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Can we prevent rather than punish Sexual Violence?

When we take a 'public health' approach to the evidence about the link between porn and sexual violence, we find a large evidence base to show a range of harms beyond 'consume=rape'. The use of this simplified cause effect model to argue the harmlessness of pornography is politically not evidence driven. Politicians have underestimated the problem through reliance on formal reporting of sexual violence offences which have been used to declare a decline in rates rather than a decline in reporting. The UK's Crown Prosecution Service charged 2,822 defendants in 2017, compared with 3,621 in 2013-14 (down 23%) yet the total number of rapes reported has almost doubled since 2013-14. We can use the methods of public health to strengthen our understanding of how pornography contributes to sexual violence.

Firstly, there seems to be a dose response (more of something leads to greater effect), in other words, the more extreme content/level of use, the stronger the link to violence. Research has found more frequent SEM exposure resulted in increased beliefs that it was similar to real-world sex (social realism) and it was a useful source of information about sex (utility) and also higher reported sexual aggression.

Secondly, there is a clear map or plausible and coherent pathway between how viewing messages about sexual aggressive behaviour lead to sexual aggression which include:-

  • porn used as a source of education, contains problematic, violence-based content the widespread consumption of which internalises these as norms,

  • wider societal mirroring of these messages are replicated through everyday sexual harassment/assault and condoned through common rape myths ,

  • behaviour is not effectively challenged by bystanders or accessible formal reporting methods in the legal system amplifying the impunity with which perpetrators are treated by the laws designed to deter them.

In summary, porn is everywhere, its messages have permeated our society and how men view women and when they act on those views, they are not consistently punished.

Thirdly, we can see the link reproduced consistently across the world. The strongest form of evidence, (meta-analysis or overview of all relevant original research) found that consumption of pornography:-

“was associated with sexual aggression in the United States and internationally, among males and females, and in cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Associations were stronger for verbal than physical sexual aggression, although both were significant. The general pattern of results suggested that violent content may be an exacerbating factor” .

Not all men who view porn will go on to commit sexual violence and those who do are not the same (6). Some men will only use porn for the purposes of fantasy and it is important to understand that porn consumption does not influence all individuals in the same way .

Another strategy of public health we can use to better understand how to deal with the everyday nature of sexual harassment is taking a primary prevention approach that aims to stop the behaviour before it starts rather than prosecute incidents using the criminal justice system . We can also use a wider ecological model of the what causes sexual violence and the contributions from society or culture, country level factors as well as community and individual issues . We can also begin to build an evidence base of what works to tackle the wider determinants or upstream causes of sexual violence rather than treating the end results though criminal justice sanctions. We need to better understand how we test what is effective prevention. A real challenge is that we cannot isolate people from a porn informed society in order to prove its effects.

Finally, reframing sexual violence and the contribution of pornography in a wider map of society allows us to recognise the force of commercial vested interest in this million pound industry, in which only one operator for a group of top sites such as ‘Pornhub’, declared a profit of 356 million euros over 2016 and 2017 . Parallels to big tobacco dismissing the link between smoking and cancer come to mind.

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