By: Mark Hartwig

Does pornography affect men’s attitudes toward rape? Or is that just hype promoted by uptight Christians?

Science is so esteemed in our culture that it wins arguments and sells products. Pornographers want to use social science to sell their product, too. In order to counter their sales pitch, pro-family activists need to understand what social science actually says about porn.

In the wake of Alfred Kinsey’s famous studies of human sexuality, common wisdom suggested that pornography was a harmless form of sexual entertainment. Far from seeing pornography as a menace, many researchers claimed that it served as a “safety-valve” for potential sex offenders.

One of the most famous advocates of that view is Berl Kutchinsky, a criminologist at the University of Copenhagen. In his now famous study on pornography and sex crimes in Denmark, Kutchinsky found that when the Danish government lifted restrictions on pornography in 1969, the number of sex crimes decreased. His study is still widely cited today.

But Kutchinsky’s methods were deeply flawed. In particular, Kutchinsky failed to distinguish between different kinds of sex crimes, such as rape, indecent exposure, and “peeping.” Instead, he lumped them together, masking an increase in rape statistics. He also failed to note that increased tolerance for certain crimes–such as public nudity and sex with a minor–may have contributed to a drop in reported offenses.

In contrast to Kutchinsky’s claims, other studies paint a much grimmer picture of pornography’s effects–seriously challenging the so-called “safety valve” theory.

For example, in a nationwide study, University of New Hampshire researchers Larry Baron and Murray Straus found a strong statistical link between the circulation rates of pornographic magazines and rape rates. In states where circulation rates were high, they found that rape rates were also high. Conversely, where circulation rates were low, rape rates tended to be low
as well. These findings are hard to reconcile with the idea of pornography as a “safety valve.”

Of course, the Baron and Straus study doesn’t actually prove that pornography causes rape. In the first place, not everyone who uses pornography becomes a rapist. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that rape and pornography consumption are linked only indirectly, and that other factors–like social permissiveness or “macho” attitudes among men–are responsible for the relationship.

Baron and Straus did, in fact, examine some of these factors in their study. In addition to several demographic factors (such as race, percentage of people living in urban areas, percent of people below the poverty line, and so on), they also took into account the status of women in each state. None of these factors could erase the link between pornography consumption and rape rates.

Subsequent studies have had similar results. In fact, Ohio State University researchers Joseph Scott (who testifies frequently for pornographers in court) and Loretta Schwalm looked at even more factors than Baron and Straus, including the circulation rates of non-sexual magazines. Try as they might, Scott and Schwalm could not eliminate the relationship between pornography and rape.

Although these studies can never prove a cause-and-effect relationship between pornography and rape, they are certainly consistent with it–and give us good reason to doubt the “safety-valve” theory.

Adding weight to the idea that pornography causes harm are studies involving sex offenders and their victims. For example, in extensive interviews with sex offenders (rapists, incest offenders and child molesters) William Marshall of Queen’s University in Canada found that a number of offenders used pornography to arouse themselves both prior to and during their assaults. Similar findings were made by Daniel Carter and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons.

Interviews with assault victims echo these studies. Dr. Mimi Silbert is the founder and director of the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, a highly successful rehabilitation center for former criminals. In a study of San Francisco prostitutes, she and Ayala Pines, of Berkeley, made an unexpected and distressing discovery.

As part of their study, Silbert and Pines asked the prostitutes about their experiences as victims of sexual abuse, including both rape and juvenile sexual abuse. Without even being asked, 24 percent of the women who had been raped said that their attacker had specifically mentioned his use of pornography as he raped them. Similarly, 22 percent of those who had been molested as children said that the molester had either used pornography or mentioned its use during the crime.

In both types of offenses, Silbert and Pines found consistent patterns.

“The assailant referred to pornographic materials he had seen or read and then insisted that the victims not only enjoyed the rape but also the extreme violence,” the researchers reported.

Below is an assailant’s typical continent that was reported by victims:

I know all about you…you’re no different; you’re like all of them. I seen it in all the movies. You love being beaten…I just seen it again in that flick. He beat…her while he raped her and she told him she loved it; you know you love it; tell me you love it.

With juvenile sexual abuse, the use of pornography was a little more varied. Sometimes the offenders used it to arouse themselves prior to molesting the child. A few used pornography for persuasion (“Doesn’t that look like something you and I would have a good time doing together?”). Still others used it to justify their actions (“See that expression on her face? That’s exactly how you look at me.”).

As with studies of pornography consumption and rape, research on sex offenders and their victims can never prove that pornography actually causes rape and abuse, and so pornographers continue to claim that pornography is harmless. In this, they resemble the tobacco industry lobbyists, who steadfastly maintain that science has not yet proven that tobacco smoke causes cancer. Both invoke an unreasonable standard of proof to deny the obvious: that their products cause harm.

Even if we leave aside the question of proof, the fact that sex offenders use pornography in their crimes should give everyone cause for alarm. Indeed, if the use of guns by criminals justifies gun control, why shouldn’t the use of pornography by sex offenders justify porn control?

Perhaps the most revealing studies on pornography and harm are the experimental studies. They are specifically designed to detect cause-and-effect relationships. Rather than leaving everything to chance, the researcher directly manipulates the critical factors to see what effect they have. Thus, when studying pornography and its harm, experimenters typically expose normal people to different kinds of material and then try to see what effect it has had.

Well-designed experiments, therefore, are great at ruling out troublesome “third factors,” But they have their limitations, too. Ethically, researchers can’t do certain kinds of studies. Dolf Zillmann, a prominent pornography researcher at the University of Alabama says, “Men cannot be placed at risk of developing sexually violent inclinations by extensive exposure to violent or nonviolent pornography, and women cannot be placed at risk of becoming victims of such inclinations.”

So experiments can’t actually prove that pornography causes rape or other forms of sexual abuse. But they still provide valuable information.

Experimenters have found that pornography-especially violent porn–produces many undesirable effects. Exposure to violent pornography, for example, can lead to increased use of coercion or rape; increased fantasies about rape; increased acceptance of rape myths; desensitization to sexual violence; and trivialization of rape.

Some researchers claim that violence, rather than explicit sex, is the source of harmful effects. However, many of the same effects listed above have been demonstrated with nonviolent pornography.

In one particularly dramatic study, Dolf Zillmann and his colleague, Jennings Bryant, investigated the effects of nonviolent pornography on sexual callousness and the trivialization of rape. After exposing men and women to various amounts of nonviolent pornography (no exposure, “intermediate” exposure, and “massive” exposure), Zillmann and Bryant asked them to recommend a prison sentence for a man convicted of raping a female hitchhiker. They found that people exposed to pornography recommended much shorter sentences than those in the no-exposure group.
Indeed, people in the “massive” exposure group recommended sentences only half as long as those in the no-exposure group. What’s more, this effect showed up for both men and women.

Beyond those effects associated with rape and sexual violence, pornography also has more subtle and insidious effects. In the same study, Zillmann and Bryant discovered that people in the intermediate and massive exposure groups “grossly overestimated” the popularity of unusual sexual practices, such as group sex, sadomasochism and sex with animals. They were also much
less likely to judge pornography as offensive or to recommend restricting its availability, even to minors.

In a later study, Zillmann and Bryant demonstrated that pornography can diminish a person’s sexual happiness. They found that people exposed to nonviolent pornography reported diminished satisfaction with their sexual partner’s physical appearance, affection, curiosity and sexual performance. Those exposed to pornography also were inclined to put more importance on sex without emotional involvement. Zillmann and Bryant suggested that sexual dissatisfaction could “instigate many men and women to seek out conditions that promise more and better sexually gratifying experiences.”

Pornography also affects family values. In still another study, Zillmann and Bryant found that people exposed to pornography are far more likely to accept premarital and extramarital sex. They also tolerate infidelity in their own relationships, view suppressing promiscuity as unhealthy, and devalue the importance of marriage. They were also far less likely to want their own children, especially daughters. These findings should trouble anyone who cherishes traditional family life and understands its role in healthy societies.

Such conclusions from social science research often invite criticism. Following the Attorney General’s Report (see end note 3), many researchers chastised the commission for drawing unwarranted” conclusions from experimental research on pornography. They overlooked the fact that they themselves had drawn similar conclusions before the issue had become so highly charged. They apply a much higher standard of proof than social scientists usually apply in their research. Stewart Page of the University of Windsor in Canada surmises that “the most serious drawback of the cumulative evidence is that it could be taken as support for perspectives and positions advocated by unpopular political groups within the social science and academic communities.”

Pro-family activists should anticipate skepticism, but taken as a whole, there is persuasive data to show the harm of pornography.