What evidence is there that porn actually causes harm?

Much of the reaction to David Cameron's announcement today that every household in the UK is to have pornography blocked unless they choose to receive it has looked at how 'workable' the policy might be in practice.

Censorship

Much of the reaction to David Cameron’s announcement today that every household in the UK is to have pornography blocked unless they choose to receive it has looked at how ‘workable’ the policy might be in practice.

The assumption that viewing pornography is harmful to the individual – especially violent pornography – has been largely accepted.

Rather than look at whether Cameron’s plans are workable, however, I want instead to look at whether they are supported by the facts.

In other words, what evidence is there to suggest that viewing pornography is harmful?

The main proposals announced by Cameron today are, according to the BBC:

  • anti-porn filters for all new internet customers by the end of the year – with the option of switching them off
  • New laws so videos streamed on the internet in the UK will be subject to the same restrictions as those sold in shops
  • Search engines having until October to introduce further measures to block illegal content
  • Experts from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre being given more powers to examine secretive file-sharing networks
  • A secure database of banned child porn child abuse images gathered by police across the country will be used to trace illegal content and the paedophiles viewing it

The final three points are uncontroversial. Child pornography abuse images are already illegal and anything which aids those who seek out tech-savvy peadophiles sharing illegal images through secret networks should be welcomed. If something is already illegal then it’s really an exercise in effective enforcement.

However, much of the onus behind the headline point – restricting internet pornography unless customers opt-in to receive it – seems to hinge on the idea that pornography is fundamentally harmful, especially to children.

There is very little evidence to support this proposition.

The idea appears to rest on a fairly crude ‘media effects’ interpretation of how picture and film works, not overly dissimilar to the proposition which gained wide currency a decade or so ago which claimed that violent films made people (and especially children) more likely to commit violent acts.

If you’re wondering why that subject is very rarely broached anymore, it’s because of a paucity of evidence to support the claim. In fact, studies have found that viewing violent films can actually reduce real world violence, as the film acts as a pressure cooker-type release for those prone to aggression.

In terms of any correlation between the growth in pornography and the effect that this might have on sexual violence, the graph below (fig3.2) shows that, in terms of occurrences, most sexual offenses appear to be relatively stable or declining – despite a boom in the availability of internet porn during the same period.

Sexual offenses

New research from the US has also found the exact opposite of the claims of the ‘porn is harmful’ lobby. A recent study found that a 10 per cent increase in Net access yielded about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. “States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines,” as Slate journalist Steven E. Landsburg puts it.

The less apparently controversial point is that as a society we need to do something about so-called rape porn.

Again, however, this appears to stem from an aesthetic sense of revulsion rather than from firm evidence.

As pro-sexual liberty campaigner Obscenity Lawyer’s blog has pointed out (HT Vice), many of those calling for a ban on depictions of sexual violence have been unable to show a link between sexual violence and porn (in-depth reviews by Malamuth et al in 2000 and Ferguson & Hartley in 2009 failed to find any meaningful link).

It hardly needs saying that rape is a hideous crime; but there is very little to suggest that people are unable to differentiate between what they see on a screen and reality.

Also, if there really is a case for banning pornographic depictions of rape, wouldn’t it also be necessary to remove depictions of rape from films and TV series? And why stop there? If all non-consensual sexual violence is wrong (which it is), then why should we allow anything that includes depictions of sexual domination, consensual or otherwise?

If the viewer is so unable to differentiate between an on-screen rape and a real one, why would it be any different in the case of other forms of sexual aggression?

Interestingly, the often-cited 2010 Sexualisation of Young People review adopts an openly conservative view of sexuality, blurring the line between objective research and opinion. For example, this is contained in the report’s section on pornography and sexual aggression:

“Researchers point to a number of negative consequences linked to the consumption of such material:
 
“‘Dispositional changes include diminished trust in intimate partners, the abandonment of hopes for sexual exclusivity with partners, evaluation of promiscuity as the natural state, and the apprehension that sexual inactivity constitutes a health risk. Cynical attitudes about love emerge, and superior sexual pleasures are thought attainable without affection toward partners. The institution of marriage is seen as sexually confining. Increasingly, having a family and raising children is considered an unattractive prospect.'”

Now I don’t know about you, but this sounds to me an awful lot more like subjective conservative moralising than objective research.

And herein lies the problem: many of those calling for government to put the lid back on the net’s increasing influence on our sex lives are doing so from a moral position rather than an evidence-based one.

With regard to children accessing internet pornography, if this really is significantly worse than the black market in dirty mags that used to exist at my school and the schools of most of my out-of-school friends, then an opt-in system of internet content regulation may be of some use.

But then again, a system already exists to help ensure children aren’t exposed to things they shouldn’t be: it’s called parenting.

9 Responses to “What evidence is there that porn actually causes harm?”

  1. AdamRamsay

    hmm, this is interesting, but it’s not necessarily the case that’s always made. The complaint I’ve heard more often about porn is about a more general objectification of women, about the perpetuation of sexist understandings, etc. It’s entirely possible to belive that on the one hand, porn doesn’t increase cases of rape or sexual violence, and on the other that it does make the world more sexist.

    The firewall idea scares me – what will the government cencor next, once they’ve worked out how to do it with porn – but I’m not sure this article disproves the case I’ve always heard that porn is damaging.

  2. AdamRamsay

    *censor

  3. rochefoucauld

    Generally an alright article, and thank you for changing the wording around child sex abuse.

    But the last paragraph really sticks in the craw. “Parenting” as a defence against the pressures of modern life is inadequate for many reasons, beyond the bare fact that too many children simply *don’t* have caring, attentive parents. Many parents who are caring and attentive are also fundamentally opposed to sex and relationships education (often for religious reasons), and would prefer their children to remain ignorant, as misguided an aim as that be in the age of the smartphone. Many parents are abusive.

    Of course parents and carers have a huge role to play in preparing children for the world as it is (rather than as we’d like it to be), but to put the entirety of the responsibility on their shoulders is missing the point. There needs to be a system in place for those children who would otherwise fall through the gaps. Comprehensive, compulsory and age-appropriate sex and relationships education in every school – state, private, academy, free – would be an excellent start.

  4. ClaraCluck

    But then again, a system already exists to help ensure children aren’t exposed to things they shouldn’t be: it’s called parenting.

    This ruins an otherwise sensible article. Parenting may well have been sufficient to ensure children weren’t exposed to things they shouldn’t be years back when internet access was, in the main, through a desktop computer in a fixed point in the house, leashed to a dial-up modem. Nowadays, smartphones, tablets and the existence of 3G and WiFi means that parents just cannot monitor what their kids are doing on the internet as closely as they would have once been able to do.

    I suppose the glib answer to that is that perhaps children shouldn’t have smartphones and tablets but that’s just specious reasoning. Does it really need saying tht these devices can be used for many other activities besides accessing porn and so why should kids be deprived of those activities?

    What’s more, not all kids have caring, loving parents so by relying on “parenting” alone to protect children, you are basically waving aside those children.

    This is not an argument in favour of censorship or further controls over porn that would affect consenting adults who want to watch other consenting adults engage in their favourite sexual activities. It’s my view that education is the key. Teaching about relationships and sex needs to start in school from an early age, progressing along gradated, age-appropriate themes throughout compulsory education, to develop young people who are aware of issues like boundaries, consent, mutual consideration and so on so that porn can be placed in its proper perspective: as an aid to fantasy, not a reflection of reality.

  5. oft

    Is porn harmful? Perhaps the question should be “is porn helpful and wholesome?”

  6. Rusty Shackleford

    James,

    You may be interested in keeping an eye on this project on porn consumption: http://pornresearch.org/. They’ve only published preliminary findings thus far, but more results should be in the pipeline.

  7. garry burns

    Personally, if I wasn’t fist deep in porn most of the day, I’d only be out on the streets shooting guns and robbing people.

  8. garry burns

    only if you intend to stop people doing anything if you don’t find it helpful or wholesome!

  9. ABC

    I had originally thought that the change from “child porn” to “child abuse images” was snarky, but I guess not. The law forbids possession etc of “indecent photographs of children”, which do not have to be “child porn” and certainly do not have to be “child abuse images”. Despite what you will hear police PR say with relentless frequency, the majority of convictions of indecent photographs of children are so-called “level 1” images which need not depict sexual activity, or nudity, of any sort. To call all such images “child abuse images” merely plays into the hands of the narcissistic zealots who wish you (and the rest of the public) to think they are doing a far more wonderful job than is generally the case.

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