Pornography: History, Use, and Impact

by Madeline Boltin and Kelsey Lund, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Although sexual stimulation is a primary reinforcer, visual stimuli eliciting sexual arousal is still often a taboo topic. Understanding of the potential beneficial and harmful outcomes of pornography use can allow for practitioners to better advocates for clients’ rights to sexual health and to provide resources for maladaptive sexual behaviors.

Historically, erotic art dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and has also been uncovered by archaeologists in other Asian, African, and European cultures. The Karma Sutra, a well known Indian tome outline different sexual acts and practices, dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century. Additionally, modern pornography is said to be the result of Victorian England (Ferguson & Hartley, 2009).

Possession of obscene pornography was originally categorized as criminal. Roth v. United States (1957) ruled that obscene material was considered to be material that was objectionable to the average person based upon community standards and where the media has only prurient and not artistic value. Miller v. California (1973) outlined more detailed guidelines as to what material could be categorized as obscene by stating that any media that ‘had undue interest in nudity, sex, or excretory functions and no redeeming social value were considered obscene’.

Research regarding the effects of exposure to pornography on sexual assault is inconsistent. Some believe that exposure to pornography increases negatives attitudes regarding sexuality and females. Some believe that exposure to pornography desensitizes and results in an increased risk of engaging in rape or sexual assault. On the other hand, pornography can be a way for individuals with built up sexual aggression to reduce their desire to engages in rape and sexual assault through viewing porn, (Ferguson & Hartley, 2009). In a literature review on the effect of exposure to pornography on sexual aggression , Seto, Maric, and Barbaree (2001) found no direct link between pornography use and sexual aggression. Most of the literature reviewed did no consider the link between individual characteristics and pornography exposure.

Pornography use does sometimes have maladaptive effects on viewers, including desensitization to sexual stimuli outside of pornographic context, negative body image perceptions, and unrealistic expectations about sex, (Owens, Behun, Manning, & Reid, 2012). However, pornography use may also have positive outcomes, including providing models for learning about sex, providing stimuli for discovering preferences, and facilitating sexual excitement with sexual partners. One Danish study (2008) found that both men and women who viewed porn had more satisfying sex lives, had healthier attitudes, and had healthier attitudes about the opposite gender.

It is important for helping professionals to consider the function of pornography use by clients. Recommendations for professionals include utilizing non-judgemental teaching about pornography. Rather than labeling porn as “good” or “bad” one can teach individuals how to talk about porn, to recognize differences between pron and reality, and to utilize porn in a way that is effective and healthy for the individual. Helping professionals may also recommend instruction-based sexual media for teaching specific skills such as masturbation. It is also recommended that helping professionals utilize resources that facilitate conversations around pornography versus real-life sexual situations. One such resource is Planet Porn. Planet Porn enables conversations around self-esteem, body image, boundaries, pleasure, consent, safer sex, emotions, relationships, gender, and sexual diversity. Additionally, it includes a discussion game where individuals have to decide if what is being described is sex you would see in porn, sex that would occur in a real situation, or sex that could occur with in both.

Ferguson, C. J., & Hartley, R. D. (2009). The pleasure is momentary…the expense damnable? Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(5), 323-329.
Campbell, L., & Kohut, T. (2016). The use and effects of pornography in romantic relationships.Current Opinion in Psychology, 6-10.
Seto, M. C., Maric, A., & Barbaree, H. E. (2001).The role of pornography in the etiology of sexual aggression. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 6(1), 35-53.
Eric W. Owens, Richard J. Behun, Jill C. Manning& Rory C. Reid (2012). The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19:1-2, 99-122.
Matthews, A., & Probst, C. (2017, July 12). 20 Pornography Facts That Will Shock You.Retrieved April 01, 2018, from shock-you
Planet Porn – A teaching pack about porn, sex, sexuality and gender. (n.d.).

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