THINKING CRITICALLY Does Pornography Cause Aggression

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THINKING CRITICALLY Does Pornography Cause Aggression
Chapter 14
Social Psychology
(Zillmann, 2003). In one study, for example, people engaged in two minutes of vigorous exercise. Then they had the opportunity to deliver electric shock to another person. The participants chose to give high levels of shock only if they had first been
insulted (Zillmann, Katcher, & Milavsky, 1972). Apparently, the arousal resulting from
the exercise made aggression more likely; the insult “released” it. These findings are in
keeping with the notion that aggression is caused not by internal impulses alone or by
particular situations alone but by the interaction of the two (Klinesmith, Kasser, &
McAndrew, 2006).
n both men and women, sexual stimulation
produces strong, generalized physiological
Does Pornography Cause
arousal, especially in the sympathetic nervous system. If arousal in general can make a
person more likely to be aggressive (given a
reason, opportunity, and target), could stimuli
that create sexual arousal be dangerous? In particular, does viewing or reading pornographic material make people more likely to be aggressive? Prior to the mid-1980s, several scholars had concluded that there was no evidence for an overall relationship
between any type of antisocial behavior and mere exposure to pornographic material
(Donnerstein, 1984). However, in 1986 the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on
Pornography reexamined the question and concluded that pornography is dangerous.
■ What am I being asked to believe or accept?
Specifically, the commission proposed that there is a cause-effect link between exposure to erotic material and several forms of antisocial behavior, including sexually
related violent crimes.
■ Is there evidence available to support the claim?
The commission cited several types of evidence in support of its conclusion. First, there
was the testimony of men convicted of sex crimes. Rapists, for example, are unusually
heavy users of pornography, and they often say that they were aroused by erotic material immediately before committing a rape (Silbert & Pines, 1984). Similarly, child
molesters often view child pornography immediately before committing their crimes
(Marshall, 1989).
In addition, the commission cited experimental evidence that men who are most
aroused by aggressive themes in pornography are also the most potentially sexually
aggressive. One study, for example, showed that men who said they could commit a
rape became sexually aroused by scenes of rape and less aroused by scenes of mutually
consenting sex; this was not true for men who said they could never commit a rape
(Malamuth & Check, 1983).
Perhaps the strongest evidence cited by the commission, however, came from excitation transfer studies. In one experiment, male participants were told that a person in
another room (actually an employee of the experimenter) would be performing a learning task and that they were to administer an electric shock every time the person made
a mistake. The intensity of shock could be varied (as in the Milgram studies, no shock
actually reached the employee), but participants were told that changing the intensity
would not affect the speed of learning. So the shock intensity (and presumed pain) that
they chose to administer was considered to be a measure of aggression. Before the learning trials began, some participants watched a film in which several men had sex with
the same woman. These participants’ aggressiveness during the learning experiment was
greater than that of men who did not watch the film (Donnerstein, 1984).
■ Can that evidence be interpreted another way?
The commission’s interpretation of all this evidence was questioned for several reasons.
First, critics argued that some of the evidence should be given little weight. In particular,
how much should we rely on what convicted sex offenders say? Their testimony may
reflect self-serving attempts to lay the blame for their crimes on pornography. These
reports cannot establish that exposure to pornography causes aggression. In fact, it may
be that pornography partially satisfies sex offenders’ aggressive impulses rather than creating them (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005). Similarly, the fact that potential rapists
are most aroused by rape-oriented material may show only that they prefer violenceoriented pornography, not that such materials created their impulse to rape.
What about the evidence from excitation transfer studies? To interpret these studies, you need to know that the pornography that led to increased aggression contained violence, as well as sex. The sexual activity depicted was painful for, or unwanted
by, the woman. So the higher levels of aggression that followed viewing these films
could have been due to the transfer of sexual arousal, the effects of observing violent
behavior, or the effects of seeing sex combined with violence (Donnerstein, Slaby, &
Eron, 1995).
Several careful experiments have found that highly arousing sexual themes, in and
of themselves, do not produce aggression. When men in excitation transfer studies
experience pleasant arousal by viewing a film depicting nudity or mutually consenting
sexual activity, they are actually less aggressive than when they viewed no film or a neutral film (Lord, 1997). In short, excitation transfer studies might be interpreted as showing that aggressiveness is influenced by portrayals of sexual violence, but not by watching other kinds of sexually arousing material.
■ What evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives?
Percentage who engaged
in sexual aggression
Small amount of pornography watched
Large amount of pornography watched
Pornography and Sexual
Extensive exposure to pornography does
not, by itself, increase most men’s sexual
aggressiveness. Such aggressiveness is
much more likely, however, among men
who not only view or read a lot of pornography but also are hostile toward women
and are sexually promiscuous.
Two types of evidence are needed to better understand the effects of pornography on
aggression. First, because pornography can include sexual acts, aggressive acts, or both,
the effects of each of these components must be more carefully examined. Second, factors affecting men’s reactions to pornography, particularly pornography that involves
violence, must be more clearly understood. Work is in progress on each of these fronts.
Whether specifically paired with sexual activity or not, aggressive themes do appear
to increase subsequent aggression (Bushman & Anderson, 2001). Research has focused
on aggressive pornography, which contains sexual themes but also scenes of violence
against women (Malamuth, Addison, & Koss, 2000). In laboratory experiments, males
often administer stronger electric shocks to females after viewing aggressive pornographic films as compared with neutral films. Yet there is no parallel increase in aggression against other men, suggesting that aggressive pornography creates an increase in
aggressiveness that is specifically directed toward women (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert,
2005). Similarly, viewing aggressive pornography in which a rape victim appears
aroused by the aggression usually leads males to become less sympathetic toward the
victim and more tolerant of aggressive acts toward women (Donnerstein & Linz, 1995).
Sexually explicit films that do not contain violence have no effects on attitudes toward
rape (Linz, Donnerstein, & Penrod, 1987).
Are all men who are exposed to aggressive pornography equally likely to become
rapists? The evidence available so far suggests that the answer is no (Seto, Maric, &
Barbaree, 2001). Whether aggressive pornography alters men’s behavior and attitudes
toward women depends to some extent on the men. For example, one study of about
2,700 men in the United States collected data on their sexual aggressiveness, their use
of pornography, their history of sexual promiscuity, and their feelings of hostility
toward women (Malamuth, 1998). Among men low in promiscuity and hostility, viewing pornography had little, if any, impact on sexual aggression; but among men who
were high in promiscuity and hostility, pornography dramatically increased the chances
that these men would engage in sexual aggression. In fact, 72 percent of the men who
were high in all three factors—use of pornography, promiscuity, and hostility—had
actually engaged in sexually aggressive acts (see Figure 14.12).
■ What conclusions are most reasonable?
The attorney general’s commission appeared to ignore numerous studies showing that
the relationship between sexual arousal and aggression is neither consistent nor simple
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