PROVO Men are by far the main consumers in the mammoth worldwide porn industry, but today's college women are surprisingly permissive about pornography, according to a new Brigham Young University study.
The BYU researchers discovered that 49 percent of the female college students they surveyed find pornography acceptable. Only 37 percent of their own fathers agreed.
That information is groundbreaking because it is a subject that hasn't been addressed by family or development journals, said Jeffrey Arnett, editor of the Journal of Adolescent Research, which published the study.
The study of 813 college students at six American colleges and universities BYU was not included is titled "Generation XXX: Pornography Acceptance and Use Among Emerging Adults."
The research found that 86 percent of college men and 31 percent of college women viewed pornographic material in the previous year. Men said they used it far more frequently 48 percent used it at least weekly while 3 percent of women did.
Still, Arnett said, "One-third of female students said they'd used it. That surprised me it was that high."
The key question asked of students and their parents was if they agreed or disagreed that viewing pornography is an acceptable way to express one's sexuality. Lead author Jason Carroll, a BYU family life professor, offered two explanations for high acceptance among college women and men, 67 percent of whom agreed.
"One is that this is a life-course finding," Carroll said, "that we captured them at a high point in time and their acceptance will decrease and they'll be like their parents. The other argument is that because of the proliferation of pornography, this generation has a unique acceptance of pornography different from their parents, and that it will last. I think there is a compelling argument that is the case."
Arnett rarely publishes quantitative, or statistical, studies. He prefers qualitative data based on subjective interviews. He made an exception this time.
"This is a hugely important issue," he said, "given that pornography is so massively popular on the Internet. There are questions about how will it affect people's sexuality and their views of gender roles, and how is that going to affect relationships between men and women. Maybe it will just be a form of entertainment. We just don't know yet."
Arnett and Carroll said BYU's findings raised as many questions as they answered.
Pornography was not a centerpiece of a larger BYU study on emerging adulthood that, as reported last week in the Deseret Morning News, showed college students and their parents no longer see 18-to-25-year-olds as adults. The BYU team regretted not including several more questions on attitudes about pornography.
For example, Carroll said it isn't clear whether college women were saying pornography is more acceptable for women or whether they are growing more permissive about men using it.
The study does indicate, without establishing a causal relationship, that women who are more accepting about pornography appear more prone to risky behavior.
"If they say pornography is an acceptable way to express one's sexuality, they have elevated levels of binge drinking and are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and have multiple partners in the last 12 months," Carroll said. "That's just by being accepting of pornography, let alone using it."
Carroll said the BYU team is involved in a study in Seattle that could yield more information about how pornography affects couple formation and marriages.
"Only 50 percent of women are accepting but 90 percent of men are reporting some level of usage," he said. "We know very little about what happens to pornography patterns during couple formation. Do women become accepting? Are more couples using it together? Do men stop using it when they are in a relationship? Do men keep using but hide it from their spouse? We have no evidence.
"It's an area where there could be some real tension because men's and women's approaches to pornography are so different."
Arnett would like to see researchers do some qualitative work, interviewing subjects personally about when they use pornography, what sort of Web sites they access, if there are some things they don't find acceptable and whether they use it more when they aren't in a sexual relationship.
Pornography is a $13 billion industry in the United States, $100 billion worldwide, according to the study. One-fourth of all Internet searches 68 million per day are for pornography. The United States hosted 244 million adult Web pages in 2006, according to Ogden-based TopTen Reviews.
Those statistics make it clear that researchers need more information about pornography's impact on the development of children, relationships and families, Carroll said.
That is even more true as the next revolution in pornography begins to crest.
"Internet and pay-per-view movies broke down social barriers to pornography use, making it seem more anonymous," he said. "Now we're entering the pocket-porn movement as society becomes more wireless. Parental monitoring used to be about taking care of Internet use at home. Now a group of 16- or 17-year-old boys could go out for the night and as long as one of them has a handheld device with Internet access, they have access to pornography."Parental monitoring becomes impossible, and that puts a high value on helping children improve their ability to self-monitor."