The Republicans’ Porn Problem

By Shira Tarrant

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Gearing up for the 2016 convention in Cleveland this week, the GOP is prepared to address adult entertainment and declare that pornography is a “public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions.”

This sentiment is similar to that expressed in a Utah state resolution from April this year, which claims that pornography is a public health hazard. Yet, despite being proposed and backed by Republicans, a range of studies does not necessarily support the political declaration that pornography is a public menace.

Studies find a higher rate of porn use specifically amongst the conservative and religious — those less likely to support comprehensive sex education, birth control, and reproductive justice. Research shows that high levels of religiosity and conservatism are correlated with significant rates of porn use in Utah and other states across the nation, presenting a curious rhetoric and reality gap. The Public Religion Research Institute finds that 66 percent of Americans think watching pornography is immoral, but moral objection to porn does not stop people from watching. To that end, a 2013 Time magazine headline humorlessly stated that “12 Percent of Americans Admit to Watching Porn Online, the Other 88 Percent Must Not Have Internet.” As Time further explains, “bashful survey respondents” probably diminished the total number of people self-reporting their online porn habits. In the case of the Republican platform, this bashfulness — or what some might call shame — has emerged to create a platform based on moral panic rather than sound evidence. Academic research (e.g., Hald and Malamuth, 2008; Watson and Smith, 2012) fails to support a public health crisis claim; neither does the science support the claims that pornography is addicting (Steele, Staley, Fong, and Prause, 2013), even though both political views are currently receiving significant media visibility and political response.

In regard to addiction, although this model is frequently used to describe dysfunctional porn use, it is not clear from the science that addiction is the correct term to use. Despite the ubiquity of this term in everyday vernacular to describe a host of conditions from watching a favorite TV show, to intractable overeating, to heroin dependence, it means very specific things to brain and behavior researchers and there is robust debate over whether excessive, impulsive, or compulsive pornography use is actually an addiction.

Research about pornography, harm, and violence is equally contentious. The jury is still out on the impact of pornography on people’s sense of self, on men’s perceptions of women, and of women’s perceptions of themselves and of men. There is ongoing concern about misogyny, transphobia, and racism in the images the mainstream porn industry produces. There are those who argue that pornography is the result of human trafficking, although there is evidence the claims about global sex trafficking—while alarming—are exaggerated.

For every finding that pornography causes harm or has negative effects, there is another contradictory study. But not all research is equally reliable. As psychologist Michael Bader writes, “partisans on both sides of this debate have littered their arguments with distortions, hyperbole, and cheap rhetorical tricks.” As a corrective, Andy Ruddock, Senior Lecturer at Monash University, offers that various meta-analyses indicate that a connection between using pornography and expressing sexual aggression was especially true “if the viewer was a man already considered at risk of offending in this regard” (as cited in Comella and Tarrant, 2015, italics added; see also Malamuth, Addison, and Koss, 2000). Alan McKee (2007) finds that being religious, or voting for right-wing parties, is more strongly correlated with negative attitudes toward women than consuming sexually explicit material. In other words, porn is neither harmless nor is it a unique source of misogyny or sexual violence.

 With easy online porn access, and concerns about its impact on sexuality and interpersonal relations, the issue has taken center stage in national and global public debates. In the United States, the question about whether porn is acceptable differs by several demographic variables, such as age, education, gender, and religion. As described in my chapter, “Who’s Watching Porn?,” from my book The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know, a broad overview of the data reveals some interesting patterns. People with advanced degrees are a bit more likely than college graduates to think it is morally acceptable to watch porn (40 and 34 percent, respectively). But both college grads and those with advanced degrees are significantly more likely than high school graduates to approve of watching pornography.

Over a two-year period, researchers Cara C. MacInnis and Gordon Hodson (2014) found that in highly religious and conservative states, there is also a correspondingly high volume of Internet searches for sexual content. This association between religious conviction, political conservatism, and the search for online porn is a strong one. In a scatter plot indicating correlations between religiosity and Google searches for sex, conservative Mississippi ranked the highest, whereas Vermont—known to be a liberal state—clocked in with the lowest number of both Internet porn searches and religiosity.

Just knowing the number of conservatives in a given state was enough information for the researchers to accurately predict the extent of pornography searches using key words including sex, gay sex, porn, free porn, XXX, and gay porn. These findings held true even after the researchers controlled for other demographic variables such as population size, poverty rate, and Internet use among various states. Harvard Business School professor Benjamin Edelman’s research replicates these findings, with Utah and Mississippi ranking the highest rates of online porn site subscriptions.

And what exactly are people searching for? According to PornMD, US keyword searches for straight porn include “teen,” “step sister,” and “anal” among the top ten. Information collected by Vocativ compiles state-by-state trends among people accessing Pornhub, a highly trafficked tube site. In Utah, the favorite search term is “lesbian” while Vermont’s favorite search term is “cartoon.” Porn viewers in religious Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia spent more average time-per-visit on Pornhub in 2015 than any other state in the US (except for Hawaii, which won out by one second). Because people who believe in conservative political and religious ideology are generally associated with opposing homosexuality, sex outside marriage, and non-procreative sex, these findings might raise some eyebrows. There are a few plausible interpretations for the positive correlation between high rates of conservatism and the volume of US Internet porn searches. This paradox may result from preoccupation with sexual content, presumably because of the taboo. It may also be the case that high rates of online sexual activity come from liberals who live in these sexually restrictive right-leaning states.

But returning to the Republican platform, the problem is that proclaiming pornography is a public menace invites a slippery slope toward censorship. Shrouding public policy with pseudoscience and incomplete information encourages a public health panic. This is the real crisis. History tells us that censorship and misinformation have never gone well. If we care about gender equity, racial justice, healthy sexuality, and have high regard for issues of sexual assault and sexual consent — and reasonable people do — we need accurate dialogue, not moral panic.

As Republicans prepare to include pornography in their party platform — and following on the heels of Utah making similar claims that visual sexual stimuli is a public health crisis — delegates and politicians would be wise to rely on the most accurate research possible instead of their own anxieties. As for any confusion about the data, the one thing that pornography is reliably known to cause is masturbation.

 

Shira Tarrant received her PhD in political science from UCLA. She is professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Select passages of the post above are excerpted from The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know by Shira Tarrant. Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press.

 

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