Porn and Rape: The Debate Continues

Posted on 6 August 2011

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Freakonomics
08/04/2011

The question of whether the rise of Internet pornography has reduced incidents of rape is nothing new, and something we’ve covered before. Back in 2006, Levitt expressed skepticism over research done by one of his former students that suggests a link, writing at the time:

The kind of variation in the data that gives the result is that states that are quicker to adopt the internet saw bigger declines in rape. He then does a nice thing in the paper, going beyond just this one prediction to test other hypotheses, like do crimes other than rape fall with the internet (he says no) and does other sexual behavior change with the internet (he says yes). The concern is always, with this kind of approach, that there are other factors that might be driving both the adoption of the internet and the decline in rape. The challenge to those who want to refute Todd Kendall’s argument is to identify those variables. The challenge for Todd is to find other kinds of “natural experiments” that support his hypothesis.

Now comes an article in the current issue of Scientific American Mind, which posits that for “most people, pornography has no negative effects—and it may even deter sexual violence.” The article, titled “The Sunny Side of Smut,” is by Melinda Wenner Moyer, a science writer. Here’s a full version of the piece, via Moyer’s website. Though an interesting read, the article adds no new empirical evidence to the subject, and relies heavily on the data showing that rape decreased faster in states that got the Internet quicker. As Levitt pointed out, that’s not enough to go on. Moyer’s article is more of a tour through a handful of studies (and questionnaires) that look at the effects porn has on our behavior and views toward the opposite sex. Here’s a summary of the article from Scientific American Mind editor Ingrid Wickelgren, who is rightly skeptical:

But Wenner’s story goes beyond saying porn is safe. It suggests that it might actually be beneficial. I am not sure I buy this, but some coincidences worth mentioning back up this view. First, as access to Internet pornography grew in this country, rates of rapes and sexual assault went in the opposite direction. Those stats are at their lowest levels since the 1960s. And something similar happened in Japan, China and Denmark. Along those lines, the U.S. states in which rapes rose by 53 percent had the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and so the least access to Internet porn. States with the most access saw a 27 percent drop in reported rapes. These opposing trends don’t prove anything. It could be that they are unrelated to each other or that a third factor underlies both. But it makes you wonder.

If porn somehow reduces rape, why would that be? Wenner suggests that pornography may be a safe outlet for deviance. Exposure to it correlates with lower levels of sexual repression, experts say. And people seeking treatment in clinics for sex offenders commonly say that it helps them keep their abnormal sexuality in their minds. Otherwise, maybe these folks, and others, might have been contributing to those rape stats. I don’t really know, but that’s the idea.

Relationship-wise, watching porn could have drawbacks. Guys, if you overindulge and advertise it, you are unlikely to score points with your wife or girlfriend. In a study of female partners of heavy porn users, 42 percent said it made them feel insecure; 39 percent said it had a negative impact on their relationship and 32 percent said it negatively affected their lovemaking.

The prolific rise of Internet pornography over the last 15 years certainly represents a change from the past, and has surely had consequences for our behavior and attitudes. Whether we’ll ever have reliable empirical evidence to study its effect on violent sexual crime is unclear. But one thing is sure, it makes for an interesting debate.

http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/08/04/porn-and-rape-the-debate-continues/