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Annals of the International Communication Association
ISSN: 2380-8985 (Print) 2380-8977 (Online) Journal homepage:
Pornography and Sexual Aggression: A Social
Learning Theory Analysis
James V.P. Check & Neil M. Malamuth
To cite this article: James V.P. Check & Neil M. Malamuth (1986) Pornography and Sexual
Aggression: A Social Learning Theory Analysis, Annals of the International Communication
Association, 9:1, 181-213, DOI: 10.1080/23808985.1986.11678607
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Published online: 18 May 2016.
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6. Pornography and
Sexual Aggression:
A Social learning
Theory Analysis
York University • University of California, Los Angeles
N the late 1960s, the U.S. Congress, in Public Law 9O~100,
found the traffic in obscenity and pornography to be "a matter
of national concern" and established the President's Commis·
sion on Obscenity and Pornography to investigate the matter. After an
expenditure of more than a million dollars and the writing of no fewer than
nine volumes of research reports, the commission reached the following
conclusion (1970, p. 139):
If a case is to be made against "pornography" in 1970, it will have to be made
on grounds other than demonstrated effects of a damaging personal or
social nature.
This view stands in apparent sharp contrast to the views of a number of
feminist writers who suggest that pornography· does indeed have effects
that are personally and socially damaging to women (for example,
Brownmiller, 1975; Gager & Schurr, 1976). Our purpose in this chapter is
to reconsider the pornography research literature from the perspective of
Bandura's (1977) socialleaming theory, especially as it applies to the
feminist view. It will be argued that the Pornography Commission and the
feminists do not in fact hold opposite views, and that social learning theory
AUTHORS' NOTE: The writing of this chapter was supported in part by Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship 452·81·3574, awarded to the
first author. We wish sincerely to thank Gordon Barnes, Norman Endler, Bradley McKenzie
Arie Nadlert and James Nickels for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the essay.
Correspondence and requests for reprints: James V.P. Check, Department of Psychology,
York Universityt 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M3J IP3.
can encompass both, thus providing a more parsimonious explanation of
the research findings. In addition, it will be shown that social learning
theory can generate additional empirically testable predictions about
pornography effects, predictions not derived from the feminist position.
First, however, let us consider the nature of the feminist view.
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Feminism and Pornography
Many feminists contend that pornography constitutes "hate literature"
against women, in which women are degraded, debased, dehumanized,
and are the victims of a wide variety of abusive and violent acts, including
rape. It is argued that in our patriarchal society, where men hold the reins
of power, pornography is constructed by men, for men, and therefore
reflects the domination and power of men over women, as well as male
hostility toward women. Further, feminists contend that this type of
content supports similar attitudes and behavior toward women in the
"real" world (e.g., Brownmiller, 1975; Morgan, 1980; Russell, 1980, 1984).
It should be noted, however, that feminists distinguish pornography
from sex education materials and more "artistic" forms of erotica, which
they do not consider objectionable since these stimuli provide positive
forms of both sexual and nonsexual (for example, emotional) stimulation
without dehumanizing or condoning violence against either men or
women (Lederer, 1980; Longino, 1980; Morgan, 1980). The feminist
position regarding the effects of pornography clearly stems from a
definition of pornography that is ideologically different from that of the
Pornography Commission. The commission in fact avoided the use of the
term "pornography" in its report (1970), preferring instead to use such
terms as "explicit sexual materials" or "erotica." Thus, the commission's
mandate was to explore the possible antisocial effects of exposure to any
and all forms of sexual materials, without distinguishing among varied
types of sexually explicit depictions. (Note, however, that the researchers
generally excluded sexually violent materials from their investigations.) In
essence, then, the Pornography Commission was testing the hypotheses
that "sex is okay" as contrasted with the opposite notion that sexual
activity of any kind is bad, other than for the purposes of procreation
within marriage. As has been noted, however, feminists do not object to
positive forms of sexuality in erotic literature, and thus do not necessarily
disagree with the commission's theoretical viewpoint. Rather, feminist
objections stem from the argument that much of the content of real~world
pornography is antifemale because it degrades, and abuses women, and
that it is this specific content that can have antisocial effects. This feminist
distinction between "erotic" and "pornographic" literature is most clearly
illustrated in Gloria Steinem's (1980, p. 37) writings:
Pornography and Sexual Aggression
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Look at any photo or film of people making love; really making love. The
images may be diverse, but there is usually a sensuality and touch and
warmth, an acceptance of bodies and nerve endings. There is always a
spontaneous sense of people who are there because they want to be, out of
shared pleasure.
Now look at any depiction of sex in which there is clear force, or an unequal
power that spells coercion. It may be very blatant, with weapons of torture or
bondage, wounds and bruises, some clear humiliation, or an adult's sexual
power being used over a child. It may be much more subtle: a physical
attitude of conquerer and victim, the use of race or class difference to imply
the same thing, perhaps a very unequal nudity, with one person exposed and
vulnerable while the other is clothed. In either case, there is no sense ofequal
choice or equal power.
Feminist writers have argued that the true nature of "pornography" (as
previously defined) cannot be fully understood without an understanding
of the larger sociocultural context within which pornography occurs. As
was previously noted, feminists are not concerned only with the potential
effects of pornography, but also with the fact that it is an expression of the
patriarchal values and nature of our society, especially with respect to
male-female relations. As early as 1969, Kate Millett suggested in her book
Sexual Politics that male domination and female subjugation are central
themes of literary descriptions of sexual activity and that sexuality and
cruelty are linked to the maintenance of patriarchy. From a more radical
perspective, Dworkin (1980, p. 289) has stated recently that
pornography is not a genre of expression separate and different from the
rest of life: it is a genre of expression fully in harmony with any culture in
which it flourishes.... Pornography exists because men despise women,
and men despise women in Part because pornography exists.
Similarly, Brownmiller (1975, p. 443) has claimed pornography is antifemale:
Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize
women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free
sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition. The staple of porn will
always be the naked female body, breasts and genitals exposed, because as
man devised it, her naked body is the female's "shame," her private Parts the
private proPerty of man, while his are the ancient, holy, universal, patriarchal
instrument of his power, his rule by force over her. Pornography is the
undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda.
It can be seen, therefore, that pornography for feminists is not only a
social phenomenon, with potential antisocial effects, but also a political
phenomenon; a medium for expressing norms about male power,
aggression, and domination, which as Diamond (1980) has argued
functions as a social control mechanism for keeping women subordinate
to men. As will become apparent later, this emphasis on the reciprocal
relationship between pornography and women's subordinate, subjugated
status in our society has important implications for a social learning theory
interpretation of the feminist position.
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Social Learning Theory and the Feminist Position
According to Bandura (1973, 1977), social learning theory includes (but
is not restricted to) the theory of how behaviors are acquired and/or are
affected by observing others behave (hence the term "modeling" and
((observational learning"). Socialleaming theory applies equally to children
and adults, since "modeling is a continuous process in which new
behaviors are acquired and existing patterns to some extent modified by
exposure to influences from diverse actual and symbolic models at all
periods of life" (Bandura, 1973, p. 70). It may also be argued that social
learning theory is relevant to behavior depicted in both visual and written
pornography, since it has been found that people can learn equally from
behavioral demonstration, pictorial representation, and verbal description
(Bandura & Mischel, 1965; Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Prentice, 1972).
Social learning theorists would predict that modeling influences in
pornography can (a) teach novel modes of sexual behavior, (b) serve to
facilitate already learned socially acceptable forms of sexual behavior, and
(c) strengthen or weaken inhibitions over previously learned but socially
unacceptable forms of sexual behavior (Bandura, 1977). An important
distinction Bandura (1977; 1983) makes is between the acquisition of
behavioral capacities or inclinations as opposed to their behavioral
expression or overt manifestation. For example, a child may learn the
behaviors expected of a soldier by watching war movies, but not act these
out unless placed in a similar situation. Therefore, the learning that has
taken place may not be apparent in any direct modeling. With respect to
pornography, exposure to certain depictions may lead to greater acceptance of some behaviors and the learning of some potential acts. Such
learning may not, however, be actually manifested in direct modeling until
the "right" environmental circumstances are present, such as when
disinhibitory influences are present. For example, a man may learn from
violent pornography that rape may be pleasurable to the assailant and
victim, but in the context of most circumstances such learning may only be
manifested indirectly, for example, in his behavior as a member of a jury in
a rape trial or in his conversations in reacting to the reported sexual
aggression of others (Malamuth & Lindstrom, 1984). However, under
relatively unusual circumstances, such as in war time (Malamuth, 1981c),
the learned behavioral capacity may actually be translated into overt
violent behavior, such as committing a rape.
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Pornography and Sexual Aggression
The Pornography Commission's work was primarily relevant to the first
two processes listed above, because the researchers generally chose to
exclude depictions of sexual violence and other socially unacceptable
behavior (for example, rape, pedophilia, sadomasochism, and bestiality).
The feminist position is encompassed under the first and third modeling
influences of pornography, that is, the learning of new antisocial sexual
behaviors toward women and the strengthening or weakening of inhibitions against such behaviors. Thus, the feminist viewpoint may be
reinterpreted in social learning terms to mean that pornography often
presents a model of human sexual behavior that both teaches and
condones the abuse of women, with subsequent antisocial effects on
readers' actual attitudes and behavior toward women. Such an interpretation seems reasonable in light of the fact that modeling influences have
been previously found to be particularly relevant to media presentations of
socially unacceptable forms of behavior, such as aggression. Extensive
research has shown, for example, that television violence both lowers the
threshold of aggression and shapes its forms. This generally occurs
through both the instruction and sanction of aggressive methods,
especially with reference to the usefulness of violence in gaining desired
ends (see Bandura, 1973; Comstock, 1983; Goranson, 1970; Huesmann,
1982; and Siegel, 1970, for reviews of this literature). In fact, many of the
principles of the disinhibitory effects of modeling were founded on
experiments using aggression as the dependent variable (Bandura, 1973).
It can be seen, therefore, that social learning theory, at least at the
general level, allows for the possibility that certain types of pornography
(for example, violent pornography) can have antisocial effects, whereas
other types may even have prosocial impact. Let us now more closely
examine the two major relevant determinants of modeling effects as they
apply to pornography effects: Antecedent and Consequent determinants.
Antecedent Determinants
Antecedent determinants refer to events that occur prior to or in
conjunction with the behavior in question. Two types of learning are
relevant to the present analysis: symbolic expectancy learning and
vicarious expectancy learning. Symbolic expectancy learning is a process
whereby an arousing stimulus (a naked woman) is SYmbolically (pictorially) paired with a nonarousing stimulus (women's boots), and over time the
previously neutral stimulus comes to have arousing properties. Rachman
(1966) has shown the effectiveness of this process in the development of a
boot fetish. Similarly, McGuire, Carlisle, and Young (1965) have shown
that deviant sexual behavior can develop through masturbatory condi~
tioning, as a result of the pairing of deviant fantasies with the pleasurable
sensations associated with masturbation (see also Evans, 1968; Jackson,
1969; Marquis, 1970). It would therefore seem reasonable to assume that
symbolic expectancy learning would also occur when violence and
sexuality are paired in pornography, as a result of the more direct process
of pairing sexual arousal and violence:
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The elicitation of sexual arousal within a violent context may result in a
conditioning process whereby violent acts become associated with sexual
pleasure, a highly powerful unconditioned stimulus and reinforcer. (Malamuth, Heim, & Feshbach, 1980, p. 407)
Vicarious expectancy learning is another, more direct type of expectancy learning. An individual comes to experience a state of arousal in the
presence of a previously nonarousing stimulus as a result of observing
others become aroused to the stimulus. This type of modeled affect
"generates vicarious arousal through an intervening self-arousal process
in which the observed consequences are imagined mainly as occurring to
oneself in similar situations" (Bandura, 1977, p. 66). With respect to
pornography, the principle of vicarious expectancy learning would predict
that a man can come to believe that he might get sexual satisfaction from
raping a woman as a result of reading about another man enjoying rape.
Consequent Determinants
As Bandura (1973, p. 69) has noted, the functional value or consequences of behavior are major determinants of the inhibitory and
disinhibitory effects of observational learning. With respect to pornography effects, the most important consequent process is vicarious
reinforcement. Thus, observing a model engage in an apparently enjoyable
but unacceptable activity increases modeling if the model is either
rewarded in some way, or-perhaps more important-goes unpunished
when punishment is expected. Vicarious reinforcement may also be
superior to directly experienced outcomes (in terms of effects on
behavior) because the observer is not distracted by cues from his own
performance of the behavior (Bandura, 1977, p. 122). With respect to
pornography, the principle of vicarious reinforcement suggests a number
of effects relevant to the feminist position. First, to the extent that the
chances of getting caught and punished are a deterrent to sexually violent
acts such as rape, observing an unpunished rape in pornography should
facilitate disinhibition of rape behavior. (Note the assumption that the
person has some predisposition to rape in the first place.) On the other
hand, observing a rapist experience severe sanctions for his behavior (for
instance, a long prison sentence in a penitentiary where the other inmates
try to kill him because he is a sex offender) should serve to strengthen
inhibitions against rape. Second, portrayals of violence against women in
which the woman is seen as enjoying the assault should vicariously
reinforce the observer for such acts. In contrast, observing the victim's
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Pornography and Sexual Aggression
pain and suffering should vicariously punish the observer for similar
behavior (assuming that the suffering of the victim is not rewarding to most
subjects). Third, in the case of a pornographic rape portrayal, the observer
would be vicariously reinforced to the extent that force or pain is effective
in subduing the woman, or vicariously punished to the extent that the
observed force results in retaliation from the victim, or results in the
victim's trying successfully to summon help. Note again that these
generalizations are especially applicable to cases where the model and
situation are similar or relevant to the observer himself, so that the
observer believes that the observed consequences will occur for himself as
well. Thus the perceived realism of the pornography is an important
dimension (for example, in the Forum section of Penthouse magazine the
episodes depicted are presented as letters from readers describing events
that actually occurred to them).
An important disinhibitor of cruelty against others is the dehumanization of the victims, as has been aptly demonstrated by Bandura,
Underwood, and Fromson (1975), and the well-known work of Zimbardo
(1969). Not only does dehumanization allow people to generate selfdisinhibiting justifications for cruel actions, but as Bandura et al. (1975)
have shown, humanizing victims can have the opposite effect, that is, to
strengthen such inhibitions. Dehumanization is particularly relevant to
pornography effects, as feminists have long contended that women are
portrayed in pornography in a dehumanized fashion (see Brownmiller,
1975; Clark & Lewis, 1977; Gager & Schurr, 1976).
Reciprocal Determinism
Although Bandura's (1973) social learning theory explanation of
aggression is an explanation of how "normal" people can come to behave
cruelly, social learning theory encompasses the notion of interactive
influences of personal and environmental factors. Social learning theory
conceptualizes behavior as a function of reciprocal determinism, that is, "a
continuous reciprocal interaction between personal, behavioral, and
environmental determinants" (Bandura, 1977, p.194). Thus the rejection
by some feminists of social learning theory on the grounds that it is an
"imitative model" that "assumes that people are made of unimprinted wax
and stamped with whatever messages role models present" (Bart & Jozsa,
1980, p. 217) seems unwarranted. On the contrary, the principle of
reciprocal determinism applied in the context of pornography effects is
virtually synonymous with the previously noted feminist contention that
pornography not only generates antifemale attitudes and behavior, but
may also be an expression or consequence of male views of women, which
may perpetuate hostility toward women in cyclical fashion. In addition,
reciprocal determinism would predict that certain types of people (for
instance, those who already possess a favorable attitude or disposition
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toward sexually violent acts) are more likely to be affected by sexual
violence in pornography. As Bandura (1977) has argued, certain people
may find a given stimulus more reinforcing and thus be more affected by it
than other people experiencing the same stimulus. In the case of
pornography exposure, it may be argued that observing a rape victim
enjoy the assault is more likely to affect an already "pro-rape" individual,
who may already possess an inclination to believe that women want rape,
and who may therefore find depictions in which women enjoy rape more
reinforcing than would persons with less favorable dispositions toward
rape. Similarly, "pro-rape" individuals may be more likely to seek out and
read pornography if it presents a view of women and rape that is consistent
with their own calloused rape attitudes.
Summary of Social Learning Theory Predictions
In summary, social learning theory can be applied to the feminist view of
pornography to generate a number of empirically testable predictions
about pornography and its effects that are not directly derived from the
feminist position. Social leaning theory can provide more specific and
detailed theoretical insights about how pornography can affect people's
attitudes and behavior. As we have attempted to show in the preceding
discussion, social learning theory suggests the following:
(1) Through the process of symbolic expectancy learning, the pairing of violent
stimuli with other) highly pleasing and sexually explicit stimuli may result in
the vicarious conditioning of sexual arousal to violence against women.
Through the process of vicarious expectancy learning men may come to
expect that they might enjoy rape if they observe others enjoying rape in a
pornographic rape depiction (or come to expect that they would not enjoy
raping a woman if they observe that men in pornography are repulsed by
Observing a man in a pornographic rape depiction go completely unpunished for his actions can disinhibit observers' own rape behavior, while
observing the rapist experience negative consequences can have the
opposite effect.
In pornography, observing another man being reinforced by a victim's
favorable reaction to rape (that is, sexual arousal) can vicariously reinforce
the observer for rape, thus increasing the likelihood that he himself would
consider rape. In contrast, observing reactions of extreme pain and
suffering on the part of the victim may reduce the likelihood that the
observer himself might rape.
Observing in pornography that physical force is effective in subduing a rape
victim can increase the likelihood of observers similarly using force to get
sex, whereas observing that force results in such consequences as retaliation by the victim would be expected to reduce the likelihood of observers'
using force.
Those who are initially inclined to "favor" rape may be more likely to be
affected by it in pornography, and may as well be more likely to seek out
Pornography and Sexual Aggression
pornography in general and thus more likely to be exposed to rape and
other depictions of sexually coercive acts.
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While these predictions are empirically testable and there exist considerable data bearing upon them, there has been little research specifically
designed to test these predictions in the context of social learning theory.
Therefore, in the review of research that follows, the emphasis will be
primarily on a post hoc explanation of the findings in terms of how well the
data are in accord with the social learning predictions outlined above.
The Social Content of Pornography
An important assumption underlying both the feminist view of pornography and the social learning interpretation is that there is in fact a
significant amount of abuse of women in pornography. Clearly, the above
application of social learning theory to the issue of pornography effects
would have little relevance if pornography in fact contained very little
sexual violence or abuse of women. Therefore, it is important to determine
what in fact is the social content of pornography. First, however, it is
necessary to consider more carefully what is meant by the term "sexual
violence" as it pertains to pornography. For most researchers, sexual
violence refers to what Steinem (1980) calls "clear force" (that is, the use of
weapons, torture, bondage, or other physical force involving pain and/or
suffering or humiliation), usually used against a woman. The most commonly used operational definition of sexual violence used by pornography
researchers is rape, although sadomasochistic depictions have been used
as well. Thus, Steinem's (1980) "subtle force" category (unequal nudity, a
physical attitude of conqueror and victim, race, class status, or power
differences, and the like) is rarely referred to as sexual violence by
researchers. For the purposes of the present analysis, sexual violence will
refer to Steinem's "clear force," or what has been referred to by social
psychologists as aggression (defined by social psychologists as the delivery of a noxious stimulus; see Bandura, 1973; Baron, 1977). As will be
seen, however, there may be some forms of pornography that are sexually
nonviolent according to the "clear force" definition but that nonetheless
can have antisocial effects.
Three recent content analyses of pornography have been conducted in
which the issue of aggression against women is addressed. The first of
these (Smith, 1976a, 1976b) was a detailed content analysis of 428 "adults
only" paperbacks that were sampled from eight communities in each of
five states and published between 1968 and 1974. Of the 4588 sexual
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episodes depicted in these books, a full 20 percent involved rape, 91
percent of which were rapes of a female by a male. Further, fewer than 3
percent of the attackers met with any negative consequences. Also, the
victim was rarely portrayed as having any regrets about being raped. Thus,
Smith's data suggest that rape is portrayed in pornography as having
benefits for both the victim and the attacker. The theme of machismo
dominated the sexual interactions as indicated in Smith's (1976b, p. 23)
description of the most common theme:
The young, probably rich, sleek, cool, restrained, and poised beauty, the
depths of her sexual desires unstirred as yet (particularly, if married, by her
husband), until Superstud arrives, who despite her initial resistance and
piteous pleas for mercy, rather quickly and relentlessly unlocks her real
sexual passion to take her to hitherto totally unimagined heights, leaving her
begging for his continued ministrations.
Clearly, Smith's data agree well with the feminist conception of
It should also be noted that Smith found that the average number of acts
in books depicting rape rose from two in 1968 to four by 1974. This
increase is in keeping with the results of a second content-analytic study,
conducted by Malamuth and Spinner (1980). These investigators examined the content of pictorials and cartoons in Penthouse and Playboy
magazines over the period 1973 to 1977. They found that on the average
about 10 percent of the cartoons were sexually violent throughout this
five·year period. For pictorials, there was an increase in sexual violence
from about 1 percent in 1973 to about 5 percent in 1977. Such aggression
was almost exclusively directed by males against females.
In 1982, Dietz and Evans classified 1760 heterosexual pornographic
magazines according to the imagery depicted on the cover, comparing the
imagery depicted in 1970 to 1981. Whereas in 1970, when the Pornography
Commission had completed its research, magazine covers depicting a
woman posed alone had predominated, such imagery constituted a much
smaller percentage by 1981. In contrast, bondage and domination imagery
increased very markedly since 1970 and in 1981 constituted 17.2 percent of
the magazine covers, second in frequency only to the depiction of couples
in sexual activity. Taken together, the results of these three studies
indicate that sexual violence and abuse of women are depicted in hard- and
soft-core pornography, and they are on the increase. Let us now examine
the literature relevant to effects.
Correlations: Deviant Sexual Behavior
and Pornography Use
A number of the Pornography Commission studies were designed to
examine the relationship between deviant sexual behavior and use of
Pornography and Sexual Aggression
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pornography, on the assumption that if pornography has an antisocial
effect through modeling, its use should be positively related to deviant
sexuality. Moreover, this relationship should hold especially with respect
to pornography usage during adolescence and preadolescence, when
learning and modification of sexual behavior are presumably at their
greatest levels. Two sources of data are relevant to the correlational
hypothesis: worldwide trends in pornography usage/availability and
individual pornography usage.
Worldwide Trends
At the broadest level, Kutchinsky's (1973) widely cited study reported
that there was a decrease in the number of sex offenses in Denmark
following the lifting of bans on pornography in the 196Os. Although
Kutchinsky's data have been frequently used as evidence that the availability of pornography causes a reduction in sex crimes, there are a
number of serious problems with this conclusion, as has been noted by
many (see, for example, Court, 1977, 1984; Cline, 1974; Lederer, 1980).
During the period that Kutchinsky studied, for example, a number of sex
offenses were decriminalized or no longer recorded, and were thus no
longer included in the calculation of sex offense rates (homosexual prostitution and voyerurism, for instance). As Court (1977) has noted, many of
these offenses accounted for a large proportion of the prepomography
liberalization sex-crime statistics. A second problem that Kutchinsky
(1971b) himself recognized was that people apparently became less willing
to report sex offenses over the period of time he studied.
Because of the problems inherent in studying sex crimes in general,
Court (1977, 1984) has argued in favor of studying only the more serious
offenses of rape and attempted rape, offenses that he argues are less
subject to fluctuations due to outside influences such as legislative
changes in police recording policies. Looking only at serious sex crime
statistics, Cline (1974) has argued that Kutchinsky's data "show no reduction at all in the numbers reported of violent sex crimes and rapes, both in
Copenhagen and Denmark ... ; and the possibility exists that, in actual
numbers, they may have increased" (pp. 223-224). Unfortunately, however, as Cochrane (1978) has noted, even rape statistics are unreliable, at
least with respect to Copenhagen. Following the publication of Kutchinsky's work in 1973, Bachy (1976) obtained more recent Copenhagen police
statistics regarding rape and attempted rape. Bachy's data for the years
1965 to 1970 show no consistent trend at all over time and differ substantially from Kutchinsky's (1973) data. A similar problem with unreliability of
Copenhagen police data has been documented by Court (1977). This
investigator found marked differences (even when adjusting for changes in
population size) between Kutchinsky's (1971a, b) data, Ben-Veniste's
(1971) data, and data cited by Nielson (1973), all of which purportedly
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came from the same police filesf In addition, the most recent data, covering
the period 1960 to 1978 and reported by Court (1984), show a clear and
consistent upward trend in Copenhagen reports of rape and attempted
rape from 1969 to 1978, but even these data are suspect, since they do not
agree well with the data obtained for the period 1965 to 1973 by Nielson
(1973). Thus is appears that Cochrane's (1978) criticism that even rape
and attempted rape statistics are unreliable seems to have a good deal of
validity, at least with respect to Copenhagen police data. In fact, the only
consistent finding reported by all of these authors is that there is no
decrease in reported rape and attempted rape since the liberalization of
the pornography laws in Denmark.
On a more global level, Court (1984) has noted that the increasing
availability of pornography from 1964 to 1974 is associated with sharp
increases in rape reports in the United States, England and Wales, Copen·
hagen, Stockholm, Australia, and New Zealand. In Japan and Hawaii,
however, there was a decrease in reported rape following the application
of restrictions on pornography. Across a number of countries there does
seem to be a positive correlation between the availability of pornography
and violence against women, at least in the case of rape. Again, however, in
light of the "Danish Experience" with unreliable police statistics, Court's
conclusions regarding worldwide trends must also be regarded as tentative at best.
A more serious problem with the "worldwide" correlation approach
taken by Court (1984) is that there is little evidence that increasing rape
rates are in fact closely tied (temporally) to pornography exposure. As
Cochrane (1978) has noted, Court (1977) very carefully compiles Danish
sex-crime statistics as a function of time, but does not compile a corre~
sponding historical account of the availability and consumption of por·
nography over time in Denmark. Kutchinsky (1973,1978), however, has
compiled such an account, and reports that the sale and consumption of
pornography by Danes increased steadily until 1969 (two years after the
legal ban on pornography was repealed) but then decreased considerably
at about the same time that Court's (1984) data show a steady increase in
rape and attempted rape rates. It should be noted, however, that while
sales of pornography books decreased after 1969, Kutchinsky (1978)
reports that this decline was partially due to the increased popularity and
distribution of Danish picture magazines and pornographic films that
"have a slightly sadistic touch" (p. 114). Unfortunately, Kutchinsky (1978)
does not report any actual production or consumption data for the period
since 1969, but does note that the situation regarding pornographic films
has "changed." In 1969 only a few subjects in Copenhagen had ever seen a
pornographic film, but "since 1970 pornographic films have been shown in
public cinemas all over Denmark" (Kutchinsky, 1978, p. 115). Clearly,
more post-1969 historical data on pornography availability and consump-
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Pornography and Sexual Aggression
tion is needed from Denmark, especially since Court's (1984) most recent
data show that the consistent linear increase in reported rape and
attempted rape in Copenhagen began after 1969. There is also a need to
document any changes in the sexually violent content of pornography
over this same period of time, especially with respect to depictions of rape.
A further caution must be raised regarding Court's research, however,
since the selection of varied countries and!or states was not made on a
random basis and may reflect selection of individual samples that mayor
may not be representative. Further, while the data do appear to suggest
some correlation between the availability of pornography and sex crimes,
there does not appear to be a sufficient basis to conclude with confidence
that a causal connection exists.
A study that did not select individual examples but examined all states
in the United States was recently reported by Baron and Straus (1984).
These investigators analyzed whether there was a relationship between
rates of rape and the extent to which sex magazines are part of the popular
culture of each state (that is, magazine sales). They found that there was a
strong correlation between the popularity of pornography magazines and
the incidence of rape. In contrast, a much weaker correlation was obtained
between sex magazine consumption and general rates of nonsexual via·
lent crime. The correlation between pornography magazine consumption
and rape rates remained statistically significant even following the partial·
ling out of the potential contribution of various control variables. These
investigators caution appropriately that such a correlation is suggestive
but is not a sufficient basis for establishing a causal connection.
While various sources of data suggest that there may be some corre·
lation between the consumption of pornography and the incidence of
violent sexual crimes, there certainly also are individual examples of
countries where the rate of consumption of pornography in general as well
as violent pornography in particular is high but the incidence of rape is
relatively low. Abramson and Hayashi (1984) note the high rate of sexual
violence in the Japanese media while Japan has a relatively low incidence
of reported rape. They suggest that a combination of factors, including the
existence of strong internal constraints (that is, a great emphasis from
early childhood on not committing shameful acts) result in the low fre·
quency of rape.
The research of Abramson and Hayashi as well as examples of countries such as Denmark should alert us to the fact that any causal connection between the availability of pornography and antisocial behavior, if one
indeed exists, is bound to be a complex relationship mediated by many
other factors (Malamuth, 1984). Considerable variability may exist in
susceptibility to the influences of media stimuli such as violent por·
nography both among cultures and among individuals within a culture
(Malamuth & Check, in press). Moreover, if certain pornographic
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messages have an antisocial impact, the expression of such influences may
be strongly affected by the cultural norms. For example, while Japan may
have a low rate of violence within that society, it is a culture that appears to
have a high degree of inequality between the genders and a history of
considerable violence against other societies. While pornography is not
likely to have been a major cause of such patterns, it may be conjectured
that the violent nature of Japanese pornography may reflect and perpetuate sexism and other behaviors despite effective constraints against
actually committing violent acts prohibited by the culture (Malamuth &
Billings, in press). As noted earlier, such assertions follow directly from
Bandura's (1977, 1983) social learning theory.
Individual Pornography Use
As many feminist writers have noted (see Lederer, 1980) a serious
problem with many studies in which pornography usage in sex offenders
was examined is that violent sex offenders (for instance, rapists) are
usually a minority, and are simply lumped together with other sex offenders (see Cook & Fosen, 1971; Johnson, Kupperstein, & Peters,
1971). These studies usually find that sex offenders in general have had
less exposure to pornography during adolescence than controls. Direct
comparisons of rapists were employed in only two studies (Goldstein &
Kant, 1973; Walker, 1971). In Walker's (1971) study, while the rapists
generally reported less frequent exposure to pornography than controls,
rapists reported collecting it for a longer period of time, and reported more
frequently that pornography had led them to commit a sexual crime. In the
Goldstein and Kant (1973) study, rapists also reported less frequent
exposure to general pornography during both adolescence and adulthood.
More important, however, rapists reported an earlier age of peak experience with pornography, more frequent exposure to hard-core (and
presumably more sexually violent) pornographic photographs between
the ages of 6 and 10 years, were more likely to wish to imitate the activity
portrayed in pornography, and were more likely to relate daily masturbation to thoughts of erotica than controls. Rapists were also found to report
fantasies involving forcible or sadistic acts. Finally, rapists generally had a
poor knowledge of sexual information, due to the fact that sexuality was
rarely discussed or encouraged in the home when they were young.
It seems reasonable to theorize from these data that while sex offenders
in general seem to report less frequent exposure to pornography than
nonrapists, rapists may in fact be more affected by exposure to sexual
violence in pornography, especially with respect to exposure at a young
age. As Malamuth (1978) has argued, it may be the case that individuals
reared within a highly sexually restrictive setting are more likely to
perceive pornography as "taboo" stimuli, and therefore are more sensitive
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to the implicit message that the presentation of pornography (for example,
by an experimenter or in the mass media) means it is acceptable to behave
inappropriately. Sexually repressive persons may be less able to distinguish appropriate sexual behavior from inappropriate behavior, because
of their belief that all sexual behavior is "taboo." This belief, combined with
a general lack of sexual knowledge, may lead these persons to imitate both
appropriate sexual behavior (consenting intercourse) and inappropriate
behavior (rape) indiscriminately since both are perceived as "bad." Finally,
rapists' general lack of sexual knowledge may make them particularly
vulnerable to the modeling effects of sexual violence in pornography,
especially (as McGuire et aI., 1965 have noted) through the mediating
processes of masturbatory conditioning and fantasizing. Partial support
for these arguments comes from Fisher and Byrne's (1978) finding that
people with a history of restrictive sexual socialization react more
negatively to pornography but at the same time are more behaviorally
affected by it in terms of postexposure increases in various sexual
behaviors. As will be seen later, there is additional experimental evidence
consistent with this notion that there are certain types of individuals who
are more likely to be affected by exposure to pornography.
Drawing conclusions from studies comparing convicted rapists and
nonoffenders is at best a dubious procedure, since, as Brownmiller (1975)
has suggested, convicted rapists may differ simply because of the fact that
they are the type of people who get caught and, as Malamuth and his
colleagues have also demonstrated (see Malamuth, 1981c, 1984), many
"normal" men in the general population may also have what may be
termed an "inclination to rape." Also, Goldstein and Kant (1973) found
that more than one~third of their nonrapist group reported imitating the
behavior portrayed in pornography, and Russell (1980, 1984) found that 10
percent of her random-household sample of San Francisco women
reported being upset by men who tried to get them to do what they had
seen in pornography. Thus, it is perhaps more relevant to investigate the
correlation between pornography usage and violence against women in
the general population.
Davis and Braucht (1973) conducted a detailed investigation of the
relationships between sexual deviance and use of pornography, using a
wide cross-section of male subjects between 18 and 30 years of age. These
authors found a significant correlation between sexual deviance and
pornography use at all stages of life. In addition, "serious sexual deviance"
(rape and male prostitution) was consistently related to pornography use
whether subjects' earliest age of exposure was at a young age (generally
prior to first heterosexual intercourse) or an older age. More important,
however, partial correlations revealed that the pornography-sexual deviance relationship in subjects first exposed at an older age could be
explained by a deviant and highly active sexual lifestyle, and thus
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pornography exposure may have been a consequence rather than a cause
of sexual deviance. Among those who were first exposed to pornography
at an early age, however, "the possibility that exposure to pornography,
particularly early and in large amounts, can exert independent causal
influence on the etiology of sexual behavior must be taken seriously"
(Davis & Braucht, 1973, p. 194). It should be noted that Davis and
Braucht's (1973) conclusion is consistent with Propper's (1971) finding of a
relationship between sexual deviance and high exposure to pornography
at very early ages in a sample of 476 male reformatory inmates aged 16 to 21
years. Note also that Malamuth and Check (1981a) found a large positive
correlation between college men's frequency of reading pornography
(Penthouse and Playboy) and their self-reported likelihood of raping and
forcing women into sexual acts, as well as their beliefs that women would
enjoy such activities. Finally, using a highly diverse sample of 436 Toronto
men, Check (1984) found that frequent pornography consumption was
associated with rape myth acceptance, acceptance of violence against
women, adversarial sex beliefs, reported likelihood of rape, and sexual
callousness. It is therefore suggested that future research be directed
toward examining more closely within-group differences and how they
relate to individual differences in exposure to pornography, especially with
respect to sexually violent pornography.
In general, the data from studies of the relationship between use of
pornography and abuse of women are consistent with the social learning
concept of reciprocal determinism, which as previously noted suggests
that (a) attitudes and behavior regarding violent sexual abuse of women
can be influenced by exposure to pornography, and (b) those who are
predisposed toward abusive attitudes and behavior during adulthood are
more likely to read pornography, and thus more likely to be "at risk" for
possible exposure effects. Again, as will be seen later, there is also
experimental evidence to suggest that, as adults, such "abusive" types of
men are also more likely to be affected by exposure to certain types of
violent pornography. Let us now consider the experimental evidence of
pornography's effects.
Experimental Evidence: Pornography Exposure Effects
The experimental pornography research addressing the hypotheses
derived from the social learning interpretation of feminist theory may be
classified into three categories: simple imitation, antecedent determinants,
and consequent determinants. Each will be discussed separately below.
Simple Imitation
A number of experimental studies have been conducted to explore the
effects of exposure to pornography on subsequent sexual activity outside
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the laboratory, some of which suggested short-term increases in sexual
behavior (for example, see Amoroso et al., 1971; Kutchinsky, 1971a;
Howard, Liptzin, & Reifler, 1973; Mann, Sidman, & Starr, 1973), along
with increased liberal attitudes toward pornography (Commission on
Obscenity and Pornography, 1971). Again, however, little attention was
paid to the effect of different types of content, and the authors rarely even
describe the specific content of the materials they use. It is interesting to
note that one study (Mosher, 1971a), employing sexual films described as
showing more "affection" than is usual for pornography, found a
subsequent decrease in males' sex callousness. Thus, it may be that
subjects can even learn positiue sexual attitudes and behavior indirectly
from affectionate behavior that is modeled in positively oriented sexual
material. This conclusion, however, must at this point be considered
speculative, since Mosher did not employ a no-exposure control group, a
condition that would have allowed for the assessment of a "testing effect"
(Campbell & Stanley, 1963). As Mosher (1971a) has argued, it is possible
that the mere expression of sexually calloused attitudes reduces the need
to express these attitudes in the future, a testing effect that cannot be
assessed without at least the use of (a) a no-exposure control group, and
(b) a no-pretest control group (Campbell & Stanley, 1963). There are also
other equally plausible interpretations of Mosher's (1971a) findings,
such as humanization effects (see the discussion under the heading
Of greater relevance to the feminist position is the possibility that men
may imitate the sexually abusiue behaviors modeled in pornography. For
obvious ethical reasons, however, experiments in which the direct
imitation of sexual violence (for instance, actual rape behavior) is studied
cannot be conducted, and thus researchers must rely on indirect
measures. One such measure is the Buss (1961) measure of aggression. A
number of experiments studying the effects of pornography on this and
similar measures of aggression have been conducted (see Baron & Bell,
1977; Donnerstein, Donnerstein, & Evans, 1975; White, 1979; Zillmann,
1971). Again, however, most of these studies have little relevance to the
feminist position since sexually violent or "abusive" stimuli were not
employed, and aggression against women was not measured. This
research generally indicates that the level of induced aggression (against
another male) is to a great extent determined by how explicit the stimuli
are, or how sexually arousing the stimuli are, as well as the subject's
affective reactions as a result of the hedonic valence (pleasant versus
unpleasant nature) of the stimuli. While there is some inconsistency in
terms of both the research findings and the interpretations of the results, it
is generally found that strongly arousing, sexually explicit stimuli tend to
increase retaliatory behavior in provoked persons (see Baron, 1979;
Cantor, Zillmann, & Einsiedel, 1978; Donnerstein & Hallam, 1978; Meyer,
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1972; Zillmann, 1971). Exposing provoked persons to mildly arousing
stimuli, however, tends to reduce retaliatory behavior (for example,
Baron, 1974a, 1974b; Baron & Bell, 1973; Donnerstein, Donnerstein, &
Evans, 1975; White, 1979). As Zillmann (1978, 1979, 1982, 1984) has
argued, subjects exposed to highly arousing stimuli may act more
aggressively because of residual nonspecific excitatory transfer (transfer
of arousal), which adds to and thus intensifies arousal from anger or
provocation. This would especially be the case if the stimuli were at the
same time highly arousing and very displeasing or disgusting to the subject
(that is, if the stimuli also had a negative hedonic valence). In contrast,
mildly arousing but quite pleasant stimuli tend to reduce aggression
(Baron, 1974a, 1977; Zillmann & Sapolsky, 1977), presumably because the
pleasant stimulation interferes with feelings of annoyance and anger from
provocation, thereby reducing aggressive feelings (Zillmann & Bryant,
1984). Zillmann, Bryant, Comisky, and Medoff (1981) and Zillmann and
Bryant (1984) have shown that excitation transfer and the hedonic valence
of stimuli act in concert to affect aggressive behavior.
Those studies involving the effects of nonviolent sexual stimuli on
aggression against women generally produced results that are similar to
the results of studies of aggression against men (Baron & Bell, 1973; Jaffe,
Malamuth, Feingold, & Feshbach, 1974; Donnerstein & Barrett, 1978;
Zillmann & Bryant, 1984). However, the effects of exposure to nonviolent
sexual stimuli on aggression against women generally tend to be smaller in
magnitude, presumably because of societal inhibitions against aggression
toward women (see Donnerstein & Hallam, 1978). With respect to the
effects of exposure to violent pornography, however, a different pattern
emerges. While the effects of exposure to sexual violence (rape depictions) on aggression against males is not as consistent, exposure to films of
rape clearly increases males' aggression against females (Donnerstein,
1980, 1984; Donnerstein & Berkowitz, 1981; Donnerstein & Hallam,
1978). Malamuth (1978) also found that even relatively "soft·core"
Penthouse pictorial/narrative depictions of rape can facilitate aggression
against a woman, if disinhibitory cues are present. Thus, to the extent that
laboratory-assessed aggression (for example, electric shocks) against a
female is an indirect imitation of violent pornography, these experiments
are consistent with the simple imitation hypothesis. Let us now consider
some of the more complex social learning processes relevant to violent
Antecedent Determinants
As was previously noted, violent pornography may theoretically have
antisocial effects through both symbolic expectancy learning (symbolic
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Pornography and Sexual Aggression
pairing of sex and violence against women) and vicarious expectancy
learning (observing others become sexually aroused to sexual violence
against women).
Symbolic expectancy learning. With respect to symbolic expectancy
learning, it should be noted that some studies have shown a satiation effect
as a result of repeated exposure to pornography (see Ceniti & Malamuth,
1984; Howard, Liptzin, & Reifler, 1973; Schafer & Colgan, 1977; Schaefer,
Tregerthan, & Colgan, 1976). However, such an effect has not been
obtained in all the research. Laws and Rubin (1969) found that subjects still
produced almost full erections to a film they had seen nine times in the
same session. Tennent, Bancroft, and Cass (1974) found a tendency for
erections to increase in sex offenders to whom a pornographic film was
presented four times at six-week intervals. Also, the introduction of novel
stimuli increases sexual arousal again (see Howard et at., 1973; Schaefer &
Colgan, 1977). In addition, the Schaefer and Colgan (1977) study found
that, in contrast to those subjects who were repeatedly exposed to the
same stimuli without gratification, subjects who were instructed to
masturbate following each session showed an increase in penile tumescence over sessions. (Schaefer and Colgan's results must be interpreted
with considerable caution, however, since subjects were not randomly
assigned to conditions, and since there were only two subjects in the
experimental condition and six in the control condition.)
While it is not surprising that in many studies subjects' sexual
responsiveness has been found to extinguish after being repeatedly
bombarded with the same stimuli, without any choice as to what is
observed and little opportunity for satisfaction (that is, with masturbation),
such conditions rarely occur in the real world. Given that pornography use
in the real world usually involves the voluntary selection and viewing of
stimuli that are the most arousing, it is reasonable to assume that any
violence contained in such pornography would usually be paired with
stimuli that continue to elicit high levels of arousal (as opposed to stimuli
that have become boring) as well as the sensations associated with
masturbation. Of course, the crucial test of having subjects masturbate to
sexually violent versus sexually nonviolent stimuli has not been conducted, and so little direct experimental evidence exists bearing upon the
symbolic expectancy learning hypothesis of the effect of violent pornography. However, if the symbolic pairing of sexual and violent stimuli in
pornography (Smith, 1976 a, b) does have an expectancy learning effect on
subjects' sexual responsiveness to violence against women, we would
expect men to become sexually aroused by nonsexual violence as well. A
recent experiment by Malamuth, Check, and Briere (in press) confirms
this prediction. Males became more sexually aroused to a tape recording
of a story depicting a man brutally beating a woman than to a nonviolent,
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nonsexual depiction. While there may be other competing explanations
for this finding (such as male hostility toward women), it is nonetheless
consistent with the symbolic expectancy learning hypothesis.
Data that may be relevant to cognitive mediation of symbolic expectancy learning hypotheses come from a study by Tieger and Aronstam
(1981), who found that as few as twenty (slide) presentations of fashion ads
and album covers pairing erotic and violent content can result in a
tendency toward increased beliefs that rape is motivated by sexual
gratification and that rape is not a violent crime. Additionally, Malamuth,
Haber, and Feshbach (1980) exposed subjects to a sexually violent
(sadomasochistic) depiction and then observed the effects on perceptions
of a second depiction in which a woman was raped. Men who perceived a
high degree of woman's pain in the rape depiction also reported becoming
sexually aroused by the story. Men's perceptions of the rape victim's pain
were associated with low levels of arousal if the subject had earlier been
exposed to a nonviolent sexual depiction. (As will be discussed later,
however, other expectancy processes may also have been operating,
since by definition sadomasochism involves getting sexual pleasure from
Also potentially related to cognitive mediation of expectancy learning is
research showing that college students perceive some victim willingness
and sexual pleasure (and thus also become sexually aroused themselves)
when reading a rape depiction in which the woman had gone to the man's
apartment with him (Check & Malamuth, 1983b). This finding is in sharp
contrast to findings with a "stranger" rape depiction, where the rapist
breaks into the woman's apartment. In the latter type of depiction,
subjects tend to perceive very little victim willingness and pleasure, and
also show inhibited levels of sexual arousal to such a depiction (Check &
Malamuth, 1983b; Malamuth et al., in press).
There have been a number of studies that have assessed whether
exposure to the pairing of sexuality and violence results in increased
arousal to such stimuli in subsequent presentations. The existing data (see
Ceniti & Malamuth, 1984) based upon both single and repeated exposures
with adult subjects have not yielded data showing expectancy conditioning
changes (see Malamuth & Donnerstein, 1982; Malamuth, 1984, for a
Vicarious expectancy learning. The process of vicarious expectancy
learning, whereby an individual comes to believe he would be aroused by
sexual violence as a result of observing others become aroused to
violence, is consistent with the results of an experiment by Malamuth
(1981b). He found that exposure to a slide show depicting a rape resulted
in one-third of the subjects generating rape fantasies following the show,
whereas subjects viewing virtually the same slides with narrative indicating
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Pornography and Sexual Aggression
consenting intercourse did not generate any violent fantasies at all.
Subjects in the rape condition may have concluded that rape might be
enjoyable, since the rapist was described as finding the temptation "too
powerful to resist" (p. 8). This interpretation received some support from a
study by Malamuth and Check (1980a). They found that subjects who read
two rape depictions (relative to subjects who had read only one rape
depiction) subsequently said that they believed a greater percentage of
men would rape if they could be assured that they would not be caught or
punished. (Note also that this effect was most apparent if the woman in the
first rape was portrayed as becoming involuntarily aroused.)
A related vicarious expectancy learning process is suggested by the
results of a number of recent experiments examining the effects of
observing a woman's reactions to sexual violence (Malamuth & Check,
1980a; Malamuth & Check, 1981; Malamuth, Haber, & Feshbach, 1980;
Malamuth, Heim, & Feshbach, 1980). Malamuth and Check (198Oa) found
that observing a woman's disgust and abhorrence of a sexual assault
tended to increase subjects' perceptions of the victim's trauma in a second
rape portrayal, in which minimal information about the woman's reaction
was indicated. A second study assessing rape myths (Malamuth & Check,
in press) found that observing a woman become sexually aroused to rape
resulted in increased beliefs that women in general would enjoy being
raped and forced into sexual acts. Malamuth, Heim, and Feshbach (1980)
found that male subjects reported more sexual arousal to a rape in which
the woman experienced an orgasm (relative to nausea) when there were
also strong pain cues, but no such effect was obtained when pain cues
were absent. Malamuth, Haber, and Feshbach (1980) found that low
aggression-anxious men perceived less victim pain and trauma in a rape
depiction if they had earlier read a lesbian sadomasochistic encounter than
if they had earlier read a nonviolent sexual story. These studies suggest
that men can also learn vicariously that women will enjoy sexual violence
by observing women's reactions to such violence in pornography. Let us
now examine how similar effects of violent pornography can be explained
in terms of consequent determinants.
Consequent Determinants
According to the social learning formulation presented above, the most
clear cut and consistent predictions from feminist theorizing about
pornography relate to the consequent determinants of sexual violence. As
was previously noted, these determinants include the probability of
punishment, vicarious reinforcement, and dehumanization of the victim.
In terms of dependent variables, it is important to examine these
consequent determinants in terms of how they affect (a) sexual arousal to
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rape, (b) rape-related behavior, and (c) rape-related attitudes. These
variables are suggested by the previously noted possibility that the pairing
of sexuality and violence can lead to antisocial expectancies regarding
sexual violence, and the fact that self-reported proclivity to rape is
associated with antisocial rape attitudes as well as sexual arousal to sexual
violence (but unrelated to arousal to sexual nonviolence; see Malamuth,
1981, 1984, for a review of this literature).
Probability of punishment. Smith's (1976a, 1976b) content analysis of
hard-core pornography revealed that less than 3 percent of the attackers
in sexually violent depictions met with any negative consequences in the
plot of the books. This is an important finding since socialleaming experiments have shown consistently that seeing others go unpunished for engaging in enjoyable activities that are otherwise inhibited by social prohibitions can have as powerful an effect on modeling as seeing the model actually rewarded for this behavior (Bandura, 1965a, 1965b; Walters & Parke,
1964; Walters, Parke, & Cane, 1965). There is also consistent evidence
that men report a much greater likelihood of raping under conditions
where they could be assured of not being caught and punished than when
no such conditions are specified (Malamuth & Check, 1980a; Malamuth,
Haber, & Feshbach, 1980). Thus, while no studies have manipulated
directly whether the rapist in pornography is caught, it seems likely that
such an experiment would show a disinhibitory effect of observing a rapist
go unpunished under conditions where punishment is expected. In order
to explore fully both the disinhibitory and the inhibitory effects vis-a-vis
punishment, one would need to include a "rapist punished" condition in
addition to a no-outcome control condition.
Vicarious reinforcement. As previously noted, observers theoretically
can be vicariously reinforced for sexual violence in two ways: by observing
a rapist use force to effectively subdue his victim and by observing that the
sexual violence produces sexual pleasure for the rapist's victim. The
assumption that an arousal response from a rape victim is a reinforcer for
the rapist is supported by clinical reports that many rapists demand an
indication that their victims enjoy the assault:
Probably the single most used cry of rapist to victim is "You bitch ... slut ...
you know you want it! You all want it!" and afterward, "There now, you really
enjoyed it, didn't you?" (Gager & Schurr, 1976, p. 244)
It was very common for a rapist to ask his victim whether or not she was
enjoying the situation, and to demand a positive response. (Clark & Lewis,
1977, p. 102)
In "normal" men, the belief that women enjoy rape and forced sexual
activities is predictive of self-reported proclivity to rape as well as
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Pornography and Sexual Aggression
behavioral aggression against women (see Malamuth, 1981, 1983;
Malamuth & Check, 1980a, in press). The perception that the victim
derives pleasure from being assaulted may serve the function of minimizing
the seriousness of the consequences to the victim, thereby disengaging
internal inhibitions and justifying the assault (Bandura, 1983).
There is some evidence for the assumption that men will behave
aggressively for sexual ends. Mosher and Katz (1971) conducted an
experiment in which males could get to see pornographic films by being
verbally aggressive toward women. These authors found that men
behaved more aggressively in order to see pornographic films than when
they could see neutral (travel) films, or if no contingencies were specified.
(Of course the men may well have behaved aggressively in order to get any
desired commodity, but the point here is that sexual gratification is seen as
a desired commodity that is worth "fighting" for.) It would seem, then, that
if men will abuse women for sexual ends, observing that such methods are
successful in gaining a rape victim's cooperation should increase the
likelihood that the observer himself would use force. Unfortunately,
however, this prediction has not yet been tested empirically.
The process of direct vicarious reinforcement via arousal of the rape
victim also has some experimental support. Donnerstein and Berkowitz
(1981) and Donnerstein (1984) found that nonangered subjects delivered
more electric shocks to a woman if they had viewed a rape film in which the
woman appears to enjoy and become aroused by the assault or if they had
viewed a nonviolent sexual film. If the men had been angered, a rapeabhorrence film generated levels of aggression that were equivalent to
those generated by a rape-arousal film. The authors speculate that this
increased aggression in the rape-abhorrence film for the angered men
might have been due to the possibility that the victim's pain was reinforcing
for these men, who had just been angered by another woman. This
suggestion, however, would seem to require further confirmation by
exploring the degree to which the rape victim's suffering is in fact
reinforcing for men who have been mistreated by a woman (see also Berkowitz, 1974; Feshbach, Stiles, & Bitter, 1967; Swart & Berkowitz, 1976).
A number of experiments by Malamuth and his colleagues (Malamuth
& Check, 1980a, 1980b, 1983; Malamuth, Heim, & Feshbach, 1980), have
shown that observing rape victims become sexually aroused by the assault
can have direct reinforcing effects. Subjects generally become more
sexually aroused by such depictions than by depictions that are the same
in sexual content and force used, but in which the woman clearly abhors
the assault. Thus, not only can the victim's arousal in pornography
vicariously reinforce readers for sexual violence, it can result in direct
reinforcement for the reader in the form of sexual arousal.
Finally, a field experiment by Malamuth and Check (1981) showed that
sexual violence in the mass media that is portrayed as having favorable
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consequences can reinforce subjects' violent attitudes. Subjects were
randomly assigned to view two experimental films (Swept Away and The
Getaway), or two nonviolent control films. In both experimental films a
woman is abused, but eventually comes to identify with her attacker(s) and
(in Swept Away) even falls in love with him. Several days later, male
experimental subjects were found to be more accepting of violence against
women than male control subjects. These data are particularly enlightening, since neither of the films was "X-rated," and in fact both have been
shown on nationwide television. It seems that mass media vicarious
reinforcement for sexual violence against women can affect subjects'
attitudes even in the absence of highly explicit sexual content. This
possibility is further supported by the research of Linz, Donnerstein, and
Penrod (1984), who found that subjects who were exposed to five movies
depicting sexual and nonsexual violence against women came to have
fewer negative emotional reactions to such films. Moreover, following
such exposure subjects served as jurors in a simulated rape trial. It was
found that subjects judged the "victim of a violent assault and rape to be
significantly less injured and evaluated her as generally less worthy than
the control group of subjects who saw no films" (p. 142).
Dehumanization. Unfortunately, there is no direct experimental evidence regarding the effects of the dehumanization or humanization of
women in pornography. This may be due in part to the difficulty in defining
operationally the dehumanization of women in pornography as distinct
from sexual violence against women in pornography. Two experiments
investigating the effects of nonviolent pornography, however, do have
implications for the humanization-dehumanization hypothesis. Mosher
(1971a, p. 258) describes his sexual films that reduced sex callousness
toward women as having
fewer genital closeups and more affection than is typical of much pornography. In my opinion, these Particular films would have more appeal to the
sexually experienced, uninhibited adult of both sexes than would most
pornography, which is oriented toward a male audience and more "kinky"
It might, therefore, be argued that Mosher (1971a) found a humanizing
effect of exposure to positive, affectionate, personally oriented sex
(notwithstanding the previously noted methodological problems with this
study). In contrast to Mosher's (1971a) results, Zillmann and Bryant (1984)
have recently found that long-term, massive exposure to nonviolent
pornography increased males' sex callousness toward women, using the
same measure of sex callousness as did Mosher (1971a). Zillmann and
Bryant (1984) also found that massive exposure increased both males' and
females' estimates of the popularity of (among other things) deviant sex
Pornography and Sexual Aggression
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practices in society (sadomasochism and bestiality, for example). Finally,
massive exposure reduced males' and females' recommended sentences
for a rapist described in a newspaper account as being convicted of rape,
and also reduced both males' and females' support for the women's
liberation movement. The authors explain their findings in terms of the
nature of their stimuli (Zillmann & Bryant, 1984, p. 22):
It can only be speculated that this effect results from the characteristic
portrayal of women in pornography as socially nondiscriminating, as
hysterically euphoric in response to just about any sexual or pseudosexual
stimulation, and as eager to accommodate seemingly any and every sexual
request. Such portrayal, it seems, convinces even females of the hyperpromiscuous, accepting nature of women.
It may be argued that in contrast to Mosher's (1971a) stimuli, the films used
by Zillmann and Bryant (1984) presented a dehumanized portrayal of
women, which had the effect of generating disrespectful, antifemale
attitudes in both male and female subjects. As Kelman (1973) has stated, to
perceive another person as fully human, it is necessary to perceive him or
her as an individual, capable of making choices, and as one whose rights
deserve to be respected. Dehumanization, on the other hand, involves
perceiving a person only in terms of the class to which that person belongs,
and also perceiving that person as a means to an end rather than as an end
in himself or herself. To the extent that Zillmann and Bryant's (1984)
description of their stimuli implies that the women were portrayed as
lacking individuality, being unable to resist any request for sex, and as
useful primarily for sexual gratification of men, it can be said that these
stimuli did in fact dehumanize women. While this interpretation is
admittedly speculative, it does point to the distinct possibility that even
nonviolent pornography can dehumanize women, with subsequent antisocial effects (as suggested by Steinem, 1980). Clearly, in light of the
implications of Zillmann and Bryant's (1984) findings, and the fact that their
experiment is the first to show a clear antisocial effect of exposure to
nonviolent pornography, this possibility is worthy of further investigation.
Check (1984) hypothesized on the basis of Zillmann and Bryant's (1984)
and Mosher's (1971a) findings that there exist at least three distinct types
of sexually explicit stimuli: (1) sexually violent stimuli, in which women are
raped, beaten, and so on (but that also typically portray the women as
enjoying such treatment); (2) nonviolent dehumanizing stimuli, in which
women are abused in various nonaggressiue ways (for example, verbally
abused, portrayed as "sluts," as hysterically responsive nymphomaniacs
who worship the penis and will do anything for men, and so on); and (3)
erotica, which portrays realistic, affectionate, nonviolent, nonabusive,
spontaneous consenting sexual behavior. Further, it was hypothesized
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that both the violent and the nonviolent dehumanizing materials would
have antisocial effects, but that erotica would not, and might even have
positive effects. Both of these hypotheses were supported. A sample of
436 Toronto men of various ages and socioeconomic classes rated the
violent and nonviolent dehumanizing materials as much more degrading,
aggressive, and obscene than the erotica. In contrast, erotica was rated as
much more affectionate, educational, and realistic than the other two
types of material. (Of course, the sexually violent material was rated as
more aggressive than the nonviolent dehumanizing material.) Finally,
there were distinct differences between these materials in effects of
exposure. Subjects who had been exposed to 90 minutes of either the
violent or the nonviolent dehumanizing videos subsequently reported a
greater willingness to rape than subjects in a no-exposure control group.
An important finding was that exposure to erotica had no effects. Thus,
these data along with the results of Zillmann and Bryant (1984) and Mosher
(1971a) support the hypothesis that even nonviolent pornography that
models antisocial behavior toward women can have antisocial effects, but
that modeling prosodal forms of sexual behavior does not seem to have
any such effects. Clearly, in light of the implications of these findings, this
hypothesis is worthy of further empirical attention.
Reciprocal Determinism
Reciprocal determinism is an important concept in the application of
social learning theory to pornography effects since feminists often argue
that pornography not only fosters and supports sexual violence against
women, but is also an expression of male hostility and pro·rape attitudes.
Research has shown that there are many "normal" men in society who
accept many of the myths about rape (Burt, 1980), and have what
Malamuth (1981c) has argued is a "proclivity to rape." It may well be that
men who are more "force-oriented" in their relations with women are the
very men who are most likely to read pornography because it reinforces
such tendencies. Consistent with this possibility is Malamuth and Check's
(in press) and Check's (1984) finding that men who report a greater
proclivity to rape also report a greater frequency of reading pornography.
Malamuth and Check (in press) also found more direct support for
reciprocal determinism in that the attitudes of men who reported some
likelihood of raping were also more affected by exposure to a rape
portrayal in which the victim became aroused by the assault. That is, these
"force·oriented" subjects were more likely to endorse the myths that
women enjoy sexual violence as a result of exposure to a rape-victimarousal portrayal than were subjects who indicated no likelihood of raping.
Similarly, Check (1984) found that men with higher antisocial personality
characteristics were more affected by exposure to violent as well as
nonviolent dehumanizing pornographic materials than those with lower
Pornography and Sexual Aggression
antisocial characteristics. Furthermore, several studies (for example, see
Malamuth & Check, 1983) found that men with higher aggressive
inclinations toward women were more sexually aroused by violent
pornography than those with lower aggressive inclinations. Thus, pornography effects may very well operate in a reciprocal fashion, whereby
relatively "pro-rape" individuals are both more likely to read pornography
and more likely to be affected by it.
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In this chapter, an application of social learning theory to the feminist
analysis of pornography has been attempted. It was determined that social
learning theory embraces well the feminist view that has received much
research support. Much of the evidence for this socialleaming analysis,
however, is indirect. Perhaps the more important contribution, therefore,
is that social learning theory contributed additional theoretical depth and
empirically testable predictions above and beyond those of the feminist
analysis. A good example is the suggestion that exposure to sexual
violence in pornography can have its antisocial effect through a number of
social learning processes that have been demonstrated in other contexts.
More specifically, pornography depicting women enjoying rape can
generate both symbolic and vicarious expectancy learning processes, as
well as several different vicarious reinforcement processes (especially for
certain individuals).
While it is true that many of the social learning theory predictions
received at least indirect support from the research findings to date, there
is clearly a need for further research on this social learning reformulation of
the pornography effects issue. Specifically, there is a need for further
research on the intervening processes that may mediate the relationship
between pornography exposure and behavior change. The research by
Malamuth and Check (1981, in press), Zillmann and Bryant (1984), and
Linz et al. (1984) that investigated cognitive (attitudinal) changes as a
result of exposure to pornography is seen as a step in this direction. There
is also a need for additional research into the ways in which depictions of
male-female sexual interactions can be used to foster more prosocial
sexual belief systems. The use of Mosher's (1971b) sex callousness scale is
suggested as a useful measure for this type of research. Finally, we need to
know more about the ways in which pornography-induced antisocial
attitudes and beliefs with regard to sexual violence against women relate to
actual acts of aggressive behavior against women, both in terms of
laboratory measures (for example, Malamuth, 1983), and in terms of
measures of real-world sexual aggression (Check & Malamuth, 1983a;
Koss & Leonard, 1984).
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Social learning theory is often rejected upon superficial examination as
too simplistic a notion-an "imitation model" in which people are like
monkeys who do everything they see others do. As we have attempted to
show in this chapter, however, social learning theory is a much more
complex and encompassing theory than the "monkey-see-monkey-do"
characterization suggests, and can in fact contribute much to an
understanding of pornography. We hope that this essay will help to
encourage more social learning-based research on the effects of pornography.
1. As will be apparent throughout this essay, we try to avoid becoming involved in
semantic debates about the "true" definition of pornography, preferring instead to
concentrate on the content of the materials under investigation. Therefore, as suggested by
Smith (l976a, 1976b), pornography will be defined for the purposes of this essay as sexually
explicit stimuli, without any pejorative meaning necessarily intended. Whenever it becomes
necessary to distinguish various different forms of social content, we will do so by employing
terms such as "violent pornography" (referring to stimuli that fuse sexually explicit content
and violence) and "nonviolent pornography" to refer to explicit stimuli that do not include
violent content.
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