Operationalizations of Pornography

Part: 
Four
Chapter: 
3

Researchers, like lay people or the courts, have had some differences in the operationalization of "pornography." Malamuth (1984), for instance, uses the term with the qualifier that "no pejorative connotation is intended" and points out the difficulty of operationalizing the distinction between "aggressive versus positive types of pornography" (p. 29). However, he also relies on Steinem's (1980) separation of "acceptable erotica," in Malamuth's terms, emphasizing the notion of what Steinem called "shared pleasure," from "objectionable pornography," or what Steinem referred to as "sex in which there is clear force, or an unequal power" and describes stimuli in his research as using material belonging to the latter. Others have similarly used the term to refer only to sexually violent material and have used "erotica" to refer to nonviolent sexually explicit material (Abel, 1985). Still others on occasion simply use the term "erotica" and employ subclasses of aggressive and non-aggressive "erotica." (Donnerstein, 1983). Senn (1985) and Check (1985) have operationalized pornography to include both sexually violent and nonviolent but degrading categories and have classified all other sexually explicit portrayals as "erotica:"

In examining the types of stimuli used in these studies (Figure 1), it is clear that a wide diversity of research stimuli has been employed. These have ranged from partial nudity (Baron, 1979; Baron and Bell, 1977) to various levels of sexual activity, from "implied" to "explicit," covering a varied range of behaviors-masturbation, homosexual and heterosexual intercourse, oral-genital and oral-anal intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus, bondage, and bestiality. Sources of materials have also run the gamut from so-called stag films to mainstream sexually explicit magazines, "adult" videos from the neighborhood video store, and even sex education films (Schmidt and Sigusch, 1970; see also the earlier description of stimulus materials used in 1970 experimental studies; Check, 1985). The 1970 Commission found the term "sexually explicit materials" to have greater utility.

Comparison among studies has become hampered by the differences in stimulus materials. A common classification system has been to make use of two subclasses: violent and nonviolent pornography (see Donnerstein, 1983, 1984) and while the stimulus materials representing the former have been relatively consistent (usually a rape scene with variations on victim reactions), the same cannot be said for "violent pornography." The full range of stimuli mentioned earlier, from partial nudity to bestiality (used, for instance, by Zillmann, Bryant, Comisky and Medoff, 1981) falls within the "nonaggressive" pornography category. Perhaps not surprisingly, a full range of results (negative, no effect, and positive) has also been elicited.

Donnerstein (1983) has maintained that differential arousal levels evoke different reactions, with "mild erotica" producing a pleasant distraction and more strongly arousing material resulting in negative effects. However, this differential-arousal attribute has not been pursued in subsequent studies. Zillmann and Sapolsky (1977) have suggested that in addition to arousal, the stimulus' valence property-how pleasing or displeasing it is-also accounts for differential findings.

If the effects from exposure to nonaggressive sexually explicit materials are mediated in part by their affect value, a problem still remains: how do we explain the "pleasing" or "displeasing" character of a stimulus? Pleasing or displeasing evaluations could arise from a number of factors including the explicitness of the material, the type of activity portrayed (see, for example, Glass' [1978] scale analysis of the 1970 Commission survey data which shows clearly gradations in public perceptions of different activities), or the theme employed. For example, Sherif (1980) raised the possibility of power differentials to explain female subjects' arousal but high negative affect in response to a stimulus portraying a rape victim experiencing an involuntary orgasm in Malamuth, Heim and Feshbach's (1980) study.

Two studies (Check, 1985; Senn 1985) have attempted to reconceptualize nonaggressive sexually explicit materials into two further classes ('sexually explicit and degrading or dehumanizing', and simply 'sexually explicit'). There is theoretical justification for expecting differential effects from these subclasses. Bandura, Underwood and Fromson (1975) have demonstrated that socially reprehensible attitudes or behaviors may be made more acceptable by dehumanization of victims. "Inflicting harm on individuals who are subhuman and debased is less apt to arouse self-reproof than if they are seen as human beings with dignifying qualities." (p. 255). Again, this is clearly a line of research that merits further attention.

The problem of explicating stimulus attributes is complicated with examination of a class of materials categorized by their commercial label: "R-rated slasher films" (see Linz, Donnerstein and Penrod, 1984; Linz, 1985; Krafka, 1985), or "X-rated films." The former "contain explicit scenes of violence in which the victims are nearly always female. While the films often juxtapose a violent scene with a sensual or erotic scene (e.g., a woman masturbating in the bath is suddenly and brutally attacked), there is no indication in any of the films that the victim enjoys or is sexually aroused by violence. In nearly all cases, the scene ends in the death of the victim." (Linz, et al., 1984, p. 137). These studies using this film genre have generally found desensitizing effects among male subjects, after massive exposure.

But the question still remains: what does this class called "R-rated slasher films" mean conceptually? If one were interested in describing potential effects from classes of sexually explicit materials, where does this set of materials fit in? This appears compounded in an examination of effects of sexually violent, violent, and sexually explicit materials on female subjects (Krafka, 1985), where these films are used to operationalize "violent" films, despite allowing that they have "some sexual content."

"X-rated films" pose the same problems. While they appear to be used to represent sexually explicit material without any violence, different themes may be emphasized leading to quite different results.

The need to utilize meaningful classes that go beyond those in current use is important not just for validity requirements. After all, the question which social scientists must ultimately address-with both theoretical and pragmatic or public policy implications-is what types of effects have been demonstrated for what classes of material? Such investigations for some social scientists may have undesirable political or idealogical implications but ignoring the issue also hampers our ability to explain the nature of effects more fully so as to provide for nonlegal policy strategies that are firmly anchored in social science findings (see, for example, Byrne and Kelley, 1984; Kelley, 1985).