How pornography harms women — and men

Erica Szalkowski Graduate Assistant, The Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education
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On July 9th, a letter decrying the 5-10% of net profits the hotel industry makes by selling video pornography to patrons was sent to hotel industry executives. The letter, authored by Robert P. George and Sheikh Hamza Yusuf — a Christian and a Muslim, respectively — demands that hotels change their pornography policies and condemns the $13.33 billion-a-year porn industry for its degradation of women. Despite the demonstrable harm it does to both genders, pornography attracts little rancor from the mainstream media, commentators on both sides of the political aisle and even those charged with defining the parameters of the “War on Women.”

Most people are only peripherally aware of the cultural harm of pornography, and many others simply shrug off these claims. I used to be one of those people, until in college my then-boyfriend admitted that he was addicted to pornography. Realizing that my boyfriend was — quite literally — seeing other women shocked me. While I tried to sympathize with his struggle, I saw myself as being constantly compared to an impossible sexual ideal, not just by society, but by the man who supposedly cared deeply for me. To make matters worse, these misgivings played directly into my pre-existing problems with body image. Years later, I did a little research and realized that my feelings of “betrayal, loss, mistrust, devastation, and anger” are not uncommon among women who discover that their partner views pornography.

Scientifically speaking, most of the documented detriments of pornography use are old news. In a 2009 paper, Dr. Patrick F. Fagan reported that habitual use of pornography fosters “a higher tolerance for abnormal sexual behaviors, sexual aggression, promiscuity, and even rape. In addition, men begin to view women and even children as ‘sex objects,’ commodities or instruments for their pleasure.” A similar 2010 study recounted the findings of Pamela Paul, a Time magazine reporter who interviewed Internet porn customers and observed that they “have trouble being turned on by ‘real’ women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse.” Between these performance issues and the aforementioned emotional trauma, it’s unsurprising that pornography use can contribute to divorce. A survey conducted at the “November 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers … 56% of the divorce cases involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.”

Of course, there are more problems with pornography use than just hurt feelings. A 2004 study showed that there is a link between porn use and marital infidelity, which may expose unsuspecting wives or long-term partners to sexually transmitted infections. Men may also suffer physiological consequences. As a Psychology Today article reveals, otherwise healthy young men are suffering from erectile dysfunction as a result of viewing pornography because “users are numbing their brain’s normal response to pleasure.” Research also links porn use with violent sexual behavior, particularly in teenagers. Researchers working for the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ recount a study of 804 Italian teenage boys which reported that those who viewed pornography “were significantly more likely to report having ‘sexually harassed a peer or having forced somebody to have sex.’” Naturally, more research will be necessary to determine if pornography is the cause or the symptom of sexual deviancy, but studies have shown that viewing pornography does lead to gradually more abnormal views about appropriate sexual behavior. Dr. Fagan cites a 2000 study which determined that college freshman who habitually viewed pornography eventually required “more novel and bizarre material to achieve the same level of arousal or interest … habituation may lead to watching ‘depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual contact with animals.’” Not surprisingly, “men who use pornography are also less attractive to potential female partners.”

So why, then, is this scientifically and anecdotally documented problem so rarely addressed in the public square? As one author points out, some of the problems associated with pornography use (such as the aforementioned loss of libido) are embarrassing for men to discuss with friends or even doctors. Others simply assert that media outlets don’t want to be seen as stodgy, old-fashioned or ultra-conservative, though it seems to me that promoting the well-being of women should never go out of style. Psychologist Steven C. Hayes puts forth a third theory: that his colleagues, who would be the logical sources for information on the problems with pornography addiction, are suffering from a kind of performance anxiety as well — they have trouble treating porn addicts. Professor Hayes says patients are typically encouraged to simply not think about porn, but this may, paradoxically, encourage more frequent viewing. It works like the old line “Don’t think about the pink elephant,” which naturally conjures up images of pink elephants. Though alternate — and effective — methods of treatment exist, many psychologists have yet to enact them, which means that the people who are supposed to safeguard the nation’s mental health are failing the “80% of visitors to sex sites [who spend] so much time tracking down erotica on the computer that they [put] their real-life relationships and/or jobs at risk.”

Many “women’s rights” or “women’s health” issues polarize people who at heart want what is good for society, but all people should be able to form a united front against pornography. I can only hope that George’s and Yusuf’s letter to the hotel industry will not only effect a change within the businesses they address but also inspire conventionally disparate groups to openly reject pornography rather than continuing to imply consent through silence.

Erica Szalkowski is a graduate assistant at the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education at Mount St. Mary’s University, and is pursuing her Masters degree in Business at Mount St. Mary’s University.