Society

The Porn Paradox

Pornography is everywhere. And despite what some activists say, that might not be a bad thing

BY


Illustration by kulykt
kulykt

At a time when even the most popular television shows and movies are seen by niches of the population, Internet pornography is the one product almost everyone has encountered.

YouPorn, a popular free porn site, is six times bigger than Hulu in terms of data volume. Xvideos, with 4.4 billion page views a month—three times the views of CNN or ESPN—streams fifty gigabytes per second. According to PornHub, the site averaged 1.68 million visits per hour in 2013. Pornography is often described as pollution. But it is too big to be pollution; it is a significant proportion of the Internet, and therefore a significant proportion of human consciousness.

Panic has followed the porn surge. Several countries, notably Iceland and Britain, have taken legislative steps to restrict online pornography. In Britain the issue achieved a rare cross-party consensus: an antiporn initiative asking that Internet service providers include a porn filter on all streaming networks was championed by the Conservative government in July 2013, with the enthusiastic support of Labour. Anti-porn policies have also arrived in America. Republican Senator from Utah, Todd Weiler, was inspired by the work of self-described radical feminist Gail Dines and declared pornography a “public health crisis” last year.

The effect of all this porn should be enormously negative. The old second-wave feminist dictum “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice” is still largely accepted. There were extensive studies into the effect of pornography on individuals during the so-called feminist sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s. In one early study, published in 1984, researchers at the University of Indiana asked 120 undergraduates to watch a series of films. Some sat through standard educational or entertainment material, but others saw short movies that contained “fellatio, cunnilingus, coition, and anal intercourse.” One group saw six porn films a week, for a period of six weeks—a total of almost five hours of sexually explicit material.

After completing this porn marathon, the students were asked to complete several tasks, including reading a newspaper account of a man who raped a female hitchhiker. The students were asked to suggest a suitable sentence for his crime. Men who had seen the mainstream movies wanted to jail the rapist for almost ten years; those who watched the sex scenes suggested a sentence just over half as long. These findings support the suggestion that exposure to large amounts of pornography “trivializes rape through the portrayal of women as hyperpromiscuous and socially irresponsible,” the researchers concluded.

Other researchers interviewed rapists and found that the effects implied by the Indiana study appear to apply to real life. One team, who talked to 341 sex offenders and looked at crime data from the RCMP, found that pornography “added significantly to the prediction of recidivism.” Another group discovered that many sexual offenders had been exposed to hard-core pornography before high school. One rapist, quoted in a collection of men’s stories about sexual violence, told the author that after watching a pornographic film: “That’s when I started having rape fantasies . . . I just went for it, went out and raped.”

These results have been replicated numerous times in the past thirty years, and the arguments for the dangers of pornography have formed into a coherent whole. In her 2012 book, Violence and the Pornographic Imaginary, the sociologist Natalie Purcell provides a summary: “The most disturbing studies on exposure to sexually explicit material suggest that self-reported level of pornography exposure is related to history of rape and propensity to rape.”

Given that the number of men exposed to this imagery, shouldn’t we be terrified? If nearly every boy and man is exposed to violent pornography, and pornography leads to sexual violence, then the flood of pornography should lead to an epidemic of rape and sexual violence.

Except that the opposite happens. As early as 2006 the economist Todd Kendall conducted a state-by-state study comparing Internet access and rape rates. He concluded that “a 10 percentage point increase in Internet access is associated with a decline in reported rape victimization” of around 10 percent. The Kendall study does not directly connect the use of porn with lower rape rates, only Internet access and rape. Internet access doesn’t correspond to any other declining crime rates, however. Also, the decline of the rape rate corresponds exactly to those groups—that is, fifteen-to nineteen-year-olds—for whom Internet pornography represents the greatest leap in ease of access. Kendall suggests pornography is a “substitute” for rape.

Studies conducted before the rise of the Internet found no connection between pornography and rape. In 1991 Berl Kutchinsky of the Institute of Criminal Science at the University of Copenhagen undertook a broad study in the US, Denmark, Sweden, and West Germany during the period 1964–84. The availability of pornography, including violent pornography, in those countries rose dramatically over that time. Yet in none of the countries did rape increase more than nonsexual violent crimes. “This finding in itself would seem sufficient to discard the hypothesis that pornography causes rape,” concluded Kutchinsky.

A team that studied pornography access and sex crimes in Japan found an inverse correlation: “The number and availability of sexually explicit materials increased in Japan over the years 1972–95. At the same time, the incidence of rape declined from 4,677 cases with 5,464 offenders in 1972 to 1,500 cases with 1,160 offenders in 1995.” Pornography had an even more marked effect on juvenile sexual assault rates.

A pornography paradox is emerging: When huge quantities of violent sexual imagery flood human consciousness, real sexual violence either stays the same or declines.

The antipornography crusades are not empirically based attempts to decrease sexual violence against women. They are moral panics. In the past, the same crude fear and self-righteous piety we see today in the attacks against porn manifested in attempts to curb rap music and video games.

The underlying assumption in all these debates has remained simple: representations of violence are violence, and representations of violence lead to violence. Andrea Dworkin, the gender theorist whose explosive work on pornography in the early 1970s began the sex wars, was the first writer to frame pornography as a feminist moral issue: “The major theme of pornography as a genre is male power, its nature, its magnitude, its use, its meaning.”

Her hatred of male power consumed Dworkin, and ultimately consumed the debate around pornography. Her enemies were not in error; they were evil. When one woman set herself on fire in protest against porn, an organizer of the Pornography Resource Center, a Minnesota-based anti-pornography group, compared the situation to self-immolation acts in Vietnam and claimed the act was undertaken in the name of women living “under conditions of political and sexual terrorism.”

The abjection of male desire was by no means the invention of radical feminists on New York street corners in the 1970s. It was a commonplace of medical literature for most of history in the Christian West. The strength and depth of that abjection is visible in the strong resistance the two researchers who founded the Journal of Porn Studies in England has endured. Before a single article had been presented, its potential existence provoked wild fury; Gail Dines, the author of Pornland, described the founders of the journal as “akin to climate change deniers” because of their “pro-porn background.” Antiporn activists fear the moral muddiness that knowledge inevitably brings, as all moralists do.

Research into pornography has so far suffered from several discrete problems, some methodological, some social. Old-fashioned moral prurience stigmatizes it. The technological novelty is confusing. We don’t really know what the Internet is doing to us; how can we know what the combination of sex and the Internet is doing to us? And then Internet pornography itself is in a state of intense flux, changing month by month.

The empirical evidence we do have about pornography is confusing, not just the evidence on violence. For example, it is a truism that pornography corrodes the capacity for sexual and personal intimacy. But a 2010 study comparing the answers of 164 men to the Perceived Interpersonal Closeness Scale and the Background and Pornography Use Information Questionnaire found “no definite link between the self-reported use of pornography and perceived interpersonal closeness.” Instead the study found that “pornography use was not just an escape from intimacy but also an expression of the search for it.”

Even sexual permissiveness, which correlates with greater pornography use, is subject to all kinds of factors besides mere exposure. In a 2013 report self-described liberals grew significantly more sexually permissive after watching porn, while self-described conservatives grew slightly less permissive. The report’s conclusion? “Preexisting beliefs moderate the attitudinal application of activated sexual scripts.” If the effects of watching porn depend on something as vague as the political views of its spectators, what other possible factors might apply?

It only gets more confusing. In one study of teenagers’ use of pornography and its relationship to their sexual development, the researchers could find few correlations of any kind. The porn itself didn’t seem to matter so much as the context of the person consuming the porn. If we are not capable of judging pornography by its effects, then by what standard are we to judge it?

The deeper the research into Internet pornography, the less confident, the more tentative the conclusions become. The political debate is at present a thoughtless return to primordial fear of the brutality of male libido. This fear, and the pseudo-morality that seizes upon it, prevents us from seeing how culture and politics and economics modulate the link, if any, between pornography and sexual violence. Fear prevents us from thinking.

Excerpted from The Unmade Bed by Stephen Marche © 2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Stephen Marche (@StephenMarche) published The Hunger of the Wolf, a novel, in February 2015. The Unmade Bed, his sixth book, is out now.

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