The rapid, worldwide growth of the Internet leads to unprecedented opportunities in applications in business, communication, education, and entertainment (Hagel & Armstrong, 1997; Johnson, 1997; Schawrtz, 1997; Tapscott, Lowy, & Ticoll, 1998). Commercial interests act as a driving force behind these applications, but one of the byproducts is sex--lots of it. Sex is one of the most researched keywords on the Internet. Pornographic web sites have shown tremendous growth in the past few years, increasing by nearly 300 a day (Chen, 1999) and $700 million a year (Hapgood, 1996). They now total approximately 170,000. "Cybersex" or "cyberporn" came hand-in-glove with global interconnectivity. (1)
Pornography on the Internet is unique because sexually explicit materials posted on the Internet differ from traditional forms of pornographic materials, such as magazines and videos, in several important ways: (a) It is widely available through Bulletin Board Services (BBS) groups and via the World Wide Web through database accesses, interactive services, e-mail, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and real-time data feeds; (b) it is active and interactive through the presentation of materials in multimedia formats such as digitized moving images, animated sequences, sexually explicit texts, hot chats, and interactive sexual games; and (c) consumers also are producers of pornographic materials. (2) As Catherine MacKinnon (1995) put it: "Pornography in cyberspace is pornography in society--just broader, deeper, worse, and more of it" (p. 1959).
Research on pornography in cyberspace is burgeoning. Some studies have content analyzed pornographic materials posted and distributed on the Internet (Heider & Harp, 2000; Mehta & Plaza, 1997; Rimm, 1995). A few experimental studies have explored the effects of Internet pornography on attitudes and behavior (Barak, Fisher, Belfry, & Lashambe, 1999; Mahood, Kalyanaraman, & Sundar, 2000). This study seeks to contribute to the growing research literature on Internet pornography by using large-scale survey data to examine the actual use and perceived effects of exposure to Internet pornography within a third-person effect theoretical framework.
The support for the third-person effect has been consistently robust in the past decade (Perloff, 1993, 1999). Several studies found that a majority of respondents tend to perceive pornography to have greater negative influence on others than on themselves (Gunther, 1995; Lee & Yang, 1996; Lo & Paddon, 1999; Rojas, Shah, & Faber, 1996). Other studies focusing on the behavioral component of the third-person effect predicted successfully that third-person perceptions would lead to support for media restrictions on such things as press coverage of criminal television content (Gunther & Ang, 1996), violence on television (Hoffner et al., 1999; Rojas et al., 1996; Salwen & Dupagne, 1999), and negative political advertising (Rucinski & Salmon, 1990).
Oddly, however, third-person effect research has paid scant attention to Internet pornography. The availability and quantity of Internet pornography, the multifaceted nature of its delivery, and the active role that its consumers play suggest that many people will condemn cyberporn as causing greater social harm than traditional pornography. From a theoretical standpoint, these distinctive features of Internet pornography should not only inject the third-person effect into Internet communication but also magnify it compared to traditional mass media. Thus, research on effects of Internet pornography with a third-person effect theoretical perspective is timely and worthwhile.
Moreover, although previous studies found that women were more likely than men to associate pornographic materials with negative effects and were also more likely to support restrictions on pornography (Gunther, 1995; Thiessen, 1994; Thompson, Chaffee, & Oshagan, 1990; Wilson & Abelson, 1973), none of them addressed theoretically the relationships among gender, perceived effects of pornography on self and other males or females, and support for censorship of pornography. By splitting perceived effects according to gender in the use of Internet pornography, the present study attempts to expand the robust and growing third-person effect research.
Finally, most of the studies that examined the behavioral component of the third-person effect had used magnitude of perceptual bias as a predictor of support for media restrictions. Although using the magnitude of perceptual bias as a predictor of support for media restriction has some empirical support, its basic assumption seems questionable since it fails to distinguish between those who perceive pornography to have high influence on themselves and on others, and those who perceive pornography to have low influence on themselves and on others. In testing the relationships among third-person effect, gender, and support for restriction of Internet pornography, another goal of this study is to demonstrate empirically the methodological problem of using magnitude of perceptual bias as a predictor of support for pornography restriction.
Literature Review and Hypotheses
Perceived Third-Person Effect
Since Davison (1983) proposed the third-person effect hypothesis, numerous studies have gathered a significant amount of empirical evidence to support the third-person effect or the perceptual component of the hypothesis using different methodologies such as experiments and surveys (Paul, Salwen, & Dupagne, 2000; Perloff, 1999). The perceptual component of the third-person effect hypothesis states that people tend to perceive mass media messages to have a greater impact on others than on themselves.
Perloff (1993) reported that 13 of 14 studies on the third-person effect between 1983 and 1992 found support for the perceptual component of the hypothesis. During the 1990s, studies also overwhelmingly supported the third-person perceptual component of the hypothesis (Perloff, 1999). In fact, recent research has found that the third-person effects are even stronger when the communication is seen as socially less desirable or potentially harmful: rap music (McLeod, Eveland, & Nathanson, 1997), pornography (Gunther, 1995; Rojas, et al., 1996), sensitive television content (Gunther & Ang, 1996), media violence (Duck & Mullin, 1995; Salwen & Dupagne, 1999), undesirable advertising (Henriksen & Flora, 1999; Shah, Faber, & Youn, 1999), and press coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial (Salwen & Driscoll, 1997). Similar research conducted in Taiwan (Lo & Paddon, 1999) shows that respondents perceived pornography to have greater negative influence on others than on themselves.
Based on these findings, we predicted the following:
H1: Both male and female respondents will perceive Internet pornography to have a greater negative effect on others than on themselves.
Internet Pornography, Gender, and Third-Person Effect
A great deal of research has examined the content and effects of traditional forms of pornography in the past decades. Findings of previous research on pornography suggest that pornographic materials depict women routinely as sexual objects or as sexual commodities who enjoy suffering or humiliation (Dines, Jensen, & Russo, 1998; Dworkin, 1989). Women are also presented in situations that are humiliating, demeaning, and subjugating (Dobson, 1997). In a qualitative analysis of 14 pornographic videos and 20 pornographic novels, Jensen and Dines (1998, pp. 90-98) found the following four elements central to the representation of sexuality in pornography: (a) hierarchy (the power imbalance was overwhelming, routinely placing women at the bottom of a hierarchy); (b) objectification (women were depicted as objects or treated as less than human by their sexual partners); (c) submission (women were portrayed as learning to comply with the orders and desires of men who had power over them); and (d) violence (violent acts were presented as an acceptable method of ensuring sexual cooperation from women). Because women are routinely presented as sexual objects in scenarios of degradation, injury, abasement, or torture (Dines et al., 1998; Dworkin, 1989), pornography is seen as "a method to motivate, orchestrate, justify and guide sexual abuse and violence against women" (Russo, 1998, p. 29). As Dworkin (1988) argues, "Pornography is the material means of sexualizing inequality; and that is why pornography is a central practice in the subordination of women" (pp. 264-265).
The explosion of pornographic Web sites on the Internet in the past few years made such materials readily available to anyone, regardless of age, with an online account or access to the World Wide Web. The proliferation of pornographic materials on the Internet and intense public debate on how to regulate the Internet have triggered a small number of pioneer studies examining the content and effects of Internet pornography (Barak et al., 1999; Heider & Harp, 2000; Mahood et al., 2000; Mehta & Plaza, 1997; Rimm, 1995). A content study of 857,410 pornographic images on private bulletin board services by Rimm (1995) found that the dominant themes were pedophilic, hebephilic, and paraphilic, including bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and bestiality. In another content analysis of 150 randomly selected pornographic images downloaded from newsgroups, Mehta and Plaza (1997) reported that the most prevalent themes were close-ups, erect penises, fetishes, and masturbation. Both studies confirmed that pornographic materials were widely available on the Internet. Another textual analysis of more …