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Evidence for benefits of censoring porn unconvincing, argue local paediatricians and psychiatrists

  • Recommend warm/communicative parent-child relationships, open discussions about sexual matters at home/school

BY Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Evidence available with regard to the beneficial effects of the censorship of pornography is less than convincing with the efficacy of such censorship measures being further limited due to the lack of reliable methods of censorship and the availability of a wide variety of alternative pornographic material, a group of local academics in the medical specialities of paediatrics and psychiatry noted.

These observations and recommendations were made by R. Waduge (a Lecturer attached to the University of Kelaniya Medical Faculty’s Paediatrics Department), A. Rodrigo (a Lecturer attached to the same Faculty’s Psychiatry Department), and U. Peiris (a Senior Lecturer attached to the same Faculty’s Psychiatry Department) in an opinion piece on “Imposing restrictions on pornography: Its potential impact and effectiveness in Sri Lanka” which was published in the Sri Lanka Journal of Psychiatry 2 (1) in June 2011. 

As per local media reports, though the Government has introduced measures to limit the accessibility and availability of pornography, including through the censorship, banning of websites containing sexually explicit material, and the active prosecution of Sri Lankans who appear on such websites, even the Police have acknowledged that the banning of porn sites is ineffective. Governmental authorities have argued in the media that with the growth of information technology and the exponential increase of internet usage including by children (Internet World Stats), a necessity has arisen to take steps to limit access to pornographic material in order to reduce sexual violence, safeguard children, and uphold social values.

In this regard, Waduge et al. observed that while many Western countries have adopted policies that encourage sel- regulation in the internet industry and end user-based voluntary use of filtering technologies that reduce access to pornography, in contrast, governments of more conservative societies such as those in China and in the Middle East have mandated the comprehensive blocking of access to content deemed unsuitable for users.

Pornography on the internet is part of a plethora of pornographic material in paper and electronic formats that are widely consumed in South Asian countries including Sri Lanka.

With regard to the public opinion and scientific evidence on the value of limiting pornography, Waduge et al. noted that it is divided, with conservative groups arguing that pornography corrupts the mind and causes the destabilisation of the moral and religious fabric of society, while liberals, as mentioned by P. Devlin in The Enforcement of Morals, believes that the consumption of such material should be left to individual discretion, at least when it concerns mentally competent adults.

Possible effects of consuming pornography

On the matter of the scientific data implicating pornography as a causal factor in violent sexual crimes, here too as N.M. Malamuth, T. Addison, and M. Ross observed in “Pornography and sexual aggression: Are there real effects and can we understand them?”, the scientific data remains equivocal. On the one hand, certain studies, such as “Obscenity and film censorship: An abridgment of the Williams Committee of Obscenity and Film Censorship in the United Kingdom report” by B. Williams, “The post-modern experiment: Science and ontology (a branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being and a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them) in experimental social psychology” by A. Brannigan, “Violent pornography, anti-woman thoughts, and anti-woman acts: In search of reliable effects” by W.A. Fisher and G. Grenier, and those conducted by the Commission of Obscenity and Pornography in the US, have concluded that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between pornography and rape.

On the other hand, certain other studies, such as “Social ethics: Morality and social policy” by T. Mappes and J. Zembaty and “Exposure to pornography and acceptance of rape myths” by M. Allen, T. Emmers, L. Gebhardt, and M.A. Giery, have found that exposure to sexually violent and degrading pornographic material increases the likelihood of aggression towards women, including unlawful acts of sexual violence, and is believed to lead to increased sexual callousness (among children and adolescents due to frequent exposure, per D. Zillman’s “Influence of unrestrained access to erotica on adolescents and young adults dispositions toward sexuality”), the greater likelihood of having violent sexual fantasies, and the greater acceptance of rape myths such as that women enjoy rape, thereby increasing the tendency to commit sexual crimes.

However, in “Personality, individual differences and preferences for the sexual media”, A.F. Bogaert argued that this association is only apparent in individuals with pre-existing aggressive and antisocial tendencies. Therefore, S. Boeringer assumed in “Pornography and sexual aggression: Associations of violent and non violent depictions with rape and rape proclivity” that a lack of a causal relationship of pornography to rape and other acts of sexual violence should be confined to non-degrading and non-violent pornographic material.

Youth exposure to pornography

Children’s exposure to sexually explicit material has been described in studies such as “Exposure to Internet pornography among children and adolescents: A national survey” by M. Ybarra and K. Mitchell, and “The nature and dynamics of Internet pornography exposure for youth” by C. Sabina, J. Wolak, and D. Finkelhor, as a normal experience which is related to age appropriate curiosity about sex. Further, studies such as “Frequent users of pornography. A population based epidemiological study of Swedish male adolescents” by C.G. Svedin, I. Akerman, and G. Priebe, “X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviours associated with US early adolescents exposure to sexually explicit media” by J.D. Brown and K.L. L’Engle, and “Associations between pornography consumption and sexual practices among adolescents in Sweden” by E. Haggstrom-Nordin, U. Hanson, and T. Tyden, had shown that exposure to pornography is gender-related in children and adults, with a definite pattern of male dominance. Meanwhile online pornography has become the commonest source of pornography for children and adolescents – 98% of male children and adolescents were exposed to sexually explicit material according to the study by Haggstrom-Nordin et al. This is due to, per A. Cooper’s “Sexuality and the Internet” and S.A. King’s “Internet gambling and pornography: Illustrative examples of the psychological consequences of communication anarchy”, easy access, affordability, acceptability, and perceived anonymity in terms of consumption.

A considerable number of adolescents, according to A. Stulhofer, V. Busko, and I. Landripet’s “Pornography, sexual socialisation, and satisfaction among young men”, were reported to be consuming sexually explicit material repeatedly, with such frequent users found to be viewing all forms of pornography including deviant and extreme forms such as violent pornography, animal pornography, and child pornography. Svedin et al. and Brown and L’Engle added that repeated exposure has a significant effect on both sexual attitudes and behaviour. In “The use of cyber pornography by young men in Hong Kong: Some psychosocial correlates”, C.B. Lam and D.K. Chan found that earlier sexual debut, buying or selling sex, the perpetration of penetrative sexual abuse, heightened sexual desire, and the higher acceptance of sexual harassment were common features among frequent users of pornography. Ybarra and Mitchell found that young persons with repeated intentional exposure to pornography were significantly more likely to engage in delinquency, the use of substances, and report physical and sexual victimisation. However, N. Malamuth and M. Huppin’s “Pornography and teenagers: The importance of individual differences” noted that a high rate of pornography use among adolescents alone did not predict sexual aggression but that it was frequent users with other risk factors and antisocial characteristics who were significantly more likely to engage in sexual aggression than non-users or seldom-users of pornography. Waduge et al. citing other studies, pointed out that this is suggestive of the fact that the effect of sexually explicit material on children’s attitudes and behaviours is partly dependent on the personal characteristics of such children.

Exposure to pornography in youth has been linked by Ybarra and Mitchell, Lam and Chan, and Malamuth and Huppin, to clear and consistent negative effects with attitudinal changes such as negative views of women, the acceptance of deviant or aggressive sexual behaviour, and changes in sexual practices including early sexual experimentation and sexual assault, while on the same token, Malamuth et al., and Malamuth and Huppin, have concluded that the link is weak. 

Still for all, M. Diamond emphasised in “The effects of pornography: An international perspective” that even though it has been suggested that such attitudinal changes may lead to increased sex crime rates among youth due to adolescents modelling their actions on what they have experienced in pornography, in countries with liberal anti-obscenity laws, both a marked increase in pornography usage and a marked decrease in sexual crimes, more so where young persons were perpetrators or victims, were seen.

Discourse over censorship

In short, as per Stulhofer et al. and G.M. Hald and N.M. Malamuth’s “Self perceived effects of pornography consumption”, surveys done in more traditional cultures reported greater negative effects of pornography when compared to studies conducted in more liberal societies. Studies such as Ybarra and Mitchell, J. Bryant and S.C. Rockwell’s “Effects of massive exposure to sexually oriented prime time television on adolescents’ moral judgement”, B. Gunter’s “Media sex: What are the issues?”, J.L. Peterson, K.A. Moore, and F.F. Furstenberg’s “Television viewing and early initiation of sexual intercourse: Is there a link?”, and P.M. Greenfield’s “Inadvertent exposure to pornography on the Internet: Implications of peer to peer file sharing networks for child development and families”, noted that youth raised in families where sex is not a permissible subject for open discussion and those who had less education about sexuality being more vulnerable to the negative influences of pornography.

Therefore, according to Ybarra and Mitchell, Gunter, and Greenfield, a warm and communicative parent-child relationship has been found to be more important than communicating about specific sexual topics in mitigating the negative effects of pornography, including sexual risk taking, while Ybarra and Mitchell further noted that the satisfactory mental wellbeing of children was found to be a protective factor against the negative effects of pornography use.

Moreover, Ybarra and Mitchell added that adolescents with a high rate of pornography use were also more likely to display features of depression than non-users, which according to Cooper, and E. Quayle, M. Vaughan and M. Taylor’s “Sex offenders. Internet child abuse images and emotional avoidance: The importance of values”, may be due to the compulsive use of sexually explicit material in order to deal with feelings of discomfort or emotional distress.

The Sri Lankan context

In Sri Lanka, D.S.G. Mettanada, D.G.H. de Silva, Y.C. Jayasinghe, T.R.W. Waduge, A. Pathmeswaran, and A.P.S.D. Abeysinghe’s “A study on adolescent sexual and violent behaviour, drugs, and alcohol abuse and its relationship to the past experience”, which was a study conducted among students between the ages of 18 and 19 years, found that 51% of males and 2% of females have been exposed to pornography and that such exposure reportedly had an effect on their sexual behaviour.

However, a Health Ministry survey reported that 29% of school children over the age of 15 years watched pornographic movies frequently. With regard to “Sri Lankan parents’ attitude towards adolescent reproductive and sexual health education needs: A qualitative study”, P.K.S. Godamune found that most parents were of the view that providing information on television about sexual matters was unacceptable as they believed that this would tempt children to engage in premature sexual activity. In a cross-sectional survey of a sample of 3,134 students, B. Perera in “Sexual health education in schools: What do pupils in Sri Lanka think?”, found that 84.9% of male students and 82.3% of female students supported sex education programmes in schools, while among the students who opposed the provision of sex education in schools, 35% believed that such would lead to an early sexual debut.

Hence, noting that available evidence suggests that pornographic consumption among Sri Lankan adolescents is considerable and that such exposure to sexually explicit material may influence both sexual attitudes and activity including sexual aggression in youth, Waduge et al. called for the promotion of counterbalancing strategies to the effect of having warm, communicative parent-child relationships and open discussions about sexual matters at home and at school, as opposed to imposing restrictive measures such as censorship and punitive legislation.