Nasty Porn, Friendly Porn, and Antisocial Behavior

Introduction

Some anti-sex zealots say all forms of pornography are harmful and should be banned. They place the most benign and tasteful erotica or nudity in the same category as extremely violent and degrading pornography. And they condemn it all as “filth” and “smut.”

Like other entertainment or art, though, the types of pornography range across a spectrum. At one end are friendly, healthful, and educational forms. At the opposite end are nasty, violent, and exploitative forms.

To a significant extent, the different types of pornography correspond to the good and bad in other entertainment. A vast amount of evidence indicates that violent entertainment – whether pornographic or not – can negatively affect the attitudes of viewers.

Conversely, many types of entertainment – whether pornographic or not – can be enlightening, inspirational, civilizing, and otherwise beneficial for both adults and children.

In judging entertainment and deciding how to deal with it, therefore, the focus should not be on whether it is pornographic. The focus should be on whether it is beneficial or harmful.

Violent entertainment in general

The entertainer Steve Allen, who died in 2000, spent much of his final years educating the public about the harms of violence in the entertainment media. He said numerous studies show “overwhelming evidence that violent entertainment causes violent behavior.”

Allen noted that as far back as 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General proclaimed that TV violence “does have an adverse effect on certain members of our society.” The American Medical Association similarly warned in 1976: “TV violence threatens the health and welfare of young Americans.”

In 1982, the National Institute of Mental Health presented a review of over 2,500 studies on the effects of TV violence. Its report identified “a clear consensus among most researchers that television violence leads to aggressive behavior.”

The American Psychiatric Association concurred in 1986. It said the “evidence is overwhelming that violence in television programming can have a negative and severe behavioral impact on young people.”

In 1992, the American Psychological Association declared that “the scientific debate is over.” And it complained that 40 years of research linking television violence to societal violence has been ignored.

In a report issued in 1993, the American Psychological Association’s Commission on Violence and Youth concluded there is ”absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.”

Author David Grossman described a review of nearly 1,000 studies presented to the American College of Forensic Psychiatry in 1998. He said it found that “all but 18 demonstrated that screen violence leads to real violence, and 12 of those 18 were funded by the television industry.”

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in: “Children don’t naturally kill. It is a learned skill and they learn it most pervasively, from violence as entertainment in television, the movies, and interactive video-games.”

Moreover, Allen pointed to an ABC network study of young felons imprisoned for violent crimes. It revealed that up to 34% of them had consciously imitated crime techniques learned from television.

Allen also cited statistics indicating homicide rates doubled in the 10 to 15 years after television was introduced in certain areas of the U.S. and Canada. And he bemoaned “the obvious fact that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between (a) violent attacks on women and (b) some popular music.”

At a media conference in Washington, D.C., in 1999, Allen and 62 other leaders – including Jimmy Carter, Mario Cuomo, John McCain, and Colin Powell – signed a statement protesting violence in the entertainment media. They agreed that “among researchers, the proposition that entertainment violence adversely influences attitudes and behavior is no longer controversial; there is overwhelming evidence of its harmful effect.”

Their statement noted that in addition to promoting violent behavior, the harmful effects include desensitizing viewers to sights of violence and carnage.

The statement did not call for governmental policing of the media. Instead, it urged the industry to be more responsible and exercise greater self-restraint in producing entertainment.

Increasingly violent entertainment

So far their pleas have not been heeded. Violent entertainment has increasingly become more graphic and gory, often leaving nothing to the imagination.

Additionally, violence is no longer merely incidental to story lines. Lurid scenes of killing, mutilation, and torture are the central focus of what some movies and other entertainment offer.

A purpose of this entertainment is to shock and frighten viewers. Similar to the reasons people go to Halloween “haunted houses” to feel milder forms of surprise and fear, some viewers apparently enjoy being shocked and frightened by images of extreme violence and gore.

In certain cases, the entertainment has the more sordid purpose of appealing to the darkest side of human nature. That side enables some people to enjoy watching violence inflicted on others and the resulting injuries and pain.

The same sadistic impulses have been manifest in many of the ugliest chapters of human history. For example, crowds in medieval Europe relished and cheered the public mutilation, torture, and execution of criminals and religious dissenters. They treated the events as festive occasions.

Whatever the point of today’s gratuitous violent entertainment, the levels of violence need to keep increasing in amount, severity, and graphicness to evoke the desired emotional responses. The previous levels eventually become insufficient for that purpose, once viewers become accustomed to them.

And regardless of its purpose, violent entertainment can have the same effects: it teaches people to use violence in addressing problems and desensitizes them to sights of brutality and suffering.

Violent sexual entertainment

Violent sexual entertainment constitutes a very small percentage of pornography. Most pornography is far less violent than other entertainment, such as “slasher” movies, video games, detective magazines, and even many sports.

But violent pornography exists and has increasingly become more horrific and graphic.

In some movies, scenes of bondage, torture, and rape are presented as entertainment. The films portray women as objects whose purpose in life is to be degraded and used for the sadistic sexual pleasures of men.

For instance, in one movie a group of men stalk, capture, and torment a young woman in a secluded wooded area. For almost a half-hour, they gang rape her in a joyful spirit of male camaraderie.

Those types of movies – and other entertainment such as certain music and video games – depict and promote a combination of violence, degradation, and sex as being pleasurable to both watch and engage in.

Not surprisingly, studies indicate the effects of violent sexual entertainment can be similar to the effects of other violent entertainment. This is a reason why sex researcher John Ince, in his book The Politics of Lust, describes such materials as “nasty porn.”

Researchers Edward Donnerstein and Neil Malamuth report that regular viewing of violent sexual entertainment can make some men sexually aroused by it, lead them to be more aggressive, and desensitize them to the effects of violence on victims.

In summarizing the research literature, Donnerstein and Malamuth say it “strongly supports the assertion that the mass media can contribute to a cultural climate that is more accepting of aggression against women.”

Obviously, that potential outcome needs to be opposed.

Censorship not the answer for adults

Additional research by Donnerstein, Malamuth, and Daniel Linz indicates that education, not censorship, is the best way to counteract any negative effects of violent pornography on adults.

Their research shows that after men had viewed massive amounts of violent and misogynistic pornography, the men’s attitudes toward women could be improved by providing them with information opposed to treating women violently and abusively. In fact, the anti-violence and pro-women information enabled the men to develop more respectful and less discriminatory views about women than they had before participating in the research.

Other studies have shown similar results. Based on the social science research, Donnerstein maintains: “Censorship is not the solution. Education, however, is a viable alternative.”

Thus, in regard to harmful ideas and attitudes that adults may acquire from violent sexual entertainment, the cure appears to be consistent with the philosophy underlying the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained the idea: “[T]he fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. . . . If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

The same approach is supported by comparing the sexual assault rates in places where violent sexual entertainment is readily available with places where it is not. Higher rates are not consistently found where violent sexual entertainment exists. On the contrary, an inverse relationship is often seen. This is true in international comparisons, comparisons among various states in the U.S., and comparisons between different time periods in identical countries.

Those findings indicate that the harmful messages of violent sexual entertainment can be counteracted by other messages and factors in societies. And as was the case with the research by Donnerstein, Malamuth, and Linz, the findings can be interpreted as supporting the position that people acquire the best attitudes by hearing both sides.

There appears to be no reason why the harmful effects of other violent entertainment cannot be similarly neutralized and reversed. Indeed, the belief that violent attitudes and behavior can be changed is a reason for the increasing number of conflict-resolution, anger-management, and violence-prevention programs in recent years.

Many of the programs have proved that people’s inclinations to behave violently can be reversed by teaching them nonviolent ways of interacting with others and dealing with problems.

For adults, then, education is apparently the best response to any harmful messages promoted by violent pornography and other types of violent entertainment.

A different result for children

Although adults should be free to purchase the types of entertainment they desire, a different approach is advisable in regard to children and violent pornography. Evidence indicates their access to it should be restricted.

A problem is that children’s first experiences with sexuality can be lasting. This is shown in the book The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis report: “The context in which we first experience sex affects us deeply. Often there is a kind of imprinting in which whatever is going on at the time becomes woven together.”

They explain that if a person’s earliest sexual experiences involve violence, degradation, or fear, the result can be “emotional and physical legacies that link pleasure with pain, love with humiliation, desire with an imbalance of power.” As an additional outcome: “Shame, secrecy, danger, and the forbidden feel thrilling.” Similar observations have been made by leading sexologist Dr. John Money of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Hospital.

The lasting effects of early childhood sexual experiences may shed light on why some victims of child sexual abuse grow up to be abusers themselves. The effects might also be a reason that some researchers, such as New York University psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis, have found that serial killers often come from backgrounds of early, ongoing, and severe sexual and physical abuse. And the effects may help explain why many serial killers, and others having sexual desire disorders, come from sexually repressive backgrounds where sex is linked with shame, disgust, evil, and physical punishment.

Because of the possibility of imprinting, a child’s first exposures to sex should not involve violent pornography pairing sex with pain, degradation, assault, or murder. The pairings could become linked and interwoven in the child’s mind. This is another reason that Ince calls the materials nasty porn.

The potential for imprinting may make the usual First Amendment response to bad speech – namely, good speech – an ineffective remedy for children’s exposure to nasty porn. To prevent an initial and permanent imprinting of negative sexual messages – or at least an imprinting that could be very difficult to alter – it may be necessary to keep children from violent pornography, child pornography, and similar messages depicting sex in harmful contexts.

Otherwise, when the child becomes an adult, sexual desire and satisfaction could be dependent on sex being combined with violence, abuse, or other antisocial conduct – regardless of subsequent messages the person received while growing up.

For some adults, the needed degree of force and subjugation may be harmless and playful, involving only fantasies and consensual sadomasochistic sex. For others, however, their ideal sexual enjoyment could entail much more extreme and real violence.

The worst sexual preferences are described by criminologists James Alan Fox and Jack Levin, who have studied serial and mass murderers for over 25 years. In their book Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, they explain that many serial killers are sexual sadists who obtain intense psychological and sexual gratification by stalking, capturing, humiliating, torturing, and killing their victims.

They report that those sociopaths may “record on video or audiotape their victims’ worst moments of terror for the purpose of later entertainment and celebration.” And the killers often “keep souvenirs or trophies – their victims’ jewelry, underwear, even body parts – to remind them of the good times they experienced while killing.”

Fox and Levin assert that in the brains of sexual sadists, sexual pleasure and fulfillment have somehow become interwoven with controlling, tormenting, and murdering. The more their victims scream and beg for mercy, the greater the thrill for these killers.

Society must take all possible acts to prevent the development of such sexual preferences. One prudent step would be to keep children from nasty pornography that links sex with antisocial behavior.

Sex-positive messages needed

Even with children’s access to nasty porn banned, though, some of them will obtain it. Similar bans have always been far from successful. And with the Internet and many other types of media available today, there is no chance all children could always be kept from nasty porn.

Thus, to minimize the possibility of children’s first exposures to sexuality occurring in a context of violence or abuse, more is needed than merely denying them access to nasty porn. Even with the bans, some children will see violent pornography, child pornography, and other antisocial depictions of sex at some point during their childhood.

Similarly, despite the best efforts to prosecute and medically treat sexual abusers of children, some children will be victims of sexual abuse. Like nasty porn, the abuse will give them negative messages and associations concerning sex, along with additional harms.

In response to those dangers, the best defense is a good offense. Children need to receive many positive messages about healthful and harmless sex to prevent them from linking sex with violence or other negative acts.

Sex-positive messages would combine sex with qualities such as love, beauty, pleasure, fun, relaxation, respect, maturity, responsibility, or consideration for others. If these positive associations were prevalent in society, children would be less likely to associate sex with violence, degradation, or abuse – whether or not they are eventually exposed to nasty porn or are sexually abused.

The positive messages could be presented in many ways. One method would be the promotion and admiration of nude or erotic artwork. In some parts of the world, such artwork has been considered classics for centuries. It depicts nudity or lovemaking in a beautiful, unashamed, and celebratory manner. Those are surely positive messages to send to children about sexuality.

Another way to promote sex-positive messages would be through informational, educational, and entertainment sources that feature approving attitudes toward the entire human body. Currently, the mainstream television and print media in the U.S. rarely show nudity. And when it is shown, the genitalia and female breasts are almost always blacked out or otherwise hidden, implying there is something immoral, dangerous, or disgusting about those body parts.

Likewise, schools are sometimes pressured to avoid using textbooks containing health-related information that includes images of genitalia or female breasts. Although the materials are meant to educate students about their bodies and enable them to diagnose serious conditions such as breast or testicular cancer, some people act as though the students could be harmed more by seeing the images than by undiagnosed cancer. Similar to the messages sent by nasty porn or child sexual abuse, those persons are sending messages linking sexuality to extremely negative concepts.

A further method of promoting sex-positive messages would be through nude beaches, resorts, and spas. At these places the sight of the unclothed human body, including the genitals, is associated with nature, recreation, freedom, sunbathing, swimming, hot tubs, saunas, etc. This leads to further associations with relaxation, stress reduction, friendship, and fun.

If children first learn to become comfortable with and accepting toward the entire human body in such healthful and stress-free environments, they are unlikely to ever learn to associate sexuality with violence, abuse, degradation, or shame. As Ince states: “Positive experiences that occur while genitals are in view help imprint positive attitudes toward genitals. . . . Organized social nudism . . . offers such positive conditioning.”

Although many people assume that children are harmed by seeing nudity, no evidence supports their belief. In studies of people who grew up in families that practiced nudism, the findings show no harms. Instead, the benefits include a more positive, relaxed, and accepting attitude toward the human body, and a better self-concept.

Besides, children in many cultures regularly see adult nudity and are not harmed by it. In those societies, the sight of genitals or female breasts is not considered erotic. And in cultures where children live in one-room homes with their parents, it is not unusual for them to witness sexual relations between adults. There is no evidence they are harmed by that, either.

Those facts indicate children could also receive positive messages about sexuality by allowing them access to certain types of nonviolent pornography – what Ince calls “friendly porn.” The materials include erotica presenting sex in a context of positive values such as honesty, equality, responsibility, caring, and respect. Or simply in a context of consenting adults having fun and behaving responsibly.

This pornography should be extolled rather than denounced. As Ince explains: “Friendly porn is educational . . . [and] conveys a very powerful message about the legitimacy of human sexuality. . . . The open circulation of such material teaches that sex is inherently good and normal.” He also says the idea that children can be harmed by the materials is false.

Friendly porn does not include, however, images of bondage or sadomasochistic sex. Ince points out that these depictions might cause children to become confused and misled about sex.

Although friendly porn can sometimes lead to sexual desire and masturbation, there is no evidence that either is harmful to children. To the extent they help children develop preferences for the positive, nonviolent, and nondegrading types of sexuality depicted in friendly porn, both are beneficial. And sexologists consider sexual desire and masturbation to be normal parts of growing up and necessary for healthy sexual development. As Ince states, masturbation is healthy, fun, and harmless.

Additionally, a positive view of sexuality could be promoted by a tolerant social atmosphere allowing consenting adults to do what they want without punishment or censure. When laws prohibit consensual and harmless sexual activities, or when such activities are denounced, the message sent is that sexual enjoyment is itself somehow bad – regardless of whether any harm results.

No other conclusion can be drawn from prohibitions and criticisms directed at innocuous sexual conduct. The condemnations and punishments are thus another source of attitudes linking sex to shame, punishment, and pain rather than to happiness, relaxation, and well-being.

The same types of harmful links are promoted by using sexual terms as epithets to describe undesirable people or experiences. This practice equates sexuality with many of the worst aspects of life, whether violent or not. It relegates the sexual body parts to the level of being wretched and despicable.

Those body parts could not be more undeserving of such treatment. They enable the human race to exist, help create and strengthen marriages and families, give pleasure and relaxation, and provide many other benefits. Sexual body parts and their functions should be honored and celebrated rather than viewed as terrible and disgusting.

Finally, religions must stop associating sex with negative concepts such as sin, evil, filth, guilt, and punishment. Many religious groups still espouse highly repressive and denunciatory attitudes toward sex, including sexual activities that are harmless, normal, and healthful.

For example, singer-songwriter Butch Hancock says he was taught two big lessons while growing up: “One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, dirty thing on the face of the earth and you should save it for someone you love.”

If those are the types of messages that religious groups obtain from the Bible – along with its stories involving rape, incest, concubinage, slavery, and murder – it too should be classified as nasty and inappropriate for children.

Clearly, not just violent pornography but many other features of American society encourage attitudes associating sex with negative beliefs and acts. Much work needs to be done to eliminate the negative associations and replace them with positive ones.

Conclusion

There is strong evidence that violent pornography – like other violent entertainment – can contribute to violent behavior by those who view it. For adults, the best way to counteract the effects is through education instead of censorship.

For children, however, attempting to keep them from violent pornography is advisable to help prevent their developing brains from linking sex with harmful behavior and ideas. Such links have somehow developed and become interwoven in the brains of sexual sadists and many other sexual deviants.

In addition to shielding children from harmful sexual messages, proactive efforts are needed to help them acquire positive and approving attitudes toward both the human body and harmless sexual activities. The attitudes need to be promoted in homes, schools, art, entertainment, the news media, and elsewhere throughout society.

In other words, the U.S. needs to move toward the European view concerning those subjects. Joan-Carles Suris of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, distinguishes between the two views: “The main difference is that in the States sexual activity is considered a risk. Here we consider it a pleasure.”

And in a 2001 Guttmacher Institute report using data from 30 European countries, Sweden was described as the “clearest of the case-study countries in viewing sexuality among young people as natural and good.”

As a result of consistently providing children with positive messages about harmless, responsible, and nonviolent sex, they will be highly unlikely to develop attitudes linking sex with violence, abuse, degradation, humiliation, punishment, and similar negative concepts.

Society will therefore be less likely to produce sexual sadists and predators, and others having deviant and antisocial sexual preferences.

[Sources of the information in this article include the following books: Vulgarians at the Gate, by Steve Allen; Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights, by Nadine Strossen; Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, by James Alan Fox and Jack Levin; The Politics of Lust, by John Ince; The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis; and Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families, by Murray Straus.]