Here's some food for thought for conservative groups demanding restrictions on Internet porn to safeguard the minds of innocent boys (an oxymoron if ever there was one): As it turns out, all those clips on Hustler.com may be protecting womens' safety. A reader tipped us off to Slate columnist Steven E. Landsburg's analysis of how the increase in use and availability of Internet porn has, contrary to popular opinion, contributed to the national decline in reported rapes. As he puts it, "The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments." The results, according to a study by Clemson University professor Todd Kendall, indicate that a 10 percent increase in Internet access yielded around a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes, with states that had greater Internet access seeing the largest and fastest declines.
Still, as Landsburg points out, how do we know the Web use-rape link is connected to porn? Maybe online gaming, sports chat rooms or other male-dominated sites are in fact catching the attention of potential rapists. Kendall responds to this argument by offering murder rates; while the data consistently ties increased Internet use to decreased rapes, no such correlation exists for homicides. "It's hard to see how Wikipedia can deter rape without deterring other violent crimes at the same time," Landsburg noted. "On the other hand, it's easy to imagine how porn might serve as a substitute for rape." Coming as no surprise, the effects are strongest among boys ages 14 to 19, a demographic that Kendall, and common sense, identify as the group that relies most heavily on the Internet for porn access.
True, plenty of arguments remain for placing restrictions on the content and availability of sexual material on the Web. One primary concern, the potential luring and sexual victimization of minors, has hardly lacked for attention these days. Nonetheless, this study points to some pretty strong evidence that freedom to broadcast and access Internet porn, in addition to being protected by the Constitution, can result in tangible benefits for both sexes.
As for psychological studies showing that male subjects are more likely to articulate misogynistic attitudes immediately after viewing pornography, Kendall dismisses the results by pointing out defects in the experiments themselves. As Landsburg delicately rephrases, watching porn in a controlled laboratory setting with teams of researchers looking on is hardly comparable to "the experience of viewing porn on the Internet, in the privacy of one's own room, [which] typically culminates in a slightly messier but far more satisfying experience."