Summary of the lecture
Effects of Pornography on Human Behavior: The Current State of Research
Held at the European Federation of Sexology Congress in Berlin

July 1, 2000
by Erik Möller

This version for Everything2 was edited and prepared by the author on July 16, 2000. The online version is at <>. The summary was a very quick hack, but it should give people not familiar with research on porn a good overview. If you have questions or comments, send me an e-mail. I have added hard and soft links where I found them useful, not simply for the purpose of being funny.

This summary is intentionally kept short. A complete article on the effects of pornography is currently in peer review for a scientific journal. After its publication (or non-publication), it will be presented here.

Erik Möller

  • Student of Media & Computer Science at the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin, Germany
  • Freelance Writer: newspapers, computer magazines, web sites
  • Scientific Review Service: review of papers on a given subject for companies or organizations
  • Editor of German Internet Magazine "Der Humanist"
  • E-Mail:

Erik Möller and Pornography

  • I investigated the problem of Internet Censorship
  • Problem: Pornography is supposed to be censored on the Internet, claims of harm are accepted without reservation
  • Question: Which scientific foundation do these claims have?
  • Contacted Researchers, compiled a synopsis on behalf of a German TV self-control organization
  • Paper in peer review
Further Structure:

  • Introduction to the Problem
  • Presidential Commission
  • Dr. James W. Prescott's Research on Origins of Violence
  • Meese Commission, Later Research
  • Crime Statistics: Kutchinsky, my own (omitted here, because it was not presented at the lecture)

Introduction to the Problem:

  • past 30 years: > 850 sci. studies on the effects of pornography
  • three main hypotheses
    • negative effect:
      • incresing sexual aggression, especially rape: first primarily put forward by religious conservatives and fundamentalists, later > 1970 feminists "Pornography is the theory, rape the practice" - Susan Brownmiller, feminist. Dworkin, MacKinnon, Germany: Schwarzer since 1978
      • There are also pro-porn feminists like Wendy McElroy & Nadine Strossen
    • zero effect:
    • positive effect:
      • "catharsis" hypothesis: exposure to erotica leads to sexual release, which favors non-violent behavior => possibly decreasing rape rates after legalizing porn.
  • All hypotheses were subject of intense legal/poltical debate. The questions that were asked were: May adults have access to porn? How about juveniles?
  • Since 1967, pornography has been legalized for adults in many European countries. The first were:
    1967 Denmark (texts) age > 15 y
    1969 Denmark (images) age >15 y
    1971 Sweden
    1973 Germany (age > 17 y)
  • these changes were often the result of a more progressive attitude in the media and the general population, porn was already often tolerated 1-2 years before the release (writes Kutchinsky for Denmark), AKA sexual revolution
  • The porn question is still unanswered in the year 2000. While the access of adults to erotic material is generally accepted, the exposure of juveniles to pornography is still considered harmful and legally prevented, without the lawmakers revealing the scientific basis for these legal restrictions.

The Presidential Commission

  • Most important porn research ever: Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography
    1967 created by the US Congress, appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson
    1968 4 subcommittees are formed, one of them deals with the effects of pornography
    goal: not only summarize existing research, also conduct new studies
  • 2 million US$, 80 independent porn-studies, also from researchers in different countries
  • Final report:
    • no causal relationship between exposure to pornography and any kind of socio-sexual deviance, including criminality & delinquency
    • recommended removing the national laws that prohibited distr. porn to adults
    • juveniles:
      no empirical evidence for any harm not enough results, experiments would be judged unethical
  • Even with these reservations the results were still too hot for the US public and, even more so, the now Republican administration (Pres. Johnson was followed by Nixon)
  • the publication of the report was only possible together with a minority report
    • this was not for reasons of democracy, it was a deliberate cover up
    • minority report by: Hill, Keating, Link
      Hill: catholic priest, founder of "Moral in the Media"
      C. Keating:
      • only commission member appointed by Pres. Nixon
      • president of "Citizens for Decent Literature", founded 1955
      • 1960 testimony before the US House of Representatives, collected hundreds of books and magazines that were deemed obscene and burned by the subcommittee of the House
      • produced fictional movies that portrayed the story of a teenage youth who, under the influence of pornography, rapes and kills an 11-year-old girl. This contributed to the SNUFF myth of films in which the female actors are raped and killed (in reality). Such films do not exist, according to several studies.
      • got involved in a banking scandal, 12 years of prison
    • it's not difficult to see that these were not objective scientists but moral crusaders against porn, they admitted this in their minority report: "We believe that it is IMPOSSIBLE and COMPLETELY UNNCESSARY to prove or refute a cause-and-effect relationship between porn & criminal behavior"
    • Their beliefs were the reason for their report, not the scientific facts
    • Nixon himself was not interested in the facts, quote: "So long as I am in the White House there will be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life .. I totally reject this report"
    • Although not that much later he resigned because of Watergate, that didn't help the results which were more or less forgotten. Pornography laws were different from state to state, and no real reform was accomplished.
  • Besides the short summary I gave, what has the commission found in detail? Too much to present, but some excerpts:
    • Kutchinsky/crime: no rape correlation, other crimes decreased in Kopenhagen after the legalization of pornography: sexual abuse of children, harassment of women, voyeurism - these he attributed specifically to attitude/behavior change caused by pornography (for the others he could not exclude other factors as possible causes)
    • Kant & Goldstein: rapists consumed less pornography than non-rapists, even less sado-masochistic pornography (!). They had repressive parents, condemned premarital sex, relied on their wives for sexual information, one of them didn't even know how babies are born
    • other studies by Walker, Johnson, Cook & Fosen: significantly later first confrontation with pornography than non-rapists
    • contrary to the clame that pornography is a form of sexual repression and that porn consumers are more sexually reserved than others is also refuted: pornography consumers are more sexually liberal, advocate premarital sex and have positive attitudes towards homosexuality according to Abelson, Cohen, Heaton (USA) and Zetterberg (Sweden)
    • no differences after the immediate confrontation with pornography
    • attitudes towards women were checked, they improved (Mosher), concluded: favors catharis hypothesis

The Prescott Research

  • lots of other research shows sex offenders grow up in sexually repressive environment--too many to mention. Gebhard et al., Amir, Churchill, Gagnon & Simon and many others
  • perhaps something unexpected for those familiar with the history of porn: a little excursion to the true origins of sexual violence
  • James W. Prescott: NICHD, NIH Development Behavioral Biology Program, Health Scientist Administrator 1966 to 1980
  • researched the origins and effects of child abuse and neglect
  • both neurological and sociological research
  • neuro: pain & pleasure "circuits" in the brain exclude each other, both can't be active at the same time
    • studies on monkeys with electrodes, R.G. Heath studies on humans: stimulation of septal region of the brain leads to positive (humans: flirtative) behavior, raging animal will immediately calm down .. these regions are also active during sexual pleasure, including, of course, that derived from pornography consumption and resulting masturbation
  • socio: comparison based on huge data catalog compiled by R.B. Textor (one of the biggest books ever printed) that included information about primitive cultures, both existing and extinct ones, collected by anthropologists from ancient to modern times
  • different parameters checked
  • results: cultures that allow premarital sex and lavish their infants with physical affection are 100% non-violent, cultures that either punish premarital sex or neglect or punish infants are often violent, the more either or both happen, the more extreme is the violence. Also high religious fundamentalism, greed, slavery present in these cultures
  • this was published in The Futurist and later reprinted in the renowned Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists because of its perceived importance. Also discussed in FORTUNE, Valzelli's book on violence, TV documentaries .. mentioned in Carl Sagan's Cosmos (best selling US sci book of all time) in the chapter "Who Speaks for Earth", comprehensive summary of his research (see excerpt from Sagan's book and full text of Prescott's article
  • in 1980 dismissal from NICHD because of public appearances & publications, official reason given: "REMOVAL FOR IMPROPER USE OF OFFICAL POSITION AND RESOURCES TO PROMOTE RESEARCH ON DEVELOPMENTAL ORIGINS OF VIOLENCE & CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT, SUBJECTS THAT ARE NOT WITHIN THE MISSION OF THE NICHD" = research on child abuse and neglect are not within the mission of the National Institute of Child Health & Development. Clearly disproved by earlier mission statements, but that ended Prescott's career
  • hardly any more significant media appearances, work is nearly forgotten
  • The perhaps best explanation for sexual and other violence, with, as it seems, completely waterproof evidence--nobody ever refuted Prescott--is hardly known today. Violence is blamed on TV, parents, politics & pornography, but not on its true causes: sexual & emotional repression, neglect, non-loving environments. A child that is not loved will be a violent child. Common sense, but still not widely accepted.

Dr. Prescott's research is very important for understanding the pornography problem and the true origins of violence. I have tried to collect and preserve Dr. Prescott's work (with his permission). You can find it on <>.

After the Presidential Commission, several individual studies were conducted, perhaps some of the most importand ones by Neil Malamuth, Edward Donnerstein & their colleagues, and many others who conducted similar experiments with similar results.

The Donnerstein Experiments

  • basic principle always the same: one group consumes erotic stimuli, of hard- or softcore nature, and they are given the opportunity to "punish" female subjects that anger them with faked electroshocks or in another way. The quantity of electroshocks they deliver is compared to that of different control groups.
  • Results:
    • mild erotica reduces level of punishment
    • "hardcore" pornography increases the level of punishment
  • eagerly taken up by pornography critics
  • several problems with this, most important one:
    • the consumers of hard porn were not given opportunity to masturbate. Thus it is an experiment for sexual repression. During normal porn consumption there is always sexual release, the experimental situation is abnormal. If they would have been given the opportunity to masturbate and to "punish" someone who angered them with faked electroshocks after having orgasm, both Prescott's research and common sense suggest that the punishment would be weaker.
    • not only that: the mild erotica did lead to weaker punishment. Explanation: This does not lead to actual arousal that demands release, but only to a general positive feeling. Like looking at a beautiful woman shouldn't make any man more aggressive, so shouldn't looking at mild erotica.
    • But looking at a hardcore porn movie, getting an erection and then being denied the opportunity to masturbate obviously leads to frustration & aggression.
  • Because of this, Donnerstein & Malamuth actually (unknowingly) supported the null hypothesis or the catharsis hypothesis

The Meese Commission

  • 1984 under Reagon administration, Gen Attorney Edwin Meese
  • Reasoning: "New evidence that correlate porn and antisocial behavior"
  • Actually this evidence was supposed to be fabricated by the commission
  • This is no exaggeration. The Meese commission was little more than a sad joke. The facts:
    • Even many of the Commission's quoted researchers contradicted its conclusions
    • Six of the 11 members were widely known opponents of porn
    • The commission didn't pay research and didn't receive much money
    • All testimonies had the goal of creating anti-pornographic statements, with regard to the selection of witnesses and the questions asked
    • Even the commission freely admits that its conclusions are not based on scientific facts but on "common sense, personal insights and intuition."
  • ridiculous, but not really perceived by the public as such and often quoted today as evidence for harm of porn.

Erotika und Pornographie

  • One of the most important individual studies, also one of the more recent ones:
    "Erotika und Pornographie", Henner Ertel 1990: long-term study, representative sample of ~10000 German pop., questioning, tests on individuals
    • Basically everything that the first Presidential Commission found was confirmed.
    • no "spiral of escalation", meaning that exposure to soft porn does not lead to interest in hardcore pornography, interest in hardcore pornography does not lead to a desire in animal or child pornography and so on
    • no attempts of restaging the actions displayed in erotic / pornographic movies, no paraphilic behavior, sexual violence or sexual coercion (unless there was already a predisposition for it)
    • no negative effects on sexual scripts, partnership, attitudes.
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