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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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