Sunday, December 14, 2008

Why It Fails

Pornography and Rape: Is There a Connection?

The literature in this area is substantial and growing. A few examples follow:

  • In a comparative study of rape rates in the USA, Scandinavia, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, Court (1984) found a connection between the availability of pornography and the level of rape. He specifically refutes earlier studies that purported to show otherwise, particularly in relation to Australia, where the uniform crime data:
  • actually support the case for an increase [in rape rates after the liberalisation of pornography] quite convincingly (Court 1984, p. 158).
  • In the USA, the eight major men's magazines (Chic, Club, Gallery, Genesis, Hustler, Oui, Playboy and Penthouse) have sales that are five times higher per capita in Alaska and Nevada than in other states such as North Dakota--and rape rates that are six times higher per capita in Alaska and Nevada than North Dakota. Overall a fairly strong correlation was found between rape and circulation rates in the fifty states, even with controls for potential confounding variables, such as region, climate, propensity to report rape and police practices (Milne-Home 1991; Baron & Straus 1985 cited in United States Attorney-General's Commission on Pornography 1986, p. 944-5).

The above was linked to by Valerie D'Orazio in an attempt to buttress her stance that bad things in the media (specifically porn) cause bad things in real life. It appears in the comments section of that post I linked to last time, and since by that time in the debate people were throwing around (and/or rejecting) references to Wertham and Orwell, I kinda wonder how many actually bothered to read this and other links.

But the problem with the theory behind this document is the same problem with Wertham's reasoning regarding crime comics: Correlation is not cause.

Wertham was convinced that kids were reading crime comics and getting "worked up" by the sex and violence therein to the point where they'd start committing crimes of their own. But anyone even vaguely familiar with genuine scientific methods for establishing facts knows that you do not start out with a conclusion and then work backwards to find the proof. Such an approach taints the process with bias, colors the result. It's easy to "prove" damn near anything that way, but there's no real truth inherent in that process.

Wertham assumed that crime comics were the cause of youthful crime; from that he gathered anecdotal evidence showing that juvenile delinquents of various stripes read crime comics and were corrupted by them. His research (at least what is revealed in his writings), however, ignores or glosses over many other potential causes for the delinquency, such as poor parenting or societal pressures. What's more, it nearly ignores the possibility that he got it backwards: that kids were attracted to crime comics because they were already in a reprobate frame of mind.

To her credit, Goldsmith does give a nod to the "correlation is not cause" idea, and she ends with what she calls theories, without declaring them facts. Still, what she writes appears to be working from a foregone conclusion: porn causes rape.

I've quoted two things above to demonstrate the, frankly, bullshit nature of this reasoning, as well as compare it with Wertham's own writing. For example, here's Wertham's own words, as I've quoted before, from an article he wrote:

Dorothy Thompson recently wrote about comic books: "The harm done is incalculable, even if it results in no overt acts, and even if at last it is overcome by other influences."

What's so wrong with that? Compare it to the quoting of Court by Ms. Goldsmith, above.

This is not evidence of cause and effect.

This is the quoting of someone else who believes in the same thing as those who quote them, but neither quote offers any proof of the actual cause and effect, just a declaration that there is such a link. That's not real truth. That's an attempt at truth by aggregate; "See how many of us believe the same thing? It must be true!" I shouldn't have to tell anyone that a majority opinion is never a failsafe guide to what's right and true.

Not only that, but there's the issue of whether your sources are trustworthy. I don't know who this woman Wertham quoted is, so how do I know her opinion means anything regarding this issue? I never heard of Ms. Goldsmith before now, let alone this "Court" person, so have I any reason to trust their judgment?

You know who can get away with this kind of stuff? The Bible, and Dick Cheney. (That's right: The Bible, whose main evidence for its own truth is itself, and Cheney, who has a history of releasing "facts" about stuff to sympathetic ears, letting them spread the word, and then quoting those self-same ears when someone asks him where he got his data...)

As for the rest: Look, I can see how people make these connections. Kids see crime comics, and they commit crimes! People see porn, and want to commit sex crimes! You see things with similar themes, and think there must be a connection, you assume there is one and work from there. But that's called jumping to conclusions, no matter how supposedly obvious you think the connection is.

So according to Goldsmith, there's increased porn circulation in Alaska and Nevada, and higher incidence of rape as well in those states. She also claims this trend holds even with "controls for potential confounding variables, such as region, climate, propensity to report rape and police practices". Region and climate are variables? What about population density? The percentage of the population who've been convicted of crimes? The fact that both states have Republican Governors? If you framed your quest right, you could make a strong case that Sarah Palin was as responsible for an increased rape rate as the availability of porn.

The truth is, there's so many variables at large that trying to find a "cause" for rape in porn is difficult at best, unless you're willing to give up honest, unbiased fact-finding and just go with your gut. Well, my gut tells me that it's far more likely that a high porn-to-rape rate is a symptom, not the cause: those likely to commit rape are more likely to consume porn, not the other way around.

But that's just my gut, my instinct. I don't know that for a fact, and there is, to my knowledge, no clear unbiased proof that porn causes rape, either. How will we ever know the truth?

I don't know. I don't know of anyone willing to look at the issue from an objective, unbiased position. I don't know who would be willing to abide by such a study if one did occur. Without those things, all we have is theory and emotion, and really, more should be required.

This is why the refrain "if we could save even one person from rape" fails. You can't say for certain that any censorship would save anyone from anything. Certainly nobody claims that eliminating porn would make all rapes cease. Where then is the guarantee that if I just let people take porn out of my reach, X number of women would definitely never be raped? There can be no such guarantee as things stand now, and the guaranteed loss of freedom if porn and other objectionable material is banned is not as yet outweighed by the nebulous "maybe" of rapes that might be prevented.


Andre said...

Sorry I have not posted here but this debate has really been active here in my family.
As a rule despite our distaste for some content I feel if no one is getting hurt then whats done behind closed doors is non of anyone's concern.

So that changes the argument to playboy and other porn = rape
I have seen reports saying thats true. I also have seen reports saying that porn = less rape.

They can't all be right.

Andre said...

"I find it very, very interesting that for the last two years, I've been patted on the back and lauded in many circles for my stance on sexist and sexually violent comic book material -- but have recently slammed for a similar stance against illustrated child porn."
~Valerie D'Orazio~

I have nothing but respect for her stance that more girls should be working in and around comics but I must have missed the post about forcing a quota.

I was enthralled and shared in her outrage over how female superheros like Tigra get depicted. I just missed the memo that she thinks those writers should be looking at rape charges.

There is a difference in calling for a stop to something demanding it be outlawed.

If told overeating is bad for me I am cool with that. When people start showing up and taking my plate and asking me to step on the scale.... someone is getting a fork in the eye.

rereading some of her other posts I find myself spotting the makings of a call for censorship sometimes in the form of warnings of such a thing. It saddens me but I guess if she made noise about Teen Titans not getting a Age appropriate warning on it I should not be shocked when she faced with something truly unsettling and calls for jail time.

I can't bring myself to boycot her upcoming comic as I still very much respect her message about women in comics and I am willing to give it a shot... BUT I do really want to know Friends of Lulu's stance on censorship.

I think all censorship should be challenged no matter what it is and I will be donating to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund right after the holidays.

Anon, A Mouse said...


Anyone can report anything, so yes, there's conflicting reports on the issue of whether porn causes bad things to happen. The best one can do is to examine the evidence provided by these reports and judge whether there was an honest attempt to arrive at the truth or merely an attempt to propagandize one's own opinion.

I think it's evident that someone with Valerie's kind of viewpoint values other things above free speech; while I value it as an absolute, obviously Valerie is willing to allow speech to be not QUITE so free in exchange for whatever benefit she thinks squashing the material she doesn't like provides.

I'm not saying that Valerie is a bad person for her views, necessarily, but I strongly feel she is wrong in this regard, and thus, this post (as well as much of my blog).