A missed opportunity: Lack of action from study on pornography’s harms

20 October 2017

Motion M-47 asked a critical and long overdue question: What are the public health effects of viewing violent and degrading sexually explicit material online? It called on the House of Commons Health Committee to study this question, and passed unanimously earlier this year with very thoughtful comments and analysis by MPs from all sides of the House.

The brief study, which took place in the spring, was the first time Parliament had studied the issue in decades – certainly since technology has made pornography widely, easily and anonymously accessible.

Expert witnesses who have devoted lives and careers to answering that question gave compelling testimony detailing a wide range of harms to women, children and men, and called for decisive action to address what is being called the public health crisis of the digital age.

The Committee’s majority report was deeply disappointing, and failed to include or consider most of the expert testimony that was most relevant to the subject of the motion.

We have been waiting to see if the government, in their response to the report, might engage more meaningfully with the subject matter and evidence. Disappointingly, the response, tabled on October 17, fails to interact with the testimony, the evidence or even the subject matter of the study in question.

In fact, had the words “online sexually explicit material” not appeared in the introductory paragraph and concluding sentence, you might not know that the study had anything to do with pornography at all.

The response does contain a detailed discussion about updating Guidelines for Sexual Health Education and developing a Sexual Health Promotion Strategy, including “online safety.” It talks about some worthy initiatives in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Child Exploitation which aim to protect children from exposure to online sexually explicit material – vital, without question.

But these are focused on protecting kids from luring, exploitation and other threats online. Missing from the response is an acknowledgement of the need to address or even look more into the risks and harms of exposure to pornography, or suggestions for how the government might act to help prevent kids from being exposed.

This is especially disturbing as it coincides with the heartbreaking flooding of social media with the hashtag #metoo – hundreds of thousands of women bravely stating that they too have been victims of sexual harassment or assault. Countless others choosing not to participate publicly are silently shouting the words – Me Too.

Extreme objectification of women, rape culture, sexual violence in schools and on campuses, and rampant sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. #Metoo is giving us a devastating picture of just how widespread the problem is. It is past time we take a critical look at why.

M-47 was an opportunity to consider the role pornography plays in shaping the sexual attitudes, behaviours and preferences that lead to objectification, harassment and violence. But neither the Committee’s majority report nor the government’s response answered the question.

The Committee heard that we have over 40 years of empirical research from psychology, sociology, communications and the health sciences that demonstrates unequivocally that consuming pornography impacts men’s and boy’s attitudes, behaviours, sexual tastes, sexual values and understanding of what it means to be masculine. Decades of research shows strong correlation between pornography use and a range of physical, emotional and social harms.

To dismiss this, and to suggest that porn has minimal or no impact, is to ignore the weight of the evidence.

Porn apologists argue that correlation doesn’t equal causation, and that the evidence doesn’t show causation. However, we’ve also never shown conclusively that smoking causes lung cancer in all individuals, in all cases, yet the link is undisputed. And we now agree as a society that smoking is harmful and presents an unacceptable risk to smokers and to those around them. So we have warning labels, age restrictions and education campaigns to make sure everyone who chooses to smoke does so fully informed of the risks.

But we can in fact now show that pornography consumption is linked to sexual aggression. A 2015 meta-analysis of 22 studies from 7 countries looked at porn consumption and acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. This means the subjects of the studies were not sex offenders but normal, average individuals.

The study asked whether pornography consumption was correlated with committing acts of sexual aggression. What they found was that pornography consumption was associated with sexual aggression among males and females, both in the US and internationally. The associations were stronger for verbal than physical sexual aggression, but both were significant.

Of course, as with all behaviour, sexual aggression is caused by a number factors, and no one is arguing that all porn consumers are sexually aggressive – just as not all smokers get lung cancer. But the weight of the evidence leaves little doubt that individuals who frequently consume pornography are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and to engage in acts of sexual aggression than those who don’t.

M-47 brought this evidence to the table. Unfortunately, at least for now, on the table is where it stayed.

Author: Julia Beazley

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