Porn researchers don't seem to understand what constitutes "violence"

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I’m very proud the SF Sex-Positive Democratic Club’s panel on sex work decrim got a great writeup in the Bay Area Reporter.

I also wrote recently for AVN FSC: PPP Loans Still Available, But Could Shortly Run Dry.

But I want to share my latest for AVN in full below:

Op-Ed: British Journal of Criminology Study on 'Violence' in Porn

If you only read headlines about a new study from the British Journal of Criminology you might think that large quantities of criminal videos of sexual violence on tube sites are warping most children’s minds, turning them into sexual violators. 

But this isn’t even close to true. The coverage of the study is misleading and exaggerated. But the study itself is extremely flawed. 

First, the researchers included everything from “stepmom” to "ploughed” in the category of “sexual violence.” Defined that broadly, it’s shocking the study found only one in eight videos depicted sexual violence.

The study also posits, without much evidence, that porn influences sexual desires while totally ignoring how sexual fantasies likely influence porn consumption. The authors also conflate sexual fantasies and sexual behaviors, despite ample evidence that most people never act out most of their sexual fantasies. Most distressingly, the authors fundamentally misconstrue the impacts of stigma and criminalization on consensual sexual behavior, helping to lay the groundwork for terrible policy.

The Study’s Claims

The study joins an existing body of research investigating whether and how porn influences sexual norms. “One in eight titles shown to first-time users on the first page of mainstream porn sites describe sexual activity that constitutes sexual violence,” the authors write. “Taken together, we argue that our study provides clear evidence that sexual violence is a normative sexual script in mainstream online pornography.”

But by defining “sexual violence” overbroadly, ignoring consent and excluding too many non-violent titles the authors vastly overstate the percentage of mainstream pornography that depicts actual sexual violence.

Limitations of the Study

What the study actually found is that there’s a lot of porn that depicts taboo behavior, power differentials and voyeurism. 

The main problem with this study is that it defines “sexual violence” so broadly as to make the distinction meaningless. If everything is sexual violence, nothing is sexual violence. 

The authors labeled four broad categories of content as sexual violence: 

1. Sexual activity between family members
2. Aggression and assault
3. Image-based sexual abuse
4. Coercive and exploitative sexual activity

The study exaggerates the frequency of violence in video titles by excluding titles with only the name of the performer or studio. More worryingly, the study includes videos that don’t depict any actual violence. 

For example, the most frequent form of “sexual violence” in the data was incest/step-cest. While certainly taboo, it’s a stretch to claim that every “stepmom” video depicts “sexual violence.” Incest-light (or "taboo relations") porn is an incredibly popular porn category. 

In the “aggression and assault” category, the authors included titles like “tricked into dick riding” and keywords including “slap,” “throatfucked,” "plow" and “pound.” Plowing and pounding are common euphemisms for vanilla, consensual sex. Neither are necessarily, or even generally, violent acts. Throatfucking implies some intensity but not violence per se. 

Under the “coercive and exploitative sexual activity” category, researchers included every keyword that would indicate any power differential, including “very young,” “schoolgirl,” “needs the cash,” “advantage,” “blackmail,” “bribe,” “exploit,” “drunk” and “woke up.”

Aggression and assault category keywords included “force,” “grope” and “molest.” Image-based sexual abuse focused on voyeurism including “revenge porn,” “upskirt,” “hidden,” “spy cams” and “secretly.”

“I used ‘schoolgirl’ markers in my sex work until I was like 30,” sex worker and author Juniper Fitzgerald wrote of the study. “People who don’t know our industry constantly use keyword analysis in research and it’s unethical.”

The authors even admit the vast majority of these videos were consensually produced and distributed. The authors excluded videos with “BDSM” in the title, but included videos that included consensual power play without explicit BDSM keywords. It’s astonishing that a study of sexual violence would completely ignore the role of consent. 

“Imagine if we did this for literally any other fictional media,” Fitzgerald said. “Apply this methodology to the horror genre.”

Misunderstanding Cause and Effect

The authors heavily reference sexual script theory, which holds that social environments influence people’s understanding of sexuality, if not their desires and behavior. 

While this is undoubtedly true, there’s very little evidence that porn heavily influences the average person’s sexual desires and behavior. 

In reality, there’s pretty strong evidence from Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller and others that taboo sex, power differentials and voyeurism are among Americans’ most common sexual fantasies. Why wouldn’t a lot of porn depict them?

Not only that, but the evidence Lehmiller presents in his book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life shows sexual fantasies don’t correlate with real-world behavior. The average person who fantasizes about “stepmom” or “spying” is no more likely to actually engage in incest or non-consensual voyerism than the average person who doesn’t. For most people, most of the time, fantasies are just that. 

Most troublingly, the authors approve of “stigmatizing and criminalizing some sexual behaviours” to “set out where the boundaries may lie between appropriate and inappropriate sexual conduct.”

U.S. legislators are looking for ways to censor large amounts of adult content and deplatform vast numbers of sex workers. “Our findings raise serious questions about the extent of criminal material easily and freely available on mainstream pornography websites and the efficacy of current regulatory mechanisms,” the authors write.

The evidence, again from Dr. Lehmiller, shows that stigmatizing and criminalizing consensual sexual behavior is totally ineffective at reducing it, and can actually make people more likely to focus on these urges through the “white elephant effect.” 

The authors also fail to acknowledge that providing comprehensive, medically accurate sex education actually works to reduce rates of sexual violence, while providing other benefits. 

The study is actually somewhat reassuring, showing that a very small percentage of videos on tube sites depict actual sexual violence. Unfortunately, the authors redefine sexual violence to suit their purposes, and then push for solutions that evidence shows are likely to create more sexual violence rather than less.