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Is Pornography a Public Health Issue?

SPH forum considers both sides


In Catharine MacKinnon’s 1993 treatise Only Words, the feminist scholar writes that “the law of equality and the law of freedom of speech are on a collision course in this country.”

This semester, students at the School of Public Health are examining that collision through an unusual lens—not through the study of law or human rights, but through a lesson in hard-core pornography.

Four SPH faculty have introduced the subject of pornography into the curriculum in hopes of stirring debate around issues of public health. Does pornography shape the way adolescents think about their sexuality? Does it fuel sexual violence? Does it intentionally degrade women?

On February 10 more than 150 public health students crammed into the Medical Campus Bakst Auditorium to view a documentary about the pornography industry, The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality & Relationships, and hear from two leading experts on the topic: Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, and Carol Queen, a sexologist and part owner of Good Vibrations, a sex merchandise company with stores in Brookline, Mass., and San Francisco.

The debate—with Dines taking the antiporn position and Queen the pro-porn—wound through issues of racism and rape, exploitation and sex education, poverty and patriarchy.

“It feels like this is what education should be like—tackling a hotly contested topic from different perspectives, including public health,” said Emily Rothman, an SPH associate professor of community health sciences, who organized the forum. “Pornography is so widely available now, in the Internet age, it’s naive to think that it isn’t having a profound impact on our culture, including the way we interact with each other.”

SPH Dean Robert Meenan (MED’72, GSM’89) acknowledged in his opening remarks that bringing students together to view and discuss a film that included scenes of hard-core pornography was not standard public health school fare. But, he noted, “Public health has to raise and deal with uncomfortable topics, and it has to push people into uncomfortable conversations.” Sex and debate, he said, are “perspectives that [fuel] the field of public health.”

Rothman, who teaches an SPH course in sexual violence, said she began thinking seriously about introducing pornography into the curriculum after seeing the The Price of Pleasure last year. The film explores the negative aspects of “gonzo” porn, in which the focus is on sexual acts—graphic and sometimes violent—not on a narrative story line.

“My first thought was, my students have to see this,” Rothman said. “I wanted us to explore the idea of whether pornography is a public health issue—and if it is, how do we come at it as practitioners?”

The Price of Pleasure - Pornography, Sexuality & Relationships, Boston University School of Public Health pornography forum

SPH students watch a screening of the documentary The Price of Pleasure.

The forum brought Rothman’s class together with three other SPH classes that deal with sexuality, reproductive health, and adolescent health. The SPH faculty members teaching those classes–Renee Johnson, an assistant professor of community health sciences, Sophie Godley (SPH’15), a clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, and Lois McCloskey, an associate professor of community health sciences–said pornography crossed into public health in many areas, including risk behaviors, sexual exploitation, and gender roles and behavior. The four had discussed the issues as part of their course work in advance of the forum.

“The best evidence we have suggests that young people today are being exposed to pornography a lot,” said Johnson, who teaches a class on adolescent health. That exposure raises questions about whether pornography should be part of sex education, she said.

Students peppered Dines and Queen with questions about the impact and intent of pornography, including whether the porn industry had created a market for violent porn or whether violence in the culture had pushed porn to its gonzo extremes.

“I just don’t understand how you can support an industry that’s so violent towards women,” one student pressed Queen.

“Where is the line—a world with no porn?” another student asked Dines. “If we limit this type of speech, where do we draw the line?”

Dines said “body-punishing, brutal pornography” has become “the number one most profitable pornography,” and she argued that poverty, racism, and sexism drive the industry. “In an ideal world, they would have trouble finding women who would elect to do this” for employment, she said, adding that she views pornography as propaganda for a patriarchic social structure.

“Nothing delivers patriarchy to you like a bullet between the eyes like pornography,” she said.

Queen said gonzo porn is just one swath of the pornography landscape, and cautioned the students not to conflate violence with explicit sex. “The industry is more diverse” than what the film depicted, she said.

The two speakers clashed around the question of whether pornography is a trigger for sexual violence.

“What I know about sexual violence and rape, it isn’t about sex—it’s about violence,” Queen said. She doesn’t believe exposure to pornography “makes you do the things you see. It’s perfectly possible to see something and not imitate it.”

But Dines said it was wrong to assume that pornography plays no role in sexual violence. “Advertising has an effect on consumer behavior—we would all agree on that,” she said. “So does porn that involves violence and abuse. The bigger issue is, how is this imagery constructing men’s sexual identities?”

Rothman said research into the link between pornography and sexual violence is a new field, one she has started pursuing. A recent study she led found that young women who had seen pornography in the prior month were five times as likely as those who had not seen pornography to report having had a group-sex experience, coercive or consensual.

Godley, who teaches the SPH class Safer Sex in the City: From Science to Policy, which deals with research-based knowledge about sexuality and health, acknowledged that she was initially apprehensive about having her students see The Price of Pleasure.

But she was delighted, she said, to be part of an event that allowed for “a civil dialogue between people who disagree. That’s a rare thing in 2012—to actually have a productive discussion that moves us forward and gets us all thinking.”

Watch this video on YouTube

In the video above, SPH faculty discuss whether pornography has become a growing public health issue. Video by Michael Saunders

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.


22 Comments on Is Pornography a Public Health Issue?

  • Crystal Traini on 02.15.2012 at 8:07 am

    It is sad that important relational issues affected by porn use don’t seem to be dealt with at all at least in the clip and article. Why is there no mention to the broken family relations which destroy children mentally which are a result of porn of ALL types? There is plenty of strong research on this topic, so form a research school perspective, I find this conversation an embarrassing fail. And why does the conversation to be had have to promote the use of porn by showing images.
    We live in a society which needs to teach people that yes, you have a right to view this material but here are the consequences: Teens who are never able to have functional relationships in marriage which is the backbone of society, disease, and porn’s strong relationship to sex trafficking, a MASSIVE international problem that most don’t eve know about or don’t want to talk about. You can’t say “everything goes” and ignore the consequences.

    • Question on 02.15.2012 at 9:29 am

      Crystal, you wrote, “It is sad that important relational issues affected by porn use don’t seem to be dealt with at all at least in the clip and article. Why is there no mention to the broken family relations which destroy children mentally which are a result of porn of ALL types? There is plenty of strong research on this topic, so form a research school perspective.”

      Could you expand upon the research you mentioned?

    • Mike on 02.15.2012 at 9:56 am

      I’m fairly sure that the scope of both the article and the video was limited to the specific forum that explored porn’s effect on relationships, sexuality and society, not on, as you say, the “important relational issues affected by porn use.”

      I don’t want to debate your position, as opinions about porn are as varied and numerous as grains of sand on a beach, but I just wanted to acknowledge that your questions are likely being addressed in the classes themselves, not in brief articles about the classes.

    • Concerned feminist on 02.15.2012 at 10:52 am

      Glad to see this conversation is being had. It is one step in getting our culture to think about what it is to separate fantasy from reality and how the violent exploitation of females in porn for sexual gain is degrading and demoralizing.

      I wonder if Gonzo porn makes some females think they need to let men treat them in a manner that is degrading in order to have their partners derive sexual pleasure or be interested in them. It is scary to think this kind of sexual behavior might be a source of low confidence levels in females.

      Thanks for taking a risk in putting out articles with taboo subject matters like this BUToday.

      • Overlord of the Underclassmen on 02.15.2012 at 3:50 pm

        Girl’s have low confidence levels!?!??!

  • sanonmember on 02.15.2012 at 9:36 am

    I’m really surprised (at least from the content of the article; I haven’t listened to the video) nobody mentioned how the internet porn industry is fueling sexual addiction. I’m not saying everyone who looks at porn will become a sex addict or that all sex addicts use internet porn, but it’s an addiction as destructive as any other addiction and very hidden in our society. I believe with the easy access of porn on the internet to a young generation that has known nothing else, there will be a terrible price to pay for relationships, families and society and not just from a public health perspective. I read somewhere that there are tens of millions internet porn sites; so prevalent, but so secretive. I have no answers, but there are resources if anyone feels they or family members may be struggling with sexual addiction.

    • Mike on 02.15.2012 at 10:10 am

      A good point. Renee Johnson addresses this in at least one of her lectures, which discusses the role of technology — from the VHS tape deck to broadband internet — as a catalyst for eliminating access barriers to porn, especially among teens.

  • Carlitos Corazon on 02.15.2012 at 10:26 am

    I can’t think of any postive aspects of pornography. I can, however, think of many negative aspects. The broad availabilty of pornography is a by-product of the Internet. And, as recent events have shown, restricting the Internet in a democratic environment will be difficult to achieve. However, there is a precendent: the government’s banning of child pornography. If children are being harmed by the production of child pornography, aren’t children being harmed by exposure to often violent adult pornography? The “consenting adults” argument rationalizing sexual perversion fails if you have a child in the room watching. The availabilty of pornography – to include free porn – online is a travesty. Restricting children’s access to porn is an achievable public health goal.

    • Reason on 02.15.2012 at 12:53 pm

      “I can’t think of any postive aspects of pornography.” – It’s called an orgasm.

      • Anonymous on 02.16.2012 at 11:09 am

        Hey “Reason” – putting an orgasm ahead of children’s health is abominable. Please reconsider your reasoning.

  • Macro on 02.15.2012 at 10:54 am

    Ha! Degrading American porn…If you think thats degrading then youve never seen what the Japanese have to offer.

    • Anonymous on 02.15.2012 at 1:26 pm

      Japan- not even once.

  • Aplicaciones Android on 02.15.2012 at 11:38 am

    A good point. Degrading American porn. I have no answers, but there are resources if anyone feels they or family members may be struggling with sexual addiction.

  • Chris on 02.15.2012 at 12:39 pm

    The answer is YES. The question that needs to be discussed is, what to we do about it?

  • erotic violence and sex on 02.15.2012 at 1:13 pm

    Most of the comments have (quite naturally) expanded from the specific topic of ‘Gonzo Pornography’ to pornography in general.

    The discussion seemed to have focused on ‘Gonzo Pornography’ in relation to sexualized violence (rape) and the contextualization of sexual fantasies.

    I think it misses the more appropriate context of viewing ‘Gonzo Pornography’ against the background of consensual erotic violence play(S&M.)

    I think there is a bias in talking about men-on-women sexual acts which border on violence without also including a discussion on erotic violence and simulated violence with or without explicit sexual play. In the many arenas of S&M erotic activity, there are many areas, particularly pay-for-fantasy dominatrix play, where the violence is delivered primarily by women.

    My point is that they seem to have highlighted a small area where sexual pornography overlaps with pain and submission erotic fantasy/fetishism and selected just this small area for discussion. I don’t see how you can understand the mentality and effects of one without exploring the other.

    The greater Boston area has several organizations dedicated to exploring the practices of S&M and there are national speakers on this topic that might have contributed to the discussion. I patronize and enjoy ‘Good Vibrations,’ but their staff doesn’t have the expertise in erotic violence you find in NELA, NEDS or other sponsors of the Fetish Fair Fleamaerket.

    • In Agreement on 02.15.2012 at 5:06 pm

      I was thinking exactly this as I read the article. Some pornography is degrading and insulting to women, yes. So are some romantic comedies, for that matter.
      But there is plenty of porn out there where females are the ones delivering the violence–or receiving the violence consensually, as informed adults. I don’t see how getting smacked around a little in the name of good sex (or, as above mentioned, a non-sexual S&M scene) should be considered any more dangerous than getting punched around in a boxing ring. Lots of people like violence. Lots of people like sex. So yes, some are going to like the two of those things put together. And if they’re being careful and intelligent about it, I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

      • MPH on 02.16.2012 at 8:23 am

        I think the reason for this focus is that male-on-female sexualized violence is where most real-life public health prevention efforts occur.

        Men do not suffer real-life sexual abuse at anywhere the rate of women, and the perpetrators of sexual violence against males tend to be other males.

        In real life, sexual violence against women (and many men) by other men is endemic. Sexual violence against men by women is rare (although research into abuses committed by females against male children exists).

        • erotic violence and sex on 02.16.2012 at 12:18 pm

          You make my point MPH.

          Rape against women is endemic. Rape is easily confused with sexual violence, but rape is power abuse.

          Sexual desire is different than power desire.
          Violence (hurt) is not the same as abuse (harm).

          The objects of consensual erotic violence(S&M) are more like 60% women and 40% men. And yes, more than half the perpetrators of violence against men are other men. But again, I am talking about violence as opposed to abuse.

          ‘Gonzo Pornography’ is about fantasy violence which is deliberately more brutal than the actual violence those viewing the fantasy desire to experience. The over-the-top imagery of a fantasy are what provides the titillation and excitement. Very few women actually want to be handled roughly by a romance novel hero who looks like Fabio, but a enough of them enjoy the fantasy to buy a lot of romance novels.

  • Addict on 02.15.2012 at 7:32 pm

    I was introduced to pornography at an early age (5th grade) and I have struggled with sexual addiction for many, many years. Pornography gave me a distorted view of the relationship between men and women, encouraging me to view sexual “conquests” of women as the goal every red-blooded American male should pursue. Paying to see photos of naked women in magazines led next to paying to see naked women live in strip clubs to eventually paying to have sex with women. I have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars in this pursuit that would have been much better spent elsewhere.
    The pornography I “grew up” with in the 1970s and 80s had a certain innocence about it. Seeing people engaged in fairly routine sexual acts was still such a novelty that producers of pornography did not have to resort to the sort of increasingly grotesque imagery that apparently is required today to garner attention in a very crowded online marketplace. Given the message I drew from the comparatively benign porn of a bygone era, I shudder when I think about the sort of messages young men (and women) are drawing from today’s offerings.
    I don’t support censorship, but I do think greater education and more open dialogue like this could help people make smarter choices about what they view and how they act in response.

    • lee on 11.26.2014 at 5:01 pm

      another moron with too much spare time on his hands

  • Debbie Lowe on 02.21.2012 at 9:26 am

    I am not at all familiar with violent pornography. However, as a 25 year old Peace Corps volunteer, I did note that, in rural Niger, sex was on the top of young men’s minds the same as it had been in the States. And this was a place where we had no access to books, magazines or newspapers. So I figure that that much at least is natural.

  • Percy Kerry on 12.23.2012 at 8:34 am

    I am not the one to declare a moral verdict on whether porn-hard or soft-is a bad thing to watch, or not,because the world does not go around on my moral values.
    But as a woman, I would definitely say this-porn films, with or without intention,tend to portray women as sex objects; I will go to the extent of saying they perpetuate a misogynistic attitude in males towards their female counterparts.
    I definitely think that porn is the preferred means of sexually frustrated individuals to fulfill their desires.There is nothing unnatural about desires, but the method of fulfilling them doesn’t go down well with me.
    Porn not only caters to sexual fantasies, it also fuels addiction to sex-natural or, as we see nowadays, violent sex like S&M.This addiction, combined with loneliness and idle minds of many males, pushes them to try them out with real women, who in most cases aren’t willing to engage in such acts, since they are sick and perverse.
    Studies have proved that many molesters, eve-teasers and rapists are porn addicts.
    The issue of pornography and its relevance in our society is a very difficult one, since there is no point where we as a whole can be unanimous.
    But I will still sat two things:
    1.People must keep their desires and fantasies in the bedroom,between them and their partners;there’s no need to capture it on video and show it to the whole world…something which the porn industry’s influence completely negates.
    2.A porn addict can never have a real,fulfilling relationship with another person(personal opinion).

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