So what if Pistorius watched porn?

The paralympian reportedly viewed adult material before shooting his girlfriend -- but porn is no smoking gun

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published February 24, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Oscar Pistorius        (AP/Themba Hadebe)
Oscar Pistorius (AP/Themba Hadebe)

There has been a disturbing development in the case against Oscar Pistorius. A leaked document reportedly claims that the paralympian looked at porn in the hours before girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead. Here’s the disturbing part: The media is treating it as incriminating evidence. Take this headline from the UK’s Mirror: “Oscar Pistorius 'looked at porn in hours before' he shot model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.” Publications from the Daily Mail to the New York Post went with a similar formula: Guy watched porn, then shot girlfriend dead.

Here’s what we actually know: Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a bathroom door. He claims he mistook her for an intruder; and prosecutors allege it was a case of intentional domestic violence. Now, as the Independent reports, “a leaked document believed to be part of the court investigation reportedly alleges the athlete was surfing pornographic material on his mobile while Steenkamp was in the house on Valentine's Day in direct contrast to ‘a loving couple spending their time together.’” (He was also reportedly looking up used cars -- but that didn't make any headlines, did it?) The implication is that porn made him do it -- or that porn-watching is an incriminating character flaw as opposed to a normal part of a great many people’s lives. Can you imagine a headline along the lines of, “Man blew his nose in hours before killing girlfriend”? “Defendant ate breakfast before murder”? “Accused killer had Facebook profile”? "Man clicked on BuzzFeed link on day of crime"?

I am, of course, being hyperbolic here. The truth is that some people do believe that porn is both an expression and a cause of violence against women -- and, to my knowledge, there hasn't been any organized effort to link nose-blowing, breakfast, Facebook or BuzzFeed to homicide. But there isn't any reliable evidence proving that porn incites violence. Sociologist Ronald Weitzer wrote in the journal Violence Against Women, "A comprehensive literature review concluded that research has not demonstrated a link between media images — of any kind — and audience behavior." He added, "At best, media effects are 'weak and affect only a small percentage of viewers'" and "what matters most is whether a person is socially predisposed to act, or 'primed,' in a certain way -- with preexisting views reinforced by or resonating with new stimuli."

Porn is a great many things. For all we know, Pistorius was looking at a sensual, eyes-open lovemaking clip. In these headlines, porn is used as shorthand for "violent, depraved material." But, sure, let's assume that we are talking about violent material. Is it possible that someone with a murderous inclination might seek out a particular kind of marginal pornography? Absolutely. Is it possible that a school-shooter likes gruesome video games? Of course. But different people can use the same media to different ends. Porn is not a smoking gun. The smoking gun is literally the smoking gun. The truth is that this coverage tells us more about ourselves, and our societal views on sexuality, than about Oscar Pistorius.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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Crime Love And Sex Oscar Pistorius Pornography Reeva Steenkamp Sex Violence Against Women