How harmful is pornography really?

In the Cape Argus of March 3, Errol Naidoo (the director of the Christian-based Family Policy Institute) claims that pornography is harmful, and that the proposed Multichoice “Porn channel will be a ‘destructive influence’”.

He quite correctly attempts to back up many of his assertions with scientific evidence, and quotes some sociological and psychological studies in his letter of opinion. But does modern science really support the proposition that pornography is harmful? Let us examine some of his claims, and consider what evidence exists for them.

Skipping over his insinuations against the character and motives of Multichoice, we find this:

In addition, the channel’s assurances that pin [sic] codes and other security devices will ensure that children are protected from exposure to porn are laughable. Current technological prevention measures present little challenge to an increaingly tech-savvy generation.

Here he is trying to make the case that children (18 years and under) are going to be exposed to the channel, a claim which (if true) would certainly garner widespread and reasonable opposition to the proposed channel, due to the ineffectiveness of the protection system. Ironically, it may instead be Naidoo’s claim that is ‘laughable’, since PIN codes on a DSTV decoder are not proven to be vulnerable to circumvention by individuals of any age group, let alone those below the age of consent. Protecting systems ranging from bank accounts to safes and building alarm systems, the effectiveness of PIN or password protection is demonstrated on an hourly basis. If he is aware of technical flaws in the decoder’s protection system, he should reveal this knowledge in order for them to be corrected. This would no doubt protect children, and Mr Naidoo has expressed an interest in that specific outcome. Tellingly, however, his assertion is unsupported.

As this claim forms the basis for his argument, much of what follows in his letter regarding the harms of children being exposed to pornography is rendered redundant. But he perhaps realises this, and moves on to present some very strong claims about the science behind his opinion.

The destructive effects of pornography on ordinary individuals have been well documented. There are thousands of studies that reveal the devastating impact of sexually explicit images on society

That may be true (although it would be difficult to know, seeing as the first sentence is ambiguous and the second misleading), but reveals an ignorance about how science works. Science examines, via experiment (the Scientific Method), natural phenomena (such as the effects of pornography) and attempts to arrive at the truth by peer review and consensus. No individual scientist, even if highly respected, is the arbiter of any particular scientific “truth”. So in order to determine what is considered scientifically justified, the question to be asked is not whether a scientist has published a study or made a claim on an issue, but whether or not a scientific consensus has emerged on the issue.

Unfortunately, Mr Naidoo asks the former, and presents his findings as the latter. For example:

Victor Cline, PhD, … reveals in a study titled Pornography effects: Empirical and Clinical Evidence “that pornography is progressive and addictive for many. It often leads to the user acting out his fantasy – often on children”.

The “study” referenced here is actually an unpublished paper, by former Professor Cline (University of Utah – retired), who is the Mormon co-founder of the (Christian based) Marriage Enrichment organization and is also involved in The Lighted Candle Society, (a Christian, right-wing anti-porn organization that seems to have given up on trying to prove claims like these, and is now focusing on the claim that pornography affects and damages the human brain, which is most dubious). Having not seen this paper, I can’t comment on whether it actually makes such a startling claim, and if so what evidence the author provides to support it, but this “citation” might actually just be pasted from here. His therapy programs often involve the Christian god in the process of healing the patient.

With most people I see who are deeply addicted, prayers and scripture reading are usually not enough to solve the problem even though I believe that God could instantly cure the problem if He so chose. In most cases He lets the individual work it through the long way probably because he will in the future be more likely to voluntarily choose to not repeat this very destructive behavior–of his own accord.

His writing may be a favourite of many anti-porn organizations for these reasons, but is certainly not a reliable source to draw from, in fact one of his papers was submitted to the Australian Senate NVE inquiry in March 2000, and discounted because its definition of pornography bore no resemblance to the usual X-rated type of pornography that they were and we are considering. In any case, citing one highly controversial, religiously motivated scientist is hardly a search for consensus.

He next heavily cites a study by J. Bergman into pornography’s effects on children, which studied a mere three case histories, and which is irrelevant for reasons already described.

Finally he cites “John O Mason, PhD, Assistant Secretary for Health” who is presumably actually James O. Mason (who does not have a PhD but rather a medical degree), a high ranking Freemason who was the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, in his address to the ‘Religious Alliance against Pornography’ in 1989. Again, the citation simply covers his allegations of pornography’s harm to children and is also irrelevant.

In short, the evidence cited is at best unreliable and selective and at worst entirely irrelevant. Mr Naidoo then moves to his conclusion that “pornography must be banned from the public media domain”. Unfortunately, his argument is fatally lacking in scientific support, and the public have very good reason to be sceptical of his claims and conclusions.

But then what does the answer to the correct question – that of scientific consensus – tell us? On the question of pornography’s effects on adults and society, there is a weight of evidence for the conclusion that it causes little to no harm at all.

Firstly, the U.K.’s Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship examined a large number of studies on the subject and found in 1979 that “the role of pornography in influencing society is not very important … to think anything else is to get the problem of pornography out of proportion with the many other problems that face our society today.” According to Wikipedia, “the committee reported that, so long as children were protected from seeing it, adults should be free to read and watch pornography as they saw fit”.

Secondly, and more recently, modern meta-studies (a study of many previous studies) such as one by Milton Diamond in 2009 (Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: a review), found regarding the supposed harms of pornography, that “Indeed, the data reported and reviewed suggests that the thesis is myth and, if anything, there is an inverse causal relationship between an increase in pornography and sex crimes”. Another 2001 meta-study by Michael Seto, Alexandra Maric and Howard Barbaree (The Role of Pornography in the Etiology of Sexual Aggression) found that “that individuals who are already predisposed to sexually offend are the most likely to show an effect of pornography exposure and are the most likely to show the strongest effects. Men who are not predisposed are unlikely to show an effect”.

Since children will not be cracking PIN protection any time soon, they are safe from exposure to this proposed porn channel. We then discover to our surprise a definite lack of harm to adults, but even if there were some such harms, it would be of little use in opposing the existence of a pornography channel, because even if they existed, our foundational principles of individual freedom in society must not necessarily be sacrificed simply in an attempt to avoid harm, as Jacques Rousseau describes in detail.

Mr Naidoo’s letter show us once again that faith-based organizations such as the FPI exist to promote their limited conception of morality, whether it is supported by scientific evidence or not. But in doing so, they do the public a disservice, and distort the debate in order to rally a vocal segment of society to their cause. Reasonable members of society are however entitled to demand freedom of choice, and should be not be concerned or influenced by hysterical reactions such as that offered by Naidoo, who would do well to remind himself that it’s Multichoice, not Multichaste.

Kent Solomon is the Secretary of the Free Society Institute. A shortened version of this was published as a letter in the Cape Argus (09 March 2010).