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Does Porn Use Lead to Sexual Violence?

Exploring the confluence model.

Key points

  • Porn use is a proposed risk factor for sexual violence.
  • A two-year study of high school males looked at whether porn use precedes sexual violence.
  • The study found no evidence for the proposal that porn use encourages men to be sexually violent.

Plenty of studies have shown a link between porn use and sexual violence. In particular, men who act aggressively towards women are typically also heavy porn users.

It’s easy to imagine that watching porn could encourage men to act out their violent sexual desires. While there is plenty of porn that depicts people engaging in consensual sex, there’s also plenty that shows men coercing unwilling partners, treating them in a demeaning or violent manner. Perhaps these videos are teaching their viewers that it’s all right to treat women this way.

While the association between sexual aggression and porn use is robust, it’s also important to keep in mind that correlation does not imply causation. It could be that watching violent porn leads to violent acts in real life. Or it could be that those men who are already aggressive by nature also like watching violent porn when they’re not engaged in real acts of violence.

This “chicken or egg” problem of which comes first—violent porn or real-life violence—was recently investigated by Canadian psychologist Taylor Kohut and his colleagues, and the results of their study were just published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior .

Proposed Risk Factors for Sexual Aggression

Kohut and colleagues take as their starting point an influential theory of the relationship between porn use and sexual violence known as the confluence model. According to the confluence model, no single factor can predict whether a man will be sexually violent. Instead, it takes a confluence of factors to reach a critical mass that will set off a chain reaction of sexual aggression.

In particular, the confluence model posits three risk factors for sexual aggression:

  • Hostile masculinity. This is a narcissistic sexual desire to dominate and control women, which masks an underlying insecurity and defensiveness.
  • Impersonal sexuality. This is a promiscuous and detached attitude toward sexual relations, in which women are viewed solely as sexual objects.
  • Pornography use. This is viewed as the kicker that pushes men with the first two traits to actually engage in sexual violence by providing a model for them to follow and by reassuring them that this is acceptable behavior.

In other words, the confluence model doesn’t predict that watching porn—even of the violent variety—will necessarily lead to sexually aggressive behaviors. However, the theory does posit that viewing porn can push men who are already prone to violence to commit sexual aggression.

So far, plenty of studies have established that sexually aggressive men tend to watch a lot of violent porn. To date, however, none have been able to conclusively show that porn use leads to sexual violence. This is the gap in the research that Kohut and colleagues tried to fill.

To demonstrate that porn use leads to sexual violence, you need to show that sexually aggressive men habitually watched violent porn before they started acting aggressively toward women. In other words, you need to do a longitudinal study that traces men’s porn use and sexual aggression over time.

Such studies can be expensive to implement. But fortunately for Kohut and colleagues, they were able to use data that had already been collected as part of a larger study to test the hypothesis that porn use leads to sexual violence.

Does Porn Use Precede Sexual Violence?

For this study, the researchers used data from nearly 1,700 male high-school students in Croatia, who had responded to a series of surveys administered over a 2-year period, starting when they were 16 years old and ending when they were 18. The survey asked a broad range of questions about sexual activity and attitudes, body image, porn use, well-being, and religiosity.

In particular, Kohut and colleagues looked at responses to questions regarding the following topics:

  • Sexual aggression. Questions in this category included: “How many times have you kissed, touched, or done anything sexual with another person when that person did not want you to do so?”
  • Hostile masculinity. Respondents indicated their level of agreement with statements such as: “I feel that many times women flirt with men just to tease them or hurt them” and “Women are responsible for most of my troubles.”
  • Impersonal sexuality. Respondents were asked whether they had ever had sexual intercourse, and if so, how many sex partners they’d had.
  • Pornography use. Respondents indicated their frequency of porn use, ranging from “never” to “several times a day.”

At the beginning of the study, about a quarter of the 16-year-olds had had sex, but by the time they’d reached 18, more than half were sexually experienced. Thus, the researchers could observe whether habitual porn use preceded later sexual aggression.

No Evidence That Porn Use Leads to Sexual Violence

Of the three early risk factors—hostile masculinity, impersonal sexuality, and porn use—only one was found to predict later sexual aggression, and even that only weakly so. The results were as follows:

First, early porn use failed to predict later aggression. In hindsight, this makes sense, since many young men are habitual porn users, but few become sexual aggressors.

Second, impersonal sexuality also failed to predict sexual aggression in adulthood. Again, this is as should be expected. Many young people are sexually promiscuous in early adulthood, only to settle down with a partner as they mature. There’s simply no reason to think that an open attitude toward casual sex should in any way be linked to sexual aggression.

Third, hostile masculinity did predict sexual aggression in some analyses but not others. What this suggests is that even harboring hostile attitudes toward women is insufficient in itself to drive men to act in a sexually aggressive manner. No doubt, there are plenty of frustrated men who blame women for all their problems and may even enjoy watching violent porn in which they can vicariously aggress against them. Still, they would never act out these desires in real life.

In sum, there’s little evidence that porn use leads to sexual violence. To understand why this would be the case, perhaps we should consider an analogy to video games and violence. For instance, many young people play Grand Theft Auto , but very few of them hijack cars in real life. Porn, like video games, provides a fantasy realm in which people can act out their deepest and darkest desires, even though few would ever follow through with them in real life.

We also need to consider the fact that there was sexual aggression long before there was pornography. In fact, plenty of studies in various countries have shown that when restrictions on porn availability are relaxed, the incidence of violent sex crimes goes down. Far from signaling to young men that sexual violence is acceptable, pornography provides a safe haven for people to explore their sexuality in ways that do not cause harm to others.

References

Kohut, T., Landripet, I., & Stulhofer, A. (2021). Testing the confluence model of the association between pornography use and male sexual aggression: A longitudinal assessment in two independent adolescent samples from Croatia. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50, 647-665.

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