In 2007, the pornography website Pornhub averaged 1 million visits per day. Picture: Pexels

In 2007, the pornography website Pornhub averaged 1 million visits per day. By 2018 this had increased to 92 million visits per day – or 33.5 billion views over the course of a year.

As an interdisciplinary group of “sexademics”, we’re interested in porn’s cultural role and impact. A common question we hear is whether this growth in porn consumption is good or bad for society.

Of course, the honest-but-unsatisfying answer is: It depends. But sometimes studying various aspects of porn consumption can change the way we think about it.

You might have heard, for example, that porn fuels misogynistic attitudes and sexual violence.

If this were the case, you would think that people who consumed a lot of porn would hold particularly negative views towards women.

So we decided to study a group of men whom we’ve dubbed “porn superfans” – those who are so enthusiastic about porn that they’ll attend the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. We wanted to compare their attitudes about gender equality to those of everyday Americans.

Profiling the superfans

Our study was inspired, in part, by the journalists and politicians who have said that porn consumption is at epidemic levels – so much so that it constitutes a public health crisis.

They write and speak of the perils of porn addiction and objectification, how porn encourages “hatred of women” and “sexual toxicity”.

Would this play out in the results of our study?

The 294 expo attendees we surveyed certainly differed from the general population in a number of ways.

Their average age was 44 years old. Almost half – 47.3% – indicated that they watched porn “less than once a day, but more than once a week.” Over one-third – 36.1% – indicated they watch porn “every day.” In other words, over 80% of the attendees in our sample watched porn multiple times a week. Only 34.1% of them were married, but they were highly educated: 60.5% had a college degree or higher.

We compared these results to the results from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted every couple of years that charts social trends.

This survey only asks whether people have seen an X-rated movie in the last year, and 37.6% of the men indicated that they had. Just over half of the men in the General Social Survey sample were married, while just 28.7% of them had a college degree or higher.

Misogyny unmasked?

But we were most interested in comparing the gender attitudes of each group. So we asked the expo attendees the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with four statements from the General Social Survey:

“A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.”

“Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women.”

“It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

“Because of past discrimination, employers should make special efforts to hire and promote qualified women.”

After parsing the results, we discovered that male porn superfans actually expressed more progressive attitudes towards gender equality on two of the questions. For two others, they indicated just as progressive – or, said another way, just as sexist – attitudes as the general population.

Over 90% of porn superfans – compared to just over 70% of the GSS sample – agreed that working mothers can have just as warm and secure relationships with their children than non-working mothers.

For the statement that men and women should hold traditional gender roles within a family, 80% of porn superfans disagreed. Nationally, 73% percent of respondents disagree with this statement.

A similar proportion – 80% – of AVN Expo attendees and General Social Survey respondents disagreed with the statement that men, rather than women, were more emotionally suited for politics.

Although a majority of porn superfans and General Social Survey respondents – 72.4% and 74.5%, respectively – agreed that women, due to past discrimination, should get special preference in the workplace, this was the least supported statement we tested. Notably, however, this level of support is higher than a recent national poll indicating that 65% of Americans support affirmative action for women.

Porn crisis or moral panic?

These findings challenge what porn scholars call the “negative effects paradigm,” which sees porn as an inherently bad thing that cultivates harmful attitudes.

Our survey isn’t the only one that upends this way of thinking. A 2016 study based on General Social Survey data found that male porn consumers held more egalitarian views on women in position of power, women working outside the home, and abortion than those who didn’t view porn.

And while most porn is produced and consumed by men, a growing number of women – straight and LGBTQ – are producing porn and consuming different genres of porn, a trend that’s largely been ignored.

For now, it’s probably best to pump the brakes on the idea that pornography causes negative attitudes toward women. The evidence just isn’t there, and much of today’s rhetoric about pornography seems to be more of a moral panic than public health crisis.

The Conversation

The Conversation