New Research: More Evidence That Porn Doesn’t Cause Sex Crimes


A few months ago, I wrote about some research showing that when porn becomes legal in various places, the rate of sex crimes stays about the same or decreases. This is contrary to one of the common anti-porn arguments that we’ve heard from various directions. And now, there’s even more evidence showing that porn doesn’t lead to an increase in sex crimes.

In their paper Pornography and Sex Crimes in the Czech Republic, researchers Milton Diamond, Eva Jozifkova and Petr Weiss chart the changes that took place when porn became legal in the Czech Republic. During the communist rule (1948-1989), “[p]ornography, by any definition was absolutely prohibited. Even the depiction of naked bodies, as well as descriptions of sexual activities in fictional novels or magazines, were almost non-existent.” But in 1990, with the shift to democracy, porn became legal and much more available.

The research team gathered information on crimes from the country’s Ministry of Interior and analyzed it for trends. In addition to sex crimes, they looked at the rates for murder, criminal assault, and robbery to see if any shifts were due to social change in general. Since there was a clear transition from one extreme to the other, this is a great test case.

click to see the full paper, including this chart

So what happened? Child sex abuse (toe top line) dropped, then peaked, and then continued a general downward trend that had been going on for a couple of decades. Rates of rape (the middle line) stayed about the same, as did sex-related murders, even though non-sex-related murders increased. The rate of all reported sex-related crimes decreased significantly, even as the rate of non-sexual crimes increased.

None of this suggests that porn doesn’t cause problems. I’ve written about why porn is terrible sex education, how it inspires people to have unrealistic expectations, what we could do to create a sex-positive critique of porn, and more. I also know from talking with individuals and with a lot of sex therapists that porn reinforces personal and relationship problems for many people. I recognize that porn performers’ experiences vary a lot and it can be deeply unpleasant or traumatic for some of them. And I am absolutely against child porn, as well as any other form that relies on non-consent.

Without wanting to deny those real concerns in any way, I do think it’s worth noting that one of the big arguments for banning porn is the notion that porn causes rape. Robin Morgan famously wrote in 1974 that “pornography is the theory: rape is the practice“, and various versions of this idea have been common ever since. While porn has been blamed for plenty of things, including serial murder, it seems to me that these arguments take an overly simplistic approach. At the very least, rape and serial murder have been around for a much longer time than porn as it currently exists. If making porn more available doesn’t increase the rates of these and other crimes overall, then maybe we can stop letting people use it to excuse their actions.

We need to create a more nuanced understanding about porn and its effects. We need to look at the research, rather than relying on our assumptions and ideologies. We need to stop lumping it all into one category, as if it’s a monolithic medium. We need to understand that the experiences of performers, producers, and viewers vary a lot. And we need to stop blaming porn for something that it doesn’t do.

Maybe when we can do that, we can start looking at the actual situation and find ways to respond to the real effects of porn.

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6 Responses so far.

  1. Nine Deuce says:

    I don’t like the simplistic representation of the radical feminist position on the relationship between rape and porn here. I don’t think anyone has ever said there’s a direct cause-effect relationship between these two things, but rather that porn is one factor that helps create a society in which rape is more likely to occur, less likely to be reported or punished, etc. There is a matrix of misogyny at work in our society, of which porn and rape are two parts that are definitely related in many ways, though maybe not in the simplistic cause-effect pattern that a lot of people claim radical feminists argue exists (though I remain unconvinced that the consumption of certain kinds of porn doesn’t lead to more sexual assaults). What about sexual harassment, both on the job and out in public? What about the fact that men who use porn are more likely to assume woman who says she’s been raped or sexually harassed is lying? That absolutely has an effect on the rape rate, even if it’s indirect, because it determines whether women will get justice after they’ve been raped, which determines whether they’ll even bother reporting it. This issue is far more complicated than “porn use up, rape stats not.”

  2. Charlie says:

    Actually, quite a lot of people from various perspectives have said pretty much that porn causes rape, especially when they’re looking for a juicy soundbite or a scare tactic. Even Gail Dines acknowledges that on page 95 of her recent book, although she doesn’t make that simple a claim about a possible causal connection herself.

    I’m with you that we need a more nuanced discussion about it. I agree that it’s much more complex than is generally acknowledged and that the relationships between porn and sexism, sexual assault, misogyny, etc. need to be unpacked. The ways that porn, along with other media like magazines, TV shows, and such, reify gender roles, sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, and sexism are definitely important to look at, as are the messages that people learn about sex.

    I notice that you say that you’re unconvinced that the consumption of certain kinds of porn doesn’t lead to more sexual assaults. As far as I’m aware, nobody has really looked at the question of what effects different types of porn have. Almost all of the research I’ve seen and all of the writing I’ve come across either assumes that all porn is equivalent or that the most extreme forms of it are representative of the entire medium. That’s part of what makes it difficult to create a better analysis of it.

    So yeah, I agree that it’s more complicated than is generally recognized. And at the same time, here’s more research to that shows that one of the common sweeping statements about porn simply isn’t true.

  3. Ari says:

    I think that the variability of what can be defined as “pornography” makes any claim that “viewing porn causes…” or even the slightly more nuanced, “viewing porn influences…” because there seems to always be a constant debate on ‘what counts as porn’ vs. ‘what counts as art’ vs. ‘what counts as obscene and shouldn’t even be allowed.’

    from http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/pornography : Pornography, “The representation in books, magazines, photographs, films, and other media of scenes of sexual behavior that are erotic or lewd and are designed to arouse sexual interest.”

    This may be the most widely agreed upon definition, but that doesn’t mean that it’s helpful.

    “Pornography has been regulated by the legal standards that govern the concept of Obscenity, which refers to things society may consider disgusting, foul, or immoral, and may include material that is blasphemous. Pornography is limited to depictions of sexual behavior and may not be obscene.”

    ” In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court, in roth v. united states, stated that obscenity is ‘utterly without redeeming social importance” and therefore is not protected by the First Amendment.’ ”

    The Supreme Court added requirements to the definition of obscenity in a 1966 case, A Book Named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” v. Attorney General…the Court concluded that to establish obscenity, the material must, aside from appealing to the prurient interest, be “utterly without redeeming social value” and “patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description of sexual matters.” The phrase “utterly without redeeming social value” allowed a loophole for pornographers…”

    That being said, some research that might be of interest, I found while searching on a rather different topic for a research paper that I am still working on, but doesn’t appear to be cited by either of the articles you linked to, Charlie. “Inferring Sexually Deviant Behavior from Corresponding Fantasies: The Role of Personality and Pornography Consumption” by Kevin Willians, Barry Cooper, Teresa Howell, John Yulle, and Delroy Paulhus, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 36 No. 2, Feb. 2009 pgs 198-222.

    I could only get a link to the abstract, I have a test copy of the file but only by way of my college library allowing me access, so I don’t know if you’ll be able to read it. But, very briefly, the researchers seek to investigate what provokes the conversion of “sexually deviant fantasies” into actual behaviors, amongst a non-offender sample (they used college students). They assert that “only one personality variable was consistently associated with both fantasies and behavior, namely, psychopathy…” and that “…the association of pornography consumption with deviant sexual behavior held only for individuals with high psychopathy scores.” Furthermore, they conclude that “..deviant sexual fantasies are rampant among nonoffender samples and should not be solely used to infer corresponding deviant behavior. In conjunction with a high psychopathy score, however, the inference from fantasy to behavior is better justified.”

    It’s a long article, and trying to sum it up any better or give better descriptions for how they define “sexual deviancy” in general, in either fantasy or behavior, would make this an obscenely (pun not intended) long comment. For the record, I’m personally of the opinion that context and content, personality features and mental, ah, stability have more bearing than a flat measure of overall pornography consumption, on inappropriate and nonconsensual means of sexual expression.

  4. Charlie says:

    @Ari

    I’ve seen that article and it raises some good questions. Namely, if there is a relationship between watching porn and acting out what one sees, what are the factors that make that more likely. But it’s worth mentioning that “deviant sexual behavior” is a constantly shifting concept. It wasn’t all that long ago that oral sex and masturbation were considered deviant, at least in the US.

    And at the same time, since porn is the only source that many people have, a lot of people who work with teens and young adults are reporting that stories of people copying porn have become common. The lack of better sex information and the lack of critical thinking/media literacy (both in general and around sex in particular) makes me believe it. After all, young people do things like copy what they see people doing on shows like Jackass. If you don’t know, for example, that many people need arousal and warm-up before receiving penetration, or that anal sex requires lube, or that a majority of women need clitoral stimulation to reliably experience orgasm, most porn certainly isn’t going to enlighten you. For that matter, when it comes to creating happy, healthy and pleasurable sexual relationships, most of the magazines at the checkout stand aren’t going to be much help either.

    Re the “utterly without redeeming social importance,” for many years, porn movies would often have a plot that centered on the dangers of sex (syphilis and other STIs) and/or featured an actor pretending to be a doctor who would tell the audience about how the movie they were about to see showed the risks of immorality and vice. In order to have social value, they reinforced sex-negativity and shame. We’re well rid of it.

  5. Ari says:

    I generally don’t like the use of the terms “deviant sexual behavior”, because I am always concerned about what it means, especially in the context of research like that one.

    I would really like to see more porn with healthy sexual models and scripts, but I do not know if just creating it is going to help it get filtered down into the hands of young people that actually need it.

  6. Rick says:

    If you look at the research which alledges to show that porn causes it is so badly constructed as to almost be a refutation of their position. The biggest problem are sampling errors and a lack of a control study to compare one’s study of the problem. The sampling errors have to do with interviewing women from shelters about what their abusers did before they abused these women. Conversely, they would interview sex offenders about what they were doing before they offended to see if they had consumed porn. This is a post hoc ergo proper hoc mistake.

    The lack of a control had to do with not studying the millions of people who consume porn and never abused or offended to find the difference between the two. I don’t know what research you are referring to, but most of what I have found seems to show that while porn will turn an already violent man more violent, it will not make a less violent man more violent. So, the study should not be about how porn makes men violent, but what makes them violent to begin with. The Porn is irrelevent.

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