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See Inside July / August 2011

The Sunny Side of Smut

For most people, pornography use has no negative effects—and it may even deter sexual violence

“Rates of rapes and sexual assault in the U.S. are at their lowest levels since the 1960s,” says Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University. The same goes for other countries: as access to pornography grew in once restrictive Japan, China and Denmark in the past 40 years, rape statistics plummeted. Within the U.S., the states with the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and therefore the least access to Internet pornography—experienced a 53 percent increase in rape incidence, whereas the states with the most access experienced a 27 percent drop in the number of reported rapes, according to a paper published in 2006 by Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University.

It is important to note that these associations are just that—associations. They do not prove that pornography is the cause of the observed crime reductions. Nevertheless, the trends “just don’t fit with the theory that rape and sexual assault are in part influenced by pornography,” Ferguson explains. “At this point I think we can say the evidence just isn’t there, and it is time to retire this belief.”

What if it turns out that ­pornography use actually reduces the desire to rape? It is a controversial idea, but some studies support it. Work in the 1960s and 1970s reported that sexual criminals tend to be exposed to pornographic materials at a later age than noncriminals. In 1992 Richard Green, a psychiatrist at Imperial College London, disclosed in his book Sexual Science and the Law that patients requesting treatment in clinics for sex offenders commonly say that pornography helps them keep their abnormal sexuality within the confines of their imagination. “Pornography seems to be protective,” Diamond says, perhaps because exposure correlates with lower levels of sexual repression, a potential rape risk factor.

A Personal Concern
Repression seems to figure prominently into the puzzle of pornography. In 2009 Michael P. Twohig, a psychologist at Utah State University, asked 299 undergraduate students whether they considered their pornography consumption problematic; for example, causing intrusive sexual thoughts or difficulty finding like-minded sex partners. Then he assessed the students with an eye to understanding the root causes of their issues.

It turns out that among porn viewers, the amount of porn each subject consumed had nothing to do with his or her mental state. What mattered most, Twohig found, was whether the subjects tried to control their sexual thoughts and desires. The more they tried to clamp down on their urge for sex or porn, the more likely they were to consider their own pornography use a problem. The findings suggest that suppressing the desire to view pornography, for example, for moral or religious reasons, might actually strengthen the urge for it and exacerbate sexual problems. It’s all about “personal views and personal values,” Twohig says. In other words, the effects of pornography—positive or negative—have little to do with the medium itself and everything to do with the person viewing it.

“Rates of rapes and sexual assault in the U.S. are at their lowest levels since the 1960s,” says Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University. The same goes for other countries: as access to pornography grew in once restrictive Japan, China and Denmark in the past 40 years, rape statistics plummeted. Within the U.S., the states with the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and therefore the least access to Internet pornography—experienced a 53 percent increase in rape incidence, whereas the states with the most access experienced a 27 percent drop in the number of reported rapes, according to a paper published in 2006 by Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University.

It is important to note that these associations are just that—associations. They do not prove that pornography is the cause of the observed crime reductions. Nevertheless, the trends “just don’t fit with the theory that rape and sexual assault are in part influenced by pornography,” Ferguson explains. “At this point I think we can say the evidence just isn’t there, and it is time to retire this belief.”

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