May 14, 2010

A Researcher Dives Into Pornography

This is the third in a 3-part series by guest blogger Jenny Porter on politics and roadblocks in informing the public about sexual research.

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Bryant Paul – who bears a striking resemblance to Seth Rogan – remembers the first time he watched gay porn.

In a graduate course on pornography at University of California, Santa Barbara, his professor showed it in class. He’s not gay, but he didn’t know how he’d react.

“I’d never seen it before, so I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What if I get aroused?’ I could feel others in the room thinking the same thing,” he said.

What’s at the root of this uncomfortable feeling? Control. “Some people look at sex as a very taboo subject,” Paul said. “These are people that like to be in control of every situation, and when you feel sexual arousal, you’re out of control in a lot of ways.”

Barely Legal?

A recently tenured faculty member in the Department of Telecommunications, Paul’s research includes looking at the effects of sexual media. He and other researchers walk a fine line between what kinds of sexual expression the First Amendment protects, and what should be banned.

One example is Paul’s study of “barely legal” pornography, which looks at whether exposure to female models in sexually explicit materials who look underage lead to negative consequences. Do consumers of these materials associate sex and sexuality with underage females? Are they more likely to act on their arousal? Are they more inclined to commit statutory rape? According to Paul, not really.

“Politicians have consistently tried to create policies that say you can’t have people who look underage, but there’s very little evidence that this kind of content has any harm,” he said. “So we’re getting legislation without any kind of evidence of causation.”

The sexually explicit materials by themselves are not why people commit sexual crimes, Paul said, but certain content combined with people who have certain problems could lead to negative people situations.

“Bad people are going to use neutral things in bad ways,” he said, “but a hammer is not a weapon unless it’s used as a weapon.”

Studying pornography might sound like a blast, but can have many societal implications. Researchers like Paul have the opportunity to study the actual impact of sexually explicit materials on consumers. It might make some people twitch, but Paul says most people are fascinated to hear about his findings.

“If you treat it as a serious subject, more often than not it’s taken seriously.”

Guest blogger Jenny Porter is a Master’s student in Journalism at Indiana University.