Porn and Rape: The Debate Continues

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The question of whether the rise of Internet pornography has reduced incidents of rape is nothing new, and something we’ve covered before. Back in 2006, Levitt expressed skepticism over research done by one of his former students that suggests a link, writing at the time:

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.

Now comes an article in the current issue of Scientific American Mind, which posits that for “most people, pornography has no negative effects—and it may even deter sexual violence.” The article, titled “The Sunny Side of Smut,” is by Melinda Wenner Moyer, a science writer. Here’s a full version of the piece, via Moyer’s website. Though an interesting read, the article adds no new empirical evidence to the subject, and relies heavily on the data showing that rape decreased faster in states that got the Internet quicker. As Levitt pointed out, that’s not enough to go on. Moyer’s article is more of a tour through a handful of studies (and questionnaires) that look at the effects porn has on our behavior and views toward the opposite sex. Here’s a summary of the article from Scientific American Mind editor Ingrid Wickelgren, who is rightly skeptical:

But Wenner’s story goes beyond saying porn is safe. It suggests that it might actually be beneficial. I am not sure I buy this, but some coincidences worth mentioning back up this view. First, as access to Internet pornography grew in this country, rates of rapes and sexual assault went in the opposite direction. Those stats are at their lowest levels since the 1960s. And something similar happened in Japan, China and Denmark. Along those lines, the U.S. states in which rapes rose by 53 percent had the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and so the least access to Internet porn. States with the most access saw a 27 percent drop in reported rapes. These opposing trends don’t prove anything. It could be that they are unrelated to each other or that a third factor underlies both. But it makes you wonder.

If porn somehow reduces rape, why would that be? Wenner suggests that pornography may be a safe outlet for deviance. Exposure to it correlates with lower levels of sexual repression, experts say. And people seeking treatment in clinics for sex offenders commonly say that it helps them keep their abnormal sexuality in their minds. Otherwise, maybe these folks, and others, might have been contributing to those rape stats. I don’t really know, but that’s the idea.

Relationship-wise, watching porn could have drawbacks. Guys, if you overindulge and advertise it, you are unlikely to score points with your wife or girlfriend. In a study of female partners of heavy porn users, 42 percent said it made them feel insecure; 39 percent said it had a negative impact on their relationship and 32 percent said it negatively affected their lovemaking.

The prolific rise of Internet pornography over the last 15 years certainly represents a change from the past, and has surely had consequences for our behavior and attitudes. Whether we’ll ever have reliable empirical evidence to study its effect on violent sexual crime is unclear. But one thing is sure, it makes for an interesting debate.


Stacy Mc.

I do have an issue with these studies. I don't think this type of correlation is something you can necessarily prove or disprove. Sure, reported rapes might have gone down during the same time period and it could be related or not. But I would think that porn influences personal relationships a lot more often, relationships where someone would be far less likely to report a rape. Porn gives people a skewed view of sex, unrealistic expectations. If someone watches sadistic porn with sexual violence + then acts that fantasy out on their partner thinking it's a normal sexual scenario, chances are that rape is not going to be reported. We already know that the number of reported rapes are far below the number that actually occur. And porn could have more of an influence in unreported vs. reported rapes. When I look at these studies, I see a big gaping hole.

Sean

What about looking at the revenue of porn industry pre-internet era? That might have a stronger correlation with usage of pornography rather than adoption of the internet.

somedood

decreased. with internet sales (and newspapers ect) the reproduction cost is eliminated decreasing the total net income .

There's alot more to consider other than the internet though; 32% of Americans, predominantly the poor, do not have any internet access. Of those who do about 10% only have access through the public library or some other service; where I'd assume porn isn't allowed?

Are only the rich rapists?

Interestingly, Utah until recently had only limited internet access, but dvd sales are at a national high, Utah does not have an exceptionally high rape rate. Even dvd sales across the states can be a poor indication because of the proliferation of piracy over the last few years.
There is an offensively large numbers of sex offenders in Massachusetts, which is often considered a central hub of technology where everyone is online. Unlike Minnesota where strippers have to remain in their underwear, Massachusetts does allow fully nude near contact dancers in strip clubs, but has outlawed those movie booths where homeless people go to relieve themselves..

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Michael

As Clive James put it when commenting on certain porn that was claimed on parliamentary expenses in the UK,

"Porn is what you use to keep your mind off sex."

Seriously, how hard is it to conclude that if there are competing goods and one becomes easier to get for free, people will consume less of the others? Sorry to reduce rape to a good but from one perspective everything is a good. It's just one that thankfully few have a demand for.

Travis

As for other experiments that support this hypothesis, is the youth violence and violent video games another natural experiment that supports the hypothesis, or is it merely independent?

As the argument goes, as games have gotten increasingly more violent, graphic and realistic, the crime rate has dropped sharply. It probably does nothing for the internet / porn - rape hypothesis, other than a parallel example of a similar phenomenon.

tioedong

"good old fashioned" porn (e.g. "Debbie does Dallas") probably does not lead to rape. Heck, it makes my husband horny.

But you know, there is a lot of very vial hate filled stuff out there, and there are a lot of R rated "shasher" movies that associate violence with sex that are a lot more worrisome than Debbie's antics.

The high amount of sexual abuse, coerced sex, and violence reported in this CDC survey of teenagers suggests most cases of sexual assault aren't reported. So maybe the rape data isn't accurate.

http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6007a1.htm?s_cid=ss6007a1_x

L'Heure Bleue

Have you actually watched "Debbie Does Dallas"? I have. The plot revolves around a bunch of underaged schoolgirls who want money for a cheerleading trip and the adult men who coerce them into unwanted sex with promises of money.

There's one scene where a husband and wife catch the teen employee of their store masturbating and ignoring her "no, no, no" PHYSICALLY pull her down and sexually force her.

Porn messed me up big time about sexuality as a child. I don't even want to imagine what today's kids are being deliberately fed by pornographers who hawk pink Playboy merchandise to little girls and take no precautions to keep their product out of children's reach.

somedood

nobody was arguing about the effects of under aged kids watching porn illegally, I'm pretty sure even porn creators don't recommend that

MRB

I think there will always be a fundamental problem in these statistics; mainly that the definition of rape changed radically during the 90's (for example, I believe the idea that a husband could not rape his wife basically died; "date rape" was considered actual rape, etc) and the odds of reporting a rape went way up.