Imagine that I conduced a small study of women who were on a beach one sunny summer day. I split the women into two groups, those who are wearing nothing but string bikini bottoms and those that are wearing one-piece speedos. I tell you that the topless women report feeling more confident, do you then conclude that being topless is good for self-esteem?
I don’t think you do. You would more likely argue that it is having confidence that encourages women to bare-all in public, or that lacking confidence encourages women to stay covered. The same level of judgment needs to be applied to a new study that finds porn actress as having higher self-esteem than other women.
Let’s look at the evidence. Staff at the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM) surveyed a small group of porn actresses when they arrive at the clinic to get the STD certification need to work on a production. University researchers then surveyed an even smaller group of women who are either university students (who participate for credit) or are waiting at an airport.
Neither group meets the standard requirement of being non-random and non-representative needed to generalize the results to their general populations.
A measurement of self-esteem is calculated and finds that on the test the first group of porn actresses score on average 35 (with a standard error of 5.6) and the second group of university students/travellers has an average score of 32 (with a standard error of 5.2).
Can we conclude that the porn actresses have higher self-esteem than women in the general public? Not really. Never mind problems with the sample, the difference in the scores between these two groups of women is so small as to be meaningless.
And, just like my hypothetical beach study, it isn’t even that surprising that women who are working in this industry are more confident than other women. It takes confidence to allow your self to be filmed fully naked, and my guess is that the industry works hard to make these women feel confident so that they can continue to successfully do their jobs.
Universities, on the other hand, do not work hard to make students feel positively about themselves– I suspect that as my own students head into final exams next week they would argue that the system is specially designed to make them feel bad.
For the record, other commentators have reported that the study finds that porn actresses have higher quality of life. But the study does not find that overall result, they only find that porn actress are very slightly more sexually satisfied (an average score of 14.07 (SD 1.88) compared to 13.52 (SD 2.04)), have more positive feeling about life (an average score of 15.38 (SD 2.94) compared to 14.45 (SD 2.87)), and are more spiritual (an average score of 15.60 (SD 3.80) compared to 13.98 (SD 3.88)).
There are many reasons to lament the way this study was conducted, but as an economist I really wonder why the researchers did not ask the women any questions about their material wellbeing – i.e. about their waged income.
Porn actresses are paid significantly more than other women who are working in occupations that require comparable skills. That compensating wage differential is needed to encourage women to enter the industry because being a porn actress has downsides relative to alternative employment opportunities.
If it didn’t have downsides, then many, many more women would do it and wages would fall to same level as those paid in other occupations that do not require formal education.
Is it that hard to imagine that women who are materially better off than they would have been had they not worked as porn actresses report feeling more positively about life than do women who are paid the same (or in the case of students, probably less) as they would be engaging in an alternative activity?