New study says porn users have ‘egalitarian attitudes’ — so what?

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Last month, the Journal of Sex Research published “Is Pornography Really About ‘Making Hate to Women?’” a paper claiming to find a positive correlation between pornography consumption and feminist attitudes. In its abstract, the Canadian researchers behind the study waste no time making their disdain for radical feminism clear:

“According to radical feminist theory, pornography serves to further the subordination of women by training its users, males and females alike, to view women as little more than sex objects over whom men should have complete control. Composite variables from the General Social Survey were used to test the hypothesis that pornography users would hold attitudes that were more supportive of gender nonegalitarianism than nonusers of pornography. Results did not support hypotheses derived from radical feminist theory. Pornography users held more egalitarian attitudes—toward women in positions of power, toward women working outside the home, and toward abortion—than nonusers of pornography. Further, pornography users and pornography nonusers did not differ significantly in their attitudes toward the traditional family and in their self-identification as feminist. The results of this study suggest that pornography use may not be associated with gender nonegalitarian attitudes in a manner that is consistent with radical feminist theory.”

Of course, news outlets have already jumped on the study as proof of radical feminism’s pearl-clutching prudery. But these smug liberals, like the researchers themselves, are mistaken about basic feminist theory. The radical anti-pornography position doesn’t claim men who watch porn are necessarily more misogynistic than men who don’t — only that pornography is a common and effective way men are indoctrinated into misogyny.

Other, equally effective methods for cultivating woman-hate still exist, and most men who don’t watch porn happen to be under the influence of the biggest one around: Religious conservatism. When you take a look at the thousand different ways men might learn to hate women, it becomes obvious that “Men who use porn are less sexist than men who don’t” and “Porn doesn’t make men sexist” are two completely different statements. Drug addicts who use cocaine probably live longer than drug addicts that use heroin. That doesn’t make cocaine good for you.

But this study doesn’t even ask its stupid question well. For one thing, they define a porn user as anyone who has “viewed an X-rated film in the preceding year.” What does that even mean? The vast majority of porn today is watched in short clips online, and most people don’t use either “X-rated” or “film” to describe them. There’s no way of knowing how men taking the survey interpreted the question; I can imagine quite a few porn users wouldn’t consider their fifteen minutes spent on Porn Hub as constituting an “X-rated film.”

It’s also an unacceptably broad standard for declaring people porn users. Under this metric, someone who masturbates to Facial Abuse twice a day is counted as equal with a dude who clicked a sidebar ad for Girls Gone Wild nine months ago. Both are unequivocally wrong, but it’s ridiculous to put them in the same category when you’re doing a study like this. The far more reasonable approach would be to measure frequency of porn use against sexist attitudes and look for a correlation.

This vague language and deceptive grouping are problems, but the study moves from flawed to futile when you look at their measure for sexism. The researchers used four data points as criteria: Support for women in positions of power, support for women working outside the home, support for abortion, and self-identification as a feminist. Really, researchers? That’s your definition of sexism?

If this were 1960, sure, it would be reasonable to gauge misogyny by asking about women having careers and abortions. It would also be reasonable to gauge racism by asking about segregated lunch counters. But neither set of questions would say anything about the world in 2015, when misogyny (and racism, for that matter) have been proudly wed to a rudderless liberalism that embraces those supposed markers of progress.

It’s very, very easy to hate women while still believing they should work outside the home (because Jesus Christ, get off your asses and do something, ladies!) or get abortions (because raising kids is a drag, but who wants to wear a condom?). Even women in positions of power get a stamp of approval from plenty of patriarchs, so long as they pledge to keep the same woman-hating laws in place. Remember Sarah Palin, anybody?

Questions about women working outside the home or holding office might screen for cartoonish patriarchs, but they give a free pass to the average misogynist. The only people who really reject these basic rights are hardcore religious conservatives — who also make up the large majority of men who never watch porn! This reflects a fundamental flaw in this study that borders on unethical: The researchers selectively defined sexism with standards that were most likely to be fulfilled by those in the category of non-porn users. Dozens of other criteria that might catch equally sexist liberal dudes in the porn-using camp were completely ignored.

With all this in mind, the actual thrust of the study is fairly weak. All it purports to show is that men who consume pornography often hold “egalitarian attitudes.” Shaky methodology aside, I don’t doubt that’s true. It’s not shocking to hear that the average porn user, when asked, will tell you he has an “egalitarian attitude” towards the women he uses as masturbation aids. It’s just shocking that these researchers think such an insipid declaration has anything to do with feminism.

Egalitarianism and misogyny aren’t incompatible. In fact, with the exception of some conservative holdouts, the vast majority of anti-feminism today comes from this supposedly worthwhile “egalitarian attitude” — you know, the one that excuses a woman’s sexual exploitation because, hey, she consented; laughs off domestic violence because, if women are equal, that means men can hit them; and eliminates women’s health and social services because you don’t want anyone getting special treatment, do you?

Developing a real understanding of the relationship between pornography, male power, misogyny, and violence requires more than a few yes or no questions. Asking men to self-report if they think women are human beings is not a good way to understand misogyny, and measuring “egalitarian attitudes” is not a good way to gauge a commitment to aiding women’s liberation. This study does have something to teach us, but it’s not that men who watch porn are more likely to be feminists — it’s that a definition of feminism based in “egalitarianism” is so meaningless, even porn-sick men can claim it.

Jonah Mix is a member of Deep Green Resistance and an anti-pornography activist. He runs the blog Gender Detective at Jonahmix.com and tweets at @jonahpmix.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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