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6 The Research Base on the Impact of Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material: What Theory and Empirical Studies Offer The empirical research base for understanding the impact of sexually explicit material on children (discussed in Section 6.2) is not extensive, for reasons described in Box 6.1. Thus, reliable information in this domain is hard to obtain, and in the absence of reliable information, controversy abounds (as discussed in Chapter 7~. Material in this chapter is derived largely from the Kaiser Family Foundation report, Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1998. 6.1 THEORETICAL CONSIDERATIONS A number of psychological theories suggest some of the impact that media exposure might have on young people. These theories sometimes conflict, and so theoretical predictions regarding the developmental im- pact of exposure to sexually explicit material are not always consistent with one another. It is also possible that more than one theory may be valid or useful in understanding psychological phenomena. Furthermore, the impact of such exposure will depend on the individual, the context in which the exposure occurs, and the social structure in which the young person is engaged, as well as other factors. 1Aletha C. Huston, Ellen Wartella, and Edward Donnerstein. 1998. Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, Calif. Available online at <http://www.kff.org/content/ archive /1389 / content.html>. 143
44 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET It is important to note that young people are not passive recipients of media contents They select what they watch and interpret material using their own experiences and frames of reference. Thus, while some theories may focus on how content may affect young people in general and can suggest ways in which certain content can lead to positive or negative outcomes, all theories acknowledge that this is an interactive process that can yield many different outcomes depending on the person and the 2See, for example, Henry Jenkins, "Congressional Testimony on Media Violence," testi- mony presented before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Washington, D.C., May 4, 1999. Available online at <http://media-in-transition.mit.edu/articles/index_dc.html>.
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 145 situation.3 The following list describes several prominent theories that conceptualize the underlying mechanisms through which media expo- sure may affect young people. None of these theories suggest that view- ing sexually explicit material will always have a particular outcome. Rather, they imply that multiple factors, such as children's media use and interpretation of material, affect (and greatly complicate the analysis of) outcomes. These theories are considered in light of sexually explicit ma- terial, though they are by no means limited to this type of content alone. 3Huston et al., 1998, Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
146 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET · Psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic theory4 predicts potentially positive effects from exposure to sexually explicit material presented in media. In psychoanalytic theory, two major drives are sex and aggres- sion. These drives must be released in some way, and one path that psychoanalytic theory develops for drive reduction is fantasy in the form of catharsis. More specifically, in catharsis, sexual drives can be released through fantasy experiences with sexual material, thereby reducing the drive state. · Arousal theory. Zillmann's arousal theory focuses primarily on the immediate effects that sexually explicit material may have on behavior.5 Television content, for example, can produce emotional and physiological arousal (i.e., activation of the nervous system as opposed to sexual arousal), and increased levels of arousal are likely to produce some type of behavior. However, Zillmann's theory does not imply what these behavioral outcomes will be. Rather, arousal theory states that the per- sonality of the viewer, the environmental circumstances, and one's frame of reference for interpretation will determine the ensuing behavior.6 In the context of Zillmann's theory, arousal is non-specific. Thus, other factors will determine whether sexually explicit material will result in behavior that is sexual, aggressive, or altruistic. In media research, auto- nomic arousal, which is related to emotional experiences, is often the ~ ~ · . . focus of 1nqulrles. An adaptation of arousal theory has been used to understand the possible implications of repeated exposure to sexually explicit material. One possibility is that, in a similar fashion to desensitization to violent material, a viewer continually exposed to sexually explicit material will habituate to that type of content and become desensitized to it as well. Becoming physiologically or emotionally aroused in the near future would then require different material, perhaps more explicit depictions. An al- ternative outcome is that a viewer who has habituated to material will simply grow uninterested in it, an outcome mentioned by a number of male students interviewed by the committee during site visits who as- serted that they initially used the Internet to view adult-oriented Web sites a great deal but that they soon became bored with such material. Habituation does wear off, so a viewer might return to similar material 4Freudian theory is historically the foundation of psychoanalytic thought. see, for ex- ample, Calvin s. Hall, 1954, A Primer of Freudian Psychology, The World Publishing com- pany, New York and Scarborough, Ontario. 5D. Zillmann. 1982. ''Transfer of Excitation in Emotional Behavior,,, in Social Psychophysi- ology, J.T. cacioppo and RE. Petty, eds., Guilford, New York. 6Huston et aL, 1998, Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 147 once this has occurred, or the viewer might not return to regularly view- ing material because the viewer has lost interest.7 · Social learning theory. In Bandura's social learning theory,8 young people can learn about sexuality from observing others depicted in the media. Specifically, they may observe the mechanics of sexual behavior, but they will also learn about the contexts in which behaviors occur, the motives and intentions behind the interactions represented, and the con- sequences for those participating in those behaviors. The messages im- plicit in media portrayals of sexuality may be particularly powerful when the participants are attractive, are shown as powerful, are rewarded in some way for their actions, or represent characters with whom the young person identifies. In this theory, the behavioral implications are not short- term reactions; rather, this information is used when the young person becomes engaged in a similar real-world sexual situation. Social learning theory implies three major impacts on an observer: (1) imitation, in which the observer copies a novel behavior that has been seen before; (2) disinhibition, in which a behavior that was previously inhibited is now acted on because there are no negative consequences for the action; and (3) response facilitation, in which a socially desirable be- havior increases in frequency as one observes another perform it. 9 Social learning theory separates learning a behavior from performing it. That is, knowledge about how to act in a certain way does not mean that one will do so. Performance requires some form of reinforcement for action to take place. Therefore, in contrast to cognitive approaches, social learning theory is based on reinforcement and traditional learning theory ap- proaches. For example, for a person to imitate a sexual behavior or to have a sexual behavior disinhibited, there must be situational contingen- cies and reinforcements to support the behavior that has been observed. Over time, Bandura increasingly incorporated cognitive mechanisms into his theory. Attention to information, retention of that knowledge, production of the learned behavior, and the motivation to do so were always key elements of his theory, but he added to it the concept of self- efficacy, the belief that a person can control the events around him or her. He reframed his theory as social cognitive theory to emphasize cognitive elements, but the mechanistic element of reinforcement remained a key facet of his approach.l° 7Sandra L. Calvert. 1999. Children's Journeys Through the Information Age. McGraw-Hill, Boston. 8A. sandura. 1971. Social Learning Theory. General Learning Press, New York. 9Calvert, 1999, Children's Journeys Through the Information Age. 10Calvert, 1999, Children's Journeys Through the Information Age.
148 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET · Cognitive approaches: information processing theory. Information pro- cessing theories are focused on cognitive constructs that develop as a func- tion of experiences. Media provide one such venue for these experiences. Based on experiences, children construct scripts (also known as schemes), which are learned expectations that guide perception, memory, and infer- ences. These scripts are used to predict how one is to act and how others will act.l1 Stereotypes about sexual behavior are one type of sexual script. Young children have very few sexual schemes, but as a growing rep- ertoire of expectations develops, these schemes shape future perceptions, memories, and interpretations. Both sexual content in the media and real life experiences shape an individual's schema. As a result, sexual content in the media may have a greater impact on individuals who do not have real sexual experiences. Media that depict sexuality that is safe and posi- tive may help to develop healthy sexual schemes, while content that is permissive of sexual violence or other negative sexual encounters could help to construct sexual schemes that are not beneficial for or may even be harmful to the young person.l2 Theories on schemes and scripts for sexual interactions suggest that any understanding of how the media shape this type of development must include a careful analysis of the messages conveyed by the circum- stances of sexual activity, as well as of the types of communication, nego- tiation, and decision making that occur before, during, and after depic- tions of sexuality. It also involves a close examination of the preexisting schemes that the individual brings to the media situation. · Cultivation theory. In the field of communications, Gerbner de- scribes cultivation theory, a paradigm based on how media content inter- faces with the person who is experiencing it.l3 Media messages that are often depicted can shape the beliefs of viewers, a process that is not unlike the development of schemes. For Gerbner, there are two main effects of media exposure: (1) mainstreaming, in which dominant cultural mes- sages come to be taken as true, even if they are not; and (2) resonance, in which media messages that resonate with one's own experiences have a very strong impact on the viewer. In this approach, heavy exposure to sexual material in the media leads to a view of sexuality based on the predominant media message. If that media message rings true with an individual's own life, that message will be further enhanced.l4 11Huston et al., 1998, Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Calvert, 1999, Children's Journeys Through the Information Age. 13G. Gerbner, 1966, "On Defining Communication: Still Another View," Journal of Com- munication 16~2~: 99-103; G. Gerbner, 1972, "Communication and Social Environment," Sci- entific American 227~3~: 152-160. 14Calvert, 1999, Children's Journeys Through the Information Age.
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 149 · Uses and gratification theory. In the field of communications, uses and gratification theory emphasizes the reasons people have for viewing and interacting with various media content. Essentially, individuals use the media for various needs, including information, entertainment, com- panionship, escapism, and exploration of various aspects of their own sexuality.l5 From this perspective, knowing why a young person chooses a particular type of media content is essential to understanding what the impact of that content will be. 6.2 EMPIRICAL WORK As noted above, there are few empirical studies on the impact of sexually explicit media on young people. However, researchers have been able to conduct empirical studies using media content other than sexually explicit material research on violent material is one such ex- ample. This is because our society has more permissive attitudes about allowing young people to view violent material than about allowing them to see sexually explicit material. For research purposes, a few studies of sexually explicit material have used college-age viewers as a way of un- derstanding the impact this material may have on children.l6 Note, however, that a college student differs considerably in cognitive, phys- ical, and social maturity compared with a primary- or middle-school student. 6.2.1 Violence Several correlations have been observed in studies of violent media content and children: exposure to such content is correlated with desen- sitization, increases in hostility, imitation and disinhibition, and fear and anxiety responses. Desensitization (described in arousal theory) occurs when an emotional response to a stimulus is diminished after repeated exposure to that stimulus. This can be adaptive a doctor who becomes accustomed to seeing blood and does not have the strong emotional re- sponse he or she experienced in medical school can more effectively help patients. The media, however, create fantasy exposures to content that 15Huston et al., 1998, Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 16E.I. Donnerstein and D.G. Linz, 1986, "Mass Media Sexual Violence and Male Viewers: Current Theory and Research," American Behavioral Scientist 29~5~: 601-618; D. Zillmann and J. Bryant, 1982, "Pornography, Sexual Callousness, and the Trivialization of Rape," Journal of Communication 32~4~: 10-21; D. Zillman and J.B. Weaver, 1999, "Effects of Prolonged Ex- posure to Gratuitous Media Violence on Provoked and Unprovoked Hostile Behavior," Journal of Applied Social Psychology 29~1~: 145-165.
150 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET can cause arousal and, over time, desensitization that is not necessarily (and often not) adaptive. For example, a child who sees a graphic, violent image might become angry or frightened. If this image is a representation and not an actual event, then the typical reactions of "fight or flight" are not appropriate or functional. With repeated exposure, the child may cease to have these emotional responses.l7 Research has shown that de- sensitization to media violence can result in reduced arousal and emo- tional disturbance while witnessing actual violence, greater hesitancy to call an adult to intervene in a witnessed physical altercation, and less sympathy for victims of abuse and assault. Emotional expressions of hostility, fear, and anxiety are also mea- sured within arousal theory. Increases in hostility can correlate with watching violent content in the media. In one study, college students who watched violent films for 4 days were more likely to interfere with another individual's future employment chances (an anti-social act).l9 Repeated viewing of violent material seemed to create an enduring hos- tile mental framework that discouraged viewers from interacting posi- tively with others, even those who had not provoked them. Young people of a wide range of ages sometimes experience fear and anxiety as a result of exposure to television.20 Results can range from nightmares and temporary sleep disturbances to more lasting effects, such as a fear of swimming in the ocean, after watching the movie Jaws.21 The 17Calvert, 1999, Children's Journeys Through the Information Age; J. Cantor, "Media Violence and Children's Emotions: Beyond the 'Smoking Gun'," paper presented at the annual con- vention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., October 5, 2001, available online at <http://joannecantor.com/EMOTIONS2_sgl.htm>. 18V.B. Cline, R.G. Croft, and S. Courrier, 1973, "Desensitization of Children to Television Violence," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27~3~: 516-546; F. Molitor and K.W. Hirsch, 1994, "Children's Toleration of Real-Life Aggression After Exposure to Media Vio- lence: A Replication of the Drabman and Thomas Studies," Child Study Journal 24~3~: 191- 207; and C.R. Mullin and D. Linz, 1995, "Desensitization and Resensitization to Violence Against Women: Effects of Exposure to Sexually Violent Films on Judgments of Domestic Violence Victims," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69~3~: 449459. 19D. Zillman and J.B. Weaver, 1999, "Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Gratuitous Media Violence on Provoked and Unprovoked Hostile Behavior," Journal of Applied Social Psychol- ogy 29(1): 145-165. 20J. Owens, R. Maxim, M. McGuinn, C. Nobile, M. Msall, and A. Alario, 1999, "Televi- sion-Viewing Habits and Sleep Disturbance in School Children," Pediatrics 104~3~: 552 (Ab- stract), available online at <http://www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/104/3/c27> (May 25, 2001~; M.I. Singer, K. Slovak, T. Frierson, and P. York, 1998, "Viewing Preferences, Symptoms of Psychological Trauma, and Violent Behaviors Among Children Who Watch Television," Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 37~10~: 1041- 1048. 21K. Harrison and J. Cantor, 1999, "Tales from the Screen: Enduring Fright Reactions to Scary Media," Media Psychology 1:117-140.
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 151 specific types of content that lead to fear will depend on the child's devel- opmental level. For example, preschool-age children are most disturbed by grotesque, visual images, such as monsters, whereas children in el- ementary school are more likely to be frightened by realistic images in which the danger they perceive could actually happen. Teenagers tend to be more frightened by abstract components of a story. Data from studies during the Persian Gulf conflict showed that elementary school children became frightened by images of exploding missiles, whereas teen viewers were more afraid of the idea that the conflict could spread. Material frightening to a teenager may not even be processed by a younger child, who may not understand the abstract concepts that are less readily visualized.22 Social learning theory suggests that children learn through observa- tion and modeling of behaviors and actions, and it is often used to explain the phenomenon of children imitating what they see on television or in films. There are numerous studies documenting a correlation between media exposure to violence and children's aggressive behaviors. For in- stance, a study in Israeli middle schools after the introduction of the World Wrestling Federation to Israeli television documented the widespread imitation of acts demonstrated on this show that resulted in numerous playground injuries,23 and a juvenile was recently tried and convicted for homicide against a small girl in what the juvenile claimed was an imita- tion of professional wrestling moves.24 It is unknown if responses to media violence are cumulative (e.g., attitudinal changes resulting from repeat exposure) or instantaneous (e.g., fear responses due to seeing the "wrong" movie at the "wrong" develop- mental moment), if they are temporary or lasting (e.g., a few nightmares or a lasting fear of specific animals or situations), how the impact of exposure to media violence varies with the kinds of violence being seen, and how the context of viewing violence (e.g., news reports vs. "slasher" movies) may have differential effects on children. Furthermore, addi- tional research is needed before extrapolating results from this research 22J. Cantor, 1998, ~Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them, Harcourt Brace, San Diego, Calif.; J. Cantor, M.L. Mares, and M.B. Oliver, 1993, "Parents' and Children's Emotional Reactions to Televised Coverage of the Gulf War," pp. 325-340 in Desert Storm and the Mass Media, B. Greenberg and W. Gantz, eds., Hampton Press, Cresskill, N.J. 23Donnerstein and Linz, 1986, "Mass Media Sexual Violence and Male Viewers: Current Theory and Research"; Zillman, 1982, "Transfer of Excitation in Emotional Behavior"; D. Lemish, 1997, "The School as a Wrestling Arena: The Modeling of a Television Series," Communication 22~4~: 395418. 24"Boy Gets Life for 'Wrestle' Killing," St. Petersburg Times, March 10, 2001. Available online at <http: / /www.sptimes.com/News/031001 /State/Boy_gets_life_for_wr.shtml>.
52 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET on violent material to sexually explicit material, although research on violence may be relevant to sexually violent content. 6.2.2 Sexually Violent Material Research on Me effects of viewing sexually violent images has focused on college-age viewers. Effects observed in these studies were similar to effects seen in studies on violence without sexual content. Studies of young adults (aged 18 to 20) watching an hour of the equivalent of an it-rated film containing sexual violence have demonstrated desensitization effects im- mediately after viewing. Levels of physiological arousal decreased win additional viewing after the first hour. Furthermore, viewers shown a documentary on battered women after an hour of watching a sexually violent film demonstrated less empathy toward Me victims, and gave lower evaluations of how injured Me woman was and how painful the experience may have been. Attitudinal changes have also been observed, with bow men and women more likely to display callous attitudes toward female victims, such as stating Mat a rape was Me fault of Me victim or Mat she brought it on herself.25 Women viewers do have slightly different responses from men, and although bow show desensitization, women also tend to experience an increase in fear after watching sexually violent content,26 in large part because hey are likely to be the victims of rape. Although changes in attitude and arousal levels were measured in these studies, it is not clear to what extent these changes may be lasting. For example, normal arousal responses tend to return after 24 hours, and the "long-term" changes in attitudes are based on studies that follow subjects for only a few weeks after viewing the material.27 Zillmann's arousal theory suggests that sexually explicit content does not lead to any specific or consistent behavioral outcome in viewers. A1- though sexually explicit content may produce emotional or physiological arousal, behavioral outcomes which might include sexual expression, aggressive behavior, or altruism depend on the personality of the viewer, the environment, and context in which the material was viewed.28 25E.I. Donnerstein and D.G. Linz. 1986. "Mass Media Sexual Violence and Male Viewers: Current Theory and Research," American Behavioral Scientist 29~1~:601-618. 26C. Krafka, D. Linz, E. Donnerstein, and S. Penrod. 1997. "Women's Reactions to Sexu- ally Aggressive Mass Media Depictions," Violence Against Women 3~2~:149. 27See, for example, D.G. Linz, E.I. Donnerstein, and S.M. Adams, 1989, "Physiological Desensitization and Judgements About Female Victims of Violence," Human Communication Research 15~4~:509-522; D.G. Linz, E.I. Donnerstein, and S. Penrod, 1988, "Effects of Long- Term Exposure to Violent and Sexually Degrading Depictions of Women," Journal of Person- ality and Social Psychology 55~5~: 758-768. 28Huston et al., 1998, Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 153 From the perspective of social learning theory, one can argue that behav- iors that are learned are not necessarily performed. 6.2.3 Exposure to Non-violent Sexual Material Most studies of the impact of sexually explicit material in the media on adolescents' sexual attitudes and practices have been limited to the sexual content in mainstream media. Youth exposed to content involving sexual relations outside of marriage rated such behavior as significantly less objectionable than did their peers who viewed either sexual relations between married partners or non-sexual relations between adults,29 a find- ing consistent with social learning theory (i.e., disinhibition) or arousal theory (i.e., desensitization). Viewing music videos increased the accept- ability of premarital sex for teenagers as compared to teenagers who were not similarly exposed.30 In some studies, youth exposed to explicit sexual content that did not involve violence did not become desensitized,31 while in others, large amounts of experimental exposure to such material led men (and to some extent women) to be more callous toward gender rela- tionships, more likely to overestimate the prevalence of certain kinds of non-mainstream sexual behavior such as sadomasochism and bestiality, less likely to be offended by sexually explicit material, less likely to sup- port restrictions on the distribution of sexually explicit materials, and more likely to support lighter sentences for convicted rapists.32 Many media messages suggest to adolescents that they should be thinking about sexual activity, and engaging in it early. Frequent televi- 29J. Bryant and S.C. Rockwell. 1994. "Effects of Massive Exposure to Sexually Oriented Primetime Television Programming on Adolescents Moral Judgment," pp. 183-195 in Me- dia, Children, and the Family: Social Scientific, Psychodynamic, and Clinical Perspectives, D. Zillmann, J. Bryant, and A.C. Huston, eds., Erlbaum, Hillsdale, N.J. 30L.E. Greeson and R.A. Williams, 1987, "Social Implications of Music Videos for Youth: An Analysis of the Content and Effects of MTV," Youth ~ Society 18~2~: 177-189; J.S. Strouse, N. Buerkel-Rothfuss, and E.C. Long, 1995, "Gender and Family as Moderators of the Rela- tionship Between Music Video Exposure and Adolescent Sexual Permissiveness," Adoles- cence 30~119~: 505-521. 31D.G. Linz, E.I. Donnerstein, and S. Penrod, 1988, "Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Violent and Sexually Degrading Depictions of Women," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 55~5~: 758-768; D.G. Linz, E.I. Donnerstein, and S.M. Adams, 1989, "Physiological Desensitization and Judgments About Female Victims of Violence," Human Communication Research 15~4~: 509-522. 32Regarding callousness toward gender relationships, they were more likely to agree that "pickups should expect to put out" and "a woman doesn't mean 'no' unless she slaps you." Regarding lighter sentences, those with large amounts of experimental exposure recom- mended incarceration times that were 53 percent as long as those with no exposure at all. See D. Zillmann and J. Bryant, 1982, "Pornography, Sexual Callousness, and the Triviali- zation of Rape," Journal of Communication 32~4~: 10-21.
54 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET sion viewers are less likely to believe that marriages are happy or lasting, prompted perhaps by the depiction of married couples who are not happy, not having sex, or having sex with a person other than their spouse.33 Compared to non-viewers, soap opera viewers appear to believe that single mothers have relatively easy lives, with good jobs, high levels of education, significant leisure time, and freedom from poverty. They were also more likely to believe that the male friends of a single mother will be important in her children's lives.34 In one study, teenagers frequently viewing television with a high de- gree of sexual content were more likely to engage in sexual intercourse than those who viewed television with a smaller proportion of sexual content, though it is unclear whether viewing such content contributes to a teen's decision to engage in intercourse, or instead, whether those who are already engaging in sexual activity are more likely to seek out such programs.35 A longitudinal study found no strong or consistent evidence for links between the amount or sexual content of television viewing by children and the initiation of sexual activity.36 Other studies have sug- gested that frequent viewers of mainstream television programs tend to have more negative attitudes toward remaining a virgin and that becom- . · · · · · (2~ ring a non-v~rg~n Is a pr~or~ty.~ Many studies indicate that Me media seem to have an effect on atti- tudes, although it is difficult to assess whether these attitudes are long- lasting, Me extent to which attitudes are related to behavior, and Me degree to which Me media, compared win other sources of experience in a young person's life, are influential in shaping Me choices a young person makes. For example, although studies have shown that viewing fashion magazines tends to cause lower self-scoring by girls on body image indices, not all girls become anorexic. In one study in which early adolescent females were asked to keep journals about what they observed in the media about love, sex, and relationships, the participants' experience was extremely impor- tant in shaping how hey interpreted and reacted to sexuality in the 33N. Signorielli. 1991. ''Adolescents and Ambivalence Toward Marriage: A Cultivation Analysis,,, Youth and Society 23~1~: 11-25. 34M. Larson. 1996. sex Roles and soap Operas: What Adolescents Learn About Single Motherhood,,, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 35~1/2~: 97-121. 35J.D. Brown and s. Newcomer. 1991. ''Television viewing and Adolescents, Sexual se havior,,, Journal of Homosexuality 21~1 /2y, 77-gl. 36J.L. Peterson, K.A. Moore, and F.F. Furstenberg. 1991. ''Television viewing and Early Initiation of Sexual Intercourse: Is There a Link?,,, Journal of Homosexuality 21~1/2~: 93-llg. 37srown and Newcomer, 1991, ''Television viewing and Adolescents, Sexual Behavior,,; strouse et aL, 1995, '~Gender and Family as Moderators of the Relationship Between Music Video Exposure and Adolescent Sexual Permissiveness.,
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 155 media.38 One prepubertal 12-year-old did not want to see sex in We media, while over girls who were beginning to think about relationships were very interested in Me romantic heterosexual script. Girls who had been sexually active were more critical of Me media's portrayal of sexual interac- tion and Me roles male and females should take (according to these repre- sentations). Experience, development, and age made enormous differences in Me types of reactions girls had to media depictions about sex. 6.2.4 Caveats and Cautions Although some literature exists on traditional forms of media (e.g., television, radio, magazines), the empirical research that examines the impact on children of exposure to non-violent sexual material is extremely limited.39 Social mores and ethical issues generally prevent U.S. scientists from studying the impact of media on sexual behavior (Box 6.1~. Because there are so few studies in this area, the empirical research that does exist must be viewed with caution, and in particular must not be viewed as making statements or supporting conclusions that go beyond the research designs employed. · Correlational studies do not permit one to make causal inferences. For example, in the studies mentioned in Footnote 37, it is possible that a third factor, such as different values and beliefs about sexual activity, is actually responsible for the trend in attitude described and that television viewing is an extraneous variable. · Some researchers have attempted to avoid the complications of studying minors by observing the impact of sexually explicit material on college-age viewers. These studies seek to extrapolate the impact this material may have on younger populations. It is not clear to what extent this generalization is appropriate because younger individuals have very different developmental needs and experiences than do college-age stu- dents. Some research has suggested that college-age students viewing sexually explicit material may develop more callous attitudes toward women and female sexuality, but it has not been clear to what extent these attitudes are lasting.40 38Sarah Keller, 2000, "How Do Early Adolescent Girls use Media to Shape Their Romantic Identities?,,, unpublished doctoral dissertation, university of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 39For instance, a Kaiser Family Foundation report reviewed existing research on the me- dia, finding no more than 15 empirical studies on this topic. see Huston et aL, 1998, Measur- ing the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media. 40Donnerstein and Linz, 1986, ''Mass Media Sexual Violence and Male viewers: current Theory and Research,,; Zillmann and Bryant, 1982, '~Pornography, Sexual Callousness, and the Trivialization of Rape.~,
156 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET · Experimental studies typically examine impact on time scales rang- ing from minutes to days (in a small number of cases, effects are mea- sured 3 to 6 weeks after the experimental treatment). For example, view- ing a television program may change a person's immediate state by inducing arousal, leading to inhibition of impulses, or activating thoughts or associations, and in doing so might have immediate influence on one's behavior. However, such studies do not provide an empirical basis for determining impact over longer time scales (e.g., months to decades), and in particular cannot provide a sound empirical basis for claims of long- term deviant sexual behavior resulting from exposure to sexually explicit material in one's youth. Societal impact is better assessed using longitudinal data that mea- sures long-term effects. Experimental studies do not address long-term impact, and there is significant debate and disagreement over whether results of such experiments can be extrapolated to the long term. For example, some studies of college-age students suggest that males viewing sexually violent movies displayed more callous attitudes toward female victims.41 However, these attitudes were tested immediately after view- ing the film and several weeks later with no further follow-up. Longer- term effects have simply not been measured. There also is little informa- tion as to how other experiences might interact with and mitigate some of these negative attitudes. · It is difficult to generalize clinical research to broader populations because of the sampling issue. Those who seek or obtain clinical treat- ment for criminal sexual behavior, for example, are hardly a representa- tive sample of the population that may or may not have been affected by the viewing of sexually explicit material in their youth. · Empirical studies examining the impact of exposure to other me- dia content (e.g., studies of the impact of viewing violence) cannot be extrapolated with confidence to the sexual domain. Studies that measure the impact of violent material are sometimes used to speculate about the impact of sexually explicit material on the basis that learning processes that underlie both types of content are similar. Although one can envision similarities between the effects of watching violent and sexually violent material, the impact of content that is sexually explicit but not violent may be very different. No research is available to establish the extent to which it is appropriate to extrapolate from studies of one type of media content to other types. 41Donnerstein and Linz, 1986, "Mass Media Sexual Violence and Male Viewers: Current Theory and Research"; Zillmann and Bryant, 1982, "Pornography, Sexual Callousness, and the Trivialization of Rape."
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 157 · Cross-cultural studies to which researchers sometimes turn to identify possible connections between exposure to sexually explicit mate- rial and behavior, and which are made necessary by ethical and legal constraints in doing research in this area in the United States have lim- ited applicability. For example, cross-cultural studies of youth being ex- posed to nudity and explicit material at a relatively young age do not show higher levels of sexual addiction or teen pregnancy in European countries compared with the United States. However, European children also receive early, frequent, and comprehensive sex education in a way that is not typical in the United States. This could suggest that such edu- cation offers a useful context for interpreting sexually explicit material. It may also suggest that sexually explicit material does not have the type of impact on behavior that some may fear. 6.3 FACTORS AFFECTING THE IMPACT ON MINORS OF EXPOSURE TO SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL The phrase "impact on minors of exposure to sexually explicit mate- rial" used by itself obscures a number of important differentiating factors, because "impact," "minors," "exposure," and "sexually explicit material" all have a wide range of meaning. Without considering these differences, an overly simplistic analysis is inevitable. Consider each of these terms in turn. 6.3.1 Impact As noted above, impact can be measured in the short term or long term. Its magnitude can be large or small (and people with different values will differ on whether a given change in a certain dimension is large or small). And a particular impact may be desirable or undesirable. (The desensitization of a teenager who has been viewing sexually explicit behavior on an adult Web site can be regarded as undesirable, if one believes that such depictions should be shocking and socially unaccept- able, or as desirable, if one believes that a desensitized individual will simply ignore such images in the future.) Moreover, "impact" may not be confined to the direct results of exposure to sexually explicit material (for example, impact may also include the punishment that a teenager might receive for viewing such material). 6.3.2 Minors Children from birth to 17 or 18 vary widely in maturity and develop- mental perspective. The broad range of cognitive, social, emotional, and
158 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET moral reasoning and developmental abilities encompassed by this age range means that a 6-year-old will react differently than a 16-year-old to sexually explicit content. The youngest children may not find such im- ages remarkable or memorable because they do not have the cognitive abilities or understand the social meaning of explicit images. In contrast, because they are becoming curious about sex and are experiencing chang- ing bodies and a changing social landscape, those in the 9 to 12 age range may be more vulnerable to disturbing portrayals of sex and sexual activ- ity. (For perspective, note that the mean age of first intercourse is around 17 I/: years of age, as discussed in Section 5.2.) Among the adolescents to whom the committee spoke, those in high school (the 11th and 12th grades) were much less concerned about expo- sure to sexually explicit material on the Internet than were middle-school students. Indeed, the 11th and 12th graders noted that they were exposed to similar material in every other part of their lives, and they now found it more annoying than upsetting. By contrast, the middle-schoolers were less nonchalant and tended to be more concerned about such material. 6.3.3 Gender Gender is also likely to influence the impact of sexually explicit mate- rial on young people in part because it will influence how and with what characters young viewers identify. This is not to suggest that girls will only identify with female characters and boys with male characters, but the gender of the viewer will certainly affect how one interprets the treat- ment of characters. In addition, some research suggests that girls and boys select different types of media (e.g., Glamour has a broad female readership) and use them in different ways. For example, some studies suggest that girls use the media to gain insight about interpersonal rela- tionships in one study girls who viewed a video about teen ure~nancv reflected more about the content than boys.42 In the context of viewing sexually explicit material (especially im- ages), the overwhelming majority of such material is oriented toward male consumers, with females being the object of sexual activity, and boys tend to be more interested in visual depictions of sexual images than are girls.43 Put another way, preadolescent and adolescent males are 1 to .J 42M. Thompson, K. Walsh-Childers, and J.D. Brown, 1993, ''The Influence of Family com- munication Patterns and Sexual Experience on Processing of a Movie Video,,, pp. 248-263 in Media, Sex and the Adolescent, s.s. Greenberg, J.D. Brown, and N.L. suerkel-Rothfuss, eds., Hampton Press, N.J. 43For example, men demonstrate greater interest in visual sexual stimuli than do women 0.M. Bailey, s. Gaulin, Y. Agyei, and s.A. Gladue, 1994, ''Effects of Gender and Sexual
THE RESEARCH BASE ON THE IMPACT OF SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL 159 more likely to view online adult-oriented sexually explicit material than are females of the same ages.44 6.3.4 Special Needs The experiences of minors encompass a very wide range, and certain segments of the population may be more susceptible to influence and impact than others. For example, one site visit of the committee took it to a residential school for young girls who had been sexually abused. Staff at the school expressed to the committee the concern that for these girls, sometimes at the start of a very long recovery process fraught with psy- chological and emotional pitfalls, even one exposure to a sexually violent or abusive image especially if they were not prepared for it could be highly damaging to them and to their recovery. 6.3.5 Exposure One dimension of exposure is the type of stimulus involved visual, still or moving, textual, and so on. A second dimension is the intensity and duration of exposure 3 hours per day, every day, for 5 years is obviously different from once for 3 minutes in the last 2 years. Most research in this area, sparse though it is, has focused primarily on the impact of exposure patterns that are quite frequent and deliberate rather than incidental or inadvertent and rare, and have involved primarily vi- sual stimuli. A third dimension of exposure is the context in which it occurs. In particular, parental involvement in adolescent television viewing and dia- log about the meanings conveyed in depictions of sexual activity can influence the relationship between viewing and sexual behavior. For ex- ample, one study showed that adolescents who did not talk with their parents about television were more likely to have sexual intercourse than those who did.45 The style with which families communicate about the Orientation on Evolutionarily Relevant Aspects of Human Mating Psychology,,, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 66~6~: 1081-1093~. In the context of sexual fantasy, visual imagery is also more important for men than for women ~s.J. Ellis and D. symons, 1990, sex Differences in Sexual Fantasy: An Evolutionary Psychological Approach,,, Journal of Sex Research 27~4~: 527-555~. One caveat: these studies were conducted using adult subjects rather than minors. 44In surveying adults, a Nielsen Media survey found that about two-thirds of the users of sexually explicit Internet sites are male. see CommerceNet/Nielsen Media, 1998, Internet Demographic Study, June. 45Peterson et aL, 1991, ''Television viewing and Early Initiation of Sexual Intercourse: Is There a Link?,
160 YOUTH, PORNOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERNET media also seemed to influence the way adolescents interpret sexual con- tent in the media.46 A fourth dimension of exposure is whether exposure has been volun- tary or involuntary, as discussed in Sections 5.5.1 and 5.5.2. Most of the research known to the committee regarding exposure to sexually explicit material has involved voluntary and hence anticipated exposure. Thus, little is known empirically about the impact of involuntary and unantici- pated exposure. Given that inadvertent exposure to sexually explicit mate- rial on the Internet generally occurs at some point, an important question is the nature and extent of the impact of a surprise encounter. 6.3.6 The Type of Sexually Explicit Material There is a very wide range of material that different people regard as sexually explicit, including photos of models in bathing suits, couples having intercourse, group sex scenes, sadomasochism, gay and lesbian sex, and erotic texts of the Kama Sutra or The Joy of Sex, as well as scholarly works such as those of Masters and Tohnson.47 As noted above, the im- pact of images depicting sexual violence is likely to be different from the impact of images depicting non-violent and consensual sex; presentation of the material is also likely to affect the nature of the impact (e.g., the difference in portrayal of sexuality in Playboy compared to that in Our Bodies, Ourselves). Along the lines of presentation, realism in the media (or at least that which young people perceive as being believable portrayals of sexuality) may be more influential than depictions that seem less realistic. Depic- tions of sexuality that are realistic but romanticized or idealistic may encourage young people to have unrealistic expectations of sexuality and may induce or influence young people to adopt these portrayals as guides to sexual behavior and romantic relationships.48 46Thompson et aL, 1993, ''The Influence of Family communication Patterns and Sexual Experience on Processing of a Movie Video.~, 47see, for example, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, 1966, Human Sexual Response, Little, Brown and company, Boston; William Masters and Virginia Johnson, 1970, Human Sexual Inadequacy, Little, Brown and company, Boston. 48Huston et aL, 1998, Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation.