A Longitudinal Analysis of US Adults’ Pornography Exposure: Sexual Socialization, Selective Exposure, and the Moderating Role of Unhappiness (2012)

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Paul J. Wright

Journal of Media Psychology Theories Methods and Applications

01/2012; 24(2):67-76.

DOI: 10.1027/1864-1105/a000063

ABSTRACT

Several studies have explored whether pornography exposure is associated with a casual approach to sex. Much of this research, however, has been cross-sectional, has assessed only straightforward exposure–casual sex associations, and has employed convenience samples of adolescents. This study employed nationally representative longitudinal data from the General Social Survey to explore whether casual sex behavior predicted over time change in US adults’ pornography exposure and whether pornography exposure predicted over time change in US adults’ casual sex behavior. Casual sex behavior did not predict over time change in pornography exposure, but pornography exposure did predict over time change in casual sex behavior. To test the prediction of Wright’s acquisition, activation, application model of sexual socialization (3AM) that negative affective states make the application of risky sexual scripts provided by sexual media more likely (Wright, 2011a) the moderating role of unhappiness was explored. In support of the model, pornography exposure was associated with nearly a sevenfold over time increase in the odds of having engaged in casual sex for unhappy individuals, but was unrelated to the casual sex behavior of very happy individuals.

Hypothesis 2 predicted that pornography exposure would predict over time increases in casual sex behavior. Hypothesis 2 was supported. After controlling for T1 casual sex behavior and the demographic controls, exposure to pornography at T1 was associated with a 1.92 (95% CI [1.01, 3.62]) increase in the odds of having engaged in casual sex at T2 in a logistic regression analysis (D Nagelkerke R2 = .01, N = 525).

Hypothesis 3 predicted that the prospective association between pornography exposure and casual sex behavior would be moderated by unhappiness, such that increases in casual sex behavior as predicted from pornography exposure would be more likely for unhappy than happy individuals. Hypothesis 3 was supported. After controlling for T1 casual sex behavior and the demographic controls and adding T1 pornography exposure and T1 unhappiness to the Logistic regression model, the interaction of T1 pornography exposure and T1 unhappiness was significant.

Review of Findings

Drawing on uses and gratifications theory and selective exposure theory, it was predicted that casual sex behavior at T1 would predict over time increases in pornography exposure at T2. Contrary to predictions, no such association was found.

Drawing on social learning theories of behavior, it was predicted that pornography exposure at T1 would predict over time increases in casual sex behavior at T2. This prediction was supported, as pornography exposure at T1 was associated with nearly a twofold increase in the odds of casual sex behavior at T2. Importantly, this association was found even after controlling for T1 casual sex behavior, age, ethnicity, religiosity, education, and gender.

Drawing on Wright’s (2011a) 3AM model of sexual socialization, it was predicted that the association between exposure to pornography at T1 and casual sex behavior at T2 would be moderated by individuals’ level of unhappiness with their present life situation. Specifically, it was predicted that the association between T1 exposure to pornography and T2 casual sex behavior would be strongest when people were the most unhappy, and weakest when they were the most happy. This prediction was supported. Pornography exposure at T1 was associated with a nearly sevenfold increase in the odds of casual sex behavior at T2 for participants who were ‘‘not too happy’’ with their life at T1. Pornography exposure at T1 was associated with a twofold increase in the odds of casual sex behavior at T2 for participants who were ‘‘pretty happy’’ with their life at T1. Pornography exposure at T1 was not related to casual sex behavior at T2 for participants who were ‘‘very happy’’ with their life at T1.

Practical Implications

The findings of this study have practical ramifications, given that casual sex poses an increased risk of negative outcomes such as physical and sexual aggression, STI contraction and transmission, and involvement in unwanted pregnancy (Bennett & Bauman, 2000; Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Paul et al., 2000; Shelton et al., 2004). First, the findings suggest that pornography exposure is a sexual risk factor for the average US adult because the average adult is only ‘‘pretty happy’’ and pornography consumption prospectively predicted a twofold increase in the odds of casual sex behavior for ‘‘pretty happy’’ adults. Second, the findings suggest that pornography exposure is an especially powerful risk factor for unhappy people, a group already at heightened risk (Fielder & Carey, 2010; Grello et al., 2003; Hutton et al., 2004; Parsons & Halkitis, 2002). Again, pornography exposure was prospectively associated with a nearly sevenfold increase in the odds of casual sex behavior for adults who were ‘‘not too happy.’’

In sum, like several other studies before it, the results of this study suggest that exposure to entertainment media that glamorize casual sex and trivialize the risks and responsibilities associated with sex increases consumers’ risk of outcomes identified as untoward by the public health community (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010; Peter & Valkenburg, 2011; Ward, 2003; Wingood et al., 2001; Wright, 2011a, 2011c; Wright et al., 2012). And, in alignment with the views of other sexual health scholars, this study recommends that sexual risk preventions include media education and literacy training as part of their curricula (Allen, D’Alessio, Emmers, & Gebhardt, 1996; Isaacs & Fisher, 2008; Pinkleton, Austin, Cohen, Chen, & Fitzgerald, 2008).

Theoretical Implications

In sum, the first theoretical implication of this study is its suggestion that social learning may explain the correlation between pornography consumption and a more casual approach to sex more so than selective exposure. Additional research is needed, however, before selective exposure can be dismissed as applicable in this particular communicative context.

The second theoretical implication of this study is its suggestion that the ‘‘susceptible teens – unsusceptible adults’’ assumption that has guided much of the research on pornography and sexual socialization may need to be reconsidered (Peter & Valkenburg, 2011, p. 751). The resultsof this study suggest that adults are affected by the glamorized, risk- and responsibility-free portrayal of casual sex in pornography. Other recent studies support this possibility (Wright, in press; Wright, 2011c). Adults (like adolescents) may be dependent on mediated sources for information about sexual norms and values (Wright et al., 2012). Additionally, adults (like adolescents) may have difficulty deciphering sexual fact from fiction in pornography (Malamuth & Impett, 2001; Peter & Valkenburg, 2010). Future research is needed to assess whether the same factors operable in media sex effects on adolescents (Ward, 2003) are operable on adults (Peter & Valkenburg, 2011).

Last, the results of this study support the assertion of Wright’s (2011a) 3AM model of sexual socialization that negative affective states increase the probability that risky sexual scripts acquired or activated by media exposure will be applied at the level of behavior. This is an important finding for three reasons. First, it suggests that individual differences moderate the effect of pornography exposure on casual sex behavior as well as aggressive behavior (Malamuth & Huppin, 2005). Second, it identifies a specific moderator variable heretofore unstudied in mass media sexual socialization research. Third, it suggests that theories that already consider negative affect as a contributor to risky sexual behavior (e.g., social action theory, Ewart, 1991) should also consider the importance of pornography exposure.