Vol. XXVIII, No. 3
Summer 2016
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Are Juvenile Sexual Risk Assessment Instruments Adequate on Their Own to Assess Risk?
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Preventing Clinician Burnout
A Theoretical Framework for Proscribing Pornography Viewing for Those With Sex Offense Convictions
Online Debate 5: Developing a worldly understanding of sexual offenders and their management
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Sexual Deviance and General Criminality Factors Among Adolescent Sex Offenders
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A Theoretical Framework for Proscribing Pornography Viewing for Those With Sex Offense Convictions
Ronald J. Ricci, Ph.D, C.S.O.T.P.
Cheryl A. Clayton, LCSW, C.S.O.T.P.


Ronald J. Ricci

Cheryl A. Clayton

There is ongoing debate among those working with individuals who have sexually offended about the advisability of pornography viewing.  While some make the case it is a culturally-expected activity for a majority of North American men, others hold that it may lead to over-sexualized urges and aberrant sexual interest and expectations. Complicating the issue further is trying to define what constitutes pornography, a difficult if not impossible task. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that although he could not define pornography, ‘‘he knew it when he saw it’’ (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). Settling on a definition of pornography goes beyond the scope and utility of this article. However, as a working definition, we will be guided by Senn and Radtke’s (1990) definitions. For our purposes we are talking about not only violent pornography which as its name implies depicts acts of sexual violence for the purpose of stimulation, but also non-violent pornography which, though largely devoid of explicit violence,  still has embedded within it themes of submission and power-imbalances, degradation and objectification. This is distinguished from erotic material which we will define as material depicting mutually pleasurable sexual interactions free from any overt or covert signs of coercion, humiliation or power differentials between actors.

Research Regarding Pornography Viewing

Pornography Viewing and Sexual Aggression

There have been a number of meta-analytic studies looking at the relationship between pornography and sexual aggression (Allen, D’Alessio, & Brezgel, 1995; Allen, D’Alessio, & Emmers-Summers, 2000;  Oddone-Paolucci, Genuis, & Violato, 2000). These meta-analyses have generally supported the idea that greater exposure to violent pornography is associated with greater hostility or violence against women. This positive correlation was also found in a meta-analysis of non-experimental studies (Hald, Malamuth, & Yuen, 2010). Exposure to non-violent pornography has revealed a different picture (e.g., Donnerstein & Linz, 1998), particularly when considering effects in naturalistic as opposed to clinical research settings. There is also the ongoing debate about correlations creating spurious conclusions due to the oversight of other risk factors. For example, it is likely that those with hostile attitudes or actions towards females would be more likely to view violent pornography since it fits their world view, thus creating the time-worn “chicken-egg” conundrum. Vega and Malamuth (2007) controlled for hostility and anti-sociality in their study and found that exposure to pornography added significantly to the prediction of sexual violence among high risk males. Even so, the data are again correlational and thus cannot be used to draw causal conclusions.

Studies typically explore associations between pornography and sexually aggressive attitudes, but more recently Wright, Tokunaga, and Kraus (2016) conducted a meta-analysis to address the, perhaps more salient, question: Is pornography consumption correlated with committing actual acts of sexual aggression? For their purposes they used a broader definition of pornography to mean “media featuring nudity and explicit sexual acts designed to arouse the consumer” (p.2) which would likely include what we are referring to as erotic literature. Despite this broader definition, their analysis of twenty-two studies from seven different countries resulted in the conclusions that consumption of pornography was associated with sexual aggression regardless of the gender or age-group of the consumer, the country in which it is consumed, or the medium by which it was conveyed. They found that associations were stronger for verbally sexual aggressive behaviors than for physical sexually aggressive ones, although both were found to be significant.

Consistent with Wright’s findings, following a review of the literature regarding pornography’s influence on antisocial attitudes, sexual arousal, and sexually aggressive behavior in both noncriminal and criminal samples, Kingston, Malamuth, Fedoroff, and Marshall (2009)  found that pornography consumption may facilitate the likelihood of future sexual aggression, particularly among individuals with a predisposition for sexual offending and they recommend treatment strategies and interventions designed to mediate that problem. In contrast, Diamond, Jozifkova and Weiss (2010) took advantage of law changes in the Czech Republic to examine changes in rates of sexual crimes both before and after the legalization of viewing both adult and child pornographies. In the former the researchers found that sex crimes did not increase following the legal inclusion of pornography into their society, and in the latter they found that child sex abuse cases were fewer during the period when child pornography was considered legal. While perhaps interesting when considering the sociological or cultural impact, this does not necessarily apply to individuals with known sex offenses.

Pornography Viewing in Those Convicted of a Sexual Offense

Other research has focused more specifically on the impact of pornography viewing in those convicted of a sex offense. Pornography use, aggressive behavior, and recidivism were examined in 341 adult males convicted of child molestation (Kingston, Fedoroff, Firestone, Curry, & Bradford, 2008). Pornography use was a predictor of aggression when examined together with other risk factors (e.g., hostile masculinity and impersonal sex) for aggression. Carter, Knight, Prentky, Vanderveer, and Boucher (1987) investigated exposure to and use of pornography in a sample of 38 incarcerated rapists and 26 incarcerated child molesters. Those convicted of sexual abuse against a child reported more exposure to explicitly sexual material in adulthood and were significantly more likely to use such materials before (p < .005) and during their offenses (p < .005). Marshall (1988) conducted a comparison study of exposure to and use of “hardcore” sexually explicit material with 15 incest offenders, 51 child molesters, 23 rapists, and 24 non-offenders. Sexual materials were limited to magazines, films, or videotapes found in specialized stores or from illegal and “underground” sources. More than one third of child molesters and rapists reported using this type of pornography in pubescence compared to none of the incest offenders and 21% of the non-offenders. In a study conducted by Marshall (1988) he found that 67% of child molesters and 83% of rapists reported use of violent and non-violent pornography compared to 29% of non-offenders. Approximately one-third of each offender group credited pornography for inciting their offenses, and of those, 53% of the child molesters and 33% of the rapists reported that they deliberately used pornography in their offense planning process.

Pornography Viewing and the Pathways Model

The Pathways Model

Despite evidence supporting a proscription for pornography viewing among individuals under sex-offender supervision, the issue is far from concluded in the research and treatment communities. Rather than joining the debate of pornography effects on recidivism, we hope to offer a theory about the effects pornography consumption may have on the treatment goals of mediating deficiencies or risk factors contained in Ward and Siegert’s (2002) pathways to offending model. In developing the Pathways Model Ward and Siegert (2002) considered three of the most influential theories about underlying causes for sex offending in the extant literature, including the Precondition model of sexual abuse (Finkelhor, 1984); Quadripartite model Hall & Hirschman, 1992); and the Integrated theory (Marshall & Barbaree, 1990). These theories were then combined with psychological concepts to develop the Pathways Model. They believed that clarification of the possible underlying causes to the offending was necessary to assist therapists in developing treatment interventions to address these issues and thus reduce the likelihood of sexual re-offense. The Pathways Model is a comprehensive etiological theory that attempts to explain child sexual abuse by considering dysfunctional mechanisms in four cluster areas: (a) intimacy deficits, (b) emotional dysregulation, (c) distorted sexual scripts, (d) antisocial or criminal attitudes and behaviors, and (e) multiple mechanisms. The dysfunctional mechanisms are theorized to be forged, at least in part, by idiosyncratic developmental influences which create predisposition and vulnerability factors to sexual offending which, when conjoined with situational triggers, result in sexual aggression. For example, an offender encountering a vulnerable other (e.g., woman, child) and who holds antisocial views regarding the rights and boundaries of others may sexually abuse the vulnerable other out of an implicitly held sense of entitlement. An offender who has distorted implicit views about children’s sexuality and children’s rights in relation to adults may satisfy his own disrupted affective state, for example, when rejected by an adult partner, by using a child to do so.

The Interplay Between the Pathways Model and Pornography Viewing

There are four commonly known pathways to sexual offending. Those who have sexually offended may have followed one, two, or even all of these. Within the Pathways Model treatment focuses on exploring and addressing the dynamics that contribute to these pathways, and restructuring or replacing these problematic dynamics with adaptive responses and strategies. We offer the following theory as a brief description of the nexus between the offense pathway and pornography use and the negative impact pornography viewing may have on the stated treatment goals:

Intimacy Deficits:  Many individuals offend in an effort to meet their intimacy and relational needs. The offense becomes a substitute for this basic human need which, in varying degrees, exists and must be met in all humans. Forging relationships with human beings is difficult even for those who have that facility. When hampered by social skill or self-confidence deficits, it becomes even more difficult. Use of pornography relieves the pressure (in the short-term) by substituting real human relatedness with fantasy relatedness, and can temporarily satisfy both sexual and interpersonal needs, albeit ineffectively. Use of pornography to satisfy those needs is what is known as a maladaptive coping skill, and can also be considered a mis-regulated strategy to try to meet those needs. As an example, if a male partner anticipates criticism or judgment by his female sexual partner, he may rely on pornography to fill that relational void. The pornography may be perceived as less difficult and less judgmental than the human partner, and provides opportunity for full control (i.e., when I’m done, or when it gets boring or uncomfortable I can turn it off immediately). By relying on this method to meet his relatedness needs, the offender impedes the motivation to put in the harder work of establishing and maintaining an intimate relationship (including friendships) and further erodes his adaptive interpersonal skills through lack of rehearsal.

Emotional Dysregulation: Many offenders (like many non-offenders) have a difficult time regulating their emotions. They may lack the ability to tolerate frustration, or lack skills to adaptively manage the emotional ups and downs of daily living. While substances is a well-known maladaptive remedy to try to manage this, sex is another maladaptive strategy as it can provide a powerful feel feeling of pleasure, a temporary diversion, a feeling of power, and the perception of quick resolution to problems, among other things. As the individual comes to rely on this maladaptive strategy (of masturbation, casual sex, erotic dancers, pornography use, etc.) he again becomes less likely to learn and practice adaptive coping responses, and similar to the intimacy deficits above, over time, he becomes less and less adept at self-management and self-regulation.

Distorted/Deviant Sexual Scripts: This is the first of the two primary pathways to offending. Viewing pornography and miring oneself in that fantasy world reinforces and normalizes the distorted and unrealistic ideas about sex, self, gender roles, entitlement, etc. Similar to alcohol use, these distortions can be effectively managed by the majority of the population. However, normalizing and even bolstering these distorted beliefs and deviant ideas through pornography viewing tends to work against the difficult work that those who committed a sexual offense have to restructure and/or redefine those offense-supportive views.

Anti-social/Criminal Thinking:  This is the second of the two primary pathways to offending. One foundational belief in criminal thinking is a sense of entitlement. Another is a belief that the world is devised of aggressors and victims, and if a person is not one, then he will be the other. Another foundational belief is that people are objects to be used in order to get what one wants (entitlement). Finally, a belief is that only fools wait, plan and work for what they want (read: low frustration tolerance). Pornography by design uses these themes to promote a fantasy world of desirability, power, accomplishment and adequacy, and easy access to what one wants without effort or frustration. For those who struggle with these beliefs the viewing of pornography reinforces these distorted ideas and normalizes it to a degree that it not only makes restructuring and replacing them more difficult, it removes motivation to do so given the support one feels by the “billions” of pornography users (e.g., “all men watch pornography so it’s normal and non-harmful”).

Finally, the self-regulation model of sex-offending identifies mis-regulated strategies that some offenders who had hoped to avoid sexually offending employed without success. The classic example is the step-father who becomes sexually aroused by his step-daughter, but tells himself that there is no harm in masturbating to thoughts about her as long as she does not know it. He believes he is engaging in a practice which will help him manage his arousal urges and keep him from offending, however what he is likely engaging in is a rehearsal in which he habituates to the idea of sexual contact with her, which over time becomes less repellent, and more desirable to him. Eventually he may begin to (overtly or covertly) set up discussions and situations where he can begin to “test the waters” as he moves ever closer to the offense. The treatment goals for these clients are to replace the mis-regulated strategy they previously employed with regulated and effective strategies to maintain their non-offending goal. Pornography is another common mis-regulated strategy that can easily back-fire.  


Albeit equifinal depending on one’s therapeutic orientation, it is widely accepted that a primary goal of sex offender treatment is to mitigate factors contributing to sexual re-offense. Clients are encouraged to identify, develop and consistently apply adaptive coping skills and means to seek and meet basic human needs. We suggest that pornography viewing interferes with that goal and also with the clients’ ability to mediate deficiencies or risk factors theorized to be pathways to sexual offending. While many argue that since pornography viewing is considered commonplace and non-deviant among the general population, it should likewise be permissible (or even advisable) for individuals who have sexually offended. We have attempted herein to outline a theoretical frame to demonstrate how pornography viewing impedes the healthy development or restructuring of interpersonal intimacy, pro-social sexual scripts, and functional emotional regulation. We also suggest that subscribing to the themes embedded overtly or covertly in most forms of pornography (as defined here) supports or fosters the distorted views typically associated with a criminal pathway to sexual offending. Given the ways in which pornography viewing interferes with the clients’ ability to successfully redress his offense pathway(s), it is our view that supporting clients in avoiding pornography from both a supervision and a treatment standpoint can create a therapeutic space in which motivated clients may make meaningful and lasting change.


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Diamond, M., Jozifkova, E., & Weiss, P. (2010). Pornography and sex crimes in the Czech Republic. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(5), 1037-43. doi: 10.1007/s10508-010-9696-y

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Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A Meta-Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies. Journal of Communication, 66, 183–205. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12201pros


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