The freakonomics of smut: Does it actually cause rape?

Plenty of reasons for thugs never to leave the house

Comment Does porn cause rape? It could do: rape fantasies causing porn is a certainty. While there are many who would argue that porn causes rape, what we would really like to know is whether it is true.

There's not much actual evidence that it does, that seeing graphic representations of sex, even violent sex, increases the acting out of violent sex scenes.

Parts of the argument have a certain truthiness to them: the objectification of women (the statistics bear out that it is generally women who are raped) is a possible consequence of films and photos in which women are being objectified.

Exposure to only the more outre niches might cause a certain confusion in the young about what sex actually is: but then exposure to no porn at all is likely to lead to similar lack of knowledge of the Tab A Slot A (or B) thing.

But while theorising is all very well, it is necessary occasionally to fine-tune such theories by looking at the empirical evidence. And the most obvious fact about porn and rape is that reported rape incidence – at least in the United States, where a National Crime Victimization Survey takes place every year – has been falling in recent decades as porn becomes ever more available.

Anthony D'Amato, a Professor at Northwestern University's Law School, wrote in an essay titled Porn up, rape down (6-page PDF/28.3KB):

(T)here 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 1,000 people, a decline of 85 per cent."

Now yes, it is absolutely true that correlation and causation are not the same thing. But at first glance we'd have a hard time claiming that the greater availability of porn led to more rapes: simply because there are fewer rapes reported while there's definitely more porn.

To unravel the correlation thing we need to look at everything else that has been happening in American society over that time period.

It's probably not the reporting rate which has gone down. Police take sexual assault more seriously in most first world countries, where it has been criminalised, which represents a change in some parts of the world.

The law has changed as well in these countries: marital rape is now a crime in the US and the UK as well as 102 other countries worldwide, as it wasn't back then.

We would expect all of these changes to increase at least the number of rapes reported in the US. But that increase just isn't there.

Internet penetration appears to affect statistics

In D'Amato's paper, he uses Freakonomics-style statistics (one of his colleagues wrote the Freakonomics abortion and crime paper with Levitt) to try to tease out evidence of something more than just correlation.

What he found is that the lower the internet penetration in 2004 in a US state, the higher the rape rate had risen and that the higher the internet penetration, the lower rate had fallen.

We expect, for those societal reasons, that the reported rape rate will have risen over the time period. And where there's no or limited internet access, it has. Where there is high internet access it has fallen, the fall being greater than the general societal rise.

Thus we have an empirical connection between internet access and lower rape figures. Whether it's porn or not is a different matter: they could all be playing Second Life instead. An unlikely way to bet though really.

An economist would lay out this problem by asking whether porn and rape are complements or substitutes. Does porn lead to rape, or does porn substitute for rape?

Quite how the mechanism works is arguable but the evidence of more porn and less rape does appear to be there.

My own guess is that those who've been playing with themselves over "Two Girls One Cup" are, even if thoroughly now convinced of women as mere objects and playthings, less likely to rape even if only for erectile recovery reasons.

This argument has been around for some years of course but perhaps it is time to take it a little further. As Operation Ore shows us, absolutely no one seems to be thinking that this might be true of child porn and sexually assaulting children.

Except, actually, some of the scientists trying to study the connection in the paper "Pornography and Sex Crimes in the Czech Republic".

Following the effects of a new law in the Czech Republic that allowed pornography to a society previously forbidden to access it allowed us to monitor the change in sex related crime that followed the change.

As found in all other countries in which the phenomenon has been studied, rape and other sex crimes did not increase.

Of particular note is that this country, like Denmark and Japan, had a prolonged interval during which possession of child pornography was not illegal and, like those other countries, showed a significant decrease in the incidence of child sex abuse.

If it's true, that porn and rape are substitutes and not complements even for paedophiles, then arguably the best method of reducing the harm done to children is to increase, not ban, the production of child pornography.

It would be a very brave politician indeed who was willing to act upon such a scientific finding.

Leaving one final question: what about the children harmed in production? ®

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