Pornography and violence: what does the evidence show?

Is there a link between the availability of pornography in a society and sex crimes like rape? And does watching more pornography lead men to see women as mere sex-objects?

It’s a debate that’s bounced back and forth for decades. Both sides have plausible explanations as to how their claims can be true.

Perhaps, after watching pornography, men are more likely to feel agressive and commit sex crimes. If the increased availability of pornography over the last thirty years has led to more rapes and sexual assaults, surely there’s a good case for our society being more censorious.

Or maybe porn can act as a safety valve, making it easier for men to get sexual release in their own homes and actually reducing sex crime.

Until now, there have been occasional studies but no systematic review of the evidence.

But a study from the University of Hawaii has looked at a variety of different studies in different countries and concluded that

the data reported and reviewed suggests that the thesis [that more pornography leads to more sex crime] is myth and, if anything, there is an inverse causal relationship between an increase in pornography and sex crimes.

It also found no evidence that viewing pornography leads to a more negative attitude towards women.

Are rapists more likely to have viewed pornography?

As The Scientist comments in its write-up of the paper

Michael Goldstein and Harold Kant found that rapists were more likely than nonrapists in the prison population to have been punished for looking at pornography while a youngster, while other research has shown that incarcerated nonrapists had seen more pornography, and seen it at an earlier age, than rapists. What does correlate highly with sex offense is a strict, repressive religious upbringing. Richard Green too has reported that both rapists and child molesters use less pornography than a control group of “normal” males.

Even if we accept this evidence (and, of course, it’s open to challenge and may be flawed), there are still many reasons why we might want to restrict or ban some types of pornography.

For example, it may be entirely appropriate for a society to put limits on the sorts of pornography it’s willing to accept, or on who has access to it.  We might also want to restrict it in public if, regardless of the effect it has on its consumers, it made others feel uncomfortable or vulnerable.

But perhaps, on the important issues of whether pornography causes sex crimes and whether it leads to men having worse attitudes towards women, it’s time to stop debating from entrenched political positions and start looking at the evidence.

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4 Comments

  • “Until now, there have been occasional studies but no systematic review of the evidence.”

    This is simply not true. Whilst I agree with your push for evidence-based policy, there are at least two evidence reviews (can’t remember the titles – sorry) out there and plenty more papers for reading.

    Jennifer Saul’s (Uni. of Sheffield) 2003 paper (link to abstract below) is the best paper to read on the topic in my view – though it is not a review, it seems – sensibly to me – to end up perhaps calling for a context-of-viewing / health-warning approach to the problems.

    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/120092296/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

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