“Damaged Goods” Debunked: Study Challenges Porn Star Stereotypes

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Despite stereotypes to the contrary, adult film performers are no more likely to be survivors of childhood sexual abuse than the general population.

Sharon

Photo: Barbara Nitke

Former porn star-turned-researcher Sharon Mitchell takes a well deserved nap on the set of an adult film in the 1980s.

Much recent criticism of Belle Knox, a student at Duke University and performer in the adult entertainment industry, has been related to the “damaged goods” stereotype in one way or another. According to researchers:

“The damaged goods hypothesis posits that female performers in the adult entertainment industry have higher rates of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), psychological problems, and drug use compared to the typical woman.”

While the “damaged goods” hypothesis is commonly invoked by porn critics, a recent study in The Journal of Sex Research challenges this stereotype.

The Damaged Goods Hypothesis

James Griffith and colleagues (including veteran adult actress and  Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation founder Sharon Mitchell), decided to test the Damaged Goods hypothesis, publishing their results in an article entitled “Pornography Actresses: An Assessment of the Damaged Goods Hypothesis.” Their study compares 177 performers to a sample of women in the general population who are similar in age, ethnicity, and marital status.

The Hypothesis Challenged

The two groups of women were compared on sexual behaviors and attitudes, self-esteem, quality of life, and drug use. Griffith and colleagues found that not only are porn actresses not more likely to be survivors of childhood sexual abuse, but that actually had “higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality compared to the matched group.” Porn actresses were also more likely to identify as bisexual, to have first had sex at an earlier age, and to enjoy sex. Performers were more concerned about contracting a sexually transmitted disease and were more likely to have ever used some drugs than the comparison group. There were no differences in the incidence of childhood sexual abuse. In light of these results, the authors concluded that there is not support for the “damaged goods” hypothesis.

A Study of Male Performers

While the “damaged goods” hypothesis is not applied to men the same way it is women, there are still stereotypes about male performers. In a similar study of 105 actors and a matched sample, Griffith and colleagues found that, as among female performers, there were no differences in the incidence of childhood sexual abuse. Again parallel to the female performers, male performers “had higher levels of self-esteem and quality-of-life indicators.” Actors were also more likely to have ever used some drugs and to be concerned about STD’s compared to the matched group. Furthermore, they were more likely to have used marijuana in the last six months and to enjoy sex. These results led the researchers to say that there is “mixed support for stereotypes concerning male porn actors.”

Conclusion

While some stereotypes about women and men in the porn industry are relatively accurate—they enjoy sex more, have more sexual partners, are more worried about STD’s, and are more likely to have ever tried some drugs—other stereotypes are inaccurate. Women and men who perform are not more likely to have been sexually abused as children and actually reveal higher levels of psychological well-being on some measures.

Critics of pornography often argue that the actresses are “damaged goods” who are in the industry due to childhood trauma and psychological problems. Others, such as Nina Hartley and Belle Knox, argue that performing can be empowering. While the individual experiences of performers most likely vary in important ways, these studies by Griffith and colleagues suggest that the “damaged goods” hypothesis is not supported while some stereotypes, particularly those regarding current sexual openness and enjoyment, seem relatively accurate.

Landon Schnabel is a Ph.D. student in sociology with a minor in gender studies at Indiana University. His research focuses primarily on the intersection of gender and sexuality with religion. 

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