Porn, rape, and a ‘natural experiment’

By Razib Khan | May 2, 2013 3:24 am

Credit: Plp

Update: To be explicit, I’m not claiming that the correlation is causal. Rather, I’m pointing out that the explosion in porn use does not seem to have led to a concomitant explosion in sex crimes, which would have been the prediction by social conservatives and radical feminists if they could have known of the extent of penetration of pornography into culture and private lives over the next 20 years in 1990.

I am almost literally one of the last of the generation of young men for whom the quest for pornography was an adventure. One could say that I had the misfortune of my adolescence overlapping almost perfectly with the last few years prior to the ‘pornographic singularity.’ I speak here of the internet, circa 1995 and later. Prior to this era of the ‘pornographic explosion’ one often had to rely upon a lax or absentee father of a friend, from whom the porn was ‘borrowed,’ and then returned with the owner none the wiser. My youngest brother, who is 15 years my junior, would no doubt find my escapades as a 15 year old bizarre in the extreme (though I believe I did not view video pornography until I was 16). In fact, I recall realizing that something radical had occurred when visiting my family and observing my brother, who was 8 at the time, deleting porn spam from his Hotmail account. Porn as nuisance rather than treasure would have amazed my adolescent self.

It seems plausible that the generation after 1995 has witnessed levels of aggregate porn consumption orders of magnitude greater than that before 1995. This is a massive natural social experiment. As with any social experiment you have anecdata-driven ‘moral panic’ pieces in the press which don’t seem to align well with what you see in the world at large. Mo Costandi pointed me today to one such piece about porn ‘re-wiring’ the brains of young boys and making them sexually dysfunctional. Standard stuff. On Twitter I pointed out to Mo semi-seriously that actually crime had declined since widespread pornographic consumption in the mid-1990s. Quite reasonably Mo inquired specifically about sex crimes. Fair enough. As it happens the FBI has records of ‘forcible rapes’ reported to the police in the USA going back to 1960.

Here they are in absolute numbers:


And now standardized by the populations of the decennial Census (and per 1,000,000):

The problem, from what I can see, is that the only young males who talk at length about their porn consumption to professionals and the media are those who have problems with that consumption. In contrast, for most men the consumption of porn isn’t a major issue, it’s just part of their life, or not, depending on the situation, and at most it comes up in a humorous manner. Additionally, my own suspicion is that the perversity of online pornography is driven by the fact that perverts are disproportionately represented among the small minority of men who pay for porn in this day and age.

On a more scientific note, some of the fears of porn destroying the male ability and inclination to have sex with women* could be alleviated if people were more aware of the concept of an alief. One can illustrate the relationship of an alief to sex rather easily. Imagine that you, a heterosexual male (if you aren’t a heterosexual male, just put yourself in that individual’s position), meet a very attractive woman at a party, and kiss her and touch her breasts. You are likely rather aroused and excited at this point. You then reach down and feel a penis. Now you are probably quite turned off. Can you appreciate that you were excited literally the moment before? Would you wish to repeat the experience of initial pleasure, and then shock?

The key takeaway is that a major part of the pleasure of an experience is the broader contextual framework in which the pleasure is occurring. Kissing a woman is preferable for a heterosexual man not just because a woman has smooth skin, and attractive facial features, but because the target of their affections is a woman. If that woman turns out to be a very feminine “ladyboy,” then all the pleasure disappears, even if in an objective and reductionist sense nothing has changed about the previous experiences (if you want a deeper exploration of this topic, I recommend Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like).

Obviously sex is a somewhat mechanical operation for many males. Ergo, the ease with which males can relieve themselves with masturbation. But you can’t just transpose the mechanics of consuming pornography to the mechanics of sex with a real woman. Porn exists to facilitate masturbation, but so does your hand. Ultimately a woman is preferable to your hand because a woman is a woman, and your hand is just your hand.**

In other words, the modern male, porn-consuming though he might be, still generally prefers sex with real live women. We’re born that way.

* From what I can tell pornography has more mainstream acceptance in the gay male community. And yet to my knowledge gay males are no less interested in sex than straight males.

** I’m stripping away the reality that sex within a relationship is more than arousal and climax, but an essential part of the relationship being more than just a friendship.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Social Science
MORE ABOUT: Pornography, Sociology
  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    Ah, the days when it took 5 minutes to load one MILF pic…I was so young I only kinda knew what I was looking at. Then came the whole science of deleting the history (INCLUDING the cookies;) Anyway, this came out – you probably saw it:
    http://www.medpagetoday.com/Psychiatry/GeneralPsychiatry/38677

  • Dominic Lahar

    Your writing about this mirrors many people’s experience with the “porn singularity”–which, by the way, is a great term.

    In the space of about 5 years, this meant moving from Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler or the occasional discovered video in grade school (in the 80s), to being able to download still images of hardcore pornography in the early- and mid-90s. Now, in the era a well-developed internet where such websites are a dime a dozen, I guess most boys (and girls?) go through this phase and get their fill much more quickly. Then move on.

    And some will continue to use these resources ad libitum (which certainly beats driving down to the video store and checking out ball-slappity porn from some person behind the counter.) I think the availability of it explains part or all of the decrease in forcible rapes against women. I am not sure if porn’s ubiquity may lead to a desensitization or distortion for some of what loving sex is supposed to be. The latter is speculation and certainly seems to me a fair trade if it leads to reduced crime against women.

  • prasad

    Every bone in my body (heh) likes the idea here, but crimes in the US generically have this decline in the 90s. Explanatorially the thing is wildly overdetermined (policing, abortion, lead…). Even proper regressions won’t help much (unless the researcher stupidly picks a variable that moves in the wrong direction to begin with) since forgetting to control for something else will basically give the desired answer.

    Has anyone seen versions of this chart from other nations? I suppose the chart suffices at any rate to show there isn’t a surge in sex crime, and that’s enough to at least stop the hand-wringing.

  • Seth Burgett

    You may find Ana J. Bridges’ research regarding pornography’s effects on various individuals.

  • http://humanvarieties.org/ Jason Malloy

    It seems plausible that the generation after 1995 has witnessed levels of aggregate porn consumption orders of magnitude greater than that before 1995. This is a massive natural social experiment.

    Once upon a time on GNXP Classic, Agnostic used the GSS to show that porn use hasn’t spread among US men since the 1980s.

    The decline in rape is one manifestation of the decline in crime more generally. This decline in criminality, I’ve argued, is largely a result of a decline in young male drive for promiscuous sex. The crime rate is mostly a reflection of male mating effort.

    People who grew up in the 70s and 80s project their own strongly remembered urges for sex onto modern teens, assuming they must be just as gonzo for pictures of naked women. But the reality is that, while the supply of pornography is much higher, the demand is lower now than it was then.

  • http://humanvarieties.org/ Jason Malloy

    I will guess that the Internet has increased the nerd time devoted to pornography, just as it has increased the nerd time devoted to everything (e.g. Facebook and the systematizing of friendship).

    It’s not hard to believe that the average male spends more time searching for, collecting, and organizing their pornography than in the past.

    • razibkhan

      obviously the area under the curve is bigger (more porn hours watched). something like 1/3 of internet traffic is pr0n related.

      • http://humanvarieties.org/ Jason Malloy

        Maybe, but how do we begin to quantify the equivalent time devoted to pornography in the past? If finding pornography used to be more difficult, maybe search investments used to be higher.

        One problem I have with the “more pornography consumption” belief is the unspoken corollary that men are masturbating a lot more now than in the past. I highly doubt it.

        If anything there has been a decrease in sex drive, so why would men be investing a ton more time into their sexual appetites?

        I will say incidental exposure to pornographic images is obviously much higher now, and that pornographic exposure is more dense and explicit.

        • razibkhan

          agree masturbation no more common today. pr0n is just a masturbation tool, a means, not an ends.

          • http://www.facebook.com/eurasiansensation Christopher Mitchell

            I would argue that the ever-presence of pornography actually encourages more frequent masturbation. Consider the effect of having access to the web’s vast catalogue of visceral thrills, compared to having to use one’s imagination or a magazine; a lot of people are going to decide to masturbate when they might otherwise not bother, since the experience is more enticing.
            Added to that would be the greater time we spend parked in front of our computers in the modern era.

  • beta_plus

    Unfortunately, most of the discussion about how porn effects men leaves out the obesity crisis. The two cannot be separated. Many male consumers of porn consume it precisely because getting a desirable mate has become extremely difficult to female obesity.

    • razibkhan

      data?

    • Anthony_A

      Or their own.

  • Alan Z

    Violent crime decrease & decline in rape probably not less lead poisoning but more likely declines in global testosterone levels brought about by Bisphenal A and other phthalates.

    The reason no one’s freaking out about porn consumption in the gay (male) community is because there are no women in gay male relationships freaking out that their partner is looking at porn instead of her. Dan Savage, the sex columnist, is constantly dealing with questions from women having a cow because their husbands are looking at porn. Women often view their mate’s porn viewing as a form of ‘cheating.’ Recent studies showing that gay men have lower stress levels in their relationships compared to straight men in theirs, may, in part, be related to the above.

    • http://www.facebook.com/cnavage Christopher Navage

      Agree!

  • Angela

    Regarding the decline of sex crimes after 1990, couldn’t that correlate with the higher possibility of getting charged with such acts, also communities and schools taking the effort to train women to combat these situations more seriously than in the past? Maybe porn isn’t causing men to be less driven to rape, more so it’s the higher chance of repercussions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/cnavage Christopher Navage

      No, if what you wrote is true, it would lead to more incidents being reported, not fewer.

    • ohwilleke

      This is perfectly plausible (and may be a second or third order effect), but almost surely not true as a leading factor. The trends seen in rape incidence are seen for every category of serious crime, for teen pregnancy, for high school dropout rates, and for deaths from a variety of other kinds of traumas in the same time period at similar rates. In short, it is part of an overall trend towards declines in “serious deviant behavior”.
      Also, the FBI statistics that Razib is citing track “forcible rape” which is a much more restrictive definition than all criminally prosecutable sexual assault – attitudes towards stranger rape by force (which is most of what that statistic measures) have changed much less dramatically in the last twenty-five years than attitudes towards acquaintance rape where there is a lack of consent but aggravators like weapon use or group attacks or serious physical injury other than the rape itself are not present.

  • David Stewart

    The “radical feminists” as you term them, were all quite pro-pornography actually. It is pretty much mainstream feminist thinking to have a problem with the objectification of women in porn -and across the entire media spectrum.

    • razibkhan

      name them. if your follow up post doesn’t name them i’ll ban u. (e.g., obviously not dworkin or mckinnon)

      • http://www.facebook.com/negativeexternalities Ed Marshall

        Not that he is right about the radfem/libfem schism on pornography, you are going to ban the guy for getting it wrong? Harsh!

        • razibkhan

          1) yes, i’m harsh

          2) error shall be given no quarter when possible

          • http://www.facebook.com/negativeexternalities Ed Marshall

            Hah, alright, I enjoy the idea of “wrong on the internet” carrying a death penalty enough to say Godspeed.

    • ohwilleke

      The divide between the Dworkin/McKinnon branch of feminism and the “libertarian” branch of feminism played out quite vividly for me at the University of Michigan Law School (where McKinnon was a star on the faculty) during a basically pro-prostitution legalization conference held by the latter over the protests of the former.

      “Radical” may be an eye of the beholder term, but from context it was clear to me who Razib meant (as he explains in his comment below), and he rightly makes clear that only one subpart of the feminist movement took this position. I’d venture a guess that “Dworkin/McKinnon” are a minority within the feminist movement judging from the mix of positions taken in textbooks and articles that my wife assigned and read as a Women’s Studies instructor while she was in graduate school, although I don’t know the names of individuals in the field all that well.

  • Justin Giancola-Bailey

    This post might be up for blog equivalent of Oscar of the Year. ;) “…a couragous performance…Khan finds voice of a generation”

  • ohwilleke

    “Kissing a woman is preferable for a heterosexual man not just because a woman has smooth skin, and attractive facial features, but the target of their affections is a woman.”
    — An interesting and subtle insight that is a relief from the often unstated “sex is purely mechanical” assumption that many people hold.

  • toto

    Looks like this general idea (the Great Online Pr0n Experiment, and its distinctly negative result regarding a positive association with rape) is in the zeitgeist these days:

    http://hetpat.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/violence-pornography-and-kittens-a-radical-new-theory/

    Of course, you missed the obvious kitten confound… :)

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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