Persecuting Pornography?

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Persecuting Pornography?Persecuting Pornography?

by Raywat Deonandan
June 21, 2004

This is an original Podium article. A version has since been published in the June 30, 2004, issue of The Ottawa Citizen on page A19, under the title, “Looking For A Link Between Pornography And Sex Crimes: The Jury Is Still Out.” Subtitle: “Banning porn for everyone may not reduce sexual assaults.”


CREDIT: The Canadian Press

Faulty Logic: The rape and murder of 10-year-old Holly Jones of Toronto was appalling, but the self-serving attempt by the convicted killer to blame pornography for his crime is hardly scientific evidence to support banning it.

At a dinner party some years ago, an anti-pornography activist announced to the table: “Do you realize that close to 100 per cent of all convicted sex offenders look at porn?” She meant it as a rationale for criminalizing the production and possession of pornography. Clearly, she believed that porn and criminal sexual behaviour are inextricably and causally linked.

I reflexively responded, “Yes, and 100 per cent of convicted sex offenders have also eaten bread. Should we ban bread, too?”

My response was unnecessarily flippant, and I regret it. But my point is an important one: When dealing with social factors which may or may not predict criminal actions, the application of a bit of logic is needed.

However, when the topic is as sensitive as sex crime, it is easy to let emotions overcome one’s thought processes. Where pornography is concerned, activists often display a polarizing evangelical zeal; and zealotry and reasoned discourse don’t mix.

In strictly scientific terms, to determine either association or causation, a sound methodological approach must be employed. In addition to the question of how many sex criminals view pornography, we need to ask how many non-offenders also view such material. Consider my asinine example of bread. If indeed sex offenders eat bread disproportionately more often and in greater quantities than do non-offenders, it is probably safe to conclude that there is an association between the commission of sex offences and the consumption of bread.

Of course, this is likely not the case, since both groups — offenders and non-offenders alike — probably eat bread in equal proportions. But do they also consume pornography in equal proportions? That is the sociological question worth answering, and one that should be examined in the debate over public policy.

A 2003 study by University of Toronto psychiatrist Ron Langevin found that “sex killers” collect pornography more often than do other kinds of sex criminals (i.e., sadists and what Dr. Langevin calls “general sex offenders” and “sexual aggressives”). According to the results of this study, the worst of sex criminals use pornography disproportionately more than do the less violent criminals. But these results tell us nothing about whether sex criminals use porn more often than members of the general public.

Even if it did give us such information, Langevin’s study, and others like it, fail to tell us what we really need to know: is pornography a major contributing factor to the creation of sex criminals? This is the old and highly problematic distinction between association and causality. For example, shark attacks and ice cream consumption are associated, since they both tend to happen on warm days; but no one will ever suggest that ice cream causes shark attacks. Similarly, an individual’s deviant sexual tastes may compel him to seek out the pleasures of certain kinds of marginalized materials, such as child pornography; or it may be the pornography that encouraged the deviant tastes in the first place.

If the former, then no laws seeking to eliminate pornography will make our society safer. If the latter, on the other hand, then maybe the activists are on to something. In such a case, the next logical question to ask is whether pornography can create deviants from otherwise normal people, or does it only act upon those with already formed perverse dispositions? If the latter, then the tougher question is posed: is it in society’s best interests to criminalize a thing for all because it might cause a handful of unstable individuals to react violently?

Convicted child killer Michael Briere claimed that pornography prompted him to commit his foul act, the rape and murder of Holly Jones. “The more I saw it, the more I longed for it in my heart,” he testified.

On its face, such testimony seems to confirm the enabling effect of pornography. But one must accept the words of such a man with a grain of salt, as it is possible that he is seeking to deflect blame from his own pathology, giving the anti-porn lobby what it most wants to hear. One murderer’s word cannot be the full substance of a policy analysis.

Another analytical approach is to consider crime rates at the population level, relating them to the relative strictness of the region’s pornography control laws. One of several such studies, a 1996 review of sex crimes and state pornography laws by Dr. Charles Winick of CUNY’s sociology department, found that that there is no measurable link between a population’s exposure to sexually explicit media and rates of reports of rape and other sex offences. However, even this observation needs to be considered critically.

Something scientists call “the ecological fallacy” makes it problematic to use this kind of broad population perspective to make conclusions about individual behaviour.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, other socio-behavioural factors which are likely to contribute to sexual crime remain largely unaddressed in the social policy forum. Alcohol, for example, is strongly associated with sex crime, especially on college campuses. Alcohol is also frequently a factor in non-sexual violent crimes and is a common factor associated with the biggest non-disease killer in Western civilization: traffic accidents

Yet alcohol may be freely purchased and possessed by any adult. It can be argued that alcohol, like porn, serves little social value. Yet there are renewed calls for the prosecution of anyone possessing pornography, while alcohol continues to be celebrated as a cultural staple. The likely reason for this disparity is that pornography, unlike alcohol (for the most part), carries with it unique emotional content that offends individual moral sensibilities. The challenge is to set aside those sensibilities while assessing the data.

Putting aside the inevitable discussion of whether any proposed anti-porn legislation constitutes the creation of “thought crime,” the argument presented is in no way meant to support those who violate children — or anyone unable to give free sexual consent — and those who manufacture and sell images of such violation. Rather, as a responsible society it behooves us to commit our energies and resources where they can do the most good while least impinging upon our liberties and the public purse.

Those who seek to sexually abuse society’s most vulnerable members, on camera and off, should be weeded out and punished. But will the expenditure of millions on the prosecution of those who have only viewed sexual imagery truly result in a safer society? The evidence must be assessed rationally before such a question can be answered. When emotion is pushed aside and the issue looked at with as much dispassion as is possible, given the horrific events of the Holly Jones affair, it seems that the case has not yet been sufficiently made for the prosecution of those who simply view pornography.


Raywat Deonandan is co-owner and operator of The Podium magazine and author of Divine Elemental. He lives in Toronto.