Most controversial of all topics in mass media is its role in violence and pornography through proliferation of programming with violent themes and action and overt sexual content.
Violence in the media
Researchers in each of the last three decades have produced major research studies on the role of media violence, especially its influence on children and adolescents. In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General commissioned a study, which was followed in 1982 by a comprehensive study from the National Institute of Mental Health. Ten years later the American Psychological Association concluded its research. These three diverse groups with varying approaches and perspectives evaluated all available information. All three concluded, without reservation, that mass‐media violence does indeed contribute to violence in people regardless of age, gender, race, or ethnicity. According to these studies, the primary danger lies in the fact that the media portrays violence as normal or acceptable, and the problem is compounded when the aggressor goes unpunished. Such portrayals lead to desensitization and a greater likelihood of aggressive behavior.
Research into the effects of sexual materials is not as clear. Researchers distinguish between erotica, which is intended to be sexually stimulating but not demeaning, and pornography,which is intended to be sexually demeaning. They further note that both erotica and pornograhy can either be “softcore” (indirect in its display of sexual activity and the genitals) or “hardcore” (direct in its display of sexual activity and the genitals).
Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the effects of sexual materials on viewers and readers. To date—at least when discussing mutually consensual, softcore, nonviolent erotica and pornography—little evidence proves either negative or positive effects. However, violent pornography that depicts women in a degrading, humiliating, or demeaning manner may have different, more negative effects in terms of domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment. The topic of the effects of pornography is controversial and hotly debated, and many experts call for more research in this area.
In the late 1960s, the U.S. Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. Their 1970 report concluded that pornography was basically harmless. Although the commission confirmed that erotica and pornography sexually aroused both men and women, they also noted that it did not affect their general behavior, particularly in negative ways. Critics of the Johnson Commission report point out that the types of violent pornography so common today were uncommon when the commission gathered its information.
Not until the early to mid‐1980s did evidence begin to mount suggesting that pornography negatively affects some men. Researchers found that certain men likely exhibit aggressive behavior and attitudes toward women after viewing violent pornography. This especially holds true for materials that picture women enjoying being raped, even though they may have initially resisted.
During the Reagan administration, the United States Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, more commonly remembered as the Meese Commission (named after Edwin Meese, Attorney General at the time), arrived at conclusions surprisingly different from the 1970 governmental study. The Meese Commission claimed a causal link between violent pornography and sexual violence toward women. They based their report on a review of a large collection of pornography in various forms and listening to the views of numerous experts, victims, and judges. Based on this assertion, the commission made nearly 100 recommendations designed to curb the dissemination of pornographic materials.
In response to the commission's conclusions, social scientists pointed out that what the research showed was not that exposure to aggressive/violent pornography affects sexual behavior per se, but that it affects aggressive behavior, a theory borne out by other studies involving nonsexual aggressive behavior.
More‐recent research has much to say concerning what happens when adults watch or read violent pornographic materials—mainly, that sex and violence present a particularly harmful mix. Viewing such materials can increase males' acceptance of sexual and other types of aggression toward females. Males who have viewed violent pornography are also more likely to believe such myths as that women like being sexually overpowered or raped, “no” really means “yes,” rape victims' injuries are not severe, or wife‐battering is acceptable. Further, pornographers rarely depict sexual aggressors and perpetrators negatively, or show them being punished for their sexual aggression.