How Pornography Harms Children

(Excerpted in part from Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace by Donna Rice Hughes. ©Copyright 2001 Donna Rice Hughes. Request permission ( if you wish to reprint or post.)

 While there are many ways that pornography harms children, I want to assure you that every child who views pornography will not necessarily be affected and, at worst, traumatized in the same way. The effects of pornography are progressive and addictive for many people. Just as every person who takes a drink does not automatically become an alcoholic, every child who is exposed to pornography does not automatically become a sexual deviant or sex addict. However, since pornography has a new door to the home, school, and library through the Internet, it is important for us to look at the many ways that pornography can potentially harm our children.

Exposure to Pornography Threatens to Make Children
Victims of Sexual Violence

The Internet has proven a useful tool for pedophiles and sexual predators as they distribute child pornography, engage in sexually explicit conversations with children, and seek victims in chat rooms. The more pornography these individuals access, the higher the risk of their acting out what they see, including sexual assault, rape, and child molestation.

  • Pornography's Relationship to Rape and Sexual Violence
    According to one study, early exposure (under fourteen years of age) to pornography is related to greater involvement in deviant sexual practice, particularly rape. Slightly more than one-third of the child molesters and rapists in this study claimed to have at least occasionally been incited to commit an offense by exposure to pornography. Among the child molesters incited, the study reported that 53 percent of them deliberately used the stimuli of pornography as they prepared to offend. i

    The habitual consumption of pornography can result in a diminished satisfaction with mild forms of pornography and a correspondingly strong desire for more deviant and violent material.ii
  • Pornography's Relationship to Child Molestation
    In a study of convicted child molesters, 77 percent of those who molested boys and 87 percent of those who molested girls admitted to the habitual use of pornography in the commission of their crimes.iii Besides stimulating the perpetrator, pornography facilitates child molestation in several ways. For example, pedophiles use pornographic photos to demonstrate to their victims what they want them to do. They also use them to arouse a child or to lower a child's inhibitions and communicate to the unsuspecting child that a particular sexual activity is okay: "This person is enjoying it; so will you."

Exposure to Pornography Frequently Results in Sexual Illnesses, Unplanned Pregnancies, and Sexual Addiction

As more and more children are exposed not only to soft-core pornography, but also to explicit deviant sexual material, they are learning an extremely dangerous message from pornographers: Sex without responsibility is acceptable and desirable. Because pornography encourages sexual expression without responsibility, it endangers children's health.

One of the grimmer consequences of adult-like sexual activity among children has been a steady increase in the extent to which youth are afflicted with venereal disease.iv In the United States about one in four sexually experienced teenagers acquires a sexually transmitted disease (STD) every year, resulting in three million cases of teenage STDs. Infectious syphilis rates have more than doubled among teenagers since the mid-1980s. More children contract sexually transmitted diseases each year than all the victims of polio in its eleven-year epidemic, 1942-1953.v

Another obvious result of children involved in adult sexual activity is the increased rate of pregnancy among teenagers.

Research has shown that "males who are exposed to a great deal of erotica before the age of 14 are more sexually active and engage in more varied sexual behaviors as adults than is true for males not so exposed."vi One study reveals that among 932 sex addicts, 90 percent of the men and 77 percent of the women reported that pornography was significant to their addiction.vii


Exposure to Pornography May Incite Children to Act Out
Sexually against Other Children

Children often imitate what they've seen, read, or heard. Studies suggest that exposure to pornography can prompt kids to act out sexually against younger, smaller, and more vulnerable children. Experts in the field of childhood sexual abuse report that any premature sexual activity in children always suggests two possible stimulants: experience and exposure. This means that the sexually deviant child may have been molested or simply exposed to sexuality through pornography.viii

In a study of six hundred American males and females of junior high school age and above, researcher Dr. Jennings Bryant found that 91 percent of the males and 82 percent of the females admitted having been exposed to X-rated, hard-core pornography. Over 66 percent of the males and 40 percent of the females reported wanting to try out some of the sexual behaviors they had witnessed. And among high schoolers, 31 percent of the males and 18 percent of the females admitted actually doing some of the things they had seen in the pornography within a few days after exposure.ix


Exposure to Pornography Shapes Attitudes and Values

Most of us caring, responsible parents want to instill in our children our own personal values about relationships, sex, intimacy, love, and marriage. Unfortunately, the powerful irresponsible messages of pornography may be educating our children on these very important life issues. Just as thirty-second commercials can influence whether or not we choose one popular soft drink over another, exposure to pornography shapes our attitudes and values and, often, our behavior.

Photographs, videos, magazines, virtual games, and Internet pornography that depict rape and the dehumanization of females in sexual scenes constitute powerful but deforming tools of sex education. The danger to children stems at least partly from the disturbing changes in attitude that are facilitated by pornography. Replicated studiesx have demonstrated that exposure to significant amounts of increasingly graphic forms of pornography has a dramatic effect on how adult consumers view women, sexual abuse, sexual relationships, and sex in general. These studies are virtually unanimous in their conclusions: When male subjects were exposed to as little as six weeks' worth of standard hard-core pornography, they:

  • developed an increased sexual callousness toward women
  • began to trivialize rape as a criminal offense or no longer considered it a crime at all
  • developed distorted perceptions about sexuality
  • developed an appetite for more deviant, bizarre, or violent types of pornography (normal sex no longer seemed to do the job)
  • devalued the importance of monogamy and lacked confidence in marriage as either a viable or lasting institution
  • viewed nonmonogamous relationships as normal and natural behaviorxi

Exposure to Pornography Interferes with a Child's
Development and Identity

During certain critical periods of childhood, a child's brain is being programmed for sexual orientation. During this period, the mind appears to be developing a "hardwire" for what the person will be aroused by or attracted to. Exposure to healthy sexual norms and attitudes during this critical period can result in the child developing a healthy sexual orientation. In contrast, if there is exposure to pornography during this period, sexual deviance may become imprinted on the child's "hard drive" and become a permanent part of his or her sexual orientation.xii

Psychologist Dr. Victor Cline's findings suggest that memories of experiences that occurred at times of emotional arousal (which could include sexual arousal) are imprinted on the brain by epinephrine, an adrenal gland hormone, and are difficult to erase. (This may partly explain pornography's addicting effect.) Viewing pornography can potentially condition some viewers to have recurring sexual fantasies during which they masturbate. Later they may be tempted to act out the fantasies as sexual advances.

Sexual identity develops gradually through childhood and adolescence. In fact, children generally do not have a natural sexual capacity until between the ages of ten and twelve. As they grow up, children are especially susceptible to influences affecting their development. Information about sex in most homes and schools, comes, presumably, in age-appropriate incremental stages based on what parents, educators, physicians, and social scientists have learned about child development. But pornography short-circuits and/or distorts the normal personality development process and supplies misinformation about a child's sexuality, sense of self, and body that leaves the child confused, changed, and damaged.xiii

Pornography often introduces children prematurely to sexual sensations that they are developmentally unprepared to contend with. This awareness of sexual sensation can be confusing and overstimulating for children.

The sexual excitement and eventual release obtained through pornography are mood altering. For example, if a young boy's early stimulus was pornographic photographs, he can be conditioned to become aroused through photographs. Once this pairing is rewarded a number of times, it is likely to become permanent. xiv The result is that it becomes difficult for the individual to experience sexual satisfaction apart from pornographic images.

Most of us find it difficult to talk to our children about sex in general, let alone the harmful effects of pornography, as graphically described in this chapter. We want to protect the innocence and purity of childhood for as long as possible.

iW. L. Marshall, "The Use of Sexually Explicit Stimuli by Rapists, Child Molesters, and Nonoffenders," The Journal of Sex Research 25, no.2 (May 1988): 267-88.
iiSee H.J. Eysenck, "Robustness of Experimental Support for the General Theory of Desensitization," in Neil M. Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein, eds., Pornography and Sexual Aggression (Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1984), 314. D. Zillmann, "Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography," in Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations, eds. D. Zillman and J. Bryant (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1989), 129.

iii Take Action Manual (Washington, D.C.: Enough is Enough, 1995-96), 9.

iv Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Vintage, 1994), 137.

v Tom Minnery, Pornography: A Human Tragedy (Wheaton: Tyndale House).

vi K.E. Davis and G.N. Braucht, Exposure to Pornography, Character and Sexual Deviance, Technical Reports of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1970), 7.

vii Patrick Carnes, Don't Call It Love: Recovery from Sexual Addictions (New York: Bantam, 1991).

viii Stephen J. Kavanagh, Protecting Children in Cyberspace (Springfield, VA: Behavioral Psychotherapy Center, 1997), 58-59.

ix Victor B. Cline, Pornography's Effects on Adults and Children (New York: Morality in Media, 1990), 11.

x Edward Donnerstein, "Ordinances to Add Pornography to Discrimination against Women," statement at Public Hearing of Minneapolis City Council Session (12 December 1983). See also Luis T. Garcia, "Exposure to Pornography and Attitudes about Women and Rape: A Correlative Study," AG 22 (1986), 382-83. This study found "subjects with a greater degree of exposure to violent sexual materials tended to believe that: (a) women are responsible for preventing their own rape, (b) rapists should not be severely punished, and (c) women should not resist a rape attack. In addition, researchers found that exposure to violent sexual material correlated significantly with the belief that rapists are normal. See also Zillman, "Effects of Prolonged Consumption," 129; and N. Malamuth and J. Ceniti, 129-37. "Study…results consistently showed a relationship between one's reported likelihood to rape and responses associated with convicted rapists such as sexual arousal to rape stimuli, callous attitudes toward rape, beliefs in the rape myths, and hostility towards women."

xi Cline, Pornography's Effects, 8.

xii Kavanagh, Protecting Children in Cyberspace, 58-59.

xiii Interview with Ann Burgess, professor of nursing, University of Pennsylvania, 15 January 1997. "Pornography - Victims and Perpetrators," Symposium on Media Violence & Pornography, Proceedings Resource Book and Research Guide, ed. D. Scott (1984).

xiv Jerry Bergman, Ph.D. , "The Influence of Pornography on Sexual Development: Three Case Histories," Family Therapy IX, no. 3 (1982): 265.

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