The following excerpt from Diana Russell's book Against
Pornography: The Evidence of Harm (Berkeley, California: Russell
Publications, 1994) explores links between the consumption of pornography
and violence against women. For more on Diana Russell's work, see
her website: www.dianarussell.com
II. THE ROLE OF PORNOGRAPHY IN
UNDERMINING SOME MALES' INTERNAL INHIBITIONS AGAINST ACTING OUT
THE DESIRE TO RAPE
(1) Objectifying women. The first way in which pornography
undermines some males' internal inhibitions against acting out their
desires to rape is by objectifying women. Feminists have been emphasizing
the role of objectification in the occurrence of rape for years
(e.g., Medea and Thompson, 1974; Russell, 1975). Objectification
makes it easier to rape them. "It was difficult for me to admit
that I was dealing with a human being when I was talking to a woman,"
one rapist reported, "because, if you read men's magazines,
you hear about your stereo, your car, your chick" (Russell,
1975, pp. 249-250). After this rapist had hit his victim several
times in her face, she stopped resisting and begged, "All right,
just don't hurt me." "When she said that," he reported,
"all of a sudden it came into my head, 'My God, this is a human
being!' I came to my senses and saw that I was hurting this person."
Another rapist said of his victim, "I wanted this beautiful
fine thing and I got it" (Russell, 1975, p. 245).
Dehumanizing oppressed groups or enemy nations in times of war is
an important mechanism for facilitating brutal behavior toward members
of those groups.
However, the dehumanization of women that
occurs in pornography is often not recognized because of its sexual
guise and its pervasiveness. It is important to note that the objectification
of women is as common in non-violent pornography as it is in violent
Doug McKenzie-Mohr and Mark Zanna conducted an experiment to test
whether certain types of males would be more likely to sexually
objectify a woman after viewing 15 minutes of non-violent pornography.
They selected 60 male students who they classified into one of two
categories: masculine sex-typed or gender schematic--individuals
who "encode all cross-sex interactions in sexual terms and
all members of the opposite sex in terms of sexual attractiveness"
(Bem, 1981, p. 361); and androgynous or gender aschematic--males
who do not encode cross-sex interactions and women in these ways
(McKenzie-Mohr and Zanna, 1990, p. 297, 299).
McKenzie-Mohr and Zanna found that after exposure to non-violent
pornography, the masculine sex-typed males "treated our female
experimenter who was interacting with them in a professional setting,
in a manner that was both cognitively and behaviorally sexist"
(1990, p. 305). In comparison with the androgynous males, for example,
the masculine sex-typed males positioned themselves closer to the
female experimenter and had "greater recall for information
about her physical appearance" and less about the survey she
was conducting (1990, p. 305). The experimenter also rated these
males as more sexually motivated based on her answers to questions
such as, "How much did you feel he was looking at your body?"
"How sexually motivated did you find the subject?" (1990,
This experiment confirmed McKenzie-Mohr and Zanna's hypothesis that
exposure to non-violent pornography causes masculine sex-typed males,
in contrast to androgynous males, to view and treat a woman as a
(2) Rape Myths. If males believe that women enjoy rape and
find it sexually exciting, this belief is likely to undermine the
inhibitions of some of those who would like to rape women. Sociologists
Diana Scully and Martha Burt have reported that rapists are particularly
apt to believe rape myths (Burt, 1980; Scully, 1985). Scully, for
example, found that 65% of the rapists in her study believed that
"women cause their own rape by the way they act and the clothes
they wear"; and 69% agreed that "most men accused or rape
are really innocent." However, as Scully points out, it is
not possible to know if their beliefs preceded their behavior or
constitute an attempt to rationalize it. Hence, findings from the
experimental data are more telling for our purposes than these interviews
As the myth that women enjoy rape is widely held, the argument that
consumers of pornography realize that such portrayals are false,
is totally unconvincing (Brownmiller, 1975; Burt, 1980; Russell,
1975). Indeed, several studies have shown that portrayals of women
enjoying rape and other kinds of sexual violence can lead to increased
acceptance of rape myths in both males and females. In an experiment
conducted by Neil Malamuth and James Check, for example, one group
of college students saw a pornographic depiction in which a woman
was portrayed as sexually aroused by sexual violence, and a second
group was exposed to control materials. Subsequently, all subjects
were shown a second rape portrayal. The students who had been exposed
to the pornographic depiction of rape were significantly more likely
than the students in the control group (1) to perceive the second
rape victim as suffering less trauma; (2) to believe that she actually
enjoyed it; and (3) to believe that women in general enjoy rape
and forced sexual acts (Check and Malamuth, 1985, p. 419).
Other examples of the rape myths that male subjects in these studies
are more apt to believe after viewing pornography are as follows:
"A woman who goes to the home or the apartment of a man on
their first date implies that she is willing to have sex";
"Any healthy woman can successfully resist a rapist if she
really wants to"; "Many women have an unconscious wish
to be raped, and many then unconsciously set up a situation in which
they are likely to be attacked"; "If a girl engages in
necking or petting and she lets things get out of hand, it is her
own fault if her partner forces sex on her" (Briere, Malamuth,
and Check, 1985, p. 400).
In Maxwell and Check's 1992 study of 247 high school students described
above, they found very high rates of what they called "rape
supportive beliefs", that is, acceptance of rape myths and
violence against women. The boys who were the most frequent consumers
of pornography and/or who reported learning a lot from it, were
more accepting of rape supportive beliefs than their peers who were
less frequent consumers and/or who said they had not learned as
much from it.
A full 25% of girls and 57% of boys indicated belief that in one
or more situations, it was at least "maybe okay" for a
boy to hold a girl down and force her to have intercourse. Further,
only 21% of the boys and 57% of the girls believed that forced intercourse
was "definitely not okay" in any of the situations. The
situation in which forced intercourse was most accepted, was that
in which the girl had sexually excited her date. In this case 43%
of the boys and 16% of the girls stated that if was at least "maybe
okay" for the boy to force intercourse (1992, abstract).
According to Donnerstein, "After only 10 minutes of exposure
to aggressive pornography, particularly material in which women
are shown being aggressed against, you find male subjects are much
more willing to accept these particular myths" (1983, p. 6).
These males are also more inclined to believe that 25% of the women
they know would enjoy being raped (1983, p. 6).
(3) Acceptance of interpersonal violence. Males' internal
inhibitions against acting out their desire to rape can also be
undermined if they consider male violence against women to be acceptable
behavior. Studies have shown that viewing portrayals of sexual violence
as having positive consequences increases male subjects' acceptance
of violence against women. Examples of some of the attitudes used
to measure acceptance of interpersonal violence include "Being
roughed up is sexually stimulating to many women"; "Sometimes
the only way a man can get a cold woman turned on is to use force";
"Many times a woman will pretend she doesn't want to have intercourse
because she doesn't want to seem loose, but she's really hoping
the man will force her" (Briere, Malamuth, and Check, 1985,
Malamuth and Check (1981) conducted an experiment of particular
interest because the movies shown were part of the regular campus
film program. Students were randomly assigned to view either a feature-length
film that portrayed violence against women as being justifiable
and having positive consequences ("Swept Away", "The
Getaway") or a film without sexual violence. The experiment
showed that exposure to the sexually violent movies increased the
male subjects' acceptance of interpersonal violence against women.
(This outcome did not occur with the female subjects.) These effects
were measured several days after the films had been seen.
(4) Trivializing rape. According to Donnerstein, in most
studies on the effects of pornography, "subjects have been
exposed to only a few minutes of pornographic material" (1985,
p. 341). In contrast, Zillman and Bryant examined the impact on
male subjects of what they refer to as "massive exposure"
to non-violent pornography (4 hours and 48 minutes per week over
a period of six weeks; for further details about the experimental
design, see page 27). After three weeks the subjects were told that
they were participating in an American Bar Association study that
required them to evaluate a trial in which a man was prosecuted
for the rape of a female hitchhiker. At the end of this mock trial
various measures were taken of the subjects' opinions about the
trial and about rape in general. For example, they were asked to
recommend the prison term they thought most fair.
Zillmann and Bryant found that the male subjects who were exposed
to the massive amounts of pornography considered rape a less serious
crime than they did before they were exposed to it; they thought
that prison sentences for rape should be shorter; and they perceived
sexual aggression and abuse as causing less suffering for the victims,
even in the case of an adult male having sexual intercourse with
a 12-year-old girl (1984, p. 132). They concluded that "heavy
exposure to common non-violent pornography trivialized rape as a
criminal offense" (1984, p. 117).
(5) Callous attitudes toward female sexuality. In the same
experiment on massive exposure, Zillmann and Bryant also reported
that, "males' sexual callousness toward women was significantly
enhanced" (1984, p. 117). Male subjects, for example, became
increasingly accepting of statements such as "A woman doesn't
mean 'no' until she slaps you"; "A man should find them,
fool them, fuck them, and forget them"; and "If they are
old enough to bleed, they are old enough to butcher." However,
judging by these items, it is difficult to distinguish sexual callousness
from a general hostility to women.
(6) Acceptance of male dominance in intimate relationships.
A marked increase in males' acceptance of male dominance in intimate
relationships was yet another result of this massive exposure to
pornography (Zillmann and Bryant, 1984, p. 121). The notion that
women are, or ought to be, equal in intimate relationships was more
likely to be abandoned by these male subjects (1984, p. 122). Finally,
their support of the women's liberation movement also declined sharply
(1984, p. 134).
These findings demonstrate that pornography increases the acceptability
of sexism. As Van White points out, "by using pornography,
by looking at other human beings as a lower form of life, they [the
pornographers] are perpetuating the same kind of hatred that brings
racism to society" (1984).
The greater trivializing of rape by males, the increase in their
callous attitudes toward female sexuality, and their greater acceptance
of male domination, are all likely to contribute to undermining
some males' inhibitions against acting out their desires to rape.
(7) Desensitizing males to rape. In an experiment specifically
designed to study desensitization, Linz, Donnerstein, and Penrod
showed ten hours of R-rated or X-rated movies over a period of five
days to male subjects (Donnerstein and Linz, 1985, p. 34A). Some
students saw X-rated movies depicting sexual assault; others saw
X-rated movies depicting only consenting sex; and a third group
saw R-rated sexually violent movies--for example, "I Spit on
Your Grave," "Toolbox Murders," and "Texas Chainsaw
Massacre." Donnerstein (1983) describes "Toolbox Murders"
as follows: There is an erotic bathtub scene in which a woman massages
herself. A beautiful song is played. Then a psychotic killer enters
with a nail gun. The music stops. He chases the woman around the
room, then shoots her through the stomach with the nail gun. She
falls across a chair. The song comes back on as he puts the nail
gun to her forehead and blows her brains out. According to Donnerstein,
many young males become sexually aroused by this movie (1983, p.
Donnerstein and Linz point out that, "It has always been suggested
by critics of media violence research that only those who are already
predisposed toward violence are influenced by exposure to media
violence" (1985, p. 34F). These experimenters, however, actually
preselected their subjects to ensure that they were not psychotic,
hostile, or anxious.
Donnerstein and Linz described the impact of the R-rated movies
on their subjects as follows:
Initially, after the first day of viewing, the men rated themselves
as significantly above the norm for depression, anxiety, and annoyance
on a mood adjective checklist. After each subsequent day of viewing,
these scores dropped until, on the fourth day of viewing, the males'
levels of anxiety, depression, and annoyance were indistinguishable
from baseline norms (1985, p. 34F).
By the fifth day, the subjects rated the movies as less graphic
and less gory and estimated fewer violent or offensive scenes than
after the first day of viewing. They also rated the films as significantly
less debasing and degrading to women, more humorous, and more enjoyable,
and reported a greater willingness to see this type of film again
(1985, p. 34F). However, their sexual arousal by this material did
not decrease over this five-day period (Donnerstein, 1983, p. 10).
On the last day, the subjects went to a law school where they saw
a documentary re-enactment of a real rape trial. A control group
of subjects who had never seen the films also participated in this
part of the experiment. Subjects who had seen the R-rated movies:
(1) rated the victim as significantly more worthless, (2) rated
her injury as significantly less severe, and (3) assigned greater
blame to her for being raped than did the subjects who had not seen
the film. In contrast, these effects were not observed for the X-rated
non-violent films. However, the results were much the same for the
violent X-rated films, despite the fact that the R-rated material
was "much more graphically violent" (Donnerstein, 1985,
Several other studies have assessed the correlation between
the degree of males' exposure to pornography and attitudes supportive
of violence against women. Malamuth reports that in three out of
four studies, "higher levels of reported exposure to sexually
explicit media correlated with higher levels of attitudes supportive
of violence against women" (1986, p. 8).
(1) Malamuth and Check (1985) conducted a study in which they found
a positive correlation between the amount of sexually explicit magazines
a sample of college males read and their beliefs that women enjoy
(2) Similarly, Check (1985) found that the more often a diverse
sample of Canadian males were exposed to pornography, the higher
their acceptance of rape myths, violence against women, and general
sexual callousness was.
(3) Briere, Corne, Runtz and Malamuth (1984) found similar correlations
in another sample of college males.
In her study of male sexuality, Shere Hite found that 67% of the
males who admitted that they had wanted to rape a woman reported
reading pornographic magazines, compared to only 19% of those who
said that they had never wanted to rape a woman (1981, p. 1123).
With regard to the frequency of exposure to pornography, Hite reported
that only 11% of the 7,000 males she surveyed said that they had
never looked at pornography; 36% said they viewed it regularly,
21% said they did so sometimes, 26% said they did so infrequently,
and 6% said that they had looked at it in the past (1981, p. 1123).
While correlation does not prove causation, and it therefore cannot
be concluded from these studies that it was the consumption of the
pornography that was responsible for the males' higher acceptance
of violence against women, their findings are consistent with a
theory that a causal connection exists.
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