Shaw, S. (1999) 'Men's leisure and women's lives: the impact of pornography on women', in Leisure Studies, vol 18: 197 - 212
It is rare to attempt to examine the impact of pornography on women. Pornography is a big business, predominantly aimed at males. There is some laboratory work on the effects of pornography in terms of violence (with references on page 198), and a general support for the view that watching pornography seems to increase male callousness towards women. Feminist concerns are not usually tapped by laboratory studies, since they turn on the objectification and disempowerment of women, the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and inequalities.
The problem of definition arises straight away -- should researchers use legal or feminist concerns to define pornography? There is a clear overlap between pornography and other media, and the likelihood of a great diversity of responses as well as types, although again this may miss the underlying issue of power asymmetry. Should individuals or groups be chosen for study? Shaw chose individuals and assumed that they would be able to construct a response rather than register one passively. A variety of grounded theory was pursued, so that definitions and reactions could emerge and not be imposed.
The 32 women were chosen to be as representative as possible in terms of age differences, marital status and sexual preferences. Various other dimensions were also recorded, such as years of higher education or religious orientation. Semi-structured interviews offered a gradual progression, initially discussing 'sexually explicit material', or 'adult entertainment', and waiting to see if the respondents used the term 'pornography'. All the women were familiar with the examples discussed, including the 12 examples presented by the interviewer. The women were invited to first categorise and then discuss these examples as a prompt. Finally, they were asked about the impact of pornography on relationships.
The results showed that all women were fairly familiar with the materials, although only nine had actually bought any material themselves. In the categorisation exercise, they separated out examples that featured sexual violence, including implied violence, irrespective of the sex of the victim. They expressed negative reactions to the violence examples, reporting feeling scared or disgusted, for example, especially if the victim was a woman. Violence directed at males tended to be seen as unrealistic and thus as less serious. In terms of the reactions to the non-violent material, there was a greater diversity, and reactions included embarrassment, unhappiness, anxiety about the lack of warmth, and a feeling that the activities should be kept private. A very few were attracted by the material. Material showing same-sex relationships evoked more complex reactions, often involving assumed context, and those with higher education levels appeared to be less homophobic. The term 'pornography' began to be used as a negative and condemnatory term.
There was a worry about the impact of pornography. The bodies depicted were often seen as too thin, too perfect. Women might sometimes begin to be self-critical about their own bodies as a result. They thought that pornography would make male expectations of real women unrealistic, or would begin to rank women purely according to their physical characteristics. Some feared that viewing pornography would lead to imitation and actual sexual abuse.
Although most of the data referred to beliefs, so that 30 thought there would be a negative effect, some of the women had actually been in relationships with male users of pornography. Those women did feel worried and hurt when their partners used pornography, and suffered low self-esteem at best. They offered a qualified acceptance of their partners' use, agreeing that it was acceptable if kept secret, for example. They felt reluctant to discuss their negative feelings with their partners, fearing that they would be seen as prudish, or wanting to limit the freedoms of others. They tended to give the same reasons to justify opposition to censorship. This shows the effects of a 'dominant ideology of individualism, freedom of choice and freedom of expression' (208).
So consuming pornography is not a major leisure activity for women, and they seem to feel negative reactions, especially towards scenes of sexual violence. This seems to be a common concern regardless of their other differences (level of education and so on). The women knew that using pornography was common for men. Mostly they framed their views in terms of the perceived impact rather than the aesthetics of the work as such. Overall, the consumption of pornography does seem to support the reproduction of gender differences. Resistance by women tends to be muted, so feminist suspicion that women are silenced seems to be justified.
Shaw ends by discussing a number of policies, including some designed to raise empowerment of women so that they can speak out and give their views.