Effects on rape behavior, and the rape myth

The effects of pornography are clear and disturbing. Research by the University of Indiana psychologist Dolf Zillman has demonstrated that repeated massive exposure to nonviolent, noncoercive standard-fare pornography [often labeled “soft-core”] can lead to increasing callousness toward women and to the trivialization of rape as a criminal offence by both men and women.

Following repeated exposure to nonviolent, noncoercive pornography, Zillman found, on the one hand, that his subjects became increasingly desensitized to this material. On the other hand, following repeated exposure to this material, their sexual arousal to it diminished.

Though initially repulsed by these materials, repeated exposure removed repulsion. In fact , Zillmann’s subjects reported growing fonder and fonder of stronger, more coercive and violent materials – even coming to enjoy them. Moreover, these experimental effects lasted for a substantial period of time after even brief exposure.

Subjects reported becoming dissatisfied with pornographic material they were familiar with, and developed an appetite for material featuring less common sexuality. Zillmann reports that massive consumption of standard fare creates an appetite for more  uncommon, potentially bizarre pornographic fare.

In addition, his subjects came to perceive other adults to be more sexually active then they were. They also came to believe that the less common sexuality that they had grown fond of was quite normal.

Finally, massive exposure led to a serious lack of concern by subjects about the impact of pornography on society. Their tolerance to pornography increased, as did their acceptance of it in society.

Research by psychologists Ed Donnerstein at the University of  Wisconsin and Neil Malamuth at the University of California at Los Angeles has confirmed and extended Zillmann’s findings concerning nonviolent, noncoercive  pornography. Massive exposure to violent  pornography desensitizes subjects more quickly to violence against women than nonviolent pornography.

Donnerstein and Malamuth have shown, for example, how exposure to even a few minutes of sexually violent pornography, such as scenes of rape or other forms of sexual violence against women, can lead to anti-social attitudes and behavior. It can increase a viewer’s acceptance of the rape myth – i.e.that women initially resist, then welcome, aggressive, assaultive or deviant sexual behavior.

Far –reaching effects

In one-third of the normal males that he studied, Malamuth found that exposure to these sexually violent materials increased the willingness of these normal men to say that they would commit rape if they were assured of not being caught or punished. Exposure to these materials also increased male aggressive behavior against women in a laboratory setting, and decreased males’ and females’ sensitivity both to rape and to the plight of the rape victim.

If very brief exposure to sexually violent pornography can have these far-reaching effects, and if short-term massive exposure to nonviolent, standard-fare pornography has similar effects, then what will be the effects to hours of such material over extended periods of time, particularly to more impressionable adolescents and children?  Further research by Zillman, and University of Houston psychologist Jennings Bryant, has established that massive exposure to nonviolent, noncoersive standard fare pornography creates an appetite for more unusual, bizarre and deviant materials, including violence in a sexual context – such as depictions of sadomasochism and rape.

Effects on sexual relationships

New, and as yet unpublished, studies by Zillman and Bryant show that massive exposure to nonviolent, noncoercive, consensual, heterosexual pornography leads to sexual dissatisfaction in both men and women, particularly men.  Both men and women become dissatisfied with the sexual performance of their intimate partners, and even with their physical appearance


One reason, Zillman notes is that the females portrayed in pornography are shown engaging in sexual behaviours in which the intimate partners of the viewers of this pornography either do not want to engage, or will not engage.  This leads to reported dissatisfaction for both males and females.  This dissatisfaction is specific to sexual relating and does not generalize to dissatisfaction with life in general.


These same studies also showed that massive exposure to these materials led to a devaluation and depreciation of the importance of monogamy, and to a lack of confidence in marriage as either a viable or lasting institution.  Moreover, both college students and mature adults exposed to these materials came to view nonmonogamous relationships as normal and natural behaviour.


Zillman and Bryant found that their subjects reported a tendency to grow fond of these materials and that their concern about the proliferation of pornography diminished and disappeared following massive exposure to it.


Conflict and suffering in marriage


In the long term study, Mills College sociologist Diana Russell explored men’s appetite for more deviant sexual behaviour in relation to the abuse of women.


In her study of 930 victims of rape and other sexual abuse, Russell found that the depiction and dissemination of the “rape myth” was a contributing factor in reducing inhibitions to the use of sexual violence in intimate relationships.  Both males and females increasingly accepted the ideas of sexual aberration and rape as normal behaviour.


Russell’s subjects reported that repeated exposure to rape-myth imagery contributed notably to dissatisfaction I their sexual relationships with their spouses.  Russell found that once the seeds of deviant behaviour were planted in male fantasy, the men she studied were inclined to act these fantasies out.  She found that the fantasies that were acted out, as well as the mere conceptualization of these deviant fantasies as viable behaviours, both led to considerable conflict and suffering on the part of both males and females, particularly in their sexual relationships with intimate partners.

The use of pornography by sex-offenders: Rapists and Pedophiles

A number of recent studies, particularly those done by psychologist Neil Malamuth, Gene Abel at Columbia University and W. L. Marshall at Queen’s University and Kingston Penitentiary in Canada. Describing the comparative responses of both normal males and sex offenders to nonviolent and violent pornography, dramatize these dangers.

A major finding, reported by Marshall, is that rapists are just as aroused by nonviolent, non-coercive consenting sex depictions.  This finding has significant implications for any discussion of control over the availability of many forms of adult pornography.

Marshall’s recent study of the use of pornography by sex offenders found that almost half of the rapists he studied used “soft-core” pornography to arouse themselves when preparing to seek out a victim.  Most of the rapists studied by Marshall preferred soft-core material as a stimulant before a rape as the women portrayed appear to be more attractive as victims.  The rapists studied frequently acted out violent sex fantasies, as depicted in hard-core pornography, on their victims.

Sexual offences against children

The statistics used above are from reports to law enforcement, health and social service agencies.  What about the unreported incidents?  A recent major Canadian study (Bagley) of sex offences against children found that at some time during their lives, about one in two females and one in three males had been victims of unwanted sex acts.  About four in five of these incidents happened to these persons when they were children or youths.

Other recent studies and reports have indicated that sex offenders are endemic, that a significant number of both females and males have been victims of these acts, and that children and youth are disproportionately at risk.  One of these has shown that one quarter of college women interviewed reported a sexual experience with an adult before reaching the age of 13; another estimated that one in four females will be sexually abused before reaching the age of 18; yet another indicated that 20 to 30 per cent of the juveniles who are now 12 years old will be sexually attacked during their life span.  These research findings translate into millions of victims, and into significant portions of a generation being sexually abused before reaching adulthood. 

One English study has shown that more adolescent than adult females are raped; demonstrating that rape is predominantly an offence against juveniles, not adults.

Dr. Ann Burgess of the University of Pennsylvania has reported that startling numbers of adolescents, who were sexually victimized as young children, are now sexually molesting and victimizing very young children, often their own younger siblings.  This pattern is termed a “cycle of victimization.”

The pedophile: victim and victimizer

An even darker side of this phenomenon is seen in Dr. Gene Abel’s findings that child molestation is a more serious and frequent crime than adult rape.  He found, for example, that heterosexual incest offenders had a relatively small number of victims (2.1 each), as did heterosexual rapists (5.8 each).  However, homosexual pedophiles and heterosexual pedophiles (child molesters) had an average of 30.6 and 62.4 victims, respectively – five and 11 times the number of victims for the rapist, and each pedophile molested, on average, two-thirds of his victims before first being reported to the authorities.

Ironically, a recent California study estimated that 95 per cent of arrested child molesters do not go to prison.  Of 30,000 child molesters in 1979, only 160 molesters were jailed or hospitalized.  How is this possible when eight out of 10 child molesters who are prosecuted are convicted?  Because mine out of 10 child molesters are not prosecuted.

Why?  Charges are often dismissed because these child molesters are judged to be nonviolent, or first offenders, or the family is persuaded to drop the charges.  The pedophile promises not to d it again.  Usually the only witness is the child-victim.  Many prosecutors regard their testimony as unreliable.  Another reason for these dismissals is that data from corrections, the social services and the social sciences is not well enough integrated to serve prosecutors and judges in asking for and granting sentences.

Less often, there have been instances where individuals have not been prosecuted because they are “VIPs” – very important pedophiles – e.g. politicians, important members of the community, boy scout leaders, teachers, clergy, etc.  This deeply frustrates law enforcement officers who are charged with upholding the law.


The pornography industry is growing explosively.  Its effects are conclusive.  It is a significant contributor to the passivity, detachment and dependency experienced by growing numbers of our youth.


  • It portrays a confabulated and mythological construction and distortion of the real world in which destructive stereotypes abound, attachments are superficial, beauty is skin deep, relationships with others are narcissistic and exploitive, and sexual violence such as battering or rape is normal sexual foreplay.  Pornography’s ready availability legitimizes and validates its content and message.  Aberration and perversion are portrayed as normal behaviour.  Tragically, many people believe this, particularly young people.
  • Normal people become desensitized to the images portrayed in pornography, disinhibited to attack their intimate partners, and become increasingly dependent on more intense and unusual stimuli for excitement.  Paradoxically, normal people experience diminished sexual arousal following either prolonged or massive, short term exposure to nonviolent, noncoercive pornography.  Intimate relationships suffer.
  • Viewing pornography is not cathartic.  It does not reduce sexual tension.  It increases it.  In fact, it makes reducing sexual tension that  much more difficult.  Nor is viewing violence cathartic.  Each violent impression is another violent straw added until the violence finds release against an intimate partner, a family member, an acquaintance or even a stranger.  Pornography is a constant companion for the habitual sex-offender.  It sustains his or her defences and helps keep them from shattering.  It helps to preserve the psychic stability of this personality or character disordered individual whose psychological defences have become eroticized.


What is required, the Bagley Committee further concluded, is the recognition by all Canadians that children and youths have the absolute right to be protected from these offences.  It called for Canadian Criminal Code amendments to prohibit the accessibility and sale of adult visual pornographic material to young persons under 16 years of age, and for proactive law enforcement measures to eradicate child pornography from the Canadian market entirely.