Is Porn Raising Your Kids?

Why 25-year-old pornography research still has relevance for parents today

Some people say there is no documented research showing the damaging effects of pornography. Those people would be wrong.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the porn industry was exploiting a relatively new medium: the video cassette. In fact, pornography is one reason why VHS sold so well in the video market. In 1978, when fewer than 1% of American homes had VCRs, more than 75% of VHS tapes sold were pornographic.

Dr. Dolf Zillmann of Indiana University and Dr. Jennings Bryant of The University of Alabama asked whether continued exposure to video pornography had any impact on one’s sexual beliefs and attitudes towards women. For their experiment, 80 male and 80 female college-age participants were divided into three subgroups and shown 4 hours and 48 minutes of media.

  • The first group, called the “Massive Exposure Group,” was shown 36 non-violent pornographic films over a six-week period.
  • The second group, called the “Intermediate Exposure Group,” was exposed to 18 pornographic films and 18 regular films over a six-week period.
  • The third (control) group, called the “No Exposure Group,” was shown 36 non-pornographic movies over a six-week period.

Later, these groups were asked a variety of questions ranging from their personal satisfactions to social issues. Here were some of the results.

  • There was a direct correlation between the amount of pornography one viewed and one’s overall sexual satisfaction. Participants from the Massive Exposure Group reported less satisfaction with their intimate partner, such as their partner’s physical appearance, affection, and sexual performance. Zillmann and Bryant concluded, “consumers eventually compare appearance and performance of pornographic models with that of their intimate partners, and this comparison rarely favors their intimate partners.”
  • Those exposed to more pornography attached more value to casual sex, that is, sex without emotional involvement.
  • The No Exposure Group was over twice as likely as the Massive Exposure Group to be concerned about protecting minors from seeing pornography.
  • Those exposed to more pornography showed a greater acceptance of premarital sex and adultery.
  • More porn exposure decreased the value one placed on the institution of marriage, one’s desire for children, and the need for faithfulness in a relationship.
  • Porn seemed to condition participants to trivialize rape. Participants were asked to read about a legal case where a man raped a female hitchhiker and then recommend a length for the rapist’s prison sentence. Males in the No Exposure Group said 94 months; the Massive Exposure Group said 50 months (nearly half that of the No Exposure Group).
  • Participants were asked to rate their overall support for women’s rights. Both men and women who were in the Massive Exposure Group showed significant drops in support compared to the No Exposure Group. There was 71% male support in the No Exposure Group compared to 25% in the Massive Exposure Group and 82% female support in the No Exposure Group compared to 52% in the Massive Exposure Group.
  • When asked how common or popular certain sexual activities were in the general population — activities like anal sex, group sex, sadomasochism, and bestiality — the percentages given by the Massive Exposure Group were two to three times higher than the No Exposure Group.
  • The Massive Exposure Group was far more likely to believe women fit the stereotype of the women they see in pornographic films — that is, “socially non-discriminating, as hysterically euphoric in response to just about any sexual or pseudosexual stimulation, and as eager to accommodate seemingly any and every sexual request.”
  • Additionally, two weeks after they stopped seeing videos, all participants were given an assortment of pornographic and non-pornographic films to watch in private. Those who were exposed to more pornography were significantly more likely to want to watch hardcore porn.

25 Years Later: the Internet Generation

At a recent conference, Dr. Mary Anne Layden commented about Zillmann and Bryant’s research, “When this study was done, that was called the ‘Massive Exposure Group’” — seeing  five hours of porn over a six-week period — “I now call that the ‘Friday Afternoon Group.’”

Her statement is far from an exaggeration. A recent survey of 29,000 people at North American universities shows 51% of men and 16% of women spend up to five hours per week online for sexual purposes, and another 11% of men spend anywhere from five to 20 hours per week. What used to be “massive” exposure is now common practice.

Furthermore, the Internet has not only increased the public’s exposure to porn, but has also changed the way it is consumed. Dr. Jill Manning believes Zillmann and Bryant’s findings have greater applicability in the modern age because Internet porn tends to be more interactive and consumer-driven. Viewers can select exactly who and what they want to see, custom-tailored to their least specifications.

Even more alarming, what one finds on the Internet is not the “standard fare” sex used in the Zillmann-Bryant experiment, but is often graphic and hardcore material.  By the age of 18, 83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex; 18% of boys and 10% of girls have seen rape or sexual violence.

What forms your child’s beliefs about sex?

Based on studies like Zillmann and Bryant’s research, Dr. Layden says pornography creates “permission giving beliefs” in its viewers. Pornography teaches us that what we see in glossy magazines and computer screens is normal. Sex really must be a male entitlement. Women’s bodies really are just sexual entertainment. Women really do enjoy degrading and emotionally disengaged sex. Sex has nothing to do with marriage or having children. Anonymous sex is the best kind of sex there is.

Pornography, Layden says, is graphic miseducation about sex: training men and women to expect online “designer sex” in the real world. What happens when our children, raised on a diet of porn, grow up and discover reality doesn’t match the fantasy?

Some of our children will respond aggressively, resorting to more predatory behavior. If sex can be bought and sold online, then like all other things bought and sold, sex can also be stolen. For some this will mean a succession of one manipulative relationship after another. For some this will mean using their body to get attention. For others this will mean a lifestyle of one-night-stands, friends-with-benefits, and even sexually abusive behavior.

Some of our children will respond passively, finding themselves very lonely and unable to connect to another person. Boys, after digesting countless hours of porn, will find it has not trained them for romance. Rather, it has only trained them to be virtual voyeurs: looking at women instead of interacting with them. Girls, after being compared to unrealistic porn standards, will give up the hope of ever meeting a guy whose mind isn’t tainted.

Parents standing in the gap

Concerned parents can and do make a difference. Instead of merely allowing their teens to be consumed by a pornified culture, fathers and mothers can be the primary educators of their child’s sexuality:

  • Control how your child sees and understands cultural beliefs about sex. Internet filters and controlling TV time is, of course, a must. But it goes beyond this. When a child is exposed to sensual media — even the seemingly innocuous magazine covers at the check-out line — a parent has the opportunity to frame how that child understands what he or she sees.
  • Teach and model healthy sexuality in the home. Children need to have ongoing conversations with their parents about healthy sexuality. Children also need to see healthy marriages and love modeled in the home. Parents have the opportunity here to not only be the educators but the primary example for their children to follow.

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Sources:

Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Effects of massive exposure to pornography,” in Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein Eds., Pornography and Sexual Aggression; 1984

Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Shifting preferences in pornography consumption.” Communication Research; 1986

Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Pornography’s impact on sexual satisfaction.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology; 1988

Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography on Family Values.” Journal of Family Issues; 1988