satisfy his sexual partners results in failure to satisfy his partners. This might even play out physiologically, in the form of a sexual dysfunction (such as erectile dysfunction). Masters and Johnson (1970) have linked such dysfunctions with performance anxiety and "spectatoring", which involves "detached self-observation" (as cited in Hansell and Damour, 2008, p. 373). Having already discussed the possible links between pornography and performance anxiety, the following may be said about pornography and spectatoring: when one's sex life largely involves imagining oneself participating in scenes over which one is literally a spectator, it may be all too easy to imagine oneself as a spectator over scenes in which one is literally a participator.

In conclusion, although pornography may not be harmful for everyone, hopefully I have demonstrated sufficient reason for consumers who regularly use pornography to exercise caution. Although the discussion has been geared primarily toward the heterosexual male who uses regularly, even pornography users who do not fit into that category may be well advised to take a closer look at the reasons they use pornography and the underlying messages in the types of pornography they use. Harm comes in many varieties.


Berger, R. J., Searles P., & Cottle C. E. (1990). Ideological contours of the contemporary pornography debate: Divisions and alliances. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 11(2/3), 30-38. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

Cline, V. B. (2001). Pornography’s effects on adults and children. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

Cothran, H. (Ed.). (2002). Pornography. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc

Cottle, C. E., Searles, P., Berger, R. J., & Pierce, B. A. (1989). Conflicting ideologies and the politics of pornography. Gender and Society, 3(3), 303-333. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

Hansell, J., & Damour, L. (2008). Abnormal Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Koppelman, A. (2005). Does obscenity cause moral harm? Columbia Law Review, 105(5), 1635-1679. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

McKee, A. (2005). The objectification of women in mainstream pornographic videos in Australia. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

Morrison, T. G., Ellis, S. R., Morrison, M. A., Bearden, A., & Harriman, R. L. (2006). Exposure to sexually explicit material and variations in body esteem, genital attitudes, and sexual esteem among a sample of Canadian men. The Journal of Men's Studies, 14(2), 209-222. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

Sabina C., Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2008). The nature and dynamics of Internet pornography exposure for youth. CYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIOR, 11(6), 691-693. doi:10.1089/cpb.2007.0179

Segal, L. (1990). Pornography and violence: What the 'experts' really say. Feminist Review, 36, 29-41. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

Snell, W. E., & Papini, D. R. (1989). The sexuality scale: An instrument to measure sexual-esteem, sexual-depression, and sexual-preoccupation. The Journal of Sex Research, 26(2), 256-263. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

Tjaden, P. G. (1988). Pornography and sex education. The Journal of Sex Research, 24, 208-212. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from


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