Would porn incite prison violence?

An inmate sues over a ban on explicit material, but officials say smut causes aggression. We look at the evidence


Tracy Clark-Flory
July 7, 2011 10:35PM (UTC)

A 21-year-old inmate is suing the governor and state of Michigan for depriving him of porn while locked up. This case follows on the heels of a suit last month by the ACLU to force a South Carolina prison to loosen its broad restrictions on reading materials, which was sensationalized in the press as a push for porn in prison, causing officials to explain that smut was a danger to inmates because it would cause aggression and violence.

Is there really evidence that it would, though?

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The short answer is: No, there isn't solid proof that it would. The longer answer is, as Joseph Slade, the author of "Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide," tells me: "No responsible academic researcher claims that evidence supports pornography's causing hostility or violence, principally because of the number of variables involved in constructing studies, the divergent definitions of pornography, and the sometimes unconscious biases of those who look for effects," he said. These studies also focus on the immediate, short-term impact. "That does not mean that there are no effects, just that they cannot be ascertained." That's exactly why in 2007, Sweden's Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing porn in prison: Officials couldn't prove that it would "jeopardize the safety of the institution."

In a piece for the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, researchers Milton Diamond and Ayako Uchiyama pointed out that there is a fundamental problem with assuming that people in the real world function just like the college students in these laboratory experiments: "In real life, individuals can elect to experience some pornography for minutes or hours, at a single session, or over years. In real life, individuals are free to satisfy different sexual urges in ways unavailable to students in classroom situations." (Just to further complicate things, none of these studies specifically look at the effect in prison, which is, clearly, a very unique environment with yet more variables.)

Setting all those serious caveats aside for a minute, a meta-analysis attempted to settle the debate once and for all by surveying the sizable amount of research on the effects of pornography and concluded that viewing "pictorial nudity reduces" -- yes, reduces -- subsequent aggressive behavior. At the same time, though, "consumption of material depicting nonviolent sexual activity increases aggressive behavior," but "media depictions of violent sexual activity generates more aggression than those of nonviolent sexual activity." (Ironically enough, American culture is far more accepting of violent sexual imagery.) But, as Slade writes in his book, "Since the studies they tabulated included many of questionable validity, ludicrous design, bizarre definitions and runaway variables, however, the result is reminiscent of stories in which instructors weight terms papers in order to give an 'A' to the heaviest."

So, as I said, the short answer is that there isn't evidence that porn causes aggression -- and yet prisons continue to ban explicit material on those very grounds. Considering our general disregard for science -- not to mention the fact that prisoners' sexual fantasy lives are not at the top of most people's lists of important world problems -- it's no real surprise.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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