when surveys, sociology, and porn intersect…

December 1, 2012

intense blue eye

It’s a frequent societal stereotype that women in porn must have been sexually abused as kids, otherwise they would never go into this line of work. You can hear it from social conservatives in their dire warnings about porn addiction and from feminists who find all porn to be merely an exploitation of women for the enjoyment of men, alike. So one would think that to put the idea of the typical porn star as dealing with molestation or abuse through hypersexuality to rest, all one would have to do is have them take a survey, right? It seems fairly straightforward and it’s just what one study has done. After a survey administered to 177 women being tested between their videos, it found that 36% report being molested as children. If that sounds rather high, a control group of women who presumably had nothing to do with pornography reported a stunning 29% rate of sexual abuse. Basically, when taking the small sample sizes into account, it looks like the stereotype is wrong and women in porn are not predominantly survivors of molestation.

Oddly, note that according to the surveys, nearly a third of all women have been molested and often cited numbers say that anywhere between 20% to 40% of women have experienced some sort of sexual abuse as children. That’s disturbing to say the least, but the matter if also rather problematic because nearly all of these studies are relying on self-reporting on surveys given to convenience samples of women, which is science jargon for "asking whoever’s first available to fill out the questionnaire." This could easily produce a skew because the samples are not a truly random slice of the population but more homogenous demographic groups and the answers will reflect experiences typical for their group as well as their interpretation of what it means to have been sexually abused. Some groups of women may report a very low incidence of abuse during one study and a totally different group would report a very high one in a later one. And while a sample of women will consider a particular episode in a gray area during their childhood to be abuse, others would have forgotten and never reported it, or considered odd but not abusive.

So what does all this mean? It means that this study is certainly not definitive and could well be skewed, especially because women in porn know that people are eager to stereotype them into their image of what a female porn starlet should be: a hapless victim degrading herself because she was denied a proper childhood and now suffers from self-esteem issues that manifest as an over-active sex drive. When they’re doing self-selection and self-reporting, a bias simply could not be ruled out. And this, as well as the comments on the results of this study on news sites, is the other result from this study I find extremely disturbing. There really seem to be people who want female porn stars to be "damaged" so they can rationalize their choice to have sex on film as something only a person who "has issues" would do. And I’ll bet cash money that those exact same people commenting on how those poor abused dears whose father figures had boundary problems would go on to watch porn with those poor abused women. It’s not just a few weirdos watching it; only social media use exceeds online porn viewing. And not by much at that.

There’s something fundamentally unhealthy and downright bipolar in how we view porn and sex in general here in the U.S., and even this small study and the issues it raises gives us a peek at that. We cannot be a society that promotes unrealistic, self-indulgent piety and prudishness, just as we also can’t demand that everyone must embrace every sexual position, arrangement, kink, and relationship with nothing less than an orgasmic grin. This is absolutely a case in which the golden median is not a fallacy but a good approach. Humans are wired for sex. We enjoy it, we enjoy watching it, entire areas of our brain are dedicated to lust and encouraging us to find new mates, and all this enjoyment evolved to coax us into reproduction. To stigmatize natural urges and demean those who we end up watching doing the very things we said only "damaged" people do, fueling an industry that pays them for doing them in the process to the tune of billions per year, is hypocritical at best. And it’s especially bad when it’s done for irrational reasons like the wholehearted embrace of cold, haughty, snobby prudishness as the social norm…

See: Griffith, J., et al. (2012). Pornography actresses: an assessment of the damaged goods hypothesis Journal of Sex Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719168

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  • rudy

    I, as a boy, was involved in sexual encounters with adult women,enjoyed them and have no abusive tendencies now.

  • DreamQuestor

    Any thoughts on whether it would be possible to develop and conduct a survey which would accurately measure the ratio of sexual abuse in both the general population and the pron industry? (You have identified why the study is flawed and why it is important not to rely on it, but did not say whether it would be possible and feasible to develop and conduct an accurate study.)

  • DreamQuestor

    You know you live in a puritanical society when even your spell-checker refuses to properly spell porn!

  • gfish3000

    I’d say that a mostly objective method would be impractical and overly intrusive. You’d have to monitor the subjects day in, day out, though I suppose even then you might have on-the-line cases that can be seen differently by different people since sexuality is such a complex, emotional, and subjective area with which to begin.