Fact-checking the U.K. House of Lords’ debate on porn

Couples using porn is just one of the topics UK politicians debated.

 

Catherine Scott

IRL

Published Nov 5, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 4:51 pm CDT

This article contains sexually explicit material.

Injuries from anal sex. Transgender experiences. Couples using porn.

These are just a few of the topics that were raised in a debate on pornography today in the UK’s House of Lords, a parliamentary body made up of religious figures and friends of the monarchy. Also up for discussion were the effects of pornography on children and teenagers, and the link (or lack thereof) between porn and violence against women.

As reported by the UK’s Telegraph, the Bishop of Chester took a conservative view, claiming porn “encourages us to view other people simply as…objects.” Baroness Murphy was more pragmatic, claiming that while “much of it is pretty silly stuff, it’s highly enjoyable for those who watch heterosexual pornography.” (No comment on whether homosexual, bisexual or multi-gendered pornography is also enjoyable…)

Ultimately, the usefulness of a group of unelected figures—which includes 26 bishops, and in which half the members are over the age of 70—debating the effects of pornography is questionable to say the least. 

So in the interests of accuracy, the Daily Dot thought we would fact-check some of their claims:

Claim: Injury rates from anal sex are rising thanks to porn.

This was suggested by Lord Farmer, who claimed “Young people are under considerable pressure to act like porn artists.” There’s no specific statistics on actual injuries, only anecdotes: A British doctor told the Telegraph she is seeing more cases of teen girls with fecal incontinence as a result of anal sex and an Australian youth educator reported to the Daily Mail that she increasingly encounters teen girls with injuries from rough sex, including anal. 

A British Medical Journal study of 130 teens aged 16-to-18 did conclude that “anal heterosex often appeared to be painful, risky and coercive, particularly for women. Interviewees frequently cited pornography as the ‘explanation’ for anal sex.” However, the authors of study added that this was more of a perception than a fact, writing “the ‘pornography’ explanation seems partial at best,” adding “our study suggests we need to think more widely about the lack of importance society places on women’s rights, desires and concerns.”

Claim: Porn can actually change your brain.

Lord McColl, himself a doctor, claimed that “constant consumption of pornography can actually reduce the size of the parts of the brain that are related to reward,” according to Telegraph editor Asa Bennett on Twitter:

However, being a doctor does not prevent McColl from oversimplifying. A 2014 JAMA Psychiatry study of 64 healthy men aged between 21 and 45 which used brain imaging did show that the region of the brain associated with reward processing was smaller in the participants who watched more porn. However, the authors cautioned against assuming that porn exposure wears out the brain’s reward center and leads to “a tendency to search for novel and more extreme sexual material.” Why? Because having a smaller reward center could be a “precondition rather than a consequence of frequent pornography consumption,” meaning the brain’s structure pre-dated the porn viewing. Other clinicians have dismissed the claim that porn harms the brain as inherently biased. As clinical psychologist David Ley told Salon:

These theories are not being critically assessed. Instead, if it sounds convincing, it’s adopted as true. . . There is no research that shows that porn use actually changes someone’s brain differently from any other form of entertainment, including television.

Claim: There’s no link between porn and violence against women.

As reported on Twitter by Telegraph‘s Martin Daubney, Baroness Shields questioned the assumption that porn leads to increased acceptance of violence against women and therefore is a causal factor in rape and sexual assault.  

A briefing by the UK coalition End Violence Against Women states that the “use of extreme pornography contributes to the cultural context within which society fails to take sexual violence seriously” and cited a 2000 UCLA study as confirmation that “men who have higher levels of pornography consumption are more likely to have attitudes supporting sexual violence.” However, this is another case in which people need to be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. We are not told which comes first—the high porn consumption or the acceptance of sexual violence—and therefore we cannot say the former causes the latter.

Ronald Weitzer writes in his 2011 paper Pornography’s Effects: The Need for Solid Evidence that “research has not demonstrated a link between media images—of any kind—and audience behavior. What matters most is whether a person is socially predisposed to act, or ‘primed,’ in a certain way—with preexisting views reinforced by or resonating with new stimuli.” Weitzer goes on to make the correlation/causation divide clear:

Moreover, the causal direction may be the opposite of the one typically asserted (i.e., exposure to porn leads to aggression), as indicated in research that finds that men who score high on sexual aggression are more likely to seek out sexually violent media and, in turn, to have their preexisting views reinforced by the latter.

Additionally, psychologist David Ley also told Salon  that he found it difficult to find empirically sound studies on the effects of pornography because “the literature is weighted with moral and cultural values.”  

Claim: Porn can improve relationships between couples.

The Bishop of Bristol came across as naïve, if rather sweet, when he stated during the debate, “There are some couples who claim, and I’m not sure I understand this, that pornography has improved their relationships.” 

In fact, a recent study of women’s porn-watching habits by Marie Claire found that over a third of respondents watched porn with a partner and considered their porn use “part of a healthy sex life”; a quarter of women in the study actually said “[porn] turns my partner and me on equally.” A 2010 Norwegian study of nearly 400 couples found that “couples where one or both used pornography had a more permissive erotic climate [in their relationship].” 

Perhaps the Bishop in question has internalized traditional narratives which imply pornography is only watched by men, or that it should be a shameful solo activity. However, a 2014 study from the Journal of Marital and Sex Therapy implied that couples who are honest with each other about their porn use “showed higher satisfaction and lower levels of distress, and participants disclosing mutual use showed lower levels of distress.”

Claim: Making laws about porn based on feelings rather than facts is a bad idea.

Although some of Lord Giddens’ comments implied a retrogressive attitude (such as his claim that porn is still driven mostly by male desire), he struck a blow for anti-censorship advocates when he said “What one mustn’t do is plunge into policies that are based on inadequate policies and inadequate research.” 

Unfortunately, some online porn producers feel the UK government have done just that: In December 2014, the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations came into force, banning acts such as face-sitting, female ejaculation (if done on another’s body or consumed), bondage where all four limbs are restricted, fisting and the disturbingly vague “activities involving perversion or degradation” from online porn produced in the UK. Porn producers and obscenity lawyers objected to what they saw as a random and often sexist ban on certain acts (which confusingly, are legal to do in person—just not on film). A dominatrix told the Guardian the changes were “a misogynistic vision of female sexuality, written by school boys who are still scared of the girls.” In the same article, reporter Zoe Williams writes: “I have never read a set of rules…that so flagrantly omitted to discuss principles with the people to whom they would apply.”

Whether today’s debate told anyone anything they didn’t already know (doubtful), or changed any views (unlikely, as apart from a ripple on Twitter it went fairly unnoticed), it at least allowed for some typical British innuendo via the hashtag #massdebate, and Lord Cormack’s quote “There is a very big but, my Lords, here.”

 Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Nov 5, 2015, 4:14 pm CST