Seven weeks after the New York Times and The New Yorker published their exposés on Harvey Weinstein, the issue of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault continues to burn an indelible mark on our cultural consciousness. Since then, some 60 men in the public eye across all industries have been accused of sexual misconduct, including Matt Lauer, Nick Carter, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey and Garrison Keillor.

In the wake, we have run the gamut of every possible reason why people like Weinstein—and some of the most prolific men in power—would behave in such reprehensible ways. After resurfacing several concepts of gender studies in public discourse, such as the “the male gaze” and “toxic masculinity,” it was only a matter of time before someone had a eureka moment and directed the blame at pornography.

This is no surprise to sexologists like myself. Historically, pornography has been an easy scapegoat for sexual deviance and an even easier target to obscure. The latest example is a Los Angeles Times op-ed titled “Behind the Harassment Scandals, Another Dirty Little Secret: Pornography” by a writer named Zac Crippen. In his piece, Crippen, an assistant professor of aerospace studies at the University of Texas at Austin, calls pornography consumption “a public health crisis” akin to smoking tobacco and attempts to build a case as to why adult entertainment is a secret force behind malignant sexual behavior.

He also places blame on Hugh Hefner, Playboy’s founder, for “convinc[ing] generations of young men that the ideal female exists for their pleasure.” Because as we all know, if it hadn’t been for the advent of Playboy, straight men would have never discovered they enjoy looking at naked women and having sex.

What I find concerning is how these arguments tend to come bundled with the same underlying theme: that enjoying the nude form, and particularly the female nude form, is somehow dangerous to the well-being of both sexes. Suggesting such a thing ignores the fact that women who choose to pose nude—whether artistically or for another’s pleasure, and whether in a Taschen book, a men’s magazine or in an adult film—do exercise their autonomy.

Contrary to what gender theorists might have you believe, attractiveness is not an arbitrarily defined standard of beauty that men have only recently learned from magazines, media and the advertising industry. Attractiveness and youth are signs of health and fertility; they are hard-wired cues men follow when seeking a female partner. From an evolutionary perspective, these preferences exist for the purpose of successful reproduction.

Resurrecting a cultural war against porn—and shaming men for looking at it—will not end sexual violence.

In terms of whether porn consumption constitutes a public health crisis, Crippen includes references to scientific literature, but his interpretations do not fit the wider picture of how sex scientists understand porn use and how it relates to sexual assault. “We have a sexual violence problem because we have a porn problem, and vice versa,” he writes. “We can’t spend hours watching strangers engage in the most intimate of acts and remain unchanged in the way that we look at and treat others.”

But men are not taught—or “reinforced”—to like pornography. Viewing porn activates the same set of brain regions that are involved in real-life sex, which suggests that watching it acts as a proxy for the real thing. Instead of acknowledging that truth, Crippen references two functional MRI studies as evidence that watching porn produces brain activity “[mirroring] that of drug addicts.” It’s necessary to note that there are zero robust, well-designed studies that support the idea that pornography is addictive.

When you take a closer look at what brain regions activate during porn consumption, they are the areas of the brain involved in reward and sexual arousal. Crippen translates this as meaning “porn…stimulat[es] its aroused viewers with dopamine surges while they watch actors engaging in sexual behavior on screen” and suggests that the presence of dopamine signals addiction. In reality, dopamine is released in a variety of contexts, from when we encounter free food to when we receive a text message to situations in which we experience pleasure. It is not accurate to relay this neurotransmitter in a conversation about porn or to suggest that its release in the brain is a definitive sign of addiction.

Without question, some people do experience difficulties with their porn use to the point that it interferes with their day-to-day life; however, it’s not accurate to call problematic porn use an addiction. A better explanation is revealed if you simply ask heavy porn consumers about their behavior or hypersexuality. As a sexual neuroscientist, I can guarantee there is always something else going on in their personal lives, such as anxiety or boredom, or that they are using porn as a way of coping with stress or avoiding other responsibilities.

Previous research has even shown that pornography consumption can in some cases actually help reduce sex crimes from happening. Of note, a 2009 study published in International Journal of Law and Psychiatry states that “as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased.” In addition, troves of studies suggest that sexual preferences, particularly atypical ones, are biological rather than learned. Sexual aggression is associated with other factors beyond porn-viewing that are unique to the individual, including antisociality and hostility toward women. For some men, coercive (or non-consensual) sex is something they admit to preferring over sex with a consenting partner.

It makes sense then that men’s taste in pornography reflects his sexual preferences—not the other way around. A man who seeks out violent porn hasn’t been desensitized by other sexual themes; it’s what he’s wanted to look at all along. Whether or not he acts on his desires again relates to individual differences in personality and prosociality.

Crippen closes by criticizing pornography’s depiction of sex “without love or consent.” Sex has always existed independently from love, and so long as it is consensual, there’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of pornography caters specifically to emphasizing the importance of consent—consider Cindy Gallop’s Make Love Not Porn, for one—so it’s inaccurate to say that the porn industry is void of it. Research has also failed to show an association between pornography use and relationship satisfaction.

It is no suprise that pornography continues to be politicized as one of our “public health scourges.” But the reality is that resurrecting a cultural war against porn—and shaming men for looking at it—will not end sexual violence.

The senselessness of the year’s biggest revelation has led us to seek out explanations and to dig up demons that don’t truly exist or make sense. As tempting as it may be to position pornography as the scapegoat, we can’t blame it for systemic sexual harassment and assault, no matter how rampant these cases continue to be. The unsettling truth we must accept is that some people behave in reprehensible ways, especially when it comes to sex, for reasons beyond any one explanation. Without a doubt, working to rectify our uncomfortable reality without compromising healthy sexual expression will define this generation.


Debra W. Soh writes about the science and politics of sex and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.