Porn causes harm? Prove it!

There are a lot of voices out there saying that porn causes significant harms to people.  I’m one of them. 

There are also a number of people saying the opposite.  They argue, for instance, that no studies have proved a causal link between porn and the supposed harms that people like me claim exist.

On the one hand, the argument is pretty persuasive.  It works like this:

Most studies into the harms of pornography are correlational studies.  That is, they find links between porn and certain things.  They study a number of people who regularly view porn, compare them to people who don’t, and try and see if there are significant differences between the two groups.

These studies, by their very nature, cannot decisively prove a causal link between porn and a particular harm, they can simply prove a correlation.  So, say there is a correlation between porn and anxiety, it could be that porn might play a part in causing higher levels of anxiety.  Or, it could be that people who suffer from anxiety are more likely to view porn.  These studies just demonstrate correlation, not directional cause.

It’s at this point that people come out and say that there is no proof that porn causes any kind of serious harms for any people. For example, in a submission from the Scarlett Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association) a 2010 study is quoted as saying that “there is no causal relationship between seeing pornography under the age of 16 and having negative attitudes towards women.”*

But here’s the thing, using this logic no correlational study can definitively prove that porn doesn’t harm people either.  So that argument can be used in exactly the same way to argue the opposite viewpoint.  It simply dismisses correlational studies as irrelevant.

So why can’t we just conduct a study and find out once and for all whether porn definitively causes harm?

The answer is simple.  It’s neither ethically or practically possible.

Let’s say you wanted to find out the effects of porn on some adolescent males.  That would involve finding a group of young men and systematically exposing them to the same porn over a certain period of time.  You’d also need another group of similar young men who remain porn-free over the same period.  You’d then track both groups to see what happened to them. 

No university is going to allow researchers to systematically expose minors to porn.  And even if they could, it would be near impossible to create the kind of controls and limit the variables necessary to get the kind of definitive results we’re after.

So we work with correlational studies, as is the case for most areas of behavioural and social sciences.  And as Dr. William Struthers writes, “whenever there is a causal effect, a correlational relationship automatically follows.”  He goes on to conclude that “The presence of correlations between exposure to pornography and a host of social, psychological, emotional and spiritual problems is the smoke.  The ethical and practical limitations in proving there is a fire should not temporarily assuage us into a place where we deny that the fire exists.”

So the next time someone argues that there’s no direct proof that porn causes a number of harms, it’s worth remembering that they’re actually playing a sneaky game.  By saying there’s no proof they make it sound like those against porn are simply putting forward a moral argument and appealing to dodgy science…rather than acknowledging the way science in this field works and drawing reasonable conclusions based on what we’re able to know.

 

 

* Submission from the Scarlett Alliance to the Senate Inquiry on the harms of pornography to young people in Australia.  You can find it, and other, here.

** Struthers, William M. Wired for Intimacy : How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2009. P 30-33.