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Pornography: A Taboo Topic’s Pluses and Minuses

SPH class takes public health look at subject


Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of articles about visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU. 

If you’ve wondered why Playboy is abandoning its iconic nude shots as “passé,” in the word of one executive, Emily Rothman can explain it to you.

“My six-year-old was on YouTube looking for My Little Pony videos,” says Rothman, a School of Public Health associate professor of community health sciences, referring to a kids’ TV and film franchise. Instead, she found “hardcore male gay porn.”

That’s but one example of the chasm between the commercial titillation of the Playboy variety and the mass of what’s out there in the internet age, Rothman says-soft porn has melted away faster than the polar icecaps, leaving sexually explicit material that is overwhelmingly hardcore. And overwhelmingly violent: 80 percent involves some kind of violence, including spanking, slapping, or gagging, Rothman tells students in a recent session of her course Understanding Pornography: A Public Health Perspective.

Which leads to a central question the class ponders: the long-standing allegation that sexually explicit material promotes sexual violence against women. Does it really?

Rothman sums up her answer in class: “We can’t really ask the question—does pornography cause violence?—because there are pornographies.…Part of Playboy’s argument is, ‘We’re outta here because you can see so many extreme things.’” Less extreme pornography actually can be beneficial, she says.

Her course is part of an SPH effort to probe the public health ramifications of pornography. Handling this snapping turtle of a topic, involving not just questions of violence incitement, but arguments over First Amendment rights and people’s differing standards of decency, requires special sensitivity. Rothman’s syllabus makes clear that viewing sexually explicit material is not a course requirement. (Indeed, she spent a good portion of the recent session in deep academic discussion about five theories of the possible porn/aggression nexus, down to the very meaning of “theory” in science.) While nude artwork, including ancient statues, is shown, Rothman promises trigger warnings to students before presenting any depictions of nudity. She invites any discomfited students to contact her.

No one seemed unsettled during class, or pruriently interested. One student’s answer to Rothman’s question about whether she’d been curious enough to explore outside of class the pornography they’d studied in it: “Having taken this class, I have no interest in going home and looking at Bound Gang Bangs.”

“It can be very traumatic,” Rothman agrees about viewing porn. Holding a secondary appointment on the School of Medicine faculty, she is an expert on violence prevention and has training in batterer intervention, and she serves on an advisory council to the Massachusetts governor on sexual assault and domestic violence.

It’s also true that some nonviolent pornography does have public health benefits, Rothman writes in a recent article. She cites research into the effects on helping to realize sexual identity, bettering sexual satisfaction, encouraging safe sex, and helping with sexual dysfunction.

In the end, she says, “I am positively not propornography or antipornography,” because it depends what sort of porn is being discussed.

Unsurprisingly, students say they’ve never taken a class quite like this. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned is to look at the topic of pornography from a nuanced perspective, to sort of see it from both sides,” says Alyssa Harlow (SPH’16). “I came in with more of a positive perspective…that it’s liberating, that it provides an outlet, promotes positive sexuality.” While retaining that opinion, “I’ve also definitely learned about some of the negative implications,” she says. “There are certain people who are predisposed to the negative influence of pornography…for violence against women or to be more sexually aggressive.”

Anna Bresnick (SPH’16) carries away a similar view. “You can be pro and con” about pornography, she says. Having leaned con coming in, “I think this class has really opened my eyes up to why porn can be a good thing,” as when feminist porn stresses “both people finding pleasure and…we should take pride in our bodies.”

Yet there are dangers as well, Bresnick says: “We don’t want youth looking at it and thinking all porn is reality.”

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

19 Comments on Pornography: A Taboo Topic’s Pluses and Minuses

  • L on 12.01.2015 at 10:56 am

    It’s no surprise that watching porn is barely done (and is not requred) in Rothman’s class: if students actually saw what their boyfriends, fathers, sons, cousins, and uncles were watching on a regular basis, they would be disgusted, even traumatized.

    As someone who has been grappling with this topic for nearly 15 years of my life, devoting tons of time and energy to understand all the different perspectives on the issue of pornography and violence against women, I find this article very biased in favor of the pro-porn camp in the debate.

    We would never deny the effects advertisements have on women’s sense of body image and self-worth, so why does porn magically have a “positive” impact on its viewers? Boys as young as nine or ten are now accessing porn (increasingly hardcore and violent) on a daily basis, and this is impacting the ways they view themselves and women – in mainstream (most) porn, women are labeled horrible names I won’t write here, while the men regularly slap, gag, beat, rape, and donkey punch these women (who are sometimes too young to even be considered “legal”). How can this be positive? For anyone?

    The links the author shares above “proving” that porn can be beneficial actually point to how negative the effects of SEM (sexually explicit material) are on people. For instance, the link to show how porn helps Black men engaging in same-sex behavior “realize sexual identity” is actually a study that calls for educational media-based material that CHALLENGES porn and its encouragement of risk-taking behavior. The study calls for internet and TV-based programs that, instead, teaches porn viewers about healthy sexual relationships. Go ahead and click on the links to see what these studies are ACTUALLY saying about porn.

    I have yet to see a study that provides solid evidence of porn’s beneficial effects on people. And there is no such thing as “feminist porn.” It doesn’t matter how hard you try. “Pornography” means “drawings of female slaves” in Greek. That’s where the whole industry of porn comes from – the oppression of women as a class. Last time I checked, feminists were not fighting for women to remain a slave class. If you are talking about erotica that illustrates really supportive, consensual, and non-misogynistic stories and characters, that is something separate from porn, in my opinion.

    I’m fully aware of the fact that there are women who watch porn with their male partners, and it only proves my point and those of anti-porn activists – just like little girls are taught from the beginning that being a little princess and getting married and having babies is their life goal, porn and mainstream media gradually teach women what they have to look like and do in order to maintain their romantic relationships. Even to the extent that we women are convinced we want it as well – why do we deserve any better? That’s how patriarchy works, after all.

    • Kelli King on 12.01.2015 at 2:41 pm

      I want to start by saying that I am of the opinion that pornography and the relating industry is a terrible thing that ruins families and people’s minds. I think the world should be rid of it. That’s my opinion.

      But not all people share that opinion, and on behalf of them I want to address some of the thing you said in your comment.

      First, what you said about porn always objectifying women was false. Because not all porn involves women.

      Also, women don’t just watch porn with their partners. Many women watch it all by themselves.

      Also although pornography might have started as a form of slavery to women, on a whole the sex industry (pornography included) can appeal to feminist ideals. For the most part, sex workers (including strippers, prostitutes, exotic dancers, and porn performers) are participating by their own accord. No one is forcing them to do it. If a woman (or man) wants to participate in these activities, they can and will, not because they are being forced, but because they want to. Most sex workers sign contracts saying upfront what they are willing and unwilling to do. If they ever feel uncomfortable in a situation, they can opt out. The second that consent is taken away, it’s considered rape, harassment, and abuse. If they aren’t compensated appropriately it is slavery. If they are underage, it is slavery, and all types of wrong. As long as there is consent and respect for the performers, then it isn’t slavery.

      I don’t like porn. I’m sad knowing that there are billion dollar porn/sex industry workers making their living off of something so crude and worldly. I’m sad that so many people participate in viewing and spending money on porn. It’s disgusting to me.

      But that’s the way the world is.

      • Jose Artigas on 12.01.2015 at 10:37 pm

        “For the most part, sex workers … are participating by their own accord. No one is forcing them to do it.”

        Not true. Perhaps this statement is somewhat accurate among certain segments of western societies where affluent individuals can control their bodies & their sexuality; cf. the very few grad students working as prostitutes to pay for school, or high-priced & relatively well-protected “escort services.” But for most sex workers, even in the US & Western Europe, poverty, addiction & harsh family backgrounds have already deprived them of meaningful choices.

        It’s much worse elsewhere in the world, where sex workers are frequently enslaved, bought & sold, & brutally coerced. For them, the alternative to their “choice” is torture and/or murder, or being resold over & over.

        L makes a valuable contribution to the debates by providing the original definition of “pornography.” Not coincidentally, in the 19 & 20Cs prostitution was often called “white slavery.” The connection with female enslavement is dismayingly persistent, thus more serious than even L says.

        The book below by Bales chillingly describes the plight of sex workers in Thailand, Brazil & elsewhere, & is essential reading. White’s book is a thorough study of the many complexities involved in one urban situation in colonial Africa. White insists that the women she studied were doing domestic labor, because they provided a full range of services (laundry, meals, accommodation, etc) beyond sex for urban workers lacking permanent housing. Some even earned enough to buy property & become landlords. But White never minimizes the lack of real choice that drove her informants into the business to begin with.

        Sex work is a complicated matter; that’s why it’s controversial. But it’s not so complex that basic issues of human rights should be overlooked.

        Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy
        Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi

    • BU Student on 06.02.2016 at 10:23 am

      Your argument outlines exactly the prude cultural misconceptions of porn and sex.

      First off, there is a ton of “feminist porn” as you call it. There are entire websites and communities dedicated to porn specifically and solely for women. There is also a ton of porn out there that depicts women in dominating roles over a submissive counterpart (male OR female).
      On the idea of feminism, I suggest you read this article from a feminist on her pro-porn stance: http://jlampl.net/A%20Feminist%20Defense%20of%20Pornography.pdf

      The implication that there’s no scientific literature on the positives of porn is ridiculous. I doubt you’ve done any searching at all, because in about 30 seconds I was able to find a list of articles on the topic.

      “in mainstream (most) porn, women are labeled horrible names I won’t write here, while the men regularly slap, gag, beat, rape, and donkey punch these women (who are sometimes too young to even be considered “legal”).”

      This is completely false. First, any mainstream porn will ONLY contain actors who are over 18 and legal. They sign consent forms, and are required to provide identification. On violence, yes there is porn that depicts men calling women names and being violent towards them. Unsurprisingly though, there’s plenty of porn that depicts the exact opposite, women tying up men, whipping them, beating them, embarrassing them, etc. Even further, the majority of porn depicts none of this, it simply depicts two people having consensual, vanilla sex. Certainly though, if one has a fantasy or kink, there’s likely porn of it out there.

      To reiterate what I said in another comment, porn allows us to explore different “taboo” areas of our complex human sexuality. Certainly, like an R-rated movie, parents likely don’t want their children watching it, and that’s up to their parenting. However little Sally and Jimmy won’t stay young forever, they’re going to grow up, develop sexually, and start to explore. Its the parent’s responsibility to NOT oppress this and shame exploration, but rather to promote safe sexual development.

  • anon on 12.01.2015 at 1:21 pm

    >I’m fully aware of the fact that there are women who watch porn with their male partners, and it only proves my point and those of anti-porn activists

    It’s a hallmark of an unsupported ideology that any piece of evidence can bu used to “prove the point.”

  • S on 12.01.2015 at 2:21 pm

    I disagree with the argument that porn ruins lives. I think porn is largely the impetus for the decline in the sex industry, look at developed nations with wide access to fast internet and enough personal wealth to afford computers. The sex industry is at a decline and the reason is porn. Men who get off watching violent or extreme porn (which the majority of porn is not) have their need for this type of behaviour satisfied. They are less likely to take out this type of behaviour on women. This gives them a safe outlet for a fetish that is not accepted by society. The same men who would visit a brothel and violently attack the sex workers now have a place where they can watch that type of behaviour and satisfy their need.

    • Sarah on 12.02.2015 at 8:01 am

      S, you are wrong. The article above clearly states that the majority of porn is violent and there are many studies that show that watching violent porn, just like playing violent video games, desensitizes the person watching and makes them more comfortable with that violence in their own lives.

      I am just not sure that overall the positives outweigh the negatives. But porn is not going away anytime soon. How can we change the way that it is used and make it safer for all?

      • BU Student on 06.02.2016 at 9:56 am

        And there are many, MANY, studies that show that violent video games do nothing to “desensitize” a person. Its a controversial topic that still yet has no clear scientific consensus.

        The vast majority of porn is not violent. 80% of porn is violent this article says? Well sure, if you count some light spanking as “violent”. The truth of the matter is there is porn for nearly every sexual desire and fantasy. Many people, men and women alike, fantasize about rough sex and BDSM, and when practiced with safe-words, can be a very sexually gratifying experience. So what’s wrong about watching porn that is BDSM in nature?

  • asdf on 12.01.2015 at 10:41 pm

    Does pornography cause violence we ask, in the least violent and most porn-filled time in our nation’s history?

    We’ve come full circle. Universities that were once at the forefront of the movement for free speech and equality are now probing a debate on controlling pornography, with appeals to tenuous health statistics and not-so-subtle think of the children moral panic.

    Perhaps we’ll succeed where the moral majority failed. Maybe if we keep putting the heat on young males, some of them might snap and help validate the grossly disproportionate hysteria, allowing us to keep putting the heat on them.

    • Anonymous on 12.02.2015 at 8:39 pm

      Precisely. A well worded, well thought out comment. I agree completely; this strange, irrational oppression placed on young males and human sexuality as a whole is rather disgusting. The lack of intelligence and rationale behind such notions as ‘pornography (a form of fiction) causes real violence’ and ‘young males are a huge problem’ is simply ludicrous.

      • Anonymous on 12.03.2015 at 5:18 am

        To correct a flaw I found in my earlier post:
        *such notions as ‘pornography (a form of fiction in many cases) causes real violence’

      • L on 12.06.2015 at 10:32 am

        Caring about women’s freedom to live as human beings, free from the threat of male violence, is irrational and strange, Anonymous?

        • BU Student on 06.02.2016 at 10:03 am

          “[is] free from the threat of male violence, is irrational and strange”

          First of all, this isn’t what Anonymous was saying. They stated they thought the oppression of sexuality on young males (and I’d extend this to all young people) is disgusting.

          However on your point, seeming to state that porn somehow propagates the “threat of male violence”, I ask you how. Yes, there is porn out there that depicts women being hurt, tied up, etc. Guess what? There’s porn of men being hurt, tied up, and the like. And the best part is, it comes in any variant you’d like. Want to see a man tied up while another guy drips candle wax on him and whips him? Guess what, its out there, and people love it.

          Porn allows us to explore different “taboo” areas of our complex human sexuality. Many men and women alike enjoy several aspects of BDSM (or even all of them) during sex, and that’s awesome. Porn does not promote violence, it promotes the exploration of exhilarating, exotic, but consensual sex.

  • Chris Rogerson on 12.02.2015 at 2:25 am

    This is what makes America a great country to live in. If yo are offended by pornography then don’t watch it or buy into it.

    With the variety of movie ratings these days, what was once an explicit sexual scene in a movie is a magazine add in Cosmopolitan.

    Choosing what to watch and whom to watch it with is your best option.

  • Vegan on 12.02.2015 at 8:55 pm

    As long as we are playing the correlation game I’d like to point out that the nations that take the strongest legal stance against pornography are also the countries that most aggressively suppress the moral scourges of freedom of speech/religion, and rights of women and minorities.

  • Shelley on 05.10.2016 at 1:19 pm

    Porn is not sex. It is an addiction, plain and simple. The fact that it very quickly becomes an obsession is proof of this. And any parent who allows children unlimited, unsupervised access to the internet is setting him or her up for a porn addiction, which is an insidious form of childhood sexual abuse. Would you bring strangers into your home and let them have sex in front of your child? If you let them have alone time with the internet this is were it will eventually lead. What is the story with the rampant amorality in this day and age? Porn is an adhoration. Deny it through self sensorship.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 06.02.2016 at 11:44 am

    My friend’s 12 daughter was leaning over to drink from a water fountain at school. One of her classmates, a boy said loudly, “I’m going to rape that bitch.”

    I am a pro-sex feminist, but porn worries me. We need to worry about what porn scenes, and sexual violence in cable/TV shows, are telling us and telling our children about appropriate behavior.

  • ID on 06.02.2016 at 11:57 am

    Pornography is indeed very highly addictive, just as gambling! Especially the violent images and the way that the film/videos are shot are done in a way to keep blinking and flashing before your eyes just like the machines in Vegas. There is a huge addiction to pornography that ruins lives and the images stay with you, wherever you go, dinners, parties, with your families, your kids, work…non stop flashing images of flesh, sex, violence and this needs to be a public health priority to deal with, just like guns and addiction

  • Oh Please. on 06.06.2016 at 1:30 am

    I have to wonder if any of the people posting here who are (seemingly) pro-pornography are in long-term relationships and regularly consume pornography themselves, or know anyone who is in this kind of situation. I do. More than one couple. And I know that all the people involved—all of them—would say that pornography ruined/is ruining their lives. Some of them have been able to get it under control, to “kick the habit,” and they are so glad. They look back at that time in their life (decades, for one particular man) as a huge burden, an awful trial, something they never want to repeat. Some are still in the middle of it, and pretty much constantly in agony.

    Sure, they’re getting some sexual stimulation when they watch. But at what cost? Their wives feel terrible. They feel shamed. They feel like they aren’t good enough for their husbands, sexually, physically. If they were, they believe, then they’d be able to satisfy those needs, but instead the men are turning elsewhere. The men, in the moment, feel aroused, excited, maybe even fulfilled. But afterwards, they feel empty. They feel shamed. Then they feel insatiable cravings–it’s never enough. They need to watch porn all the time. At work. At home. On vacations. They can’t stop thinking about it. They want it. One guy I know is so addicted to it that he’ll tune everything else out, to the extent of letting his toddler find his own way out of the house and get lost in the neighborhood. This has happened more than once. The guy feels nothing but contempt for himself, fear, shame, anger.

    There is literally nothing good that comes from pornography and its consumption. Nothing. It ruins lives, period, end of sentence.

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