Psychologists have long recognised the role pornography has played in the sexualisation of women and girls and its potential harmful effects on children and young people. However with the proliferation of the Internet, and the increasingly violent nature of much pornographic content, serious concerns are now emerging within and beyond psychology about the impact on young people’s expectations of sex and sexuality, the role pornography plays in facilitating and normalising violence against women, and how it contributes more broadly to representations and normative understandings about sex, sexuality and gender in society. Pornography has thus been implicated in a number of social issues that have been the subject of recent government inquiries. Through its advocacy, the APS has provided psychological knowledge to inform government policy and public debate in these areas, as outlined below.
Pornography and cyber safety for children and young people
The APS has raised serious concerns about the impact of children’s access to online technologies, particularly content and contact risks associated with this access. Children are likely to be exposed to online technology from a very young age and increasingly have immediate and ongoing access to online environments. Among other content that is potentially harmful for children (such as gambling advertising), pornography is readily available on the Internet, with one source estimating that 12 per cent of all websites are pornography sites, and 25 per cent of all search engine requests are for pornography (English, 2005). Most boys aged from 13 years old have seen pornography online, with access being both accidental (often through search engines) and effortless (as well as anonymous).
Because of this proliferation, pornography increasingly plays a significant role in shaping social norms in relation to sexuality, particularly among young people. This is associated with increased confusion and anxiety as young people feel pressured to behave in ways commonly displayed in pornography.
Furthermore, the APS has echoed the American Psychological Association’s concerns about the links between exposure of children to pornography and the sexual abuse of children, and between pornography and sex trafficking, including trafficking for the purpose of producing pornography and the potential for pornography to fuel trafficking via increased demand (APA, 2015).
Despite their ability to effectively use online technologies, children and young people still need protection from content that exploits their immaturity and could harm their development. Viewing highly sexualised or violent pornographic material has many risks for children’s psychological development and mental health, by potentially skewing their views of normality and acceptable behaviour at a crucial time of development.
In particular, the APS has raised concerns related to the possible harmful impacts of sexting (the taking and sending of sexually explicit images). While sexting is distinctly different to pornography (and can be a healthy form of sexual exploration where it is consensual), there is increasing pressure on young people (particularly young women) to take and send sexually explicit images, with potential for intentional harm by others including cyber bullying, harassment, sexual abuse and pornographic use of the images.
The APS has recommended a range of cyber safety strategies that aim to give children, along with their parents/carers and teachers, safe and responsible ways of using and accessing online environments, ensuring online risks are managed and online experiences are safe and positive. Industry regulation, enforcement and Internet filtering can also contribute to minimising such risks.1
Many of the strategies to address access to pornography by young people centre around the support, education and limits provided to children. These are not specific to the Internet, as they apply to how children are supported, protected and assisted to thrive in all aspects of their lives. Enhancing online safety for children and young people also involves supporting the development of young people as competent online citizens, promoting online literacy and fostering their ability to critique information. Specifically, the APS has recommended that parents and schools provide young people with the knowledge to critique pornography and understand that the imagery has been constructed for a commercial purpose. It is also recommended that adequate sex education is provided that includes consideration of the role of pornography (among other factors) on sexual behaviours and decisions, how to make safe choices and what makes for healthy relationships.
Pornography’s role in the sexualisation of women and girls
The sexualisation of women and girls is a specific outcome of pornography (but of course is not limited to this medium). Sexualisation occurs when (among other things) a person’s only ascribed value comes from his or her sexual appeal and behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics. According to the report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls (APA, 2007), the cumulative exposure of children and young people to sexualised images and themes has negative effects in many areas, including self-objectification, links with eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression or depressed mood and diminished sexual health.
All forms of media provide examples of sexualised images of girls and women, but these images are ubiquitous in most pornography. Research on pornography imagery indicates that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person).
The APS has raised concerns about the ways in which the sexualisation of girls and women contributes to broader societal consequences, such as sexism and sexist attitudes. The APS has also expressed concern that in reality, much pornographic content depicts unsafe sexual acts that are harmful for sexual health, and frequently overlook crucial notions of mutual pleasure (or female pleasure), respect and negotiating consent.
APS recommendations and actions
The APS has contributed to both government policy through Senate inquiries and public debates about the sexualisation of women and girls. A tip sheet has been produced for helping girls develop a positive self-image as a way of resisting mainstream (and extreme) characterisations of girls as sexual objects. Echoing the APA Task Force’s recommendations, the APS has urged further research to explore the relationship between the sexualisation of girls and societal issues such as sexual abuse, child pornography, child prostitution, and the trafficking of girls. More generally, the APS has provided recommendations in this area in relation to psychological practice, education and training, public policy and public awareness.
Pornography and sexual violence
A fundamental concern about the harmful impact of pornography is the predominance (and increase) of sexual aggression and violence, the overwhelming majority of which is towards women. Research has found that almost 90 per cent of scenes in pornographic videos portrayed physical aggression while nearly half contained verbal aggression, and that almost all (94%) showed the aggression perpetrated against women (Wosnitzer & Bridges, 2007). Of equal concern is the depicted response from women to this violence, with most acts of aggression (9 in 10 in this study) being met with a neutral or a positive response by the women depicted.
At an individual level, this violence impacts directly on relationship and sex expectations and norms, with research pointing to a link between viewing pornography and increased aggressive attitudes and aggression towards women (e.g., Hald, Malamuth, & Yuen, 2010).
The negative impact of violence on the health and wellbeing of individuals, groups and communities is of great concern. There is increasing awareness around the role pornography plays in reinforcing the social acceptance of violence. More broadly, pornography is a vehicle through which cultural norms are transmitted and embedded in our social, sexual and personal relations, strongly influencing what sort of behaviour we consider appropriate and the types of relationships we consider healthy. These skewed norms constrain the everyday lives of women and girls and the possibility of fair and ethical gender relations.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to be respected, safe and free from violence, harassment and bullying. To minimise the harmful impacts of pornography therefore, the APS has argued that addressing gender inequality and raising the status of women are essential if pornography’s role as a ‘cultural facilitator’ of violence against women is to be recognised and eliminated.
The APS has highlighted a range of concerns about the harmful impacts of pornography, particularly on children, young people and women. Attention has been drawn to the content and contact harms of pornographic material, with specific reference to the role pornography plays in setting relationship and sexual norms among children and young people, in the sexualisation of women and girls, and in facilitating and normalising violence both at an individual and social level. A range of strategies to address and minimise harm have been recommended to inform public debate and policy.
Emma Sampson MAPS and Heather Gridley FAPS
Public Interest team, APS National Office
- American Psychological Association. (2014). Report of the Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/trafficking/report.aspx
- American Psychological Association. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html
- English, B. (2005). The secret life of boys: Pornography is a mouse click away, and kids are being exposed to it in ever-increasing numbers. Cited in the American Psychological Association. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html
- Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M. & Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and attitudes supporting violence against women: revisiting the relationship in nonexperimental studies. Aggressive Behaviour, 36(1), 14-20.
- Wosnitzer, R. J. and Bridges, A. (2007). Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography: A Content Analysis Update. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, San Francisco. Available from CA online at http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p170523_index.html.