Does Pornography Cause Rape?

Imagine it’s New Year’s Eve, 2000. A bunch of us are sitting around with a good Cabernet, and someone wonders—“what do you suppose would happen if the U.S. were flooded with free, high-quality pornography?”

Opinions, of course, would vary:
“Some people would quit their jobs and watch porn 24 hours a day.”
“People would be horny all the time.”
“Everyone would go on a diet to compete with porn actors and actresses.”
“There would be an epidemic of rape and child molestation.”
“Divorce would skyrocket.”
“Nothing would happen at all.”

Just weeks later, America did the experiment.

That’s when broadband internet started bringing porn into almost every home in America. With mobile devices, porn was soon in everyone’s pocket, too.

Before the internet, pornography had been attacked as immoral. Some Senators even said it was part of a Communist plot to weaken the character of America’s youth and husbands.

But morals change. Drugs and rock music—not to mention Vietnam and Watergate—changed the entire landscape of morality. And the birth control pill changed the definition of what “good” girls did.

What, then, to do with pornography?

Invent a public health menace.

And so the government, churches, and decency groups switched the narrative from porn is immoral (bad for users) to porn is dangerous (bad for everyone). Americans started hearing that viewing pornography caused consumers to rape and molest. This justified the demands (continuing to this day) that porn be restricted or even criminalized.

Porn became a legitimate civic concern, and still is. A good citizen has to be concerned about a product that leads to violence, coercion, and perversion.

The only trouble is, there has NEVER been conclusive evidence of this. There still isn’t.

Lyndon Johnson’s commission couldn’t find this evidence. Richard Nixon’s commission couldn’t find it. And in 1986, the Meese Commission—specifically chartered by President Ronald Reagan to find porn dangerous—couldn’t, either. The report stated the opinion that porn is dangerous, but they admitted there was no evidence to prove it.

Later lab studies—still cited today—gave undergraduates forced choices after showing them porn, and came to narrow conclusions about porn changing attitudes about rape. But no one has been able to replicate these studies, and there’s no proof that supposed rape-supportive attitudes lead to an increase in actual rape.

Today there’s talk of America’s “rape culture,” and how our society has to acknowledge and challenge it, using every tool from eliminating porn to eliminating rape jokes.

But here’s the inconvenient fact: while there’s still too damn much rape, the rate of rape has gone DOWN since internet porn flooded America’s homes. Documented by the government, reported in the Journal of Sex Research, the rate of forcible rape in the U.S. has steadily declined since the explosion of internet porn. (Yes, rape is under-reported—now, as it has been every year.)

So how can people claim that porn viewing leads to rape? Only by ignoring the facts.

And so Morality in Media and other groups point to “violent porn.” They’re right of course—there’s some very disturbing stuff out there. Makes you wonder how someone can maintain an erection while watching it. But how does this affect the viewer when he walks out of his house? Science says “not very.”

And what exactly is “violence” in pornography?

Periodically, American society wants to assess violence on television. Estimates of its occurrence always vary wildly, depending on how violence is defined: news shows? War movies? Westerns? Horror films? Gone With the Wind? It’s a tough call.

And so is identifying “violence in porn” (and porn that’s “demeaning to women”). Consider these activities commonly depicted in porn:

Two women and one man;
Two men and one woman;
A woman being watched masturbating;
Fellatio;
Cunnilingus;
Anal sex;
Spanking.

Which of these should be coded for violence? Some people would say all. Others would say some, while most viewers would say none. Hence the wildly different estimates of how much violent porn there is.

To put it another way, someone’s opinion about what’s violent in porn says as much about their concepts of sex as it does about the porn they’re describing. And since so many women enjoy these activities, it’s reasonable—not damning—that actresses are smiling during these depictions. That’s not abuse they’re smiling through, it’s pleasure.

Finally, let’s remember that adults play sex games. Pretending to force a lover to do what you both enjoy (while he or she pretends to resist) is a common one (it’s called teasing). So is biting or holding someone down.

To know if porn is depicting a sex game or a character coercing another character, you’d have to watch enough of the film to get the context. Researchers don’t. You’d have to ask the director and actors what scene they think they’re playing. Researchers don’t.

Nevertheless, here’s a final inconvenient truth: millions of men and women (gay, straight, and bisexual) like to pretend they’re involved with violence when they make love. Are we not allowed to portray this in porn? In the absence of real scientific evidence that watching “violent porn” makes consumers commit sexual violence more than watching “non-violent porn” or a college football game, how can we justify today’s hysteria about “violent porn”?

To repeat: the rate of rape has gone down as the availability of porn has gone up. That effect has also been documented in Germany, Denmark, Croatia, China, and Japan. Whether or not Americans live in a “rape culture,” whether that culture is being increasingly glorified, there is no epidemic of actual sexual violence.

Instead of blaming porn for a non-existent epidemic, people should be wondering what we can learn from the good news about the decrease in the rate of rape.

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