Access to pornography was once limited to specialty bookstores and movie houses found mainly in decaying inner areas of large cities. Most of us were once untouched by pornography and its effects. Those innocent days are over. The past fifteen years have been a period of explosive influence has spread to suburban areas and small towns, into corner convenience stores, and into every home with a television set of telephone. Many myths have sprung up or been created about pornography.
Many Canadians are only dimly aware of the prevalence or savagery of the pornographic material that is available today. They are generally misinformed about the effects of this material and the harm that it causes to the social order: to our families, our marriages, our children and child rearing, intimate relationships and respect for law and order.
Today, no part of North America is immune from the influence of the pornography industry. Last year, this industry produced almost two hundred million copies of over 800 pornographic magazines distributed both here and abroad. These magazines are routinely available in the stores our children frequent as they walk home from school. Images juxtaposing sex and violence with pleasure and excitement — in advertising, on television and at movies — have produced a media construction of reality that is itself pornographic. This burgeoning model of reality is shaping our children’s view of themselves and of the world.
A distorted world
The more time a child spends living in the world of television, or an adolescent spends living in the world of pornography the more likely he or she is to report perceptions of social reality which can be traced to or are congruent with television’s and pornography’s most persistent representations of life and society. As our children internalize the violent world of prime-time television, and the violence as well as the shallow eroticized attachments portrayed and depicted in pornography, these internal representations of the world shape the way they understand and relate to the world, and consume its products.
When confronted with a discussion of pornography, most people envision an early issue of Playboy which some perceive as harmless voyeurism. Most people have little idea of the kinds of materials that are being produced and sold in 1984 — “soft-core” materials that graphically depict heterosexual and homosexual intercourse, sodomy, group sex, bestiality and sadomasochism — and “hard-core” ones including depictions of bondage, torture, rape and even murder. The pornography industry has changed and expanded. It has grown uglier.
Most Canadians are unaware of the scope and magnitude of the pornography industry that exists today: its multi-billion dollar economy, it structure and organization or the degree to which organized crime is involved in the production and international distribution of pornographic materials. Organized crime is the major distributor and a major producer of this type of material, and seizes the lion’s share of the industry’s profit.
Gross revenues from the sales of all forms of pornographic material have been estimated to fall between six and ten billion dollars per year in the U.S. These revenues are larger than those of conventional record and movie industries. However, this six-to-ten billion dollar figure is considered by many law enforcement officials to be inflated by monies from other criminal activities that are laundered through the pornography industry, the true figure is more likely to be in the three-to-four billion dollar range.
Some of these officials argue that this cash flow support a cadre of experts that reappear again and again as defense lawyers and so-called expert witnesses at obscenity trials across the United States and Canada in an attempt to block obscenity prosecutions to increase the appearance of community tolerance to this obscene material.
Local communities have not been permitted to perform their historic function of setting community standards. Instead the community-standards issue has been improperly wrested away from the people by local, provincial and federal prosecutors when they determine what they will and will not prosecute. Prosecutors are reluctant to prosecute obscenity citing philosophical, political and economic reasons for these failures. Part of the reason is that there has been no clear exposition of the recent scientific research on the effects and harm of this material available to prosecutors that tie the pornography industry and its victims together. Prosecutors’ reluctance to prosecute is frequently a source of deep frustration for law enforcement officers as well as for local citizens.
Our own children are not the only ones affected. American production of pornography dwarfs that of all other countries combined. The lion’s share of the pornography available in most other countries is produced and manufactured in the United States. American pornography is exported all over the world in contravention of bilateral and multilateral treaties.
Virtually all of the pornographic videotape masters (and four-fifths of the printed pornography) entering Canada are produced in the United States. The same phenomenon occurs with media violence. Four-fifths of the violent and sexually-abusive programming on television in Canada is imported from the United States. Similar levels of American television violence are broadcast in countries such as Finland, Poland and Israel.
An addiction paradigm
Just as the U.S National Institute of Mental Health’s Center for Studies of Narcotic and Drug abuse developed the “gateway” theory, which demonstrated how the use of cigarettes and alcohol precedes the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs, a recent Canadian study, the Badgeley Commission, found a similar gateway phenomenon for sex offenders.
A sizeable proportion of male adults convicted of sex offenses against children in Canada was found to have had prior arrests for a variety of offenses. Two in three (62.3%) had prior convictions for both sex and non-sex offenses. The study challenged the conclusions of prior research which had found low recidivism among sex offenders with child victims and no progression occurring among these offenders from minor to serous offenses. It found, in fact, a sequence over time in offenses committed by recidivist sex offenders, progressing from minor to more serious offenses.
This is not to say that all users of cigarettes or alcohol become addicts or that all petty criminals become sex offenders with child victims. But it does say that many individuals who end up as drug addicts and sex offenders began their careers, or “gated” with minor substance abuse and petty anti-social behavior.
Many people mistakenly believe that viewing violence and sexual aggression is in some way cathartic. Recent studies clearly demonstrate it is not. In fact, pornography and media violence desensitize viewers — particularly young viewers — to rape and other forms of social and sexual violence against women, children and minorities, as well as to violence against the elderly.
In related studies looking at the effects of violence-viewing on the viewer, University of Lethbridge psychologist, Gordon Russell, reaffirmed these findings. Far from having a cathartic effect, violence-viewing led to an increase in, and enhancement of hostility in fans viewing sports events. Still, two-thirds of Russell’s college student subjects believed violence-viewing was cathartic, and three-quarters of adult sports fans he interviewed believed the same thing.
Collaterally, a recent Canadian Gallup poll found that while two-thirds of the respondents believed that viewing TV violence was harmful to others, only five percent believed that it was harmful to themselves. The perception that violence-viewing is cathartic is deeply ingrained in popular culture, particularly among television producers and screenwriters, and it appears highly resistant to correction.
Prevalence of violent and sexually abusive themes
In recent years, depictions of sex combined with violence have proliferated as a prominent theme in media entertainment. In all media modes – in mainstream film, popular television, pop music lyrics and now rock video — gratuitous violence and sex juxtaposed or combined with violence have been introduced by programmers, producers, directors and editors who view for a larger share of the media market. Sex and violence may do well at the box-office, but what effect do they have on audiences, particularly younger audiences?
Ironically, both media-villains and media-heroes use similar anti-social strategies – to solve problems, challenge one another, resolve conflict and to reduce anxiety. These strategies, along with verbal abuse, dominate media programming, and the mainstream media legitimizes these strategies to our children within a pornographic context. Our children, in turn, become desensitized to these violent, anti-social strategies and being to imitate them, not only in relationships with their peers but in relation to society in general.
In a recent study of 340 high school students who were asked to nominate their heroes, heroines and figures who influenced their lives, Russell found that these students nominated predominately sports and entertainment figures. They related and identified most with those whose behavior was most violent. None of these 340 students nominated a teacher. Russell questioned whether we are not deceiving ourselves if we think that the people we are placing in our classrooms are somehow serving as role models for our children.
Russell also noted that these students emulated this violent behavior in their play and in competitive sports. In particular, youngsters with violent hockey heroes tried, in their play, to become as violent and aggressive as their heroes. Correlatively, Russell found sports violence in Canada’s Junior Hockey League to be double that of the adult National Hockey League.
Moreover, that league’s own violence had grown to two and one-half times its level following World War II.
Next month: in part II, David Scott summarizes the most recent research on the effects of pornography.
David Scott is a family counselor and psychologist. He will be a guest speaker at the REAL Women of Canada conference to be held in Toronto on February 2, 1984.