We never knew that we were being entertained by so many sexual assault victims. In recent weeks, dozens of actresses have come forward to share their stories of being intimidated, harassed, and even raped by Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood elites. The stories are disturbing. Account after account of powerful men using their positions to demand sexual patronage from young, beautiful women.
These actresses’ courage inspired other women who have been the prey of sexual predators to also share their experiences with the Me Too hashtag. We’ve all been shocked to find out that so many women, even friends, have been the victims of sexual assault in one form or another.
I and others have pointed to the likelihood of a correlation between the prevalence of pornography in our society and the high percentage of women who have been victimized by sex predators. On Facebook, I wrote, “I can’t help but wonder how much porn, which portrays women as sex toys with a pulse, has to do with all of the #metoo posts.”
To my surprise, there have been people who took an issue with this allegation. Most of these individuals shared an article from Michael Castleman at Psychology Today titled “Evidence Mounts: More Porn, LESS Sexual Assault.”
I honestly don’t want to have to respond to this article. However, I was asked for a reply. In the next section, I’ll summarize Castleman’s article and then offer three responses.
A Response to Castleman
Michael Castleman’s argument is based upon a survey of research done by “natural experiments.” His thesis was, “Porn doesn’t incite men to sexual violence. It looks more like a safety valve that gives men an alternative outlet for potentially assaultive energy. Instead of attacking women, men who might commit that crime can masturbate to unlimited amounts of Internet porn.”
He referred to the statistics of rape cases in a country before and after pornography was widely available. According to his research, in each one of the countries studied, rape went down after porn was either legalized or made accessible through the internet. Finally, he concluded, “Those who feel offended or disgusted by pornography are entitled to their opinion. But they are not entitled to misrepresent its effects on men and society. Porn does NOT isolate men from significant others, nor does it contribute to rape and other sex crimes.” In summary, the argument is more porn, less sexual assault.
I will give three brief responses to this argument.
First, there is far more evidence that porn usage may have a direct correlation with sexual assault.
Of course, not every guy who uses porn is going to become a rapist. On the other hand, every guy who uses porn is being trained to view women as objects of sexual conquest.
In an article at Fight the New Drug, dozens of studies are referenced that presented data on how pornography changes the user’s perception of women. They wrote,
“Consumers might tell themselves that they aren’t personally affected by porn, that they won’t be fooled into believing its underlying messages, but studies suggest otherwise. There is clear evidence that porn makes many consumers more likely to support violence against women, to believe that women secretly enjoy being raped,  and to actually be sexually aggressive in real life.  The aggression may take many forms including verbally harassing or pressuring someone for sex, emotionally manipulating them, threatening to end the relationship unless they grant favors, deceiving them or lying to them about sex, or even physically assaulting them. ”
At Truth About Porn, they have compiled an impressive database of academic research on pornography and its effect on individuals, relationships, and society. I’ll share some of their findings below. (Note: Each one of these quotations represents a different study done by many different researchers in several different academic publications.)
First, on an individual’s sexual expectations:
In a study comparing male undergraduate students’ sexual beliefs, researchers found that “participants who viewed music videos of highly objectified female artists reported more adversarial sexual beliefs, more acceptance of interpersonal violence, and, at a level of marginal significance, more negative attitudes about sexual harassment than participants assigned to low-sexually objectifying music videos by the same female artists.”
Second, on how porn influences consent:
“A survey of 313 college students indicated that exposure to men’s magazines was significantly associated with lower intentions to seek sexual consent and lower intentions to adhere to decisions about sexual consent.”
Third, on how males who used pornography viewed victims of sexual violence:
“Males shown even nonviolent but sexually objectifying and degrading scenes of women, then subsequently exposed to rape scenes were more likely to indicate that the victim felt pleasure and ‘got what she wanted.’”
Fourth, on how pornography inspires violent fantasies:
A meta-analysis of 33 studies found that exposure to either nonviolent or violent porn increased behavioral aggression, including both violent fantasies and actual violent assaults. Violent pornography showed the strongest negative effect. The pattern was found in adults and minors and in studies that focused on perpetrators and victims.
Finally, on the psychology of violent pornography:
“Portrayals of women expressing pleasure while being aggressed against have significant implications in terms of the effects of pornography on consumers. Social cognitive theory1 suggests that whether an individual will model aggression learned from viewing a media text depends in large part on whether the act they observed was rewarded or punished. By extension, viewers of pornography are learning that aggression during a sexual encounter is pleasure-enhancing for both men and women.”
I have only scratched the surface of the evidence that exists which would refute Castleman’s article. He did not acknowledge or answer any objections to his argument. To his credit, he provided several references to support his claims, which leads me to my next point.
Second, his research is far from being conclusive.
I believe that any thinking person would do well to apply some skepticism to Castleman’s research. First of all, his research was weak. His references totaled seven different papers, which represented the work of only five researchers. To put that in perspective, this article has already referenced more papers and at least a dozen researchers.
Second, sexual assault crimes are the most under-reported among violent crimes. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 33.6% of rapes and sexual assault cases were reported to police in 2014. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provided even more insight to how infrequently sexual assault is reported. They wrote, “Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police (o). Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities (g).” Moreover, they cited evidence that 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses never come forward. At one university, 63.3% of self-reporting men confessed to committing repeated rapes.
I think that the problem of under-reporting should cause one to be cautious about placing too much confidence in a few studies which claim that cases of rape decreased. We could point to many issues outside of pornography which could explain the decrease. The most obvious issue, I believe, is that women are afraid or ashamed to come forward; therefore, we don’t even know about the majority of sexual assaults that occur.
Third, the prevalence of pornography in a society may contribute to the problem of under-reporting. According to Dr. Jill Manning, exposure to pornography not only causes males to objectify women, it even causes females to objectify themselves.
We live in a porn-saturated culture. It’s not only on hardcore web sites. Pornography exists, albeit in softer forms, in movies, TV, video games, and music. Take, for example, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the biggest party song of 2013. The lyrics included:
OK, now he was close
Tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal
Baby, it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you
You don’t need no papers
That man is not your mate
And that’s why I’m gon’ take you…
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
If media which objectifies women influences both males and females, then what is a song like that going to cause a woman to think about herself? When a college freshman is being pressured into sex by her boyfriend and she’s heard “you’re an animal… it’s in your nature… I know you want it…” a thousand times, what is she going to do? I think it is very possible that pornography is not only responsible for more aggressive behaviors from men but also for more under-reporting from sexual assault victims.
Third, Castleman’s argument comes dangerously close to committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
Time for a little logic. This fallacy is committed when the person falsely assumes that since B happened after A, then A must have caused B. The name of the fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, means “after this, therefore because of it.” It is also called the “false cause” fallacy.
Castleman appears to be committing this fallacy when he repeatedly claims “more porn, less sexual assault.” Perhaps he is only strongly stating a proposed correlation and, given the chance, he would clarify that. If that is the case, then it would be helpful for him to add some clarity to those claims.
The research which supports that conclusion that pornography usage is a destructive habit which fuels aggressive and violent behavior is overwhelming. In contrast, the research presented in “Evidence Mounts” was weak and lacked a nuanced interpretation of the data. Finally, the conclusion is reached by poor logic. Therefore, I find Michael Castleman’s argument to fail. More porn in a culture does not cause less sexual assaults.