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December 06, 2012 12:10 PM Are Porn Stars Really Healthier and Happier?

By Keith Humphreys

Andrew Sullivan flags a new study in the Journal of Sex Research that reports that women who appear in pornographic films experienced no more child abuse and has higher levels of self-esteem and social support than did a matched sample of women who did not appear in porn. The results have generated good publicity for the adult film industry. I am no expert in the substantive issue at question, but my experience in other areas of research on health issues and corporate industries make me more skeptical than is Sullivan about this study.

In my research area of addiction for example, we have had a number of cases in which scientists who worked for industries that make money from addictions (e.g., the tobacco industry) reported “objective evidence” that their product was not dangerous, to have the findings overturned later by disinterested parties. Likewise, pharmaceutical industry-funded research has in some case overstated the benefits and understated the risks of new medications.

An ethical, careful researcher can of course be employed by or accept grant money from an self-interested industry and try to do an objective study anyway, but all the experience we have in this area indicates that regardless of good intentions, research findings have a tendency to be favourable to whoever funded the research. It’s not typically a crass quid pro quo relationship between researchers and funders, but the usually subtle influence of funding on findings is present enough of the time to make a wise consumer of science cautious.

In the case of the pornography study, one of the authors was affiliated with the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, which had a long term fiduciary relationship with the adult film industry. The same organization helped pay for the research (I could not find this acknowledged in the article, but the lead author so confirmed when asked).

Does this mean the study’s findings are wrong? No. But just as we would not uncritically accept findings that all pornography actresses are abuse victims if one of the authors were a board member of the League to Stamp Out Porn we should be skeptical of the present findings until they are replicated by a disinterested team of researchers.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.