In her 2010 book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, author Gail Dines, Ph.D., asserts that 88 percent of porn videos contain violence against women. I’ve seen this same claim in other books and articles. If Dines et al. are correct, then almost nine out of 10 X-rated videos meet the accepted social-science definition of violence: “Any behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment.”

Does 88 percent of porn really show violence against women? No way. But don’t take my word for it. Just browse any of the sampler sites that aggregate porn clips from thousands of sources (cliti.com is one example). The vast majority of porn videos, both professional and amateur, depict generally happy—or at least not visibly unhappy—people engaged in nonviolent, totally consensual sex.

So how did Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College in Boston, conclude that 88 percent of porn videos contain violence against women? She relied on a study published in the journal Violence Against Women (Bridges et al., 2010). And how did the study’s authors—professors at four prestigious universities—come up with their figure? By totally misunderstanding one form of sexuality often depicted in porn—bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism (BDSM).

The Downside of Relying on Only One Study

Professor Dines cherry-picked the data by using just one study. Five other peer-reviewed studies have also investigated violence against women in porn. Here’s what they show:

Palys (1986): 36% of porn scenes depict violence against women.

Cowan (1988): 23%

Duncan (1991): 14%

Barron and Kimmel (2000): 14%

McKee (2005): 2%

Among the studies Professor Dines ignored, the one showing the most violence against women pegged the rate at less than half what the Bridges study—and she—asserted.

What’s “Violence”?

Note that the six studies’ findings are all over the map. Why? They defined “violence” differently. Violence turns out to be surprisingly difficult to identify. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about porn (1964): “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

So, do people know violence when they see it? Not always. Consider this scenario: One man strikes another sharply between the shoulder blades. Most people would call that violence—hitting, assault. But if the two men are colleagues and they’re both smiling, the blow becomes a pat on the back for a job well done—not violence, but congratulations. In other words, violence must be judged not just by the action, but by the action in the context of the participants’ intentions.

Five of the six studies make no mention of consensual BDSM. The only one that does is the McKee report that found violence in only 2 percent of porn videos. McKee’s rationale: “I did not count consensual acts of sadomasochism, bondage, and domination as ‘violence’ because they include no intent to harm and no motivation to avoid such treatment. In BDSM scenes, there is no point at which consent is not clear. All participants make it explicit that they are willing participants.” (Curious about BDSM? Read my blog post, A Loving Introduction to BDSM.)

Because they ignored consensual BDSM, the five other studies vastly over-estimated the extent to which porn depicts violence against women.

BDSM in Real Life and Fantasy

Credible estimates of the proportion of American adults who engage in BDSM are in the range of 1 to 2 percent (2.5 to 5 million people). Adults who feel sufficiently curious to occasionally play that way or to visit a BDSM club come to another 1 to 2 percent. So somewhere between 5 and 10 million Americans are, at least to some extent, into this form of sex play. That’s enough to support BDSM clubs in every major metropolitan area and many rural locales—which is what we have. (Just google: BDSM and any locale.) In terms of mental health, studies show that people who enjoy BDSM are totally average Americans … except for their interest in kink—see my previous post, The Surprising Psychology of BDSM Players.

Meanwhile, a great many Americans who don’t engage in BDSM have fantasies that include erotic domination and/or submission. Consider romance fiction. Few men read it, but tens of millions of women are devoted fans. Romances vary tremendously, but they follow a standard formula: A naïve woman attracts a powerful aggressive man who falls so hard for her that he must have her—by any means necessary. As the plot unfolds, he often threatens her with violence and/or rape, but in the end her irresistible erotic charisma tames him and he becomes the man of her dreams, a caring, committed lover, husband, and father. Romance fiction is huge. According to Publishers Weekly, it accounts for 23 percent of fiction sales, the second largest fiction category (after general fiction).

Now consider the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which follows classic romance-fiction conventions, but with one key difference—the powerful man is also an enthusiastic dominant and persuades his naïve young paramour to play the submissive, complete with whips, chains, restraints, and butt plugs.  Fifty Shades of Grey was published in 2011, and in just four short years, sold 100 million copies, a feat publishers had previously considered impossible. Clearly, a tale that Professor Dines would surely call “violence against women” has enthralled millions of women.

Because BDSM fantasies are so popular, it should come as no surprise that porn featuring it is also very popular.  Similarly, only a small proportion of heterosexual American lovers engage in anal play, but many fantasize about it, which is why there’s so much anal in porn.

Porn critics rail against X-rated media, but oddly, don’t condemn romance fiction for the way the male characters dominate and threaten the female protagonists. Why? Because romance fiction is written to appeal to women’s erotic fantasies. Women understand that it’s fantasy. But the researchers who call X-rated media violent apparently don’t recognize that porn is also fantasy. They erroneously believe that porn represents men’s real-world sexual agenda. As anti-porn activist Robin Morgan once said, “Porn is the theory. Rape is the practice.”

More Porn, Less Rape

Like Morgan, many anti-porn activists assert that porn causes—or contributes to—what they call “a culture of rape.”

They are mistaken—and here’s proof of their error. Until the Internet blossomed around 1997, porn was not easy to obtain. But with the Internet, porn suddenly became easily available almost anywhere—just a click away. (Googling “porn” produces 100 million web pages.) If porn critics are correct that porn encourages rape, then the rate of sexual assault should have begun to increase around 1997 when the Internet made it much more available, and it should be much higher today than it was in pre-Internet days.

So what’s happened? According to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, which social scientists consider more credible than tallies of police reports, since 1995, the sexual assault rate has fallen by more than 40 percent.

Another example—the fall of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. From 1948 to 1989, the rulers of what was then Czechoslovakia established a police state that made possession of pornography (including comparatively tame publications like Playboy) a criminal offense punishable by prison. As a result, porn was largely unavailable to Czech men. But in 1989, when Communism collapsed and the Czech Republic emerged, porn was legalized and Czech men became enthusiastic consumers. What happened to women’s risk of sexual assault there?  Rapes decreased 38 percent.

These examples are not your typical survey of a few hundred undergraduate psychology students. They represent what actually happened in the real world in huge populations.

Real-world date confirm that as access to porn increases, sexual assaults decrease. The evidence shows that porn does not contribute to rape. It offers a safety valve for men who, without porn-fueled masturbation, might commit it.

If you loathe porn, you have every right to your opinion. But BDSM—in real life and in porn—is not violence. It’s totally consensual play. Of the six studies of porn and violence against women, the most credible is the one that pegs violence against women at 2 percent of porn videos. Compared with the violence against women in the typical TV cop show, porn depicts less. Anti-porn activists’ ideology has blinded them to the real content of porn and its social implications. Again, don’t take my word for it. Just visit any porn-sampler site and estimate the amount of violence for yourself. You'll see that it's nowhere near 88 percent, much closer to 2 percent.

References:

Barron, M. and M. Kimmel. “Sexual Violence in Three Pornographic Media: Toward a Sociological Explanation,” Journal of Sex Research (2000) 37:161.

Bridges, A.J. et al. “Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best5-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update,” Violence Against Women (2010) 16:1065.

Cowan, G. et al. “Dominance and Inequality in X-Rated Videocassettes,” Psychology of Women (1988) 12:299.

Dines, G. Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Beacon Press, Boston, 2010.

Diamond, M. et al. “Pornography and Sex Crimes in the Czech Republic,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2011) 40:1037.

Duncan, D.F. “Violence and Degradation As Themes in Adult Videos,” Psychological Reports (1991) 69:239.

McKee, A. “The Objectification of Women in Mainstream Pornographic Videos in Australia,” Journal of Sex Research (2005) 42:277.  

Palys, T. “Testing the Common Wisdom: The Social Content of Video Pornography,” Canadian Psychology (1986) 27:22.

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