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Correlates of exposure to sexually explicit material among Canadian post-secondary students.

ABSTRACT: The purpose of this study was to investigate variables--beyond those examined traditionally within a harms-based framework--that may be associated with exposure to sexually explicit material (SEM). These variables included: genital self-image, sexual anxiety, sexual esteem, perceived importance of engaging in safer sex practices, and perceived susceptibility of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Participants were 584 (382 female, 202 male) students enrolled in an Introductory Psychology course at a Canadian university. Significant results indicated that exposure to SEM correlated positively with sexual esteem (male and female participants) and with estimated number of sexual partners (females only). As well, for male and female participants, differences in exposure to SEM were noted as a function of sexual status (i.e., virgin/non-virgin), with those who had not experienced vaginal intercourse reporting lower levels of exposure than those who had engaged in this sexual activity. Finally, as predicted, male and female participants' levels of sexual anxiety were inversely correlated with their self-reported exposure to SEM. Such findings underscore the need to move beyond a traditional harms-based framework and, in so doing, formulate models that capture the complexity of the viewer/SEM interchange.

Key words: Pornography Sexuality University students Attitudes Safer sex


An examination of available literature reviews, both narrative and meta-analytic, on the topic of sexually explicit material (SEM) reveals the homogeneous nature of psychological inquiry into SEM (see Allen, Emmers, Gebhardt, & Giery, 1995; Bauserman, 1996; Malamuth, Addison, & Koss, 2000). Specifically, most studies on SEM employ, to varying degrees, a harms-based perspective in which SEM is regarded in pejorative terms and its "effects" are examined within the parameters of how exposure to pornographic imagery influences men's attitudes and behaviours toward women (Ciclitira, 2004).

Research that moves beyond this narrow perspective is warranted for a number of reasons. First, despite "evidence that the production and marketing of erotic materials have been significantly influenced by women" (Smith, 2003, p. 134), a harms-based framework seldom focuses on females as volitional consumers of SEM. Consequently, it has difficulty accounting for research findings in which women express an interest in pornographic material and derive sexual pleasure from the objectification of men. For example, Smith (2003) conducted a small qualitative study focusing on readers of For Women magazine (a sexually explicit publication in the United Kingdom targeting females). One respondent stated:
 [W]hen I look at pictures of naked men, I let
 my mind wander off into a world of fantasy.
 I have never yet found the perfect picture,
 so it may be his strong arms, his smooth
 chest, or his tight ass, that attract me. But I
 will always include his penis.... (Smith,
 2003, p. 135).

It is unclear how the harms-based perspective might account for this woman's view of SEM.

Other research focusing on women as consumers of pornography highlights the need to explore questions beyond those asking what SEM ostensibly does to male viewers. For example, Boynton (1999) reported that female participants' reactions to pornographic ("top-shelf') magazines were "complex and varied" (p. 459). These reactions did not centre upon the anti-pornography rhetoric characteristic of some writing on this topic but, rather, encompassed diverse issues such as body image, censorship, sexuality, and relationships. Conducting semi-structured interviews with a small sample of women from the United Kingdom, Ciclitira (2004) similarly documented complex relationships between participants' attitudes toward SEM and the feminist movement. Finally, Rogala and Tyden (2003) investigated the extent to which young Swedish women believed pornography influenced their own sexual behaviour as well as the sexual behaviour of others. The authors found that women who reported exposure to pornography were significantly more likely than their no exposure counterparts to have engaged in anal sex (50% versus 27%, respectively). In addition, among those reporting exposure to pornography (84.4% of the sample), approximately one-third believed it had affected their sexual behaviour. When asked to particularize the nature of these effects, 65% of the responses were positive or denoted excitement (e.g., "[an] inspiration to [try] new things" and "it makes me feel sexy"). Twenty-seven percent of the responses were negative (e.g., "I feel demands" and "I want my partner to be turned on by me, not by someone on television") and 8% were neutral. When participants were asked to identify how pornography may influence the sexual behaviour of others, this pattern was reversed (i.e., most responses [66%] indicated a negative influence [e.g., "men expect women to behave as in pornography"]). Approximately 23% of responses were positive or denoted excitement, and 11% were neutral. This discrepancy may reflect participants' reluctance to admit being personally susceptible to the negative "effects" of pornography.

Technological innovations, in particular the Internet, which have increased the accessibility of pornography and expanded the heterogeneity of its content, constitute another reason why studies of SEM should move beyond a harms-based framework. Cooper, Boles, Maheu, and Greenfield (2000) report that:
 Since its inception, the Internet has been
 associated with sexuality in a kind of
 synergistic dance, each fuelling the
 transformation of the other. The influence
 of the Internet on sexuality is likely to be so
 significant that it will ultimately be
 recognized as the cause of the next "sexual
 revolution" (p. 519).

Understanding the possible consequences of this "revolution" vis-a-vis the consumers of SEM necessitates exploring questions beyond those examined in most social scientific investigations of pornography.

Finally, there is compelling evidence to suggest that associations between exposure to SEM and viewers' attitudes and behaviours may be far more complicated than the male victimizer/female victim ethos of the harms-based perspective. For example, Beggan and Allison (2003) conducted a qualitative study examining the ways in which a small number of men believed they were influenced by Playboy magazine. For some readers, first-time exposure to Playboy constituted an important rite of passage in terms of sexual development (i.e., pictures in the magazine were associated with sexual feelings and masturbation). The authors also report that Playboy magazine appeared to serve an educative function, providing information about issues such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and rape recovery. In addition, they found respondents' attitudes toward Playboy centrefolds did not appear to be misogynistic but, rather, were complimentary and respectful. In a recent theoretical paper, Strager (2003) provides a more complex view of men's relationship with pornography than that afforded by the harms-based framework. He contends that, given the medium's exaltation of the penis (as is evident, for example, by the fetishizing of penis size and emphasis on the male performer's visible ejaculation on his partner [i.e., "the money shot"]), what the viewer ultimately wishes to see is the presentation of male sexuality. In other words, "pornography highlights the penis; men watch pornography; therefore, men must be watching the penis" (p. 58). The author suggests that, as pornography is a consumer-driven enterprise, if the penis were not of paramount importance (i.e., if male viewers really did not wish to see it), then it would be accorded less visibility in pornographic imagery and text.

The purpose of the current study is to continue in the vein of SEM research that examines issues that fall outside the traditional harms-based framework. Specifically, associations between exposure to pornography and a number of attitudinal and behavioural variables were assessed. The variables in question were: genital self-image, perceived importance of practising safer sex, perceived susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections, sexual anxiety, sexual esteem, and sexual experience. The theoretical rationales underlying the variables' anticipated association with exposure to SEM are provided below.


Social Comparison Theory asserts that individuals compare themselves to others on various dimensions such as physical appearance, opinions, and skills (Irving, 1990). The target to which individuals make comparisons may be inferior (downward comparison), superior (upward comparison), or similar (lateral comparison) on the dimension of interest. Choice of target also depends on the individual, the motive and the context of the comparison (Banaji & Prentice, 1994). Individuals may compare themselves with persons to whom they are in regular, personal contact such as peers and family members (i.e., particularistic targets) or to more distant sources such as celebrities and models (i.e., universalistic targets). As the latter are far removed from the corporeal reality of the average man or woman, the disjunction between this category of target and the individual on the dimension of interest (i.e., physical appearance) tends to be quite large. Indeed, a substantial body of research suggests that comparisons to universalistic targets appearing in mass media are associated with decrements in body satisfaction and self-esteem for both males and females (e.g., Brenner & Cunningham, 1992; McKinley, 1998; Polce-Lynch, Myers, Kliewer, & Kilmartin, 2001; Thornton & Moore, 1993; Tiggemann, 1994).

SEM provides unrealistic depictions of male and female sexuality. Male performers have larger than average penises (and, in many cases, muscular physiques) and female performers usually embody hegemonic standards of attractiveness in Western culture (i.e., they have large breasts, and are thin and youthful). Strager (2003) also reports that, in heterosexual pornography, portrayals of "female pleasure [are] distorted through the lens of male masturba[tory] fantasy: screaming orgasms, cock worship, and nymphomania" (p. 58). The propensity for SEM to depict individuals as preternaturally erect, lubricated, and orgasmic is at odds with the reality of many people's erotic lives; a reality in which neither men nor women truly know how their partner will perform sexually or, indeed, if their sexual "needs" will be fulfilled. Segal (1998) contends that pornography may be viewed as "mock[ing] the impossible distance" (p. 50) between what individuals see and what they do in actuality. If so, exposure to SEM may be inversely associated with positive genital self-image and sexual esteem.


Cognitive Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977) stipulates that individuals are more inclined to imitate the behaviour of others when the models in question are rewarded (or, at least, not punished) for their behaviour (Brown, 2002). Imitation is particularly likely to occur when the model is attractive and the modelled behaviour is "possible, salient, simple, prevalent, and [has] functional value" (Brown, 2002, p. 44). Typically, in heterosexual pornography, performers have sexual encounters that are passionate, uninhibited, and characterized by intense pleasure. Thus, viewers of SEM may be inclined to imitate some of the behaviours they see and, in comparison to their non-viewing counterparts, may be more experienced sexually.

In heterosexual pornography, the importance of safer sex is de-emphasized. Thomas (2000) reports that, it was "only in 1998 [that] the straight [porn] industry began to consider condom usage instead of relying on periodic HIV testing" (p. 57, emphasis ours). At present, there are no requirements in the heterosexual pornography industry for performers to practice safer sex. Since the performers depicted in SEM appear to evidence little concern about contracting STIs, viewers may regard safer sex as less salient to their own erotic undertakings. The fact that performers are generally attractive and appear healthy may further encourage some viewers to minimize the importance of safer sex practices. Therefore, exposure to pornography may be associated with decrements in perceived susceptibility to STIs, as well as the perceived need to engage in safer sex.


Bogaert (2001) contends that people, on the basis of personality characteristics and individual difference variables, play an active role in selecting the environments to which they are exposed. This process of self-selection includes choice of media. Specifically, Bogaert (2001) found that, among the undergraduate male participants in his study, those evidencing lower levels of intelligence and higher levels of antisocial tendencies (characterized by variables such as Machiavellianism, hypermasculinity, and attraction to sexual aggression) were more likely to select for preview a sexually violent pornographic film in a bogus film pre-testing session. Similarly, Lawrence and Herold (1988) reported a negative correlation between sexual conservatism and self-reported exposure to pornography. Given such research, it would appear that sexual anxiety and exposure to SEM may be inversely associated.


Drawing on previous research as well as the theoretical frameworks discussed, the following hypotheses were generated:

H1: Self-reported exposure to SEM will correlate negatively with genital self-image.

H2: Self-reported exposure to SEM will correlate negatively with self-esteem as well as sexual esteem.

H3: Self-reported exposure to SEM will be associated with greater sexual experience and more frequent sexual activity.

H4: Self-reported exposure to SEM will correlate negatively with perceptions of risk in terms of contracting a sexually transmitted infection as well as the perceived importance of engaging in safer sex practices.

H5: Self-reported exposure to SEM will correlate negatively with sexual anxiety.

Due to the exploratory nature of this study, sex differences vis-a-vis these five hypotheses were not formalized.



A convenience sample of 382 female (65.4%) and 202 male (34.6%) university students (N = 584) enrolled in an Introductory Psychology course at a Canadian university served as participants. The ages of male participants ranged from 17 to 42 (M = 19.8, SD = 3.1), and the ages of female participants ranged from 17 to 43 (M = 19.0, SD = 2.5). With respect to previous sexual experience, 66.8% (n = 135) of male and 63.8% (n = 241) of female participants reported having engaged in vaginal intercourse. The percentages of male and female participants who reported engaging in vaginal intercourse within the last four weeks were 41.5% (n = 83) and 45.9% (n = 174) respectively. Smaller percentages of male and female participants reported having engaged in anal intercourse: 16.4% (n = 33) and 14.6% (n = 55), respectively. Finally, 4.0% (n = 8) of male and 5.3% (n = 20) of female participants reported engaging in anal intercourse within four weeks prior to completing the questionnaire.


Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material (SEM). Four items were used to determine frequency of exposure to various forms of sexually explicit material: "The number of times I have watched television programmes that show one or more females and/or males engaging in oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex is" (television variable); "The number of times I have watched DVDs/videos that show one or more females and/or males engaging in oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex is" (video/DVD variable); "The number of times I have intentionally accessed visual material on the Internet that shows one or more females and/or males naked is" (Internet 1 variable); and "The number of times I have intentionally accessed visual material on the Internet that shows one or more females and/ or males engaging in oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex is" (Internet 2 variable). For each item, the timeframe in question was the past six months. A nine-point scale was used (0, 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36+ times), with the frequency categories being assigned numeric values of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, respectively. As each indicant of pornography exposure (television/DVD and the Internet) contained two items, the possible range of scores was 2 to 18, with higher scores indicating greater levels of exposure.

Female Genital Image Scale (FGIS). Using Winter's (1989) Male Genital Image Scale (MGIS) as a template, we developed a 12-item measure designed to assess women's perceptions of various aspects of their genitals (e.g., shape, size, and attractiveness). The FGIS uses a 5-point Likert-type response format (1 = very dissatisfied; 5 = very satisfied), with higher scores representing greater satisfaction with one's genitals (possible range 12 to 60). This scale was shown to possess satisfactory psychometric properties.

Male Genital Image Scale (MGIS; Winter, 1989). This scale measures how men perceive various aspects of their genitals (e.g., length, circumference, and appearance) and contains 14 items. The MGIS uses a 5-point Likert-type response format, ranging from 1 = very dissatisfied to 5 = very satisfied. Higher scores denote more favourable genital self-image (possible range 14 to 70). Winter (1989) documented the measure's validity and scale score reliability.

Safer Sex Practices (Yzer, Fisher, Bakker, Siero, & Misovich, 1998). Four items assessed whether participants believed it was important to practice safer sex. Items were scored on a 5 point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree), with total scores ranging from 4 to 20. Sample items include "If you know a person's sexual history and lifestyle, it is unnecessary to use condoms" and "You only need to use condoms during one-night stands." In the current study, higher scores indicate a lower level of perceived need to engage in safer sex. Yzer et al. (1998) demonstrate that the five-item version of this measure possesses adequate psychometric properties. It should be noted that, originally, this five-item version was used in the current study. However, reliability analysis indicated that removing one item ("I try not to think about getting infected with HIV") produced substantial increases in reliability for males and females. Thus, this item was not included in the computation of total scores and the testing of relevant hypotheses.

Self-Esteem Scale (SES; Rosenberg, 1965). The SES measures an individual's level of global self-esteem. It contains 10 items (e.g., "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself') and uses a four-point Likert-type response format (1 = strongly disagree; 4 = strongly agree). Scores can range from 10 to 40, with higher scores indicating greater levels of self-esteem. Rosenberg's (1965) measure has been used extensively by social scientists and possesses excellent psychometric properties (e.g., Boroughs & Thompson, 2002; Durkin & Paxton, 2002).

Sexual Anxiety Inventory (SAI; Janda & O'Grady, 1980). The 25-item SAI measures the level of anxiety an individual may feel in a number of sexual situations that deviate from social norms. A sample item is: "When I awake from sexual dreams ... (a) I feel pleasant and relaxed or (b) I feel tense." Participants are instructed to select the most appropriate option, with the anxiety-related response receiving a score of one, and the other choice receiving a score of zero. Total scores on the SAI can range from 0 to 25, with higher scores denoting greater levels of sexual anxiety. Research by Janda and O'Grady (1980) suggests that the SAI possesses satisfactory psychometric properties.

Sexual Esteem Scale (SES; Snell & Papini, 1989). Sexual esteem may be defined as "the value one places on oneself as a sexual being, including sexual identity and perceptions of sexual acceptability" (Mayers, Heller, & Heller, 2003, p. 270). The SES contains 10 items (e.g., "I am a good sexual partner") and, in the current study, uses a 6-point Likert-type response format (0 = not applicable; 5 = very often). Five items are reverse keyed to avoid response bias, with higher scores indicating greater sexual esteem (possible range 0 to 50). Snell and Papini (1989) provide evidence of the scale's reliability and validity.

Sexual Experience (Rothman, Kelly, Weinstein, & O'Leary, 1999). Participants were asked to respond yes or no to the following: "Have you engaged in vaginal intercourse?" "Have you engaged in anal intercourse?" "Have you engaged in vaginal intercourse in the last 4 weeks?" and "Have you engaged in anal intercourse in the last 4 weeks?" Rothman et al. (1999) used these questions to determine a respondent's sexual status and experience (i.e., virgin or non-virgin; currently sexually active or currently sexually inactive).

Susceptibility of Contracting Sexually Transmitted Infections (Rothman et al., 1999; Yzer et al., 1998). Three items were used to examine participants' likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted infection over the next two years in terms of their: (1) perceptions of susceptibility (1 = extremely likely; 7 = extremely unlikely); (2) number of different sexual partners (1 = very few; 7 = very many); and (3) frequency of condom use (1 = very rarely; 7 = very often). Participants were instructed to mark an X along a continuum of 7 segments for each item. These items were modified slightly from those provided by Rothman et al. (1999) and Yzer et al. (1998). However, their findings indicate that such measures are valid indicators of safer sex behaviour.


Approximately two thirds of the respondents were given the questionnaire during a scheduled mass testing session taking place during class-time. The remaining one third of respondents received the questionnaire in small groups consisting of approximately 5 to 10 students per session. All participants received a standardized set of instructions in which they were informed that: (a) participation in the study was strictly voluntary; (b) the information they provided would be completely anonymous and confidential; and (c) they had the right to omit any items they wished or to withdraw from the study at any time without penalty or consequence. Given the sensitive and personal nature of the information collected in this study, additional precautions were taken to safeguard participants' anonymity. Participants responded on a separate booklet, rather than on the questionnaire itself. The top sheet of this answer booklet was covered with plain white paper so participants could prevent their answers from being viewed by others. Additionally, this answer booklet consisted of only the question numbers and the appropriate rating scales corresponding to the administered questionnaire. The questionnaire took approximately 30 to 45 minutes to complete. After submitting it, respondents were provided with debriefing sheets that stated the purpose, goals, and expectations of the study along with contact information for student support services should the respondent wish to discuss any issues that might have been triggered as a result of his or her involvement. Upon receipt of the debriefing information, respondents were thanked for their time, and given their participation credit.


Prior to testing the study's hypotheses, factor analysis was used to determine the appropriateness of creating a composite index of exposure to SEM. For both male and female data sets, the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of sampling adequacy exceeded .50 (Kinnear & Gray, 1995) and Bartlett's Test of Sphericity was significant. The results of these tests suggest that the data may be factor analyzed. Principal axis factoring with oblique rotation (i.e., oblimin) was used. For both male and female participants, the Internet items had their highest structure coefficients on the first factor, whereas the two television items had their highest structure coefficients on the second factor. For males, the two eigenvalues were 2.21 and 1.28 (accounting for 55% and 32% of the variance, respectively). For females, the two eigenvalues were 2.43 and 1.04 (accounting for 60.8% and 25.9% of the variance). The correlations between the two factors also suggest that they are best represented as related, yet distinct (rs = .29 [males] and .47 [females]). Thus, for all hypotheses, the television/DVD and Internet indicators of SEM were not combined into a single scale but, rather, examined separately.

Means, standard deviations, the actual range of scores, and alpha coefficients, where appropriate, are provided for all measures in Table 1.

Alpha coefficients were satisfactory (range = .74 to .95). Inspection of mean scores suggests that participants possessed high levels of self-esteem, moderate levels of sexual esteem, and fairly low levels of sexual anxiety. They also evinced low levels of exposure to SEM (both television/DVD as well as the Internet). In terms of genital self-image, male participants reported fairly positive attitudes toward their genitalia, whereas females' attitudes appeared to be more neutral (i.e., their mean score fell slightly above the scale mid-point suggesting they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with various aspects of their genitals). Mean scores on the measures assessing safer sex revealed that both male and female participants saw a strong need to practice safer sex, believed they were fairly unlikely to contract HIV, reported engaging in vaginal and/or anal intercourse with a modest number of partners, and were somewhat likely to use condoms.


To identify possible gender differences, a series of independent-samples t-tests were conducted on the variables listed in Table 1. Due to the number of comparisons made, a conservative probability value was used to denote statistical significance (.05/11 = .004). Results suggested that male participants evidenced greater levels of exposure to SEM available on television/DVDs, t (304) = 27.65, p < .001, d = 3.17, as well as the Internet, t (219.4) = 18.10, p < .001, d = 2.44. Males also reported lower levels of sexual anxiety, t (446) = -6.34, p < .001, d = -.58, less need to engage in safer sex practices, t (576) = 5.01, p < .001, d = .42, and higher levels of esteem, both sexual, t (513.7) = 5.15,p < .001, d = .45, and global, t (580) = 3.13, p < .003, d = .26. Male participants also reported having vaginal and/ or anal intercourse with a greater number of partners, t (244.02) = 2.81, p < .005, d = .36. It should be noted, however, that the probability value for this finding slightly exceeded the conservative cut-off of p = .004.

To permit male/female comparisons in genital self-image, total scores on the FGIS and the MGIS were divided by the total number of items in each scale (12 and 14 items, respectively). Thus, scores were standardized, ranging from 1 to 5, with higher scores denoting greater satisfaction. Mean scores for males and females were, in order, 3.59 (SD = .60) and 3.30 (SD = .59), which represented a statistically significant difference, t (440) = 5.12, p < .001, d = .49.


Differences also were observed as a function of sexual status (i.e., virgin/non-virgin). Again, due to the number of comparisons made, a conservative probability value was used (.05/9 = .006). Those reporting no experience with intercourse evidenced less favourable perceptions of their genitals, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 3.2, SD = .52 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 3.5, SD = .62, t (344.8) = 6.14, p < .001, d = .66; lower levels of exposure to SEM on television/DVDs, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 4.5, SD = 2.5 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 5.9, SD = 3.5, t (532.7) = 5.60, p < .001, d = .49; higher levels of sexual anxiety, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 13.5, SD = 4.5 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 9.4, SD = 3.7, t (213.8) = -9.3, p < .001, d = -1.27; and lower levels of sexual esteem, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 30.4, SD = 5.1 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 31.6, SD = 5.1, t (576) = 2.83, p < .005, d = .24. Participants classified as virgins also placed greater emphasis on the importance of practising safer sex, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 7.2, SD = 3.2 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 8.6, SD = 3.4, t (572) = 4.77, p < .001, d = .40.


Potential interactions between sex (male/female) and sexual status (virgin/non-virgin) were investigated. For sexual esteem, the main effects of sex and sexual status were qualified by an interaction between the two variables, F (1, 561) = 33.38, p < .001, d = .49. Inspection of the relevant cells revealed that the difference in sexual esteem between male virgins and male non-virgins (difference = 14.1) was substantially smaller than the difference in sexual esteem between female virgins and female non-virgins (difference = 23.4). However, this difference is largely attributable to the fact that female virgins were more likely than their male counterparts to select "not-applicable" to items on the measure of sexual esteem (21.4% versus 1.5%). No other interactions were identified.


In accordance with Social Comparison Theory, it was predicted that exposure to SEM would be inversely associated with genital self-image, self-esteem, and sexual esteem. For male participants, one statistically significant correlation and one trend correlation were observed. Specifically, exposure to SEM on television/DVDs correlated positively with sexual esteem (r = .20, p < .005) and genital self-image (r = .13, p < .07). It should be noted that both, admittedly modest, associations are contrary to what was predicted using Social Comparison Theory. Separate correlation coefficients also were computed for male participants as a function of sexual status. For non-virgins, self-esteem correlated positively with exposure to pornography on the Internet (r = .21, p < .02) and television/DVDs (r = .16, p < .08). For virgins, sexual esteem correlated positively with exposure to SEM on the Internet (r = .27, p < .04) only.

Similar associations were tested for female participants. Again, contrary to what was predicted, sexual esteem correlated positively with level of exposure to SEM on television/DVDs (r = .23, p < .001) and the Internet (r = .18, p < .001). No other associations were significant nor were there other suggested trends. For female non-virgins, exposure to SEM on television/DVDs correlated positively with sexual esteem (r = .14, p < .04). For virgins, a similar correlation was observed between SEM and sexual esteem; however, this time the medium in question was the Internet (r = .18, p < .04).


As predicted by Cognitive Social Learning Theory, it was anticipated that exposure to SEM would be associated with greater sexual experience (defined in terms of sexual status [i.e., virgin/non-virgin] and, for non-virgins, estimated number of sexual partners), lesser perceived susceptibility to contracting sexually transmitted infections, and lesser emphasis on the importance of practising safer sex.

Independent samples t-tests revealed that males who had not engaged in vaginal intercourse reported lower levels of exposure to SEM on television/DVDs than non-virgins, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 5.2, SD = 3.0 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 7.1, SD = 4.0, t (169.8) = 3.67, p < .001, d = .56. No difference between virgins and non-virgins was noted for exposure to Internet pornography, t (197) = -.29, p = ns. As well, no differences in level of SEM exposure (television/DVD or Internet) were found as a function of whether male participants had or had not engaged in anal intercourse, t (198) = .89 and t (197) = -. 19 (for television/DVD and Internet, respectively). In terms of current sexual activity, those reporting having engaged in vaginal intercourse within the past four weeks did not evidence higher levels of SEM exposure, t (197) = 1.53 (television/ DVD) and t (196) = -.58 (Internet). As only eight male participants reported having engaged in anal intercourse within this time frame, their data could not be analysed statistically. The degree to which male participants saw engaging in safer sex as important (as determined by scores on the 4-item safer sex measure) did not correlate significantly with exposure to SEM on television/DVD (r = .08) or the Internet (r =. 13). As well, no significant correlations emerged when male participants were divided into groups on the basis of their sexual status (i.e., virgin/ non-virgin).

Female participants who reported never having engaged in vaginal intercourse evidenced lower levels of exposure to SEM on television/DVD, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 4.1, SD = 2.1 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 5.2, SD = 2.9, t (350.1) = 4.25, p < .001, d = .45, and the Internet, [M.sub.VIRGIN] = 2.4, SD = 1.1 and [M.sub.NON-VIRGIN] = 2.9, SD = 2.1, t (371.0) = 3.43, p < .001, d = .36. Similarly, those reporting no experience with anal intercourse had significantly lower scores on the measures of SEM exposure, television/DVD: [M.sub.NO ANAL] = 4.7, SD = 2.6 and [M.sub.ANAL] = 5.5, SD = 3.0, t (376) = 2.08, p < .05, d = .21; Internet: [M.sub.NO ANAL] = 2.6, SD = 1.7 and [M.sub.ANAL] = 3.3, SD = 2.3, t (64.9) = 2.07, p < .05, d = .51. Female participants who reported engaging in vaginal intercourse within the four weeks preceding the study also evidenced higher levels of exposure than their less "active" counterparts, television/DVD: [M.sub.ACTIVE] = 5.3, SD = 3.1 and [M.sub.LESS ACTIVE] = 4.4, SD = 2.2, t (310.8) = 3.40, p < .001, d = .39; Internet: [M.sub.ACTIVE] = 3.0, SD = 2.3 and [M.sub.LESS ACTIVE] = 2.4, SD = 1.1, t (240.5) = 3.09, p < .003, d = .40. Females engaging in recent anal intercourse also evidenced higher levels of exposure, television/DVD: [M.sub.ACTIVE] = 6.3, SD = 3.3 and [M.sub.LESS ACTIVE] = 4.7, SD = 2.6; Internet: [M.sub.ACTIVE] = 3.8, SD = 2.4 and [M.sub.LESS ACTIVE] = 2.7, SD = 1.8. However, due to the small number of individuals falling into the "active" (n = 20) category in comparison to the "inactive" one (n = 359), inferential statistics were not computed. Finally, scores on the measure assessing perceived importance of practising safer sex did not correlate significantly with exposure to SEM on television/DVD (r = .08) or the Internet (r = -.06). When female participants were divided into groups on the basis of sexual status (i.e., virgin/non-virgin), one trend correlation was observed for non-virgins; specifically, as exposure to SEM on the Internet increased so, too, did the perceived importance of practising safer sex (r = -. 12, p < .07).

To test possible associations between exposure to SEM and estimated number of sexual partners, perceived susceptibility to contracting a sexually transmitted infection, and perceived importance of condom use, only those who reported engaging in vaginal and/or anal intercourse were used.

For male non-virgins, no significant correlations were observed. For female non-virgins, estimated number of sexual partners (on a 7-point scale ranging from very few to very many) correlated positively with self-reported exposure to SEM on television/DVDs (r = .23, p < .001) and the Internet (r = .16 p < .001). No other significant or trend correlations were obtained.


In accordance with the self-selection perspective on environmental exposure (i.e., people choose to expose themselves to media that are congruent with their placement on various individual difference variables), an inverse association was predicted between sexual anxiety and exposure to SEM. For males, this prediction was confirmed for SEM on television/DVDs (r = -.21, p < .01), but not on the Internet (r = -.13, p = ns). Recalculating the correlations for virgins and non-virgins revealed that this association was restricted to the latter group: television/DVD and sexual anxiety, r = -.21, p < .02; Internet and sexual anxiety, r = -.17, p < .06. For male virgins, sexual anxiety and exposure to SEM in either format were not correlated significantly (rs = .07 and -.11, respectively). Female participants also evidenced a modest inverse correlation between sexual anxiety and exposure to SEM on television/ DVDs (r= -.14, p < .03) and the Internet (r = -.19, p < .01). When divided on the basis of sexual status, non-virgins evidenced a trend correlation between sexual anxiety and exposure to SEM on the Internet (r = -.14, p < .06). For female virgins, a similar negative, albeit statistically significant, correlation was noted (r = -.22, p < .05).


To investigate the possibility of non-linear associations between exposure to SEM and the variables examined in this study, scores on the television/DVD and Internet indicators were trichotomized for male participants. (Due to low levels of variability, a similar analysis could not be done with the female sample.) A series of one-way ANOVAs were conducted (followed by Tukey's post-hoc test, where appropriate). Due to the number of comparisons made, a conservative probability value was used (p = .005). None of the differences obtained met this probability value, suggesting that the linear associations identified by the correlation analyses are appropriate.


Bogaert's (2001) model of environmental self-regulation may account for the discrepant findings observed for predictions tested using Social Comparison and Cognitive Social Learning theories. Specifically, it is possible that those who are more comfortable with their sexuality choose "pornographic environments" because these are "best suited to them and/or are congruent with their dispositions or personalities" (Bogaert, 2001, p. 30).

To determine the feasibility of this interpretation, sexual esteem, sexual anxiety, and genital self-image were subjected to a principal components analysis (PCA). The Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of sampling adequacy exceeded .50 (Kinnear & Gray, 1995) and Bartlett's Test of Sphericity was significant suggesting that the data were suitable for PCA. One component solutions were obtained for males (eigenvalue = 1.72, accounting for 57% of the variance) and females (eigenvalue = 1.84, accounting for 61% of the variance). The directions of the loading values suggested that the best interpretation of each component was that it reflected more favourable sexual beliefs and feelings (i.e., sexual esteem and genital self-image loaded positively whereas sex anxiety loaded negatively). Thus, higher component scores represented more positivity. Correlations between component scores and SEM exposure revealed that, for male participants, a significant positive association was obtained between the component score and exposure to SEM on television/DVDs (r = .22, p < .001). No significant correlation was observed for Internet exposure. For females, component scores correlated positively with both measures of exposure (television/DVD, r = .19, p < .01; Internet, r = .17, p < .01). Given the absence of an experimental framework, one can not determine the direction of causality (i.e., does pornography exposure produce increments in the cluster of characteristics identified by the component or do individuals possessing this constellation of "sexual traits" gravitate toward pornography?). It should be noted, however, that the findings are in accordance with Bogaert's (2001) claim that individuals possessing certain characteristics seek out compatible media.


The results of this study revealed modest correlations between exposure to SEM (television/DVDs and the Internet) and both sexual esteem and sexual anxiety. As well, significant differences in exposure to pornography were found as a function of participants' sexual status (i.e., virgin/non-virgin) and, for female participants, their current level of sexual activity. Examining these findings within the parameters of Social Comparison Theory and Cognitive Social Learning Theory provides little support for the former and mixed support for the latter. In accordance with these frameworks, it was presumed that exposure to SEM presents viewers with a sexual fantasyland--one that depicts attractive men and women engaging in unrealistic and consequence-free sexual activity. Presumably, such exposure would be associated with decrements in sexual esteem, genital self-image, the perceived importance of practising safer sex, and perceived susceptibility to contracting a sexually transmitted infection.

None of the hypotheses generated by Social Comparison Theory were supported. With the exception of sexual esteem, exposure to SEM did not correlate significantly with key variables such as genital self-image. However, it is important to note that, in the current study, the constituent parts of social comparison--namely, awareness and internalization (see Heinberg, Thompson, & Stormer, 1995)--were not analysed separately. When applied to the realm of SEM, awareness may be conceptualized as recognition of the norms, sexual and physical, promulgated by pornography. As discussed earlier, these norms would include issues of bodily representation (e.g., penis size--Brod, 1988) and sexual performance (e.g., heightened sexual responsiveness in women--Strager, 2003). Internalization goes a step beyond simple awareness, and represents the degree to which individuals cognitively embrace the norms promoted by SEM. Research suggests that internalization may possess greater predictive validity than awareness. For example, in two studies investigating body dissatisfaction and sociocultural standards of appearance, Heinberg et al. (1995) and Cusumano and Thompson (2001) found that females' level of internalization, but not their level of awareness, significantly predicted scores on the body dissatisfaction subscale of the Eating Disorders Inventory. Thus, rather than assuming that exposure to pornographic imagery is synonymous with awareness and, to some degree, internalization, it might have been advantageous to create questions that measured explicitly both aspects of the comparison process.

However, while separating these elements would permit one to determine whether participants internalizing the norms of SEM evidence more significant associations than those who are merely aware of them, it would not account for the positive correlation observed between sexual esteem and exposure. In accordance with research on body image and media, one would anticipate that individuals internalizing the norms of SEM would evidence lower levels of sexual esteem; however, in the current study, the obverse was noted.

The hypotheses tested in accordance with Cognitive Social Learning Theory were more likely to be confirmed. As predicted, individuals classified as non-virgins evidenced greater exposure to SEM than did their virgin counterparts. For females, differences in current sexual activity also varied as a function of SEM exposure, with those stating they had engaged in vaginal or anal intercourse within the four-week period preceding the study evidencing greater levels of exposure. For the safer sex measures, no significant findings were obtained.

Bogaert's (2001) contention that, in accordance with individual difference characteristics, people play an active role in selecting environments in which they will be most comfortable was tested vis-a-vis the association between sexual anxiety and exposure to SEM. As predicted, individuals evidencing higher levels of sexual anxiety reported lower levels of exposure to pornography. Supplementary analyses also revealed that male and female participants possessing more positive sexual beliefs and feelings, as identified by lower levels of sexual anxiety and higher levels of sexual and genital esteem, reported greater levels of exposure to SEM (television/DVD for males and both television/DVD and Internet for females). This model of environmental self-regulation provides a parsimonious explanation for the associations observed in this study and also accounts for the discrepancies noted using Social Comparison and Cognitive Social Learning theories. It is recommended this model be tested in future research examining exposure to SEM. The associations among individual difference variables, self-regulation, and voluntary versus involuntary exposure to pornography also warrant investigation.

There are a number of limitations to the current study that should be mentioned. First, participants were university students; not members of the general population. Thus, it is unknown whether similar associations between exposure to SEM and sexual esteem, for example, would be evident among men and women who do not attend a post-secondary institution.

Second, research suggests that volunteers for sexological studies may differ from non-volunteers on dimensions such as sensation-seeking, self-monitoring, sexual esteem, and antisocial nonconformity (e.g., Bogaert, 1996; Wiederman, 1999). Therefore, the applicability of these findings to individuals who did not feel comfortable volunteering for a study on SEM is unclear.

Third, research suggests that individuals may be less prone to tell the truth when asked to complete measures focusing on sexual behaviours (e.g., number of lifetime sexual partners--see Brink, 1995). While a cover sheet was used emphasizing the anonymity and confidentiality of participants' responses, and stressing that the value of the study was contingent upon participants' willingness to "answer each question as honestly as possible," there is no assurance that participants provided accurate information on key variables such as sexual esteem, level of exposure to SEM, and genital self-image. Meston, Heiman, Trapnell, and Paulhus (1998) found that scores on the impression management subscale of the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding-6 (BIDR-6) correlated negatively with scores on a number of sexuality measures including sexual liberalism, unrestricted sexual behaviour, and unrestricted sexual attitudes and fantasies. Future research on the correlates of exposure to SEM would benefit by using the BIDR-6 and comparing findings between those high versus low in impression management.

Fourth, the current study examined intentional exposure to pornography. Given the ubiquity of this sort of imagery on the Internet, accidental exposure warrants study. For example, future research might investigate how individuals who ordinarily avoid SEM react when confronted involuntarily to pornographic imagery/text on the Internet (e.g., "popup" advertisements or email spam).

Fifth, as the study is correlational in nature, causal inferences can not be drawn. It would be erroneous to conclude, on the basis of these findings, that exposure to SEM necessarily causes increments or decrements in the variables measured. Further, given the study's non-experimental status and the need to select measures parsimoniously, it is possible (indeed likely) that key variables were overlooked; variables that may account for the modest correlations obtained. For example, in the current study, exposure to SEM and sexual esteem correlated positively for both male and female participants. However, research suggests that sexual esteem correlates with a number of individual difference variables including depression, sex guilt, and sexual awareness (Snell, Fisher, & Schuh, 1992). As none of these variables were measured in the current study, their level of influence on the SEM/sexual esteem association that was documented herein is unknown. Similarly, research suggests that individuals' religiosity may influence a wide-range of sexual behaviours and attitudes including the likelihood of participating in penetrative sex, general conservative attitudes toward sexuality, use of Internet pornography, and sexual comfort (e.g., Lefkowitz, Gillen, Shearer, & Boone, 2004; Leiblum, Wiegel, & Brickle, 2003; Stack, Wasserman, & Kern, 2004). The degree to which this variable would strengthen or weaken the SEM/ sexual esteem correlation reported in the current study is unknown. Other variables that warrant consideration include ethnicity (Leiblum et al., 2003) and erotophobia-erotophilia (i.e., "the disposition to respond to sexual cues along a negative-positive dimension of affect and evaluation," Fisher, Byrne, White, & Kelley, 1988, p. 124). To better address the "third variable" problem, it is recommended that researchers measure key antecedents and consequences of SEM exposure, as determined by experimental and non-experimental studies. Structural equation modelling then could be used to test the linkages particularized among this constellation of variables. While caveats concerning causal inferences would remain, the "third variable" problem would serve as a less compelling critique of any significant associations observed for exposure to SEM.

In conclusion, the results of this study suggest that self-reported exposure to pornographic imagery on television/DVD and/or the Internet is not associated with the types of "harm" predicted by the theories of Social Comparison and Cognitive Social Learning. Such findings underscore the need to move beyond a harms-based discourse, and to promote a more multifaceted dialogue about SEM.
Table 1 Descriptive Statistics for Measures (N = 582)

Measure M (SD) Actual Alpha

Exposure to SEM -- TV/DVD
 Males 6.4 (3.8) 2 - 18 .58 (1)
 Females 4.8 (2.7) 2 - 17 .61 (1)
Exposure to SEM -- Internet
 Males 10.1 (5.6) 2 - 18 .92 (1)
 Females 2.7 (1.8) 2 - 18 .85 (1)

Genital Self-image
 Males 50.3 (8.4) 27 - 70 .92
 Females 39.4 (7.1) 12 - 60 .92

Safer Sex Practices
 Males 9.1 (3.3) 4 - 19 .74
 Females 7.6 (3.3) 4 - 20 .83

 Males 32.1 (4.9) 18 - 40 .87
 Females 30.7 (5.2) 14 - 40 .90

Sexual Anxiety
 Males 9.1 (4.0) 1 - 22 .78
 Females 11.7 (4.3) 3 - 25 .80

Sexual Esteem
 Males 32.6 (10.4) 0 - 50 .88
 Females 27.2 (14.4) 0 - 50 .95

STI Contraction -- Self (2)
 Likelihood of contraction
 Males 4.8 (2.3) 1 - 7 -- (3)
 Females 4.9 (2.4) 1 - 7

Number of sexual partners
 Males 2.7 (1.7) 1 - 7 --
 Females 2.2 (1.5) 1 - 7

Frequency of condom use
 Males 4.9 (2.2) 1 - 7 --
 Females 4.5 (2.4) 1 - 7

Note: (1) As the SEM exposure measures consisted of two
items, computation of Cronbach's alpha was inappropriate.
Correlation coefficients were calculated to ensure combining
the items was suitable. Correlations ranged from .58 to.92,
suggesting that the television/DVD items and the Internet
items could be summed and treated as scales.

(2) Data are for non-virgin participants only.

(3) Alpha was not computed for the STI contraction measures
as they consisted of single items.


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Todd G. Morrison

Department of Psychology

National University of Ireland

Galway, Ireland

Anomi Bearden

Department of Psychology

University of Victoria

Victoria, B.C.

Rebecca Harriman and Melanie A. Morrison

Department of Psychology

University of Saskatchewan

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Shannon R. Ellis

Department of Psychology

University of Saskatchewan

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Todd G. Morrison, PhD, Department of Psychology, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland. E-mail:
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Author:Morrison, Todd G.; Bearden, Anomi; Harriman, Rebecca; Morrison, Melanie A.; Ellis, Shannon R.
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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