An Empirical Investigation of the Role of Pornography in the Verbal and Physical Abuse of Women

By Sommers, Evelyn K.; Check, James V. P. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1987 | Go to article overview

An Empirical Investigation of the Role of Pornography in the Verbal and Physical Abuse of Women


Sommers, Evelyn K., Check, James V. P., Violence and Victims


In studies of male aggressiveness and pornography, social psychologists have found evidence to support the theory that consumption of pornography by males increases their aggressiveness and antisocial attitudes toward women. The research reported here studied the presence of pornography and both sexual and nonsexual violence in the lives of two groups of women: a group of battered women drawn from shelters and counseling groups, and a comparison group of women from a mature university population. It was found that the partners of the battered women read or viewed significantly greater amounts of pornographic materials than did the partners of the comparison group. In addition, 39% of the battered women (in contrast to 3% of the comparison group) responded in the affirmative to the question, "Has your partner ever upset you by trying to get you to do what he'd seen in pornographic pictures, movies, or books?" It was also found that battered women experienced significantly more sexual aggression at the hands of their partners than did the women in the comparison group.

Dobash and Dobash (1979) have postulated that the patriarchal structure of our society is fundamentally responsible for maintaining the domination of women and thus fostering wife beating. The most recent incidence data suggest that as many as 36% of women who have been married or have cohabited with men have experienced some form of physical abuse at the hands of their partners (Smith, 1988). Since the end of World War II, women have been making increasing demands for a release from that domination while questioning the long-held "wisdoms" of patriarchy that are taught by medicine, religion, education, and the law. It has been suggested that, in reaction to these demands, vehicles have been developed that reinforce the notion of female domination by males (Lederer, 1980).

Feminists maintain that one such vehicle is pornography.1 "It is not a casual coincidence," states Lederer (1980), "that Playboy began eight years after the end of World War II, when women were getting restless" (p. 112). Playboy's appearance signaled the onset of mass distribution of pornography; prior to the 1950s, pornography existed as the pastime of a few rich, upper-class males (Shepher & Reisman, 1985). Moreover, as the women's movement became more forceful in the 1960s and 1970s, pornography also became increasingly more explicit, more openly sold, and more violent (Abramson & Mechanic, 1983; Malamuth & Spinner, 1980; Smith, 1976). Thus, while pornography is popularly understood as sexually explicit material designed to arouse its audience sexually, pornography is seen by feminists as having more to do with the domination and objectification of women than with sex. Magazines contain pictures of a female torso disappearing into a meat grinder; of a woman bound and gagged, splayed across a bed; and of a concubine trussed up like a chicken and raped (Kostash, 1982). In addition, films such as "Deep Throat" and "Snuff" illustrate explicitly the value that women have in the world of pornography.

Since the late 1960s, various studies of pornography have been conducted in attempts to determine its causes and effects, primarily guided by two theoretical models: the catharsis model and the social learning model. Bart and Jozsa (1980) pointed out that the catharsis model has been used to support the idea that pornography is a harmless vehicle for the reduction of energy or tension. However, the idea of a positive catharsis has not been supported in four reviews of the evidence regarding the effects of nonsexual media violence on aggression (Berkowitz, 1973; Goranson, 1970; Hokanson, 1970; Steinmetz & Straus, 1973). In fact, some evidence indicated that opportunities to vent anger and violence produce higher levels of aggressive energy. In addition, Straus (1974) found that the tension release produced by verbal and physical aggression actually acted to reinforce the aggression. …

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