The forbidden study of porn

Why don't we know more about smut's impact? Because the research is deemed unethical

By Tracy Clark-Flory
March 8, 2010 5:01PM (UTC)
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Even within the cutting-edge world of sex research, there is one big scientific blind spot: porn. In Sunday's Washington Post, Pamela Paul, author of "Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families," points out that we don't know much about pornography's effect on the Internet generation. She also offers an interesting explanation for why: Academic studies are rarely approved, because they aren't deemed "ethically up to snuff."

In 1979, a "powerful peer-reviewed" University of Alabama study on "the effects of porn viewing on men" found  that "men who consumed large amounts of pornography were less likely to want daughters, less likely to support women's equality and more forgiving of criminal rape" and "also grossly overestimated Americans' likelihood to engage in group sex and bestiality." Jennings Bryant, the lead researcher behind the study, told Paul: "If you can't demonstrate that what you're doing to research participants is ultimately beneficial and not detrimental, and you can't eradicate any harm, you're required not to do that thing again." Grad students who have tried to follow up on the landmark findings have been given the red light.


Of course, there are ways to get around that ethical hitch -- for instance, devising studies that don't require subjects to log hours at the lab watching porn -- but the research is often left to enterprising journalists like Paul, who seem to have an agenda of their own, a moral point to make about the corrupting force of porn. And as she writes in the Post, she is frequently approached by young people who "pass along an unpopular message: Growing up on porn is terrible." (But of course having written a book titled "Pornified," she is likely to attract those that identify with her message, and thus her hypothesis is continually reinforced.) On the flip side, there are members of the "porned" generation, like myself, who feel that their experience of "growing up on porn" can't be fairly or accurately summarized as "terrible." And, sometimes, we offer up our own nuanced -- and, believed me, conflicted -- experiences to counter the anti-porn polemics.

This all makes for scintillating debate, but it's not science. On one point, Paul and I can agree: "An entire generation is being kept in the dark about pornography's effects" -- and that too seems ethically questionable.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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