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How the government uses dirty data to legislate morality

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Extreme porn

Another issue that echoes criticism laid at the door of Kinsey, lies in sample selection. Supporters of the recent legislation on extreme porn were keen to talk about its effects on rapists. Other research has focused on interviews with convicted paedophiles.

Both police and pro-censorship academics, in their contribution to consultation on this law, talked about how individuals who had been convicted of sex crimes had owned up to using porn prior to commission of their crime. As arguments go, this is even less useful than the "slippery slope" argument about cannabis leading on to hard drugs.

It is looking at the issue backwards: By selecting for research a group who are already implicated in extreme activities, it is scarcely surprising to find that they use pornography. Worse, those interviewed have a vested interest in finding excuses for their behaviour and coming up with a picture that conforms to any bias they expect the researcher is looking for.

Which is easier? Taking responsibility for the awfulness of the crime that you have committed? Or claiming, in effect, that "the porn made me do it"?

In fact, research needs to look at the entire population and its porn-using habits – and then look for any causal link between level of use and offending outcomes.

A constant concern in any academic research is report selection: This is where researchers and policy-makers carefully handpick the papers and evidence that they will use to support their case. As already noted above, when it comes to sexual conduct, the Government seems very interested in the work of avowedly partisan bodies such as the Eaves project and the Poppy Trust.

This linkage was made explicit recently in a polemic by psychologist Belinda Brooks-Gordon, who highlighted the unhealthy relationship between these organisations and government. The latter need research to support its policy positions in the area of sex and sexuality. Organisations receive funding from government for research; the more positive results they come through with, the more likely it is that funding will continue.

Government are also fairly selective when it comes to putting out consultations in the first place. The usual suspects, when it comes to any matter regarding sex and sexuality will include most police forces, plus other police bodies, such as ACPO and the Police Federation, plus children’s, church, and women’s groups.

The insistence on seeking input from police forces, together with the fact that forces may sometimes liaise or talk to ACPO about their position on particular issues creates a fairly predictable block vote. The inclusion of children’s groups may tug a few heart strings – but is of questionable relevance on issues where the debate is about adult sexuality and what adults do with other adults.

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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