Is Pornography Harmless?

According to the FBI, the pornography industry in America grosses $10 billion a year. Moreover, there are more outlets for hardcore pornography in America than there are McDonalds’ restaurants. That’s a pretty frightening figure, considering how ubiquitous McDonalds is.

The situation in Australia is much the same, with pornography being a multimillion dollar a year industry. And the effects of pornography in Australia are just as pronounced as in America. Most of us know of the sex killer Ted Bundy. Before he was executed in Florida he confessed to the tremendous affect pornography had on his mind and spirit.

In a similar case, the Sydney mass murderer Wade Frankum was also found to be a pornography addict. He was a keen reader of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, and was a regular viewer of X-rated videos. He also enjoyed sexually violent novels like American Psycho, of which he had a “well-thumbed” copy lying on his bed-side table. Such cases could be repeated at length.

But the civil libertarians of course will insist that no link exists between pornography and sexual violence. Is there such a link? Research indicates that some kind of connection does exist. Important studies have been undertaken by leading experts in North America, including Dr Dolf Zillmann at Indiana University, Dr Jennings Bryant at the University of Houston, James Weaver at the University of Kentucky, Dr Edward Donnerstein at the University of Wisconsin, Dr Neil Malamuth at UCLA and Dr James Check at York University in Canada.

Now the conclusions drawn from their research do not demonstrate an airtight cause and effect relationship between pornography and sexual violence. This is due to the simple reason that it is nearly impossible to conclusively prove cause and effect in any social science research. But the evidence gathered is enough to say that there seems to be a very real correlation between the two. As Dr Zillmann has said: the negative effects of pornography have been more consistently proven than the links between smoking and lung cancer.

Let me mention the details of just one recent US study. In the early 1980s doctors Zillmann and Bryant, both experimental psychologists, randomly selected 160 men and women. Half were shown non-pornographic films for one hour per week for six weeks; the other half were exposed to x-rated pornography over the same period. The 160 were then questioned on their attitudes to certain social and sexual matters. In the group exposed to pornography, dissatisfaction with the current sexual partner and callousness to victims of violent sexual crime was greater than in the control group.

In Australia similar convictions are being expressed. One leading pornography expert, Dr John Court, has written extensively on porn and its damaging effects. One of Dr Court’s studies looked at the correlation between increased reports of rape and liberalisation of pornography laws. He found that between 1964 and 1974 after liberalisation, rape reports in the U.S. increased by 139%; in England by 94%; in Australia by 160% and in New Zealand by 107%.

In comparable countries where censorship remained strict, during the same years, the increase in rape reports was far smaller. For example, in white South Africa only a 28% increase was discovered.

Japan, which exercised a more restrictive policy on pornography, actually registered a decrease of 49% in reported rape cases.

In a single country, Australia, one state which liberalised its censorship laws between 1964 and 1974 – South Australia – had a 284% increase in rape reports while another that did not liberalise its laws – Queensland – showed only a 23% increase.

Says Dr Court, “Clearly a reduction in serious sexual offences has not been realized through relaxation of pornography laws.” Moreover, there is no indication that demand for pornography has declined in any place where liberalisation has been fostered.

Other Australians have noted the harmful effects of pornography. Last year Victorian Bar member Dr Don Thomson concluded a major study by stating that “pornography is causally related to sexually violent behaviour”. Prosecutor for the Crown, Richard Read went even further, arguing:

“With the present level of violent crime and violent sexual crime, the onus of proving that there is no significant link between pornography and imitative criminal behaviour, and depicted violence and imitative criminal behaviour, lies squarely with those who assert, contrary to human experience, that there is no such causal link.”

Read goes on to say: “Except in exceptional circumstances, I do not believe in censorship, but common sense dictates that we have gone too far and some restrictions need to be put in place”.

Even Dr Thomson, who calls himself a civil libertarian, agrees: “I accept that there are circumstances when the cost to the community of the damage caused by people exercising their civil rights outweighs the benefits. The harm caused by videos and films depicting sexual violence may be one such circumstance and some sort of censorship may be necessary.”

Moreover, it is not just the conservative camp that is calling for some sort of censorship. Benjamin Spock has said: “For decades I was an uncompromising civil libertarian and scorned the hypocrisy involved in the enforcement of obscenity laws. But recent trends in movies, literature, and art toward what I think of as shock obscenity, and the courts’ acceptance of it, have made me change my position . . . particularly in view of other brutalizing trends”.

D.H. Lawrence, who was clearly no prude in his own writings, made a similar comment: “Even I would censor genuine pornography, rigorously. It would not be very difficult. . . You can recognize it by the insult it offers, invariably, to sex, and to the human spirit. Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt to it. This is unpardonable…”

I’m sure that most civil libertarians would be surprised to learn that D.H Lawrence had actually advocated censorship. Yet censorship, far from being a manifest evil as the libertarians would have us believe, is an inherent part of any free and stable society. Indeed, censorship is a defining act of civilisation. Societies cannot exist without proscribing certain things. When we outlaw racial discrimination or drunk driving or price-fixing, we are defining who we are. And just because we proscribe drunk driving does not mean that we’re on the slope to forbidding driving. Only the weak-minded find it impossible to make such simple distinctions.

Yet the skeptics will continue to maintain that pornography is “victimless”. But is it victimless? After the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography released its report in 1986, the White House and Justice Department received more than 80,000 letters asking that the report’s 26 recommendations be implemented. The letters make it clear that pornography is not victimless. Let me read from just three letters, which are representative of the 80,000.

A California woman wrote: “I have a very personal reason for wanting action to be taken. I was molested by my older brother when I was a child. It all started when he and a friend acquired some pornographic magazines. After looking at and becoming aroused by those pictures (he was thirteen or fourteen years old), he began to explore and experiment on me. Unfortunately, it did not stop with me. I’ve recently learned that for many years he also explored and experimented with my two sisters and a brother. . .”

An Illinois woman wrote: “Several years ago, my husband became ‘addicted’ to pornography. He frequently visited the adult bookstores in our town – watched X-rated pornographic films and bought magazines. This escalated until he started trying everything out on me in our bedroom. I tried to understand that he had a problem, but after one and a half years of fear and three visits to specialists to correct damage he had done to my female organs, I filed for divorce. . . . Considering that my husband is a respected businessman and that no one could tell from looking at him what degrading acts he could do in bed, I’d hate to think what damage pornographic materials are doing to other families.”

Finally, this tragic story of a 9-year-old Florida boy. He was convicted of first degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and three counts of sexual battery in connection with the torture death of an 8-month-old girl. The brother of the 9-year old boy testified that, in sexually assaulting the infant with a pencil and coat hanger, they were imitating actions they had seen in their mother’s sex magazine.

Today we live in a society that greatly depends on the marketing and selling of images. Advertisers know this only too well. What we read, what we hear, and especially what we see, has a marked impact upon us, even when we think that we have our guard up. Especially to the more vulnerable, like our children, images can be both seductive and destructive. Those who argue otherwise are clearly mistaken. As Irving Kristol once put it:

“If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book (or a play or a movie). You have to believe, in other words, that all art is morally trivial and that, consequently, all education is morally irrelevant.”

We owe it to our families, our children and our loved ones to do all we can to take a stand against the destructive influence of pornography. The going will not be easy, but the war is winnable, and is already being won on many fronts. And if we devote as much attention to putting a halt to moral pollution as we do to environmental pollution, the results can only be encouraging.

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