Online Pornography – Isn’t It Time to Stop Being So Squeamish?

Prof Andy Phippen


Online pornography is one of the last taboos for acadmeic research with little peer reviewed literature exploring the phenomenon. However, one cannot underestimate is social and economic impact. According to Ropelato (n.d.), the ‘pornography industry is larger than the revenues of the top technology companies combined: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink’, yearning a worldwide revenue of $97.06 billion in 2006, where 25% of total daily search engine requests were for pornography, attracting 72 million visitors worldwide to pornography websites in this year. However, could one argue that research into the online pornography phenomenon is sadly lacking due to academic squeamishness or a failure to acknowledge it as a mainstream aspect of adult society?

Opinion on the social impact of online pornography is clearly divided, in both the little academic literature that exists on the subject, and discussion in the quality media. While conducting research for documentary ‘Hardcore Profits’, Tim Samuels discovered remote villages for example, Ghana, suffer consequences of porn (averypublicsociologist, 2009). It was the belief by local villagers that porn watched via mobile cinemas had increased rape occurrences and marital breakdowns. In the absence of sex education, young men follow suit having sex without using condoms and as a result, two men interviewed contracted HIV. We might suggest that there is a wider public health issue here for policy makers – if one’s only experience of “sex education” is online pornography, this may result in a distorted view of acceptable practice. However, is this the fault of the pornography industry, or government failures to provide effective sex education in their country?

The transmission of sexually transmitted disease also brings media attention to the industry, as reflected in a recent news story about an HIV positive actor in the US. In light of these incidents it could be argued that for the pornography to be deemed ethical, condoms should clearly be shown in use.

Toub (2010) reported that the director of the Feminist Porn Awards, Alison Lee, felt that although the porn industry believe viewers don’t want to see condoms used, however: ‘all it would take would for them to say we’re using condoms 100 percent of the time and viewers would get used to it’, therefore in her view, using condoms in porn would be accepted by consumers.

Many claim that heterosexual pornography showing women forced into sex acts by men objectifies women as genitals and sexualise women (Jones.C, 2004; Onne. A, 2009). Zillmann (1986) documented that men enduring prolonged exposure to heterosexual pornography influenced the likelihood of coercing women into unwanted sexual acts and committing rape (applies to those who have some degree of psychoticism). Zillmann identified other issues that emerged following experiments to test effects of prolonged consumption of heterosexual pornography. This includes discontent for the physical appearance and sexual performance of intimate partners and the opinion that habitual pornography consumers are at risk of becoming sexually callous and violent.

However, there are counter arguments that have a more “pro pornography” stance when considering its social impact. Marriott’s (2003) comments that Erotic Review film critics rarely think how, why and whether pornography is degrading to women; ‘we suspect that it might be degrading to everybody’. This could suggest that porn protesters, especially those who regard porn to degrade and objectify women, voice extreme views when actually, porn consumers understand they watch unrealistic material which is the purpose – to physically view fantasies for entertainment and pleasure. This reflects Neu’s (2002) argument, claiming that pornography is not supposed to reflect reality because it’s a fantasy, serving as a ‘safety valve’ for pleasure. Hoffman, 2008 conducted a documentary around the pornography industry and accepted the effect of all pornography, highlighting that, like any other entertainment such as sporting events, it perpetuates inaccurate ideas about how the audience can be in comparison to the characters.

Research undertaken at the University of Plymouth with a small group of adult consumers presents results that challenge of a lot of the “conventional wisdom” regarding the negative social impact of pornography. An online survey disseminated in January 2011 elicited 118 responses from mainly younger adults (over 85% aged between 18-24), with only 15 respondents saying they had never looked at pornography online. A gender split of roughly 50/50 male/female allowed an exploration of attitudes which challenged thinking that females viewed pornography as negative and detrimental to women.

In our sample, an almost equal number of females than males disagreed that pornography objectified women and while more of both genders did agree, more males “strongly agreed”. More females than males also disagreed that “regular exposure to pornography could increase the chance of consumers forcing others into unwanted sexual acts”, with the vast majority of our respondents disagreeing with this statement. However, there was more agreement that “regular exposure to pornography can lead to consumers desensitising sexual relationships” with a clear skew for the whole population agreeing with this statement. There was, again, no clear gender split.

It was also interesting to note that the majority of our respondents did not feel that watching pornography encouraged unsafe sex. Given our population was entirely UK based, this would support the earlier observation that pornography does not encourage unsafe se per se, however, if it is the only form of public education, it may.

One final area, which was the only attitudinal measure which did show a clear gender difference, was whether pornography should clearly show the use of condoms. The vast majority of our female respondents said they thought this should be the case, while over two thirds of males disagreed.

Respondents were also invited to comment if they disagreed with this statement. It was interesting to note that the comments of Hoffman (2008) were supported by a number of our respondents – generally they felt that pornography was “entertainment” or “fantasy” and therefore did not have to reflect sexual acts in the really world.

We would acknowledge that our initial results are presented from a relatively small sample size and are not immediately generalisable. However, our results do highlight the need for academic research in this area. Without a strong evidence base the stigma surrounded the phenomenon will remain as opinion will be presented as fact. Clearly our research shows a mature attitude in general to what some regard as part of mainstream adult Internet society. Perhaps the academic world, and its ethics committees, should cease its delicate sensibilities around the subject matter and engage in developing greater understanding of what is clearly viewed by many to be part of their adult lives.


Averypublicsociologist (2009) Hardcore Profits [Online] Available: [Date accessed: 15 October 2010].

Hoffman (2008). 9to5: Days in Porn. Distributed by Media Entertainment GmbH (theatrical), Strand Releasing (DVD).

Jones, C. (2004) Porn – can you be an ethical consumer? [Online] Available: [Date accessed: 14 November 2010].

Marriott, E. (2003) Men and Porn [Online] Available: [Date accessed: 5 October 2010].

Neu, J. (2002) An Ethics of Fantasy? Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psy, 22 (2), pp.133-157.

Onne, A. (2009) Review: The Sex Education Show vs. Pornography [Online] Available: [Date accessed: 3 October 2010].

Ropelato, J. (n.d.) Internet Pornography Statistics [Online] Available: [Date accessed: 25 November 2010].

Toub, M. (2010) How to revel in porn and feel good about it. [Online] Available from: about-it/article1664172/ [Accessed: 28 October 2010].

Zillmann, D. (1986) Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography [Online] Available: [Date accessed: 15 November 2010].

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