Effects from Longer Term Exposure

Part: 
Four
Chapter: 
3

A number of studies, both from the 1970 Commission and more recent ones, examined the effects of "massive" exposure to pornography. "Massive exposure" in these studies means exposure over a duration of one to several weeks. Mann, Sidman and Starr (1970) exposed married couples in four consecutive weekly sessions to sexually explicit films or to nonerotic films (for the control group). Sexual activities were recorded in diaries by the subjects during the exposure period and attitudes toward pornography also assessed both prior to and after exposure. Sexual activities increased in frequency during exposure days although these activities were ones these subjects normally engaged in (i.e., they were not related to specific ones portrayed in the stimulus materials). An additional finding was that the reported stimulating effect grew weaker as the weeks progressed. Whether this diminution is attributable to boredom or to habituation is not entirely clear.

Howard, Reifler and Liptzin (1971) similarly exposed male college students to heavy doses of pornographic films, photographs, and reading material during ninety-minute sessions over a three-week period. Experimental subjects could choose from among these materials and other "nonerotic" ones during the first ten sessions. This was followed by three sessions where the original pornographic material was replaced by new ones. During the last two sessions, the "nonerotic" materials were taken away. Control subjects were not exposed to these types of materials. The findings, based on physiologic and attitudinal measures, revealed initial high interest which faded rapidly with repeated exposure. After this period of unrestricted exposure, the provision of new materials failed to revive interest. Decreased penile response was measured as well as concomitant reductions in other responsiveness measures (e.g., heart rate, respiration rate and skin temperature). While the authors interpreted these results in terms of boredom, Zillman and Bryant (1984) suggested that habituation is a potential alternative explanation based on the premise that continued exposure to emotion-inducing stimuli produces declines in the arousal component of the reaction: evidence that habituation effects might be occurring.

To test this hypothesis, Zillman and Bryant (1984) had eighty male and female undergraduates randomly assigned to a massive, intermediate, no exposure or control group. Subjects in the three experimental groups met in six consecutive weekly sessions and watched six films of eight minutes duration each, with varying degrees of exposure to the explicit sex films. Ostensibly, the subjects were to evaluate the aesthetic aspects of these films. All erotic films depicted heterosexual activities, mainly fellatio, cunnilingus, coition, and anal intercourse, none of which depicted infliction of pain. The nonerotic films were educational or entertaining materials, all previously judged as interesting. Experimental subjects returned to the laboratory one week after treatment and were then exposed to three films of varying degrees of explicitness (pre-coitus, oral-genital sex and intercourse, and sadomasochism and bestiality) followed by measurements of excitation levels (heart rate and blood pressure) and affective ratings.

Two weeks after initial treatment, subjects were randomly assigned (within initial exposure treatments) to view one of the following: (a) a film depicting oral-genital sex and heterosexual intercourse; (b) a film depicting sadomasochistic activities; (c) a film featuring bestiality; (d) no film. Measures of aggressive behavior also were obtained at this point.

The results three weeks later indicated that with increasing exposure to various explicit stimuli, arousal responses diminished, as did aggressive behavior. Furthermore, more unusual or "harder" erotic fare appeared to grow increasingly more acceptable with subject evaluations that the material was offensive, pornographic or should be restricted progressively diminishing. Measures of sex callousness suggested further habituation effects as did projective measures of the commonality of these behaviors. According to Zillman and Bryant, these effects were, "evident for both male and female subjects." Similar habituation effects after "massive exposure" were reported by Ceniti and Malamuth (1984) for subjects who were "force-oriented," effects which were most pronounced with exposure to sexually violent depictions. Arousal patterns were not affected, however.

An earlier report on other aspects of the same study (Zillman and Bryant, 1982) showed that subjects also exhibited greater sex-callousness, using measures developed by Mosher (1970). They also showed some cognitive distortion in terms of exaggerated estimates of the prevalence of various sexual activities as a result of massive exposure.

There is contrary evidence from Linz (1985) on the effects of massive exposure to nonviolent sexually explicit materials in a study described earlier under Effects of Massive Exposure to Sexual Violence. Subjects exposed to R-rated "slasher" films, "teen sex" films and "X-rated nonviolent films"[1125] did not show the same effects in a rapejudgment situation as did the "slasher" films which showed perceptual changes described as desensitization to film violence and to violence against women.

Another investigation into the effects of massive exposure to nonviolent sexually explicit materials tested the habituation hypothesis (Zillman and Bryant, in press) using both male and female students and adults from a metropolitan community similarly examined effects of massive exposure. This time, the "behavior" of interest was choice of entertainment material. Two weeks after exposure, subjects were provided an opportunity to watch videotapes in a private situation with G-rated, R-rated and X-rated programs available. This opportunity to view was provided during an ostensible "waiting period" between procedures, with the subject's choice of entertainment and length of viewing unobtrusively recorded. Subjects with considerable prior exposure to common, nonviolent pornography showed very little interest in this type of fare, choosing instead to watch more uncommon materials that included bondage, sadomasochism, and bestiality. These effects, while observable among both males and females, were again more pronounced among the former.

While habituation is certainly a plausible explanation for these findings, choice of entertainment fare on the basis of stimulus novelty cannot be precluded entirely (see Kelley, In Press). An examination of the mean amount of time spent viewing the video tapes shows that for those massively exposed, male students watched an average of three and a half minutes of "uncommon fare" (featuring bondage, S & M, bestiality) while female students watched an average of a minute and a half, with viewing times for their nonstudent

counterparts only slightly higher. Keeping in mind that subjects had fifteen minutes of viewing time, the graduation to a preference for stronger fare, or habituation, does not seem to be firmly supported by the data. Furthermore, the measurement situation might also be viewed as "permission-granting," with choice of what might normally be considered taboo material being more permissible or socially condoned. One could argue that greater availability of these materials in the real world might also be analogous to an indication of social sanctions being lifted, so to speak, and the laboratory evidence obtained here certainly merits more attention, perhaps through longitudinal studies.

Further measures were obtained from the same samples of subjects in the last study described above in the areas of "sexual satisfaction" and "family values," both through an extensive battery of questions (Zillman and Bryant, 1986a, 1986b). Subjects were asked how satisfied they were with their present sexual partner, their partner's physical appearance, affectionate behavior, commitment and so forth. Their findings showed significantly increased dissatisfaction in these various areas of sexuality after massive exposure.

In the area of "family values," a variety of questions tapped attitudes on pre-marital and extra-marital sex, estimations of occurrences of "sexual faithfulness" in the population, and perceptions of the institution of marriage and divorce. Again, massive exposure appears to have increased acceptance of premarital and extra-marital sex and diminished the importance of the institution of marriage. These findings have to be viewed with caution since the large number of statistical tests conducted increases the chances of obtaining false positive conclusions. Because of the complexity of the experimental procedures, the long battery of questions asked, and the absence of a measure validating the effectiveness of the cover story, we must also view these findings as tentative and worthy of further examination.

On the basis of the above findings, it appears that short-term effects have been observed in the laboratory but under very specific conditions. These conditions should be further elaborated on in future research. Massive exposure studies varying the lengths of exposure, on the other hand, suggest that certain types of effects may occur with long-term exposure. The question arises whether this is true of all types of sexually explicit stimuli that do not have any violent elements.

A recent Canadian study has tried to address this issue (Check, 1985). Four hundred thirty-six college students and nonstudent metropolitan Toronto residents recruited by means of advertisements, were exposed over three videotape viewing sessions to one of three types of materials, or to no material at all. The stimulus materials were constructed (primarily because no materials could be found that exclusively contained the intended manipulations) from existing commercially available entertainment videos to represent one of the following:

  1. Sexual violence-Scenes of sexual intercourse which included a woman strapped to a table and being penetrated by a large plastic penis.
  2. Sexually explicit and degrading-Scenes of sexual activity which included a man masturbating into a woman's face while sitting on top of her.
  3. Sexually explicit-Sex activities leading up to intercourse between a man and woman.

These categorizations were validated in preliminary questionnaires assessing subjects' perceptions of these materials. Results indicated that exposure to both the sexually violent and the nonviolent dehumanizing pornography (1) were more likely to be rated "obscene," "degrading," "offensive" and "aggressive;" (2) tended to elicit more pronounced feelings of anxiety, hostility and depression; and (3) tended to be successfully differentiated from the materials classified as "erotica." The patterns were less clear on reported likelihood of rape measures and reported the likelihood of engaging in coercive sex acts. While those in the violent and in the degrading exposure conditions reported significantly greater likelihood of engaging in these behaviors compared to the control group, an effect more pronounced among those with high pyschoticism scores, those exposed to the "erotica" stimulus did not differ significantly from either the control or both pornography conditions. The findings also have to be viewed with caution as the exposure conditions were not completely equivalent (i.e., the no-exposure control group came in for a single session while the experimental groups came in for four sessions), a caveat Check recognized and discusses. Finally, it is not entirely clear what differential effects on the exposure groups the preliminary instructions to all subjects might have had which included some reference to the study being funded by the Fraser Commission on Pornography.

Similar findings were obtained by Senn (1985) for female subjects exposed over four sessions to slides of "erotica," "nonviolent dehumanizing pornography," and "violent pornography." The first class of materials were discussed as mutually pleasurable sexual expression between two individuals presented as equal in power. The second category was described as having no explicit violence but portraying acts of submission (female kneeling, male standing; female naked, male clothed) while the third included acts of explicit violence in the sexual interaction (e.g., hair-pulling, whipping, rape).

Both violent and nonviolent pornography resulted in greater anxiety, depression and anger than erotica and both were also reliably differentiated from the latter on a number of affective dimensions, with "erotica" consistently rated more positively.

These findings on non-violent, "degrading" pornography are by no means definitive but they do suggest the importance of examining the effects of various content attributes.

Notes

  1. Psychoticism measures included such items as the following (Linz, 1985):
    • The idea that someone else can control your thoughts.
    • Having thoughts about sex that bother you a lot.
    • The idea that something is seriously wrong with your body.
    • Never feeling close to another person.
    • Feeling lonely when you are with other people.