The Naked Truth about Self-Esteem?

About a week ago a curious story began to make the media rounds. Apparently porn stars’ lives aren’t nearly the mess they are often presumed to be. Instead, the news cycle declared, they display greater self-esteem and deeper “spirituality” than the average woman. These were two of the findings from a study published in the Journal of Sex Research, a fair journal in which yours truly has appeared a few times.

I skimmed the actual article, which is interesting. Despite some misgivings with their comparison sample, the science seems OK, although I couldn’t tell from the published article what “spirituality” actually meant or how it was measured. (Something tells me it’s not a measure of church attendance…).

No, what’s wrong is the interpretation of the results as largely constituting good news, which is what the authors did (to an extent) and the media built upon.

But the results themselves reveal plenty of dysfunction. Here are some quotes from the article itself:

…porn actresses were approximately 3 to 9 times more likely to have tried each of…10 drugs.

…porn actresses have tried many more different types of drugs compared to the matched sample.

On average, porn actresses had more sexual partners in one year than a typical woman has in a lifetime. (My note: these are not work-related partners.)

While there may have been “no difference” statistically between porn stars and the comparison sample on their self-reported frequency of “childhood sexual abuse,” the sad stat here is the frequencies themselves: 36% of the former and 29% of the latter said yes when asked if they’d ever experienced such abuse. It’s a higher overall self-report than the 11% cited among 18-39-year-old women in the population-based New Family Structures Study. (NOTE: they posed the question a bit differently than I did, and question wording matters, as does sampling strategy.) But let me get this straight: about 30-35 percent of these women report being abused sexually as children, and the most important story for public consumption is that there is “no difference” between the two samples?

And as for their greater self-esteem…

It is 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.

Huh. Go figure. Who knew that getting naked in front of a camera is all it takes to generate self-esteem among young women? And I thought sexting photos was a bad idea!

Seriously, though, I didn’t interpret the article as telling us good news about porn stars’ lives. And yet that’s what the headlines proclaimed.