Some Theoretical Considerations

Part: 
Four
Chapter: 
3

In designing research studies to answer particular questions, social scientists do not ordinarily operate in a vacuum. Quite often, the relationships posited, the selection of variables and their operationalizations, the groups of people selected for examination, and the general research procedures are guided by "theory." Quite simply, this is the explanatory framework which rationalizes or justifies why a particular relationship might be expected.

We think it useful to summarize some of the theoretical reasoning that has been applied to the general question of what effects if any might be found from exposure to sexually explicit stimuli.

  1. Social Learning Theory

    This approach offers a perspective on human behavior based on the notion that there is "a continuous reciprocal interaction" between environmental factors, an individual's processing of information from his environment and his behavior (Bandura, 1977). This framework assigns a prominent role to the processes of vicarious and symbolic learning (i.e., learning by observing others' behavior and one's own) and a self-regulating process whereby an individual selectively organizes and processes stimuli and regulates his or her behaviors accordingly.

    The generic process of modeling is a major component of social learning which many mistakenly interpret as simply imitation, or a one-to-one correspondence between some portrayed novel behavior and the reproduction of such behavior. While this type of effect is not precluded (and there are certainly many anecdotal media accounts of such instances), "modeling" embraces a more complex array of processes which can be subsumed under two categories. First, modeling includes the facilitation of particular response categories ("response facilitation") which assumes that a portrayed behavior functions as an external inducement for similar sets of responses which can be performed with little difficulty. Second, it includes the capacity to strengthen or weaken inhibitions of responses ("inhibition" or "disinhibition") that may already be in the observer's repertoire. If there are restraints on a particular behavior (self-restraints, as in anxiety over a particular behavior, or external restraints, including the possibility of getting caught and punished for some socially disapproved-or illegal-action), such restraints may be lifted when an observer sees a model engage in disapproved acts without any adverse consequences (Bandura, 1973, 1977).

    In Check and Malamuth's (1985) application of this theoretical framework, they discuss their findings in terms of Bandura's postulated "antecedent" and "consequent" determinants. The former incorporates symbolic expectancy learning principles exemplified by the symbolic pairing of sex with violence against women and vicarious expectancy learning, or observing others becoming aroused to sexual violence. Consequent determinants include observing seeing a male use force, not getting punished, and, furthermore, finding the experience pleasurable for himself and for his victim.

    Two studies based on survey data provide additional information that certain sexually explicit materials may provide "models" for behavior for some individuals.

    Russell (1985) reported findings from an earlier study on sexual abuse of women. A probability sample of 930 adult female residents in San Francisco were interviewed. Of this number, about four in ten (389 women) said they had seen pornography and forty-four percent of this group reported being upset by it. Fourteen percent of the total sample reported they had been asked to pose for pornographic pictures and ten percent said they had been upset by someone trying to get them to enact what had been seen in the pornographic pictures, movies or books. An additional finding in this study was that those who were upset by pornographic requests were twice as likely to be incest victims than those who were not upset by similar requests. A similar pattern was found among those who reported being upset at being asked to pose for pornographic pictures, i.e., those who were asked to pose were more than twice as likely to suffer incest abuse in their childhood (thirty-two percent versus fourteen percent). What this suggests, according to Russell, is that women who suffered sexual abuse are significantly more vulnerable to pornography-related victimization, a "revictimization" syndrome.

    Silbert and Pines (1986), in a similar study on sexual assault of street prostitutes, came upon unexpected information in the course of their interviews. From detailed descriptions the subjects provided to open-ended questions in regard to incidents of juvenile sexual assault in their childhood and to incidents of rape following entrance into prostitution, it became evident that violent pornography played a significant role in the sexual abuse of street prostitutes. Of the 200 prostitutes interviewed, 193 reported rape incidents and of this number, twenty-four percent mentioned allusions to pornographic material on the part of the rapist. Since these comments were not solicited, it is likely that this figure is a conservative estimate. The authors described the comments as following the same pattern: "the assailant referred to pornographic materials he had seen or read and then insisted that the victims not only enjoyed the rape but also the extreme violence." (p. 12)

  2. Arousal

    Arousal has been conceived of as a "drive" that "energizes or intensifies behavior that receives direction by independent means" (Zillmann, 1982, 1978). This model relies on the notion that arousal based on exposure to some communication stimulus can facilitate behaviors which could either be prosocial or anti-social, depending on situational circumstances. Such circumstances could include specific content cues which might elicit either positive or negative affect (Sapolsky, 1984). If arousal levels are minimal and the stimulus evokes pleasant responses (as might be the case when viewing mildly erotic material), the effect might be reduced aggression. If, on the other hand, the stimulus elevates arousal to high levels, then the outcome might be aggressive behavior. This approach has been criticized for its inability to account for the predominance of one response rather than another.

  3. Habituation

    The idea of habituation is akin to drug treatment or drug dependency where, over time, one must rely on increasing doses to obtain the same effect. In the area of exposure to explicit sexual stimuli, repeated exposure has resulted in initially strong arousal reactions becoming weaker over time, leading to habituation. (Zillmann, 1982, 1984). One attitudinal manifestation of this effect is callousness, either to victims of aggression or simply to the violent or anti-social behaviors themselves. While this holds promise as an explanatory framework, more research is needed, particularly longitudinal studies, to demonstrate its predictive utility.

  4. Cue Elicitation/Disinhibition

    Berkowitz (1974,1984) has proposed a stimulus-response relational model which suggests that an individual (e.g., a film viewer) reacts impulsively to environmental stimuli and this reaction is determined in part by predispositions and in part by stimulus situational characteristics which could function to "disinhibit" such predispositions. Berkowitz has demonstrated that cues associated with aggressive responding such as a situation depicting a female victim, when viewed by an individual predisposed to aggress (one who is provoked or angered), will more likely evoke the aggressive response as a result of the stimulus-response connection already established by previous exposure to the films. (See Donnerstein and Berkowitz, 1981, and Linz, 1985, for applications).

These explanatory-predictive approaches may not necessarily operate independently; they could conceivably complement each other. They stand, however, in contrast and direct opposition to the catharsis theory which is still being promoted in many quarters as the explanation for why exposure to sexually explicit materials has only beneficial effects. Catharsis suggests that exposure to highly arousing material actually leads to a diminution of anti-social effects because relieving the arousal then reduces the instigation to commit any sex crimes in the future. Unfortunately, little evidence exists for this claim and numerous research reviews (primarily in the area of media violence and aggressive behavior) have arrived at this same conclusion (Berkowitz, 1962; Bramel, 1969; Weiss, 1969; Geen and Quanty, 1977; National Institute of Mental Health, 1982; Comstock, 1985). The following observation typifies comments made about the catharsis theory.

The cause-effect hypothesis that we already described is not supported by the data. Little evidence for catharsis, as we have defined it, exists and much of the evidence that has been adduced in its favor is susceptible to alternative explanations that are at least parsimonious. In fact, when conditions that give rise to such alternative explanations are removed from the experimental setting, the reverse [authors' emphasis] of what the catharsis hypothesis predicts is usually found, i.e., aggression begets more, not less, aggression (p. 6).

It is instructive that some have called a moratorium on catharsis (Bandura, 1973), others have proclaimed its demise (Comstock, 1985). Even its major proponent has reformulated his position by explaining why it does not apply to situations involving media exposure (Feshbach, 1980).