Who could have predicted that when the New York Times broke the story in early October about Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive behavior, it would unleash a tsunami of complaints against some of the world’s most powerful men, many of whom have since been forced to resign?

The list reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood moguls, journalists, artists, celebrity chefs, and sports stars. And it continues to grow, in large part thanks to the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women, from all classes and races, to lodge official complaints against employers who have ignored or tolerated sexually abusive behavior in the workplace. 

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The focus dramatically shifted to Wall Street in the last few weeks when Lauren Bonner, an associate director at Point72, the investment firm run by the billionaire Steven Cohen, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against Cohen and the company.  According to the New Yorker,  “the lawsuit begins with an allegation that the word “pussy” was written on a whiteboard inside the office of Point72’s president, Douglas Haynes, and remained there for several weeks in 2017.”  Female employees claim they felt ashamed and humiliated in meetings, “as the PUSSY Board drifted above them, taunting them with repulsive references to their own bodies.”

#MeToo has forced a warp-speed reckoning of gender relations in the workplace unlike anything we have experienced before. This has left many companies scrambling to consider how to respond – whether to discipline or fire employees, implement regular trainings on sexual harassment, set up more robust codes of conduct and channels for complaints, and, more profoundly, to reassess what constitutes a sexually hostile workplace in a time when sexist jokes, lewd behavior, and inappropriate touching will no longer be tolerated.

For all the thousands of articles being written about these shifts, only the Financial Times of London dedicated a whole article to a key issue: the connection between workplace harassment and the use of pornography at work. The FT article focused on the statistic from Pornhub, the largest free porn website in the world, that almost half of their viewers visit the site between 9am-6pm. It really doesn’t need pointing out that these are typically the hours spent at work, but to make the case, the FT quotes a man who works in ‘the city’, London’s financial center, as saying “I don’t know a single guy who hasn’t looked at porn at work.”

For employers, this finding should be taken very seriously. Not only does viewing porn take time away from work, but it also facilitates a corporate culture that tolerates harassment and abuse of female employees. Most directly, it leaves companies extremely vulnerable to lawsuits. It is also likely to have severe consequences in terms of lower morale and productivity,  reputational risks, impaired recruitment, and higher turnover.  As the FT makes clear, in the age of #MeToo, a discussion has opened up “about the weaponized use of porn as a deliberate tool for creating a hostile work environment, and to harass and degrade employees — predominantly women — at work”.

Anyone who has spent time on Pornhub will know that the term “weaponized” is not an exaggeration. The porn images that predominate the site look nothing like your father’s Playboy. The most cited and respected study on the content of the mainstream porn sites such as Pornhub, found that the majority of scenes contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-hand slapping, and gagging, occurred in over 88% of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression—calling the woman names such as “bitch” or “slut”—were found in 48% of the scenes. The researchers concluded that 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act if both physical and verbal aggression were combined.

We have over forty years of research that shows that the more porn that men consume, the more likely they are to internalize these violent sexual scripts. A recent meta-analysis of 22 studies between 1978 and 2014 from seven different countries concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age. A 2010 meta-analysis of several studies found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women.”

Porn has also been found to have more insidious effects on both men and women that are likely to spill over to the workplace. Studies show that men who use porn are more likely to suffer a number of adverse effects, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and marital disruption. Women whose partners view porn suffer similar consequences.

Employers should not only be concerned about being sued for inappropriate behavior that constitutes sexual harassment or discrimination; the very presence, viewing, or sharing of pornography in the workplace can also be construed as creating a hostile work environment and  unlawful sexual harassment, if it interferes with an employee’s work or creates an uncomfortable atmosphere. Two examples of sexual harassment given by The Balance are the “sharing of sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography or salacious gifs, with co-workers” and “displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace.” Moreover, once an employee has raised objections about porn in the workplace, it is against the law for a company to ignore the problem.

Because most of the trainings about workplace sexual harassment fail to mention the role of porn in exposing businesses to expensive lawsuits and other negative consequences, Culture Reframed has developed a full-day workshop that not only explains the legal ramifications, but also helps employers and employees understand the multiple harms of viewing porn. Additionally, our workshops are aimed at building healthier, more respectful workplace cultures, with positive outcomes for employers, employees, and the bottom line.

Corporations have a unique role to play in limiting the harms of porn on individuals, families, business and society. Courageous and pioneering corporations can be change agents in creating a positive work environment that normalizes gender equality and respect, the two key components that porn use undermines. Not only will companies benefit from a more egalitarian and collaborative work culture, they will also protect themselves from being on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement – and the law.

Dr. Gail Dines is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Wheelock College, and President and CEO of Culture Reframed, a non-profit organization that builds programs to prevent the harms of pornography. She can be contacted at gdines@culturereframed.org

Dr. David L. Levy is Professor of Management in the Business School at University of Massachusetts, and specializes in Business and Ethics. He is also the treasurer of Culture Reframed. He can be contacted at David.levy@umb.edu

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