Does watching porn make you sexist?
Or does it depend on the type of porn you watch?
Can you blame porn if this looks totally acceptable?
Can you blame porn if this looks totally acceptable? (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Masturbating while watching pornography will not make you go blind. But could it make you sexist?

Two new studies out this month suggest the answer is yes, that watching pornography can have a detrimental effect on people's perception of women and reinforce negative stereotypes.

A new study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly shows that both men and women who watch porn are less likely to support affirmative action for women. The study is fascinating because it shows a decrease in support of affirmative action for women over time if people watch porn, even when controlling for political and religious views. The data indicated that "prior pornography viewing predicted subsequent opposition to affirmative action," but "prior opposition to affirmative action did not predict subsequent pornography viewing." This suggests people didn't watch porn that objectified women because they had pre-existing negative attitudes; rather, porn helped develop this negative change in their views of women.

Another study published in the Journal of Communications shows that watching porn correlates to an immediate increase in sexist attitudes, but only in a subgroup of men who are considered low in "agreeableness" (meaning they were generally cold, unfriendly, and hostile). After exposing men and women to hard-core pornography, only men in this subgroup illustrated an increase in sexist attitudes.

The researchers behind this study emphasize that porn does not cause, so much as reinforce, the sexist attitudes apparent in this subgroup. "If these men already have these kinds of beliefs, but they are more dormant, porn appears to prompt these in their conscious minds," Neil Malamuth, a co-author of the study and a psychology professor at UCLA, tells Cosmpolitan. "These men already have these tendencies; porn adds fuel to the fire."

However, both of these studies are skirting a key issue: It may not be pornography itself that is the problem, but rather the types of porn people are watching (and using in these experiments).

"I have a real issue when people talk about porn as if it was one big, homogenous mass. It's like talking about literature as just one type," says Cindy Gallop, the founder and CEO of Make Love Not Porn, a website dedicated to promoting more realistic sexual depictions in adult films. Rather than make a "blanket statement" that porn contributes to negative views of women, Gallop "wants people to think more about the landscape of pornography" and consider the "porn about people having a great time in great ways."

Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel agrees that the problem may well be the kind of porn people are watching, rather than something inherently bad about pornography. "That viewing certain types of porn causes people to subconsciously look down on women isn't surprising," she writes.

But remember: There is also "feminist porn," adult films that challenge traditional gender roles and provide a lot more control (assuming they don't want to be dominated) to all the performers in it. There is plenty of porn that doesn't subjugate women or portray them solely as vessels of male sexual gratification.

Still, sexist porn is quite prevalent, and that may be because the porn industry is still mostly led by men. "Any industry that is predominantly driven by men and is targeting men, inevitably produces output that is sexist," Gallop says. "If we had an industry that was 50-50 equal and that was formed, driven, and influenced by women, it would be a different picture."

Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.


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