Stopping rape with smut

The claim that porn is good for society is pretty sketchy, but so are calls for censorship

By Kate Harding
March 10, 2010 1:45AM (UTC)
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Let me get this out there right upfront: I do not want to take your porn away. I am against the exploitation and objectification of women, but I am also against censorship and Puritanical bullshit, and porn tangles all of those issues up in such a way as to make me feel uncharacteristically dispassionate about the whole mess. My official position on porn: Whatever.

So if I saw a compelling argument that porn is good for society, I would probably not go out of my way to nitpick it. But Milton Diamond's article at the Scientist, in which he discusses data that shows more porn is correlated with lower sexual assault rates, is not that argument. "[I]n every region investigated," he writes, "researchers have found that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased ... Surprisingly few studies have linked the availability of porn in any society with antisocial behaviors or sex crimes. Among those studies none have found a causal relationship and very few have even found one positive correlation."


Interesting. And if you've been going around saying that increased availability of porn causes an increase in sex crimes (or at least, that it did through the 1990s; Diamond doesn't cite more recent findings on this subject), maybe you should stop. But speaking of the difference between correlation and causation, isn't it kind of a big leap from that to "More porn equals less rape"?

I mean, I haven't read all of the studies and reports Diamond mentions with regard to this particular matter -- mostly the work of "Berl Kutchinsky, who studied Denmark, Sweden, West Germany, and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s," plus FBI Department of Justice statistics from 1975-1995 -- but I'm guessing it would be awfully hard to control for every other thing that changed in a society over a decade or two. Off the top of my head, for instance, might it not be that increased feminism had something to do with it? Increased rape awareness? Or, I don't know, increased numbers of hourlong crime dramas on TV? Increased use of the word "awesome"? Increased appreciation for Prince's musical genius? A lot was happening back then.


But wait, Diamond also says the rates of pornography use among convicts supports this theory.

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.

Also interesting, especially in light of my distaste for Puritanical bullshit. But while the greater use of porn among nonrapists might theoretically support the argument that more porn equals less rape, doesn't the flipside undermine it? If rapists aren't big porn users anyway, why would we assume that making more X-rated media available would reduce the number of sex crimes? To get from point A to point B, one would have to assume that rapists rape because they don't avail themselves of enough smut -- and that the nonrapists stick to other crimes because they do. And to get there, one would have to assume that rape is about sexual gratification, not control and violence; that men convicted of something other than rape have never committed a sex crime; and that having been raised in a repressive religious household is mostly relevant here because of how it affects one's adult porn consumption -- as opposed to, say, one's attitudes toward women. That's a lot of assuming.

Speaking of attitudes toward women, Diamond writes that "Studies of men who had seen X-rated movies found that they were significantly more tolerant and accepting of women than those men who didn't see those movies." Interesting! Except, in the previous paragraph, he just said "most men have at some time used pornography." So maybe there's something different about men who don't? Like, I don't know, a strict religious upbringing that taught them desire is dangerous and women are evil temptresses? So it's possible those attitudes didn't come directly from the lack of porn?


Ah, but Diamond also assures us that "No researcher or critic has found ... that exposure to pornography -- by any definition -- has had a cause-and-effect relationship towards ill feelings or actions against women. No correlation has even been found between exposure to porn and calloused attitudes toward women." Good news! But really not the point, where anti-porn feminists are concerned. No one's saying that watching skin flicks will make someone consciously think, "Gee, I really dislike women now. I think they should be beaten and raped. And if a researcher asks me, I'll say so proudly." But like any media, porn can have all sorts of more subtle but profound effects on our ideas about how certain groups of people should behave, what they should look like, what makes them worthy of respect or personal freedom, how much power they have and deserve. And although not all porn is necessarily damaging to women in those respects, a whole lot of it really doesn't help. You don't have to be anti-porn or pro-censorship to acknowledge that and give some thought to what it might mean.

So, let me reiterate: I do not want to take your porn away. But not every discussion of hardcore material has to be about that. Diamond wraps his article up with a stirring rant against making porn illegal that I basically agree with -- I just think it has very little to do with the rest of his argument. He hasn't come anywhere near convincing me that porn is good for society because it reduces the number of sex crimes or improves attitudes toward women -- but he didn't need to, if his ultimate point was only that it shouldn't be outlawed. I was already there, dude. It's just, I would be much more into considering the positive effects of porn on society if you showed me some data that indicates actual positive effects of porn on society. As it is, my position remains unchanged. Whatever. 

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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