The latest round of porn-bashing from the ostensibly liberal media comes in the form of a Washington Post editorial by Pornified author Pamela Paul. Apparently triggered by the news University of Montreal study that turned up no link between porn consumption and pathological behavior, Paul comes back to the porn wars after several year ready for a fight.
Paul wants us to know that porn is dangerous addictive stuff that is damaging society. Her evidence – the anecdotal reports of the self-described porn addicts she interviewed for Pornified (selection bias, anyone?) and, that favorite cudgel of the anti-porn movement, the studies of Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant. She then drops one of her favorite shocking assertions: when Zillmann and Bryant took their findings to an ethics committee, it was found that they had clearly demonstrated that exposure to porn was so harmful, that all further direct laboratory studies using exposure to porn were forbidden from that point forward.
This latter point is taken up as the basis for a column by the rather clueless Tracy Clark-Flory, a writer for Salon's feminist column Broadsheet. Clark-Flory admits that Paul "seem(s) to have an agenda of (her) own" and talks about her "ambiguity" about porn, but nonetheless, seems to be perfectly fine with passing along the claims by Paul, and Zillmann and Bryant without comment.
Now where to begin with all this? First, a quick note on the University of Montreal study that triggered the article. I've been aware of this study for several months, and yes, I agree with the criticisms of it – only 20 subjects, same age group from one college campus, no control group; that's not a good study, which is why I don't quote it. (I do want to note, however, that blogs like Jezebel that made much to-do about the flaws of that study were very quick to laud Melissa Farley's latest study on the evils that johns do, with seemingly no concern about its methodology or research ethics – funny thing that.) The most I can say about it is that it squares with the established body of research that has so far failed to find any overarching negative effect of porn exposure on psychologically normal men.
Now, as for Pamela Paul, she makes a big to-do about her interviews with self-described porn addicts, but a purely anecdotal study of a group that is selected for having a problematic relationship with porn doesn't tell you anything about the role of porn in the lives of all men, or even most men. But if we're going to bring out anecdotal books, why not give equal weight to David Loftus' Watching Sex? Which found men reporting that porn plays a much less problematic (and sometimes even positive) role in their lives, in stark contrast to the claims made by anti-porn activists (who often don't even talk to, much less study, male porn consumers). (Audio of interview with Loftus here.) However, until the claims made in both Pornified and Watching Sex are the subject of a controlled, methodological study, any such claims must be only seen as provisional.
The meat of this critique, and something I've been meaning to write about for some time, concerns the pornography research of Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, who's studies on the behavioral effects of pornography are a mainstay of anti-porn literature. What seems to have disappeared down the memory hole, however, is that Zillmann and Bryant were deeply biased toward what can only be described as a deeply conservative view of gender relationships (the "virtue" of women, etc) and engineered this bias into the questionnaire they used to evaluate the "sexual callousness" their subjects supposedly picked up from exposure to pornography. Their assumptions about what constitutes “sexual callousness” include: the belief that having multiple partners is more natural than life-long monogamy, placing a low value on the institution of marriage, seeing nothing wrong with non-marital sexuality, belief that repressing sexual desire is unhealthy, and having less desire to have children. In other words, being sex-positive makes you “sexually callous”!
Zillmann and Bryant had been called out by a number of writers during the 1980s and early 1990s for the political biases and its negative influence on their research. Notably, see the debate between Ferrel Christensen and Jennings & Bryant in the pages of Journal of Communication (link and link). The responses by Zillmann and Bryant really give their game away as to where they are coming from in terms of sexual politics, and their contempt for Christensen's sex-positivity is palpable. Note also the response by Daniel Linz and Edward Donnerstein (link), who do not seem to have a dog in the porn wars of the time, but nonetheless clearly point out Zillmann & Bryant's political engagement with the anti-pornography side and, most damningly, the fact that they simply ignore research that contradicted their own when discussing their findings. Additionally, Alison King's 1993 essay "Mystery and Imagination: the Case of Pornography Effects Studies" (partial link here), is an excellent critique of 1980s porn effects research, with a particular focus on the work of Zillmann and Bryant.
Getting back to Pamela Paul, its not surprising that she's such a partisan for Zillmann and Bryant, considering she seems to be working from a similar set of sexual politics. While I don’t know her exact political leanings, based on what I’ve read of “Pornified” and interviews I’ve listened to, she seems to show a strong neo-conservative streak, an impression that's only strengthened by the fact that the overwhelming concern of her writing centers on the strength of marriage and family, and potential threats to that institution. Though she’s not overtly part of the religious right or making religious arguments (albeit, she does have good things to say about religious right anti-porn activism), she does work from a host of traditionalist assumptions about men and women. That women ultimately want to be in a faithful, emotionally supportive, monogamous relationship with a man, and that men basically need to be hammered into the role of faithful partner, something undermined by porn. Call it "Kinder, Küche, Kirche" feminism, if you will.
This brings me to one Pamela Paul's tallest assertions, apparently based on an interview with Jennings Bryant, in which he claims that the results of his study showed such clear and overwhelmingly negative effects that they were blocked by an ethics board from conducing further research where subjects were directly exposed to pornography. Paul implies that this has been the case ever since Zillmann & Bryant's original study. A simple search of the academic literature would dismiss this whopper of a claim (one I've seen a number of antis repeat over the last several years, BTW), and one really has to wonder about Paul's qualifications as a journalist for not even checking this story.
In fact, quite a bit of porn research was done throughout the 1980s, notably by the Linz and Donnerstein, the above-mentioned colleagues of Zillmann and Bryant, as well as Neil Malamuth. The results of all of this research was highly equivocal; Neil Malamuth (a wildly misunderstood researcher who is a strong believer in the idea that pornography has *some* behavioral effect) has conducted several meta-analyses of this research, and has led him to note negative behavioral effects only in the most violent subset of men and mainly from violent pornography (link), and this in combination with a certain set of pre-disposing psychological cofactors (what he terms "moderators") that he is currently engaged in studying. Most notably, Malamuth was not able to find any evidence that pornography promoted sexually aggressive behavior in psychologically normal men, something anti-porn crusaders like Robert Jensen and Gail Dines have been forced to admit time and again.
And this is not to mention the fact that pornography is routinely used in other areas of psychological research, notably studies of sexual attraction; for example, the controversial research on gender and sexual attraction by Meredith Chivers and Michael Bailey (link).
The story by Bryant, repeated by Pamela Paul, that research using pornography ceased following Zillmann & Bryant's early study is spun out of whole cloth, and is simply a dodgy cover for the fact that their alarming results were not, in fact, generally replicated. That a crusader like Jennings Bryant or Pamela Paul would float such a tale is par for the course. However, that somebody like a Salon columnist – Salon presumably being a journalistic source – would pass something like this along without some remedial fact-checking is truly shameful.