QotD: “It’s basically impossible to do ethical porn research in any way that would provide meaningful results”

By antiplondon

In undergrad, I was told that it’s basically impossible to get funding on porn research because we know it’s so harmful. You can do correlational studies based on self-report, but you can’t do experimental studies where you expose people to pornography and then study some kind of outcome. The potential harms to participants and the people around them are considered to outweigh the benefits of studying it.

Which… there’s a lot to unpack there.

Basically, there haven’t been any good experimental studies on porn exposure since the 90s. Because, even by that point, research was overwhelmingly converging on “porn is harmful.” Y’all hang out around here, you know the effects – acceptance of rape myths, distorted perception of sexual norms, sexual dysfunction, cruelty or lack of compassion towards women, etc etc etc. These effects were found through both experimental and correlational studies based on self-reported, self-selected porn watching outside of a lab.

The latter is the only thing you’re still allowed to do (mostly). Unfortunately, it is now nearly impossible to perform good research on the subject, because it’s so difficult to find a control group. At least if you’re studying men. Nearly all men watch pornography regularly. In fact, one of the only populations you can still study with a decent control group is teenagers. But research on minors has its own ethical red tape, to say nothing of getting guardians to agree to it, so it doesn’t happen much either. So, with no control group to compare it to, you’re going to get weak results at best. You can compare self-reported volumes or types of porn watching between each other, but that’s really about it.

In some ways, the ethical considerations have become somewhat pointless. If all men are watching porn, what does it matter if they watch it in a lab or not? But since you basically can’t find men who haven’t been exposed to porn, and you can’t guarantee that these men aren’t going home between lab sessions and watching porn, porn-related research will be limited to the immediate effects of exposure. And you’ve still got an uphill battle to explain to an ethics board why your research on immediate effects of porn exposure, which you know will be harmful in some way, is going to add to the existing literature in a way that is significant enough to be worth the harm. Because, regardless of if these people are going home to harm themselves in the exact same way, it’s still generally unethical to expose people to known harms to study the effects.

And because we know porn watching is addictive, that further complicates the ethical considerations. To give a fair analogy, it’s similarly difficult to get approval for an experimental in-lab study on the effects of giving opiates to people. We know what it does, we know it’s harmful, and we know it’s addictive, so unless you have some truly groundbreaking new research idea and some way to significantly mitigate the harm, you’re not going to get approval for that. (Ex: You can get approval for testing a new opiate that you think has a lower possibility for abuse, especially if you plan on testing it on people with chronic pain disorders or terminal cancer patients or something. That’s groundbreaking, there’s a way to mitigate harm, and it has the potential to do more good than harm. You can’t just get approval to give a bunch of Dilaudid to undergrads to test, say, how it affects short-term memory.)

TLDR, it’s not just that scientists don’t care. It’s that it’s basically impossible to do ethical porn research in any way that would provide meaningful results.

Mother Mayhem