Consumption of pornography in the United States has climbed sharply with the proliferation of the Internet and the use of smartphones in particular. Some statistics report that more than 77 percent of Americans view pornography at least once a month.1 At least 30 percent of all Internet traffic is directed to pornographic websites.2
People of all ages—men, women, even children—are featured on pornographic websites. In adult porn women are often shown being disrespected, coerced, and physically and verbally abused. In a study that looked at 50 pornographic videos that were purchased or rented most often, 88 percent of the 304 scenes contained physical violence; 49 percent contained some form of verbal aggression. Even more disturbing is that 95 percent of the recipients of such treatment, almost all women, were either neutral in their feelings toward the abuse or appeared to respond with pleasure.3
While not all porn portrays physical or verbal violence, even nonviolent porn has been shown to affect consumers. Those who consume even nonviolent porn are more likely to support statements that agree with or even promote abuse and sexual aggression toward women and girls.4 Most porn depicts men as powerful and in charge, and women as submissive and obedient. This attitude sets the stage for unequal power dynamics in couple relationships and the resulting acceptance of verbal and physical aggression against women.
Porn consumption affects not only men’s attitudes toward women, but also their actions. In a study conducted in 2016, researchers concluded that “on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive [favorable] to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression.”5 Those who consume porn are more likely to use verbal pressure, drugs, and alcohol to coerce women into sex, and exposure to porn increases violent fantasies and violent assaults.6
A study in Australia looked at all studies from the 1980s that found a strong correlation between exposure to porn and aggressive attitudes. One study, conducted in 2006, concluded: “Exposure to sexually violent material increases male viewers’ acceptance of rape myths, desensitizes them to sexual violence, erodes their empathy for victims of violence, and informs more callous attitudes toward female victims.”7
What causes men to develop such demeaning attitudes? Sex and violence share a number of common brain pathways. Both behaviors evoke intense states of arousal. Fighting and mating share not only some of the same neural circuits, but also some of the same neurotransmitters and hormones that stimulate the brain’s reward and pleasure systems.
Scientists refer to “mirror cells,” brain cells that fire not only when we actually do things ourselves, or when we experience certain emotions, but also when we watch other people do those things.8 For example, we may cry at the funeral for someone we love; or we may also cry when we see somebody else crying for the loss of a loved one, even if we don’t know them. That’s why we may even cry at a sad, or happy, scene in a movie; our mirror cells place us in the scene.
Porn consumption affects not only men’s attitudes toward women, but also their actions.
Translating that into watching porn, consumers’ brains naturally start to respond to the emotions of the actors they’re watching on the screen. As they become aroused, their brains connect their feelings of arousal, almost as if they were present, as if they were actually having the experience.
When consumers repeatedly watch scenes of victims of physical and verbal violence who seem to consent or even find pleasure in being hurt, they come to believe that women like to be treated that way. Di McLeod, director of the Gold Coast Centre for Sexual Violence, stated: “In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender.”9
Most, if not all, of those who use porn say that watching porn is simply a private matter; that it doesn’t hurt anyone.
But a large body of research10 shows that watching porn makes consumers more likely to support violence against women, and to believe that women secretly enjoy being raped, which may lead to sexual aggression in real life.
The problem is complicated with the fact that porn use often escalates over time: the longer people watch porn, the more likely they’ll find themselves seeking out increasingly shocking, hardcore scenes, including violent content. The more violent porn a person watches, the more they are inclined to support violence and to act violently. One study found that “those with higher exposure to violent porn were six times more likely to have raped someone than those who had low past exposure.”11
While some people may think that porn is only that which they can purchase at some magazine stands, or watch on their computers, tablets, or cellular phones, porn, particularly violent porn, went public with the release of the books Fifty Shades of Grey and movies by the same title.
Writing on Foxnews.com, Dawn Hawkins said, “The popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey among women also sends a message to men that unrestrained domination is what women want. And, educated by porn, they know how to do it. A majority of men have been getting a regular diet of this kind of violent sex and degradation through porn for years. In it women are tied up and treated like animals and objects. Much of it is rape-themed.”12
Then she astutely concludes, “Hold up a mirror to Christian Grey and you’ll see the reflection of a culture saturated in exposure to violent pornography. This is the porn that has and continues to groom the next generation of men to believe that they are entitled to violent sexual behavior, and that women should enjoy it.”13
Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and who has written extensively about the way pornography teaches values, stated that “40 percent of abused women indicated that their partner used violent pornography.”14
She also cited research that found that men who view pornography tend to view their partners as less attractive. It affects negatively the way they see their own spouse because she will never be able to compare or compete with the countless and apparently nearly perfect women they see on the screen. She will probably never “act” the way those women do.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October gives us an opportunity to recognize that issues such as domestic violence do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, they have their origin and are reinforced by issues such as prior sexual abuse, sexual assault, and exposure to and abuse of pornography. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation highlights three ways domestic violence intersects with pornography:15
1Pornography sets expectations of violence and abuse. It acts as a form of sexual education, teaching children, young men, and adult males that female sexual partners should enjoy physical acts such as hitting, gagging, slapping, or nonconsensual sex. We are often asked questions by women at couples’ retreats about certain forms of sex which they were unaccustomed to before, questions their husbands are not asking, while at times requiring those forms of sex from their wives.
One woman told us how her husband demands sex every day. When she rejects his advances, he forces her. In other words, he rapes her.
In a study of 40 survivors of marital rape, pornography was used by one third of the abusive partners. In many cases women were forced to watch pornography, and to reenact what they had seen on screen.16
2Abusers sometimes use their own couple-made pornography or nude images to manipulate their victims. Abusers often use pornographic videos or nude pictures they have taken of their victims in order either to coerce or to punish victims in abusive relationships by threatening to share or actually sharing them online. The expression “revenge pornography” is not often connected to domestic violence or abusive relationships, but these phenomena often overlap.
Mary Anne Franks, professor at the University of Miami School of Law, stated, “Domestic violence sounds like a serious thing, and sharing pictures doesn’t always sound serious to people. But these things can’t be separated—nonconsensual [sharing of] pornography is becoming one of the most common ways to try to control and intimidate a partner.”17 Fortunately, at least 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws against nonconsensual sharing of videos or nude pictures.18
3Pornography use by domestic abusers can increase the odds of sexual assault. In a study of 271 battered women, in which 30 percent stated their abusers reportedly used pornography,19 “the majority of women (58 percent) whose abusers used pornography acknowledged that the pornography had affected their abuse.”
Research conducted by the journal Violence Against Women found a link between pornography use and marital rape, a form of domestic abuse.20
In a world of Internet clouds, tablets, computers, and handheld devices, the war against pornography and how it falsely portrays relationships and love will probably never be completely won. Politicians may continue to pass laws to try to control it. Some celebrities may speak against it, while others surrender to the temptation of money, fame, and the idea that they are producing art. Some athletes live exemplary lives, while others teach through their example that the powerful can take advantage of the weak. Singers and songwriters may write about love, while the lyrics of some styles of music continue to demean women and incite violence against them.
The church plays a unique role, by word and example, in teaching how women and the weak should be treated, and the proper role of sex within the context of marriage. Some Christians, just like those who don’t know Christ, may think that occasionally or regularly viewing pornography is a private matter and does not affect them.
But even occasional use of pornography affects how they view women, and, more important, how it affects their relationship with Christ. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9, ESV).21
So what are we to do if we’re caught in this tangled web?
1Start the journey to freedom immediately. We recommend breaking the addiction (yes, addiction) to pornography; the sooner the better. We’ve created a resource to help you get started. Visit www.newfreedomtolove.org for testimonials, sermons, seminars, and other links and resources that can help you get started on the journey toward freedom from porn addiction. Additional help and resources are available from gatewaytowholeness.com. In some cases, professional counseling may be necessary.
2It is a heart matter. Jesus made that clear when He said, “Good people do good things because of the good in their hearts. Bad people do bad things because of the evil in their hearts. Your words [and actions] show what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45, CEV).22 Solomon knew that as well when he wrote, “Carefully guard your thoughts because they are the source of true life” (Prov. 4:23, CEV).
Take these encouraging words and claim them for yourself: “The only defense against evil is the indwelling of Christ in the heart through faith in His righteousness. Unless we become vitally connected with God, we can never resist the unhallowed effects of self-love, self-indulgence, and temptation to sin. We may leave off many bad habits, for the time we may part company with Satan; but without a vital connection with God, through the surrender of ourselves to Him moment by moment, we shall be overcome.”23
3Recruit others. Freedom from pornography is not a battle we have to fight alone. Solomon explained: “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed” (Eccl. 4:9, NLT).24 Begin with your spouse or those closest to you; ask them to help you by being accountability partners. Loneliness often drives individuals to fill that void with porn.
While porn and intimate partner violence are dangerous kissing cousins, we don’t have to be their instruments, and our spouses and others their hapless victims. It is in our power to make the decision and take the steps necessary, beginning today, to end both of these toxic, poisonous devices of the devil before they destroy others and us.
Claudio and Pamela Consuegra are director and associate director (respectively) for the North American Division Department of Family Ministries.