Porn and Rape

Anyone who has had the misfortune of arguing with a sex-negative radical feminist about anything that could tangetially be related to porn, rape, or sex, will know about all the shoddy studies purporting to prove a positive link between porn consumption and rape. Avedon Carol has done a tremendous job at refuting the main ones, but then again PZ has refuted many anti-evolution arguments and yet their supporters still promulgate them.

Now, adding to a body of studies that look at porn and rape but fail to find a positive correlation, Undernews reports a new study showing a negative correlation.

The incidence of rape in the United States has declined 85% in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. The Nixon and Reagan Commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials produced social violence. The reverse may be true: that pornography has reduced social violence. . . The decline [is] steeper than the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. . . There were 2.7 rapes for every 1,000 people in 1980; by 2004, the same survey found the rate had decreased to 0.4 per 1000 people. . .

(…)

National trends are one thing; what do the figures for the states show? From data compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 2001, the four states with the lowest per capita access to the internet were Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, and West Virginia. The four states with the highest internet access were Alaska, Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington. . .

While the nationwide incidence of rape was showing a drastic decline, the incidence of rape in the four states having the least access to the internet showed an actual increase in rape over the same time period. This result was almost too clear and convincing, so to check it I compiled figures for the four states having the most access to the internet. Three out of four of these states showed declines (in New Jersey, an almost 50% decline). Alaska was an anomaly: it increased both in internet access and incidence of rape. However, the population of Alaska is less than one-tenth that of the other three states in its category.

Ann Bartow says that this study is shoddy for a variety of reasons, not including the two that, judging by what Undernews posted, are the most damning. The main problem with her criticism is that she uses the wrong set of statistics, namely the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which details reported sexual assaults. Since only about 40% of all rapes in the US are reported, and this rate has been trending up, the UCR is worthless. The study actually uses the National Crime Victimization Survey, which blunts most of Ann’s criticisms.

That said, from what it seems, the study has two major weaknesses. First, while the American rape rate has decreased more than the general violent crime rate, it generally follows general violent crime trends. There are two exceptions, 1980-1985 and 2000-2005, when rape fell without a general decrease. I think it’s an excellent idea to investigate what happened in 1980 and 2000, but increased porn consumption probably isn’t it.

And second, the state data is a farce. Can you say “mediating variable”? More poverty leads to less net access and more rape.

Really, so far the evidence suggests that porn is connected to rape like ice cream consumption is connected to watching reality shows.

31 Responses to Porn and Rape

  1. Great post. I put up mine too soon (at http://www.chicagoreader.com) to link to this but added it in the comments.

  2. Avedon says:

    *sigh* Even this is just another way to keep our eye off the ball – talk about porn so we don’t have to talk about the real causes of sexual violence, which are much closer to home – and church.

  3. Ann Bartow says:

    Alon,

    Two points: First, if rape is underreported by the same amount every year, the trends the FBI data shows would be accurate, even if the actual numbers were wrong. Any reason to believe the amount of underreporting varies from year to year?

    Second, in paragraph six of my post, I referenced, and linked to, the NCVS data, which shows a decrease in most violent crime generally starting in 1994, see e.g. this: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/viort.htm “Real space” porn had been around for decades before 1994, and several more years before Internet porn became widely available (in terms of Internet accessibility, flat monthly fee ISPs and ability to download pictures efficiently, no less video)

    According to D’Amato’s reasoning, if we simply keep increasing the amount of porn that is available, rape will go away on its own. You don’t have to be anti-porn to question whether he is correct here.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Any reason to believe the amount of underreporting varies from year to year?

    Yes. The NCVS suggests a steady increase in the reporting rate of all crimes over time, with a dip around 1998 or 1999. In Against Our Will, Brownmiller guestimates that 20% of all rapes in the US are reported to the police; right now, the NCVS puts it at 40%, including attempted rapes, not including sexual assaults short of rape.

    According to D’Amato’s reasoning, if we simply keep increasing the amount of porn that is available, rape will go away on its own. You don’t have to be anti-porn to question whether he is correct here.

    I’ll admit to not having read the study, so I don’t know if he actually suggests that insanity. I think that if there really is a negative porn-rape link, then the explanation is likely stochastic: there are X potential rapists in society; watching porn reduces the probability of a potential rapist to commit rape from 100% to Y%. X and Y both depend on other social factors, but making porn more accessible to people will tend to make the number of rapes closer to XY/100 than to X.

    And, of course, I’ll repeat that I think the study’s a joke, and that the most sensible way to conduct a rape study is to try finding out what happened in 1980 and 2000 in the US. I suspect it was around 1980 that states criminalized spousal rape, which made husbands less likely to commit it, but I don’t have hard data.

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