LOS ANGELES—A just-released study by researchers from Pennsylvania's Shippensburg State University and Texas Women's University, and Sharon Mitchell, former director of the now-defunct Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, takes a big bite out of the almost universally accepted "damaged goods" theory, which, according to the study's authors, "is not a scientific postulate; rather, it is the public perception that actresses involved in the pornography industry come from desperate backgrounds and are less psychologically healthy compared to typical women." That perception, it turns out, is not just inaccurate; the study suggests the reverse is true.
While this is just the first in what could be a series of examinations that have the potential to reframe people's opinions about the industry, the study—which was based on surveys provided to 177 female performers and a comparison group of non-performers matched by age, ethnicity and marital status—does much to punch holes in tightly held perceptions shared not only by the general public but also by the psychiatric community, despite the fact that, as the authors write, "very little is known about the actual characteristics of porn actresses."
Though the authors cite a number of published "personal reports" on the lives of adult actresses, mostly from the 1990s, they also observe that, "The most extensive study on women in the adult entertainment industry was conducted by Abbott (2000), who interviewed 31 actresses."
That "qualitative investigation," they continue, "examined motivations for becoming a pornography actress and factors associated with staying in the business. The study indicated that the primary reasons for entering the adult entertainment industry included money, fame and glamour, freedom and independence, opportunity and sociability, and being naughty and having sex."
More to the point, while the Abbott study provided "some information on the motivations for beginning and continuing a career as a pornography actress, no issues regarding other characteristics of the women were investigated, and the small sample size restricted generalizations."
It was this dearth of research on a subject too many people thought they understood thoroughly despite having no empirical basis for developing any opinion either way that provoked the current study, which used the aforementioned AIM as a place to conduct "convenience sampling" of bone fide adult performers. Indeed, the authors contend that access to the target population by way of AIM was essential in being able to conduct a viable study in the first place, something that previous researchers had not been able to do as effectively.
"The main obstacle in conducting research on individuals in the adult entertainment industry," the study's authors contend, "has been the extreme difficulty of gaining access to this population.
"A second and related reason," they add, "is that the pornography industry is a fairly closed community. Due to the nature of the work, much of society may consider this group of women to be 'deviants’; thus, porn actresses tend to associate with others in the industry rather than be shunned by those with different views."
Regarding the second obstacle, though the study does not say so directly, utilizing AIM and its staff during the process, in addition to being logistically practical, was no doubt essential in gaining the trust of the performers in order to get them to participate in the first place.
"Arrangements were made with the executive director and chief medical officer of AIM to collect data for four months," wrote the authors. "Participation was strictly on a voluntary basis."
"The comparison group," they added, "was recruited using convenience sampling at university and community (i.e., airport) settings and matched on the basis of age, marital status, and ethnicity. There were 68 (38.4 percent) women recruited from university settings and 109 (61.6 percent) from an airport."
The survey consisted of five sections, the last four of which were open to analysis:
* "The first section of questions included demographic background information (i.e., gender, age, ethnicity, and marital status)."
* "The second section asked 10 questions regarding sexual behaviors and attitudes."
* "The third section consisted of the 10-item Rosenberg (1989) Self-Esteem Scale. Baranik and colleagues (2008) indicated the Rosenberg scale is the most often used measure of self-esteem—and one which has demonstrated sound psychometric properties over a large number of populations for several decades."
* "The fourth section assessed 10 dimensions of quality of life as developed by the World Health Organization, and this instrument has demonstrated strong psychometric properties across a wide range of populations and countries."
* "The fifth section assessed alcohol and drug use. Alcohol use was assessed using the Short Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (SMAST), which has demonstrated strong reliability and validity across a range of samples. Drug use was assessed using the 15-item TCU Drug Screen, which has demonstrated high levels of reliability and validity in both community and correctional settings."
The first categorical evaluation involved sexual behaviors and attitudes, five of which related to behaviors and five to attitudes. In the behavior categories, the first two involved sexual orientation. "There was significant finding for sexual orientation," reported the authors. "Among actresses, 32.9 percent were heterosexual and 67.1 percent were bisexual, whereas among the matched sample, 92.9 percent were heterosexual and 7.1 percent bisexual. Clearly, there were more bisexuals among the porn actresses and more heterosexuals among the comparison group."
The three other behavioral categories included age of first intercourse, total number of lifetime sexual partners and the number of sexual partners during the past 12 months.
"Porn actresses," the study found, "first had sex at an earlier age, had more sexual partners during their lifetime, and had more sexual partners during the past year compared to the matched comparison group. Porn actresses had significantly more sexual partners in their private lives during their lifetimes and in the past year compared to the matched sample."
However, the study also noted, "The data were skewed for sexual partners (both lifetime partners and partners within the past year) across both samples, so medians were calculated, which were 20 and 4 for the actresses and 3 and 1 for the matched sample, respectively. It should be noted that the sexual partners for the porn actresses did not include partners during their work."
The second part of the first category involved attitudes regarding sexuality. Survey questions addressed "the ideal number of prior partners in a long-term romantic partner, concern about contracting an STD, probability someone would contract an STD if not practicing safe sex, enjoyment of sex, and likelihood of using a condom if having heterosexual sex with someone for the first time."
The findings were both expected and surprising. "First," the authors noted, "porn actresses were more permissive by wanting their ideal partner to have more sexual experience compared to the matched sample." Indeed, most did not even bother to offer a numerical answer to the question, preferring responses such as ‘‘Don’t care,’’ ‘‘Whatever,’’ ‘‘Unlimited as long as they are safe,’’ or ‘‘As many as they want."
"Thus," the study continued, "nearly half of the sample did not have a limit on the number of prior sexual partners by a current romantic partner. In contrast, only 11 (6.2 percent) participants in the matched sample provided a response of 10 or greater, and not a single individual provided a response indicating she did not care=unlimited."
Interestingly, the study also found, "Of those participants in both groups who did provide values, they preferred to have partners with less experience than they had."
The higher number of partners made the actresses' responses to questions regarding STDs all the more significant, if not surprising, with the study concluding that "porn actresses were more concerned about contracting an STD compared to the matched sample."
But even taking into account that concern, and perhaps of some surprise to those who believe that porn performers always fake their enjoyment of sex, the third attitude evaluation found that "porn actresses’ ratings of enjoyment of sex were higher than the comparison group. In fact, 119 (69 percent) porn actresses marked a 10 as their enjoyment of sex, and 3 (1.7 percent) responded with a value of 5 or less. In contrast, 58 (32.8 percent) marked a 10, and 21 (11.9 percent) responded with a value of 5 or less in the matched sample."
The self-esteem results of the survey, which have received the most media attention, also garnered the least number of words in the study, which concluded. "There was a significant difference between the groups on self-esteem... with the porn actresses reporting higher self-esteem... compared to the matched sample."
Quality of life
The quality of life category "examined 10 indicators covering physical, psychological, social, environmental, and spiritual aspects of quality of life," including energy, sleep, body image, social support, financial and spirituality. A chart included in the study breaks out the individual data for each niche category, but again, the authors note in brief the overall result, writing, "There were significant differences between the groups on sexual satisfaction, positive feelings, social support, and spirituality. In each case, porn actresses had higher scores than the matched sample."
Drug and alcohol use
This is the one category where preconceived ideas regarding usage are probably more in line with reality, even if the underlying causes are not as clear. "In terms of drug use," the study reports, "porn actresses were more likely to have used 10 of the drugs (i.e., marijuana, hallucinogens, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, other opiates, methamphetamine, tranquilizers, barbiturates, and other sedatives) compared to the matched sample.
"In each significant finding," it continues, "porn actresses were approximately 3 to 9 times more likely to have tried each of the 10 drugs. Drug use across the 15 categories during the past six months was also examined and yielded only one significant difference: marijuana, with porn actresses using more often than the comparison group. Based on the self-reports of drug use, it appears that porn actresses have tried many more different types of drugs compared to the matched sample, although there was only one significant difference related to recent drug use."
Though results of the study left enough questions unanswered to justify further research into the mindset of adult performers, they did answer the main question underlying the original purpose of the research: "to examine the damaged goods hypothesis, which is the general public perception that pornography actresses are victims of CSA, psychologically unhealthy, and use drugs."
Acknowledging that negative views of adult actresses are "widespread," the researchers concluded unequivocally that "the results did not provide support for the damaged goods hypothesis."
But the study also highlights "distinct differences between the groups." For example, "women in pornography were much more likely to identify as bisexual compared to the matched sample."
That said, the authors also noted, "It is not clear if porn actresses who indicated they were bisexual actually identified as bisexual or indicated that they were bisexual because they engaged in bisexual behavior. It may be the case that some performers engaged in bisexual behavior for work and in their private lives, whereas others may have only engaged in bisexual or same-gender sex for work and maintained heterosexual relationships in their private lives." The sexual fluidity of adult actresses, they concluded, is good fodder for future study.
Regarding other results having to do with general attitudes regarding sex, "Pornography actresses also first had sex at an earlier age, had more sexual partners, were more permissive with regard to number of prior partners of an ideal partner, were more concerned about contracting an STD, and liked sex more, compared to the matched sample."
However, the authors also noted that recent general population studies have resulted in numbers much closer to those reported for the adult actresses, including the age of first intercourse. On the other hand, the higher number of lifetime sexual partners for female porn stars holds at least partially firm, with the authors reporting that "on average, porn actresses had more sexual partners in one year than a typical woman has in a lifetime, whereas the distribution of sexual partners reported by the matched comparison during the past year and lifetime was similar to findings from a recent national study."
The authors were less surprised about actresses' attitudes regarding STDs than the general public may be, writing, "It was also found that porn actresses were more concerned about contracting an STD compared to the matched sample. This finding is fairly intuitive because the actresses had many more sexual partners compared to their counterparts. In addition, porn actresses are required to have STD tests every month to legally work as a performer in the pornography industry; thus, they are faced with the reality of contracting an STD and dealing with that possibility more often."
One of the more interesting take-aways from the study involves the issue of child sexual abuse (CSA), which the authors characterize as "one of the most common stereotypes regarding porn actresses." The results, however, did not bear this out, finding instead that there were no significant differences in reported history of CSA between the groups; further, both groups had rates within the range (i.e., 20 percent to 40 percent) of those reported in community surveys, and less than studies on prostitutes that reported CSA rates ranging from 60 percent to 73 percent."
Furthermore, the authors note that one of the industry's more virulent critics, Catharine MacKinnon, in her own 1993 research, "claimed that all pornography actresses were victims of CSA, although she had no empirical data to support her assertion. It is possible, however, that self-reports of individuals regarding CSA in the pornography industry may have been different 20 years ago when MacKinnon offered her opinion."
That said, and despite the fact that, "Based on indications from a single question about CSA, there was no evidence that porn actresses had higher levels of exposure than other women," the authors were hesitant to make definitive conclusions on the subject, stating instead, "As the measure was superficial (or limited), the conclusions are therefore tentative and further research is required."
Regarding psychological health, the study concluded, "Porn actresses were not less psychologically healthy compared to the general public. In fact, the opposite pattern was found, although self-esteem is only one component of psychological health. This finding does not support the beliefs held by the general population found in prior research, which reported that individuals believed porn actresses were less psychologically healthy compared to women not involved in pornography on a composite measure that included self-esteem."
However, they also noted that "the matched sample did not have low self-esteem scores. In fact, the matched sample had self-esteem scores comparable to averages found in other studies, so it was the case that the porn actresses had higher scores than the general population."
They then speculated on the reasons why porn actresses expressed such self-confidence, citing one study that found that "women who were topless at a beach had higher self-esteem than women who were not topless," and finding it "likely that low levels of embarrassment are experienced among porn actresses, and being able to be completely naked in front of others might be associated with an elevated self-esteem.
"Although exhibitionism was not measured," they added, "that may also be a common characteristic of porn actresses. For an exhibitionist, performing in an X-rated film may be associated with an environment where that characteristic is rewarded. Self-esteem has been conceptualized as the extent to which one values, approves, or likes oneself."
Regarding the finding that adult actresses also registered a generally higher quality of life than the matched group, including in areas of "sexual satisfaction, positive feelings, social support, and spirituality," the authors suggested that the "social support difference may be a reflection of the fact that porn actresses are a stigmatized group. As such, they may spend both their professional and personal lives with coworkers, as reported by Abbott (2000), who indicated that the pornography industry is a cohesive group of like-minded people and many actresses consider coworkers to be family." Similar findings of social support have been found with other stigmatized groups, they added, including exotic dancers.
One suggestion by the authors that may yet be controversial makes the connection between sexual satisfaction and spirituality. "This sample of pornography actresses," they write, "reported a high level of sexual satisfaction, which may be related to using pornography as a means to express their sexuality as well as access and opportunity to gain experience. In being able to do so, their sexual expression may be a reflection of their belief system regarding sexuality, and that expression may be related to the elevated positive feelings because they have found an acceptable outlet and supportive environment in which they can do what they like to do."
Whatever the reasons, the study definitively concludes, "Overall, pornography actresses had higher scores on several psychological dimensions and appear to be as healthy as or healthier than the matched sample."
That conclusion may seem to contradict the study's findings on drug use, but there again, the authors take a long view of the behavior, noting that it is unclear both when and why drug use by performers first occurred.
"Interestingly," they state, "examination of recent drug use during the past six months found differences only on marijuana use, so recent drug use between the groups was quite similar. It should be pointed out that all of the actresses were residing in California where medical marijuana was legal during the data collection; thus, it is possible that some actresses were using marijuana legally. Another interpretation of the findings is that porn actresses may be more likely than other women to have sensation-seeking personalities. If this is the case, porn actresses may be prone to indulge in more experimentation during their lifetime, which may include drug use and sexual behaviors. Future work on porn actresses may benefit from examining personality dimensions of these women, particularly sensation-seeking."
The study ends with some notes on its limitations, including the fact that "random sampling was not used in recruiting porn actresses or the matched sample." The authors also are cognizant of the fact that the sample group of porn actresses does not by definition represent all women who perform in adult, which now includes a myriad of individuals here and abroad working part-time or full-time, for themselves as well as for traditional studios, and working both within and without the organized testing regime.
"The characteristics of women who run their own cyberporn sites may be different from actresses who are hired by production companies," they noted. "Thus, the findings from this study should not be extrapolated to all female sex industry performers."
Nevertheless, they conclude, "The characteristics of porn actresses have been largely assumptive, although much debate has surrounded the issue. Perhaps this study can provide some information that can be used to make informed decisions regarding porn actresses, rather than rely on stereotypes from sources lacking empirical data."
With respect to a superfluity of mainstream pontificators on the subject, that would indeed be a refreshing change.
The study is available here.
Photo: Stock image, not a porn actress.