Could porn be reducing rapes?

Folk wisdom suggests that pornography has a great many ill effects on society. It denigrates women, it creates unrealistic expectations about sexual relationships, and it may indirectly contribute toward a rise in sexual assaults. A report in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind calls this convention wisdom into question:
With access to pornography easier than ever before, politicians and scientists alike have renewed their interest in deciphering its psychological effects. Certainly pornography addiction or overconsumption seems to cause relationship problems [see “Sex in Bits and Bytes,” by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2010]. But what about the more casual exposure typical of most porn users? Contrary to what many people believe, recent research shows that moderate pornography consumption does not make users more aggressive, promote sexism or harm relationships. If anything, some researchers suggest, exposure to pornography might make some people less likely to commit sexual crimes.
This is based on the data: sexual assault is at its lowest level in decades not just in the US, but in many countries in which access to pornography has become more prevalent:

“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.

The article goes on to stress that these numbers are correlative; we don't know if access to porn is causing the assault rates to decline. The last bit of the article suggests something that the Catholic church seems to be learning the hard way – suppressing sexual desires can make things worse:
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.

Read the full article here.

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