Does Watching Porn Make You Sexist? The Answer May Shock You

There shouldn't be a debate — access to internet pornography should neither be limited nor dismantled for those who are of age. While as a practicing feminist (not to mention a human with perfectly good eyesight), I believe that the majority of internet porn exploits and demeans women (and is just about as sexy as watching a dentist maniacally poke someone's gums with a sickle probe), pornography should not be cited as the source of our society's sexist practices.

Indiana University's Department of Telecommunications recently published a study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly that aimed to determine whether pornography consumption could reduce an individual's sympathy and compassion towards women. Researchers Paul J. Wright and Michelle Funk wanted to know why many Americans continue to oppose affirmative action for women — a good and noble endeavor. Wright and Funk surveyed a mere 190 adults (problem number one with this study) on their pornography viewing habits and perceptions of wage gaps and discrimination against women in the workplace to see if there was a connection. Ultimately they found that porn could act as a social influence that undermined its consumers' support for affirmative action programs for women.

Jezebel aptly titled a reaction to Wright and Funk's work as "Department of Duh Study," and noted that since so much pornography showcases the humiliation of women, it is not surprising that viewers might then adopt the mindset that all women deserve similarly objectifying treatment. But Jezebel’s response further complicated Wright and Funk's results, pointing out that if all porn affects audiences equally (which Wright and Funk's research assumed), then perhaps all it takes to begin to perceive women as less deserving of equal treatment is simply to watch them participate in the act of sex itself.

Jezebel makes an important conjecture, and before we parse out our "cultural attitudes about gender in the context of sex" (which are problematic, undeniably), we need to take a step back from the common conversation of scrutinizing pornography. Yes, much of pornography relies on the derision of women, and yes, formerly taboo and potentially damaging fetishes have probably become more mainstream and acceptable due to the advent of the internet and the sense of community it can foster. But seeking a connection between pornography consumption and aggression or pornography consumption and rape is not a productive way to address the sexism that is deeply ingrained in our culture. Women have been the victims of gender-based violence and general subordinance since way before the publication of the first sexually explicit engravings, the I Modi, in the 16th century. It's not exactly like women were ruling the world when the dowry practice was in its heyday.

Researchers often examine pornography looking for an explanation for why people are misogynistic or sexist or misbehaved. But blaming a rapist or chauvinist’s behavior on a porn habit seems like a convenient and short-term solution to me. Pornography exists because there is a demand. A skin flick that demeans women becomes popular because viewers already possess low opinions of women. This is not about worshipping at the altar of net freedom or anything like that, it is just more important for us, as a society, not to become distracted by the idea of how pornography influences behavior. Sure, watching porn may cause viewers to develop unrealistic expectations for their personal sex lives or inspire viewers to replicate moves they saw on the smut screen. But the sexism in our society that allows for rapes in the military to remain underreported or for high school football stars in Ohio to document the sexual assault of an intoxicated girl without reservations has nothing to do with the accessibility of internet pornography. These events, along with the popularity of internet pornography, instead demonstrate that we have a larger societal problem at hand — one with origins in the ways we structure family life, and in the ways we conceive of the natural differences between men and women.