The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, September 21, 1996

Porn study: Where's the harm?

by Peter Calamai,

What if you went looking for the harmful effects of the very worst kinds of pornography -- and they weren't there?

That's what happened to Canada Customs when it paid researchers to study customs officials who spend up to 15 hours a week reading and viewing material that goes well beyond erotica or even so-called hard-core porn.

Noted the researchers: "Their work most often focuses on materials of an extreme nature which deal with clearly unacceptable sexual activities such as incest, children in a sexual context, necrophilia, bestiality, and sex involving violence, bondage and degradation." Their study of 90 officers found:

The 1992 study's key finding of no appreciable harm from heavy porn viewing contradicts the arguments accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada three years ago in widening the legal definition of obscenity. The finding also runs counter to current social science orthodoxy -- and to the expectations of the principal researcher, Queen's psychology professor William Marshall.

"There are grounds for expecting exposure to pornography to have harmful effects, even when such exposure is part of a person's job requirements", wrote Marshall. "Customs officers, then, who review pornography may be expected to experience problems or to develop anti-social inclinations, and these effects might be particularly apparent among those officers who review these materials on a full-time basis."

Marshall and Sharon Hodkinson, now in law at Queen's, set out to identify these problems by asking customs officers voluntarily to complete a two-hour questionnaire. The survey used standard psychology techniques (plus some new ones) to measure factors like hopelessness and depression, satisfaction with life and job, general health, empathy and marital intimacy, the desirability of various sexual practices, views on degrading sexual practices and fears about committing aberrant sexual acts.

These results were then arranged according to the amount of time each officer spent reviewing graphic porn -- ranging from none to more than 60 hours a month. According the current theory, measurable harmful effects should have increased with more viewing.

But they didn't. In particular, the sexual functioning of the customs officers was unaffected by repeated exposure to the worst pornography.

The study notes: "They are not harmed by deviant thoughts or desires; they are not worried by what they might do sexually; and they appear reasonably satisfied with their present level of sexual activity."

This finding is acutely embarrassing to an agency that bans porn on the grounds that deviant sexual behavior is causally linked to exposure. But those past findings were largely based on lab research or studies of sexual offenders. The Canada Customs project is a rarity -- a real-life investigation of heavily exposed people whose characteristics, the researchers note, do not differ significantly from the general Canadian population.

The research was uncovered by lawyers for Little Sisters, a Vancouver bookstore fighting customs seizure of books as allegedly obscene. And it was pried free through access to information by McMaster University professor David Jones, of the anti-censorship group Electronic Frontier Canada.

Despite all this struggle, there is a comic side to the affair. The authors admit that "the overall lack of ill-effects may be seen as puzzling. However, it is possible to resolve this puzzle."

It turns out that these Canada Customs officers are probably "particularly resilient to the harmful effects of pornography" because of their "more general pro-social disposition."

Similar, no doubt, to canals on Mars and other such scientific self-delusions.

Copyright © 1996 by The Ottawa Citizen. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.