Intuitively, one would think that pornography contributes to the high rate of sex crimes being committed in society today. It is not uncommon to discover sex offenders in possession of large collections of pornography. Furthermore, if we were not influenced by what we see, why would advertisement companies spend millions of dollars creating the perfect ad or commercial to catch our eye? Despite these arguments, some suggest that sex offenders seek pornography to feed or fuel their pre-existing deviant sexual fantasies. They contend that pornography provides validation for unhealthy (sometimes referred to as "alternative") views on sexuality and deny that the material itself creates those perceptions. There have been several research studies to substantiate these positions. Some producers of sexually explicit material are quick to site these studies as a defense for accusations or allegations made against their industry. Regardless of these positions, newspaper columnist James Kilpatrick writes: "Common sense is a better guide than laboratory experiments; and common sense tells us pornography is bound to contribute to sexual crime. . . . It seems ludicrous to argue 'bad' books do not promote bad behavior" (Kilpatrick, 1975).
As part of my experience working with incarcerated sex offenders, I listened to countless disclosures of inmates describing their heinous sexual assaults on victims. During these therapy sessions, it is not uncommon to hear an inmate indicate that part of the reason for their sexual deviance was due to consumption of pornography which influenced the way they behaved. This response from a prisoner in a sex offender treatment program is unacceptable because such disclosures attempt to minimize responsibility for behavior by shifting the blame. If someone can successfully avoid or reduce the amount of blame they must accept for their actions, then the accountability for their behavior is also reduced. This tactic ultimately attempts to manipulate the consequences one must suffer for their own wrongdoings.
As an illustration, one inmate attempted to convince a group of his peers that he had never considered molesting his child until he saw similar sex acts normalized in child pornography. Although this may be true, the focus must remain on the individual and his behavior, not the pornography. Part of his behavior resulted from his distorted interpretation of what he saw depicted in the child pornography. Why was he not repulsed by these images when initially exposed? Are we to believe he stumbled across these pictures by accident on the Internet? In his case, there appeared to be some pre-existing pathology and deviant arousal that drew him to these images while someone else would have been mortified and avoided exposure to the same material.
One research study analyzed the various arguments and data presented by other studies that contended the lack of reliable connections between pornography and aggressive sexual behavior. The study concluded that, in fact, there was existence of reliable associations between frequent pornography use and sexually aggressive behaviors, particularly for violent pornography and/or for men at high risk for sexual aggression (Malamuth, Neil et. al., 2000).
Another study collected from 100 survivors at a rape crisis center discovered that 28% of respondents reported that their abuser used pornography and that for 12% of the women, pornography was imitated during the abusive incident (Bergen, Raquel Kennedy, 2000).
In spite of these findings, others persist in their contention that there is little correlation between pornography use and causation of sexual deviant behavior. In part, they cite as evidence that, although many sex offenders do use pornography, there are just as many others who consume pornography who do not engage in sex crimes.
Regardless of your position, my experience indicates the majority of sex offenders have pornography consumption as an associated behavior. It is imperative that these individuals maintain abstinence from pornography as part of their effort to minimize possible risk factors for re-offending. But what about everyone else?
Consider the fraudulent message pornography teaches about healthy human intimacy. It portrays both women and men as objects with insatiable sexual appetites. Sexual relations with multiple partners are presented as normal and healthy, while monogamous relationships are depicted as cumbersome and undesirable. Distorted views of perverted sex acts are presented as exciting and acceptable, and in many instances, the viewer is exposed to otherwise unimaginable ideas about sexuality that they themselves would never have considered. These same acts are normalized by desensitizing the viewer after numerous exposures to the material. Other aspects of sexual intimacy, such as communication and tender affection, are usually omitted from pornography while consequences of promiscuous sexual behavior such as STDs and unwanted pregnancies are minimized. Surely, these ideas cannot be considered healthy. And yet, that is what many producers of pornography would have us believe.
I believe it is safe to say that people who consume pornography, specifically violent pornography, place themselves at risk of engaging in inappropriate and unhealthy behaviors. Just as alcohol impairs one's perception of reality, likewise, pornography distorts a healthy view of human sexual intimacy. Of course, in saying this, I risk criticism from those who will argue that healthy sexual intimacy in itself is a subjective matter and that I should not impose my opinions about healthy intimacy on them. I wish these same individuals could sit in my chair as I listen to some of their spouses cry bitter tears of resentment about the various sex acts they have been subjected to in the name of their spouse's definition of healthy intimacy. These clients often report feeling manipulated and coerced into participating in sexual behavior that their spouse wanted, but they did not. These are, perhaps, some of the more subtle sex crimes that will never see prosecution, a courtroom, or an indictment. These crimes are emotionally and physically abusive but often fall on deaf ears because they happen behind bedroom doors in the context of marriage relationships.
As we consider the contribution that pornography makes in the high number of sex crimes in our society today, let us not overlook the less obvious sex crimes that are committed by individuals whose views about sexual intimacy are distorted by pornography and who, in turn, seek to have their loved ones indulge in those same unhealthy views of sex. These relationships can sometimes be more damaging than the violent rape cases perpetuated by a complete stranger. At least in the case of a rape, an individual might easier come to acknowledge that they are not to be blamed for the sex crime, although I am not suggesting this is an easy process either. In the context of the committed relationships where the less obvious sex crimes occur, an individual is often left wondering if their view of sexual intimacy was too conservative or prudish. They blame themselves for going along with what they thought was an attempt to please their spouse. Unfortunately, sometimes when they confide in those whom they trust, they are told to dress more sexy so their spouse doesn't turn to pornography, as if they are to blame for their spouse's behavior. One client even reported she would have preferred a one-time traumatic experience with sex from a stranger than have over ten years of being subjected to perverted sex from her spouse who was being influenced by pornography.
The role of pornography in sex crimes-both subtle and not so subtle-is one that deserves more than dialogue and discussion. Community efforts to educate and create an awareness of these issues are certainly steps in the right direction. Yet more must be done to reduce the exposure of those we love to pornography and to keep them from the heartbreak and danger of unhealthy sexual intimacy. Such tragedies are truly crimes that can best be avoided by taking preventative measures in the home and in our communities.
Bergen, Raquel Kennedy, Violence and Victims. 2000 Vol 15 (3): 227-234)
Kilpatrick, James as quoted in Donnerstein, Edward; Linz, Daniel: Penrod, Steven; 1987: The Question of Pornography: Research Findings and Policy Implications. New York: Free Press.
Malamuth, Neil M; Addison, Tamara; Koss, Mary; Pornography and sexual aggression: Are there reliable effects and can we understand them? Annual Review of Sex Research, 2000: Vol. 11: 26-91