Pornography and rape

Everybody and their brother is sending me links to Steven Landsburg’s most recent Slate column that reports on studies by economists that suggest internet porn reduces rape and the release of blockbuster violent movies reduces violence.

While the idea might strike non-economists as crazy, the theory makes sense. When you lower the price of a good that is a substitute for a second good, the quantity of the second good should fall. It is not obvious that internet porn and rape are substitutes (they may very well be the opposite, what economists call complements), but it is not impossible.

I have to confess that Halloween with four young kids (a fairy, a witch, batman, and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz) has been a full time job for the last week. So I haven’t read the academic articles. The paper on porn and rape was actually written by my former student Todd Kendall, now at Clemson. It is not really fair (especially to your former student) to be skeptical without reading the paper, but I have to say I am skeptical of the empirical result. The kind of variation in the data that gives the result is that states that are quicker to adopt the internet saw bigger declines in rape. He then does a nice thing in the paper, going beyond just this one prediction to test other hypotheses, like do crimes other than rape fall with the internet (he says no) and does other sexual behavior change with the internet (he says yes). The concern is always, with this kind of approach, that there are other factors that might be driving both the adoption of the internet and the decline in rape. The challenge to those who want to refute Todd Kendall’s argument is to identify those variables. The challenge for Todd is to find other kinds of “natural experiments” that support his hypothesis.

I suspect there will be no shortage of folks emailing Todd for his data to try to shoot his story down. A blog called 2x3x7 offers some thoughtful criticisms of the analysis.

By the way, Steven Landsburg, one of the kings of bringing economics to a broad audience, has an interesting new book coming out next year. I read an advance copy and enjoyed it.

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COMMENTS: 42


  1. DevineCombien says:

    That’s very interesting. I would have thought that the increase in availability of pornography would increase the problem of rape.

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  2. DevineCombien says:

    That’s very interesting. I would have thought that the increase in availability of pornography would increase the problem of rape.

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  3. Gaijin51 says:

    Take that, Andrea Dworkin.

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  4. Gaijin51 says:

    Take that, Andrea Dworkin.

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  6. None of this is very interesting, even if it is sensational in the non-punctilious way common to the peep show.

    I didn’t take the time to follow the links, as hearing the author of the study was Steven D. Levitt’s student, Todd Kendall, I can only presume the study is skewed to the perspective one holds in relative youth, which drives me to my point:

    If Todd’s statistical assertions are true, and we should for argument’s sake assume they are for he scribed them, what makes them true?

    Is it that satisfaction of some otherwise unsatisfied male libido is being exercised in a different manner that is simply a crutch of sorts, that if ever removed would result in an measurable increase in these crimes, even possibly over and above previous levels?

    We can only wonder, and keep our daughters under closer scrutiny, making the problem even more confounding.

    My wife of thirty-eight years literally moved in with me when she was twenty, and I twenty one. She was an only daughter, and as I now look at pictures of her then, I’m astounded that she looks so young, even shockingly embarrassed. There’s nothing empirical about it, I simply blush looking at these pictures.

    Of course, girls then weren’t all three-hundred pounds and tattoos as they seem to me to be today… But that’s another story.

    And, though it never crossed my mind at the time, nor even for many years after till quite recently in fact, it’s a wonder and a tribute to her father and her three brothers I wasn’t either shot or beaten senseless for her indiscretion…

    Ah, youth… What the hell does anyone need pornography for?

    I’ll never understand it, I hope.

    Don Robertson, The American Philosopher
    Limestone, Maine

    An Illustrated Philosophy Primer for Young Readers
    Precious Life – Empirical Knowledge
    The Grand Unifying Theory & The Theory of Time
    http://www.geocities.com/donaldwrobertson/index.html
    Art Auctions:
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  7. 110phil says:

    I have always thought that pornography would reduce rape. A few years ago in Canada, IIRC, the Supreme Court decided that a pedophile couldn’t be convicted for possessing stories of pedophilia because he wrote them himself. I thought that judgement was a good one for public safety … I always thought I’d rather have the pedophiles at home masturbating than hanging out in the schoolyard.

    Remember that joke about the woman who forces the man to masturbate twice at gunpoint? The punchline is he’s about to go out with her daughter.

    I would be skeptical of any study that went the OTHER way.

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  8. 110phil says:

    I have always thought that pornography would reduce rape. A few years ago in Canada, IIRC, the Supreme Court decided that a pedophile couldn’t be convicted for possessing stories of pedophilia because he wrote them himself. I thought that judgement was a good one for public safety … I always thought I’d rather have the pedophiles at home masturbating than hanging out in the schoolyard.

    Remember that joke about the woman who forces the man to masturbate twice at gunpoint? The punchline is he’s about to go out with her daughter.

    I would be skeptical of any study that went the OTHER way.

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  9. synapticmisfires says:

    To Don Robertson–
    I think your skepticism is a reflection of your manner of thinking about the question. If indeed this study is statistically valid, and I’m not sure it is, it would be because a man can get the same type of satisfaction from rape and masturbation to pornography. They are substitute goods, and therefore when one is easier to obtain relative to the other, it will be used more prevalently than the other.

    As for the study, one reason it could be flawed is that more affluent areas were more likely to adopt the internet, and simultaneously less likely to be a site of rape. Affluence is a lurking variable. It is also possible that areas that first adopted the Internet are a less hostile environment, one were counseling might be available for psychological trauma that makes someone a likely rapist.

    However, I can still believe the conclusion he reached, to an extent. In short I think that porn is a substitute, but an imperfect one. The crime of rape is a crime primarily of violence and not of attraction, so to say that it produces the same satisfaction as porn is likely inaccurate.

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  10. synapticmisfires says:

    To Don Robertson–
    I think your skepticism is a reflection of your manner of thinking about the question. If indeed this study is statistically valid, and I’m not sure it is, it would be because a man can get the same type of satisfaction from rape and masturbation to pornography. They are substitute goods, and therefore when one is easier to obtain relative to the other, it will be used more prevalently than the other.

    As for the study, one reason it could be flawed is that more affluent areas were more likely to adopt the internet, and simultaneously less likely to be a site of rape. Affluence is a lurking variable. It is also possible that areas that first adopted the Internet are a less hostile environment, one were counseling might be available for psychological trauma that makes someone a likely rapist.

    However, I can still believe the conclusion he reached, to an extent. In short I think that porn is a substitute, but an imperfect one. The crime of rape is a crime primarily of violence and not of attraction, so to say that it produces the same satisfaction as porn is likely inaccurate.

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  11. Fever says:

    synapticmisfires:

    I’ve never understood the statement “rape is a crime primarily of violence and not of attraction”? Almost every rape news story I’ve seen involves some scary dude and an attractive female. Regardless, the Slate article should hopefully send another loud message to our Government that the more freedoms we have the better off we all our. It’s one of the reasons I’m a Libertarian.

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  12. Fever says:

    synapticmisfires:

    I’ve never understood the statement “rape is a crime primarily of violence and not of attraction”? Almost every rape news story I’ve seen involves some scary dude and an attractive female. Regardless, the Slate article should hopefully send another loud message to our Government that the more freedoms we have the better off we all our. It’s one of the reasons I’m a Libertarian.

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  13. SteveSailer says:

    I share Dr. Levitt’s skepticism. Dr. Kendall is too young to remember this, but the same reassuring theory that pornography-cuts-crime was popular during the late 1960s and early 1970s when a much more dramatic increase in the availability of pornography happened. Unfortunately, the rape rate shot up as well.

    This is not to say that pornography causes rape, either, just that aspiring freakonomists would benefit from a better knowledge of recent American social and crime history, which would allow them to subject their theories to simple reality checks like this.

    By the way, a 1970s article by America’s greatest social observer, Tom Wolfe, called “The Boiler Room and the Computer,” explained the old Freudian fallacy in Dr. Kendall’s underlying assumption that male libido is like steam that must be periodically released to prevent damaging explosions.

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  14. SteveSailer says:

    I share Dr. Levitt’s skepticism. Dr. Kendall is too young to remember this, but the same reassuring theory that pornography-cuts-crime was popular during the late 1960s and early 1970s when a much more dramatic increase in the availability of pornography happened. Unfortunately, the rape rate shot up as well.

    This is not to say that pornography causes rape, either, just that aspiring freakonomists would benefit from a better knowledge of recent American social and crime history, which would allow them to subject their theories to simple reality checks like this.

    By the way, a 1970s article by America’s greatest social observer, Tom Wolfe, called “The Boiler Room and the Computer,” explained the old Freudian fallacy in Dr. Kendall’s underlying assumption that male libido is like steam that must be periodically released to prevent damaging explosions.

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  15. Gaijin51 says:

    It’s all God’s fault. If God hadn’t given men a libido, there wouldn’t be any rape. Obviously this is not an “intelligent design” made by an infallible deity.
    People are animals. Nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Men can suppress their sexual energies, but they are rowing upstream when they do so. It goes against their animal nature.

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  16. Gaijin51 says:

    It’s all God’s fault. If God hadn’t given men a libido, there wouldn’t be any rape. Obviously this is not an “intelligent design” made by an infallible deity.
    People are animals. Nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Men can suppress their sexual energies, but they are rowing upstream when they do so. It goes against their animal nature.

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  17. dan from california says:

    There was a significant drop in rape and other sex crimes when Denmark legalized pornography more than three decades ago. I believe that there have been follow up studies from several other countries that followed suit and confirmed the trends. This was mainstream porn that was illegal in much of the world at the time. Any sociologists reading the site with access to a good database?

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  18. dan from california says:

    There was a significant drop in rape and other sex crimes when Denmark legalized pornography more than three decades ago. I believe that there have been follow up studies from several other countries that followed suit and confirmed the trends. This was mainstream porn that was illegal in much of the world at the time. Any sociologists reading the site with access to a good database?

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  19. SteveSailer says:

    Yes, the Danish experience was widely touted in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s as justifying pornography becoming more widely available here. Unfortunately, as pornography became hugely more accessible in America, our rape rate shot upwards.

    Americans aren’t Scandinavians.

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  20. SteveSailer says:

    Yes, the Danish experience was widely touted in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s as justifying pornography becoming more widely available here. Unfortunately, as pornography became hugely more accessible in America, our rape rate shot upwards.

    Americans aren’t Scandinavians.

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  21. Loren Pechtel says:

    Basically every other study shows porn reduces rape. We have *ONE* example from the US of porn laws liberalizing and yet rape going up–doesn’t this suggest that there might have been some other factor that caused rape to increase?

    If nothing else, a reduced stigma on reporting it.

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  22. Loren Pechtel says:

    Basically every other study shows porn reduces rape. We have *ONE* example from the US of porn laws liberalizing and yet rape going up–doesn’t this suggest that there might have been some other factor that caused rape to increase?

    If nothing else, a reduced stigma on reporting it.

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  23. Marshall says:

    The questions I would have are mostly centered around the general dip in crime in the nineties and wethor rape is a leading or lagging indicator of crime. The other question I would ask is if Pornography penitration (sorry I couldn’t resist) has been shown to have variable effects when earlier studies were done, the Dutch, the United States, might be we be dealing with a situation where there is absolutly no correlation between pornography availability and rape?

    Other questions, if the data is available, was there a change in rate of sexual activity for males in the normal age that men rape? What was the rate of condom use in those areas? What was the rate of STD’s, could fear of infection be a deterent to rape? What was the makeup, racial, age, class of the victoms and rapists and where there declines for those classes in other violent crime area’s? At the time in the area’s that saw a decrease where their public campaigns to inform college aged men about date rape?

    These are just some questions that popped into my head when I read the article.

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  24. Marshall says:

    The questions I would have are mostly centered around the general dip in crime in the nineties and wethor rape is a leading or lagging indicator of crime. The other question I would ask is if Pornography penitration (sorry I couldn’t resist) has been shown to have variable effects when earlier studies were done, the Dutch, the United States, might be we be dealing with a situation where there is absolutly no correlation between pornography availability and rape?

    Other questions, if the data is available, was there a change in rate of sexual activity for males in the normal age that men rape? What was the rate of condom use in those areas? What was the rate of STD’s, could fear of infection be a deterent to rape? What was the makeup, racial, age, class of the victoms and rapists and where there declines for those classes in other violent crime area’s? At the time in the area’s that saw a decrease where their public campaigns to inform college aged men about date rape?

    These are just some questions that popped into my head when I read the article.

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  25. samtttt says:

    There was a significant drop in rape and other sex crimes when Denmark legalized pornography more than three decades ago.

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  26. samtttt says:

    There was a significant drop in rape and other sex crimes when Denmark legalized pornography more than three decades ago.

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  27. samtttt says:

    I was successful at being able to do it and I sent a transcript to support

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  28. samtttt says:

    I was successful at being able to do it and I sent a transcript to support

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  29. norak says:

    I suppose this means existing child porn needs to be legalized to reduce child molestation.

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  30. norak says:

    I suppose this means existing child porn needs to be legalized to reduce child molestation.

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  31. codswallower says:

    The study overlooks the extent to which pornography is rape.

    If we define rape as sexual activity in the absence of consent, one could argue that economic factors coerce women into pornography and that sex under such coercion is not consensual.

    For this reason the sexual activity in porn has more in common with rape than with consensual sex.

    If we add non-consensual sex engaged in for economic reasons to the statistics of non-consensual sex traditionally considered rape, it’s unlikely any reduction in the rate of rape would be observed.

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  32. codswallower says:

    The study overlooks the extent to which pornography is rape.

    If we define rape as sexual activity in the absence of consent, one could argue that economic factors coerce women into pornography and that sex under such coercion is not consensual.

    For this reason the sexual activity in porn has more in common with rape than with consensual sex.

    If we add non-consensual sex engaged in for economic reasons to the statistics of non-consensual sex traditionally considered rape, it’s unlikely any reduction in the rate of rape would be observed.

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  33. nathhad says:

    “The study overlooks the extent to which pornography is rape … If we add non-consensual sex engaged in for economic reasons to the statistics of non-consensual sex traditionally considered rape, it’s unlikely any reduction in the rate of rape would be observed.”

    Except that would be … well, stupid. You’re not demonstrating an error in statistical reporting so much as your complete lack of understanding of how the porn industry works.

    Believe me, the actresses are there voluntarily. On what assertion? Well, the nature of the industry would automatically tend to weed out any aspiring starlet that was there out of pure “economic coercion,” rather than an honest desire to make a lot of money for having a lot of kinky sex.

    How so? Well, desperate actresses who aren’t into the act make extraordinarily lousy videos. The producers are in business to sell good videos — because if they don’t, their competitors will obviously drive them out of business. Why would they use the desperate girl when they have *so many* willing participants available who will make a better selling video?

    Don’t underestimate how many of your “coerced” porn stars could have completely successful careers elsewhere. The industry has a couple of MENSA members, a few doctors and RN’s, at least one girl who was valedictorian of a class of 800. These people could do anything they want — but simply put prefer to get !@%#ed in front of a video camera. No coercion there.

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  34. nathhad says:

    “The study overlooks the extent to which pornography is rape … If we add non-consensual sex engaged in for economic reasons to the statistics of non-consensual sex traditionally considered rape, it’s unlikely any reduction in the rate of rape would be observed.”

    Except that would be … well, stupid. You’re not demonstrating an error in statistical reporting so much as your complete lack of understanding of how the porn industry works.

    Believe me, the actresses are there voluntarily. On what assertion? Well, the nature of the industry would automatically tend to weed out any aspiring starlet that was there out of pure “economic coercion,” rather than an honest desire to make a lot of money for having a lot of kinky sex.

    How so? Well, desperate actresses who aren’t into the act make extraordinarily lousy videos. The producers are in business to sell good videos — because if they don’t, their competitors will obviously drive them out of business. Why would they use the desperate girl when they have *so many* willing participants available who will make a better selling video?

    Don’t underestimate how many of your “coerced” porn stars could have completely successful careers elsewhere. The industry has a couple of MENSA members, a few doctors and RN’s, at least one girl who was valedictorian of a class of 800. These people could do anything they want — but simply put prefer to get !@%#ed in front of a video camera. No coercion there.

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  35. zatavu says:

    I know it is common since the advent of feminist analysis to associate rape with males attempting to assert power over women, but that does not bear out biologically. Otherwise you have to assume that many animals, ranging from the apes to dolphins, are raping due to interest in power, not sex. Rape is a breeding strategy, pure and simple. Many vertebrates in particular select their mates through various fitness tests — we see the results of sexual selection everywhere, from peacock feathers to the large (for an ape) human penis. Humans do all sorts of interesting things to attract mates: music, songs, poetry, art, becoming rich, developing a quick wit (a sign of intelligence, which is a good feature for children to have), etc. Others try to show themselves to be good fathers and husbands through nurture, etc. But suppose you are not blessed with these kinds of traits? Suppose you’re the kind of man no woman would want to have sex with? Then you are left with the reproductive strategy of rape, for if no one will have sex with you voluntarily, then you will not pass on your genes. For individuals who do not have the kind of sexiness that will get them voluntary mates, the drive develops for rape. This is manifest in a strong desire for sex that overwhelms and overpowers the individual until the rape occurs. This being the case, it makes sense, then, that there can be a substitute in easy access to very hard-core porn, as the desire for sex can (as we all know) be relieved through masturbation. The biological drive is satisfied — and though it may be in a non-reproductive fashion, evolution has not had time to weed out those who do not reproduce because they are busy with the do-it-yourself method.

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  36. zatavu says:

    I know it is common since the advent of feminist analysis to associate rape with males attempting to assert power over women, but that does not bear out biologically. Otherwise you have to assume that many animals, ranging from the apes to dolphins, are raping due to interest in power, not sex. Rape is a breeding strategy, pure and simple. Many vertebrates in particular select their mates through various fitness tests — we see the results of sexual selection everywhere, from peacock feathers to the large (for an ape) human penis. Humans do all sorts of interesting things to attract mates: music, songs, poetry, art, becoming rich, developing a quick wit (a sign of intelligence, which is a good feature for children to have), etc. Others try to show themselves to be good fathers and husbands through nurture, etc. But suppose you are not blessed with these kinds of traits? Suppose you’re the kind of man no woman would want to have sex with? Then you are left with the reproductive strategy of rape, for if no one will have sex with you voluntarily, then you will not pass on your genes. For individuals who do not have the kind of sexiness that will get them voluntary mates, the drive develops for rape. This is manifest in a strong desire for sex that overwhelms and overpowers the individual until the rape occurs. This being the case, it makes sense, then, that there can be a substitute in easy access to very hard-core porn, as the desire for sex can (as we all know) be relieved through masturbation. The biological drive is satisfied — and though it may be in a non-reproductive fashion, evolution has not had time to weed out those who do not reproduce because they are busy with the do-it-yourself method.

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  37. Steve Verdon says:

    I know NOT reading the paper, then commenting is some sort of requirement when posting a comment, but for God’s sake read the f*cking paper.

    As for the study, one reason it could be flawed is that more affluent areas were more likely to adopt the internet, and simultaneously less likely to be a site of rape. Affluence is a lurking variable.

    Sorry, but the author has variables for both income (positive, and significant in its impact on rape), unemployment (positive, but insignificant) and poverty (negative, but insignificant). The variable for human capital stock is also positive, but insignificant.

    This is not to say that pornography causes rape, either, just that aspiring freakonomists would benefit from a better knowledge of recent American social and crime history, which would allow them to subject their theories to simple reality checks like this.

    What reality check? This isn’t a reality check, but speculation based on memory. A reality check would be to extend Kendall’s analysis back to the 1960′s (assuming such data is available) and see if his results still hold. And the comment ignores the multivariable nature of rape and limits it to just the availability of porn.

    I suppose this means existing child porn needs to be legalized to reduce child molestation.

    Don’t be an idiot. Clearly the creation of child pornography involves the assault on a child and should be illegal simply for that reason. Sheesh, I can’t believe I needed to write that.

    If we define rape as sexual activity in the absence of consent, one could argue that economic factors coerce women into pornography and that sex under such coercion is not consensual.

    Yes, and economic necessity “coerces” me into selling myself into temporary slavery for 8 hours a day. We are all slaves now…and Keynesians too. Don’t forget the Keynesians. Christ.

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  38. Steve Verdon says:

    I know NOT reading the paper, then commenting is some sort of requirement when posting a comment, but for God’s sake read the f*cking paper.

    As for the study, one reason it could be flawed is that more affluent areas were more likely to adopt the internet, and simultaneously less likely to be a site of rape. Affluence is a lurking variable.

    Sorry, but the author has variables for both income (positive, and significant in its impact on rape), unemployment (positive, but insignificant) and poverty (negative, but insignificant). The variable for human capital stock is also positive, but insignificant.

    This is not to say that pornography causes rape, either, just that aspiring freakonomists would benefit from a better knowledge of recent American social and crime history, which would allow them to subject their theories to simple reality checks like this.

    What reality check? This isn’t a reality check, but speculation based on memory. A reality check would be to extend Kendall’s analysis back to the 1960′s (assuming such data is available) and see if his results still hold. And the comment ignores the multivariable nature of rape and limits it to just the availability of porn.

    I suppose this means existing child porn needs to be legalized to reduce child molestation.

    Don’t be an idiot. Clearly the creation of child pornography involves the assault on a child and should be illegal simply for that reason. Sheesh, I can’t believe I needed to write that.

    If we define rape as sexual activity in the absence of consent, one could argue that economic factors coerce women into pornography and that sex under such coercion is not consensual.

    Yes, and economic necessity “coerces” me into selling myself into temporary slavery for 8 hours a day. We are all slaves now…and Keynesians too. Don’t forget the Keynesians. Christ.

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  39. C.S. says:

    Quick thought for you – from someone who knows more than I wish I knew about this. HOW MANY RAPES ARE UNREPORTED? I don’t think you can go by the statistics – it may be that more women are being raped than before – but fewer of them are willing or able to turn in their perpetrators. Rape isn’t usually a stranger in a dark alley – it’s more often an acquaintance, and often they’re clever enough to select a young victim, pretend to be harmless, and lure her over time. Once they finally overtake her, in a situation like this, she’s not only ashamed, but she feels somehow as if she was at fault. If she’s in a situation where she can’t bear to be “the girl who was raped” due to fear, shame or confusion, the deal is sealed by her silence, and she becomes unwittingly complicit to more and more abuse. If women could all anonymously disclose the things that have happened to them behind closed doors – during their outwardly normal lives, a lot of people would wake up and understand the realities of the situation.

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  40. C.S. says:

    Quick thought for you – from someone who knows more than I wish I knew about this. HOW MANY RAPES ARE UNREPORTED? I don’t think you can go by the statistics – it may be that more women are being raped than before – but fewer of them are willing or able to turn in their perpetrators. Rape isn’t usually a stranger in a dark alley – it’s more often an acquaintance, and often they’re clever enough to select a young victim, pretend to be harmless, and lure her over time. Once they finally overtake her, in a situation like this, she’s not only ashamed, but she feels somehow as if she was at fault. If she’s in a situation where she can’t bear to be “the girl who was raped” due to fear, shame or confusion, the deal is sealed by her silence, and she becomes unwittingly complicit to more and more abuse. If women could all anonymously disclose the things that have happened to them behind closed doors – during their outwardly normal lives, a lot of people would wake up and understand the realities of the situation.

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  41. Ana says:

    Most often men who rape have access to a wife, girlfriend or could find a female willing to have consentual sex with them yet they choose to force an unwilling female. I doubt that pornography provides any release for the man who rapes.

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  42. Ana says:

    Most often men who rape have access to a wife, girlfriend or could find a female willing to have consentual sex with them yet they choose to force an unwilling female. I doubt that pornography provides any release for the man who rapes.

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