The ‘porn causes rape’ debate

I recently received an email from change.org on behalf of a user for an Internet petition to make ‘rape porn’ illegal. This bothered me in quite a few ways, and I’ve decided to write about something that I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while – porn (and as a really brief aside, video games).

To start off with, I do want to say that I view rape as a serious issue. As a horrible experience that no one should go through. Sadly the statistics are not the easiest thing to pin down or analyse as rape is described as one of the most under reported crimes there is. And you can certainly see why given the level of rape convictions per reported rape we have, even with under reporting.

Now, first and foremost – if you read the UK Extreme Pornography legislation, it already quite specifically details issues of consent and issues of harm. Basically, it already says porn can’t show people genuinely getting hurt, nor can it show excessively realistic acts. But the problem of the matter is this applies in the UK, we don’t have any control over the rest of the world. So, the petition is talking about access to online materials, and as the Extreme Pornography act already states – persecution of those in possession of materials. It does seem to me that we’ve already got it all covered then. I don’t think you could say porn showing someone actually getting raped isn’t harming. The problem then is fake representations of rape – where still no one is getting hurt, they consented – and how difficult it might be to tell if these are fake or not. I do at least like the law’s emphasis on these rules being there for the safety of industry workers first, then for societal safety.

As an interesting aside there is a UK website called BackLash, which has some points against the Pornography legislation, and thinks it could be done better. They’re also pro-porn. One of the important points I wanted to highlight is the current emphasis on the porn user, rather than the porn maker being legally responsible – which they think should change. It really has a lot of interesting things to say about the issue, such as pointing out that we still have very hardcore horror films in the mainstream (think of the range of ‘torture porn’ films of recent years) while sex is less acceptable. I think this is pretty funny considering lots of people have sex, and not so many murder people. But anyway, have a good look through the website.

I don’t think that porn is the root of this evil, and what more bothers me about this petition is the underlying current of ‘porn is bad’ especially from a lot of user comments. It unfortunately comes across as over-zealous and narrow minded “I don’t like it, therefore if you do you’re disgusting’ rhetoric.  A quick Google of “Does porn cause rape?” can easily find plenty articles and studies, a lot of them positive. The articles I’ve read disputing the fact that porn causes rape have a lot too them, with actual studies, and that my own personal opinion takes over there. You can read them yourself.

One of the first articles I read from The Register, “The freakonomics of smut: Does it actually cause rape?” talks a lot about this interesting paper “PORN UP, RAPE DOWN” by Anthony D’Amato. The article has a little history about politically driven studies into porn and violence in America that was quite interesting.

So, while it’s simple, the statistics are in the paper – as other papers have found as well – increased access to the Internet – and porn – decreases violence. I think this is a really interesting thing we need to look at, along with our use of the Internet in general. I’ve been talking part in a study at the moment with Digital Trends Panel to monitor peoples Internet usages to try and get an actual true picture of how we use the Internet – I’m really looking forward to the results.

I also wanted some reading from different, possibly less sympathetic sources to see how they read. They Psychology Today article “Does Pornography Cause Social Harm?” admits more reluctantly that while porn isn’t problem free, it doesn’t seem to be causing rape. You can also read “The Sunny Side of Smut”.

I have pretty clear personal feelings on porn. I like porn and I like the freedom of porn. Porn for me is about sexual fantasy and curiosity – both things which are positive. For a lot of porn users, what they watch or indeed read (as there is a lot of written material you can call porn out there, which is never really given the spotlight – even simply the huge amount of sexual fan-fiction written by interesting and curious young men and women) is something they can’t or won’t indulge in. It’s pure fantasy.

Another point I think is valid, in a round about way, is the number of porn users to the number of criminals or rapes. Another quick Google search “How many people watch porn?” gets a number of interesting results. According to a 2009 Guardian article, all men in their twenties have watched porn. Via http://www.MattSingley.com/ I found the following statistics from MBA Online.

Porn Stats

From MBA Online.

Even at a glance you can see porn is huge. Lots of people do it. Both men and women. I really don’t think given the millions of people viewing porn, that it’s sensible to say at this point that porn makes people rape or makes people violent. The honest chances are someone who raped would have done it regardless of having watched a porn on the internet. The only saddening thing about the search was the focus on men and porn – as lots of people still seem to have a problem with understanding that women can and should like porn too. One of the easiest things I could think of to demonstrate is FanFiction.net statistics, given that a huge number of fan-fiction authors are female. FanFiction.net has five different age/content ratings it uses, with three of them containing minor, some and explicit sexual content respectively. I’ve put together a quick table of the top five fan-fiction genres in the book category below.

Fan-fiction stats

Fan-fiction statistics

As you can see, these higher maturity ratings make up more than half of all fan-fiction for four out of the five most popular categories. As a whole, over all five together, fan-fiction rated T and M make up just over 60 percent. Fanfiction.net is still only one website however, there are many more dedicated to fan-fiction and original fiction all over the Internet which contains sexual content from people of a variety of ages who enjoy writing, and fantasy.

I also think the continued huge success, outside the Internet, of the romance and erotic fiction genres also says a lot. Is reading about it really so much more permissible than watching it, when both are still not real life? We’re very much interested in things like rape fantasy and BDSM there – that doesn’t mean we’d permit it to happen in real life, which is the really important part.

I do think this really goes to show who really watches and reads porn, and why porn can’t be simplified, looked down on, and demon-ised as it is. I think people need to try and move beyond their initial ‘knee jerk’ reaction against porn as something they personally won’t do. People watch and read porn for a huge variety of reasons. Out of curiosity. To find out information. Because they enjoy it – and there isn’t anything wrong with doing so. Embracing the fact that other people have different desires, and that they have some way of experiencing that or expressing that is a great part of sex positivism. All the huge, crazy varieties of sexual desire out there – while there’s a lot I’m not into – I still think it’s a great indicator of our personal freedom and happiness.

Now that I’ve talked an awful lot about porn I want to get back to the original problem – a call to ban access to ‘rape porn’ on the Internet. Here’s the thing…Internet censorship does not work. And nor should it. The recent Pirate Bay banning easily proved that – at least hundreds of user ran mirrors sprang up all over the Internet. The only serious way to do it would be a much more aggressive restriction of Internet access, such as in North Korea. There, you can’t actually get to the outside Internet, just the government run internal network Kwangmyong.

As this rather interesting “Global Internet User Survey 2012” shows and Wikipedia handily summarises, a large percentage of people believe that access to the Internet should be a basic human right – as it should be, given that it’s a huge place to find information and people that you’d have never been able to previously. Sadly, the survey also has people both in favour of free speech and censorship, and admitting that increased government control of the Internet would limit free speech and access to information – which doesn’t seem to fit together.

Moving on from here then, what do we do, if not censorship?

A lot of this is pretty straight forward. We have a lot of industry examples now of how to do it. A large part of the problem and argument for some is children and young people being exposed to this. This can be fought on two fronts – by continuing with proper, open and inclusive sex education to help young people. Young people that you cannot stop from being curious about sex and their own bodies – who should know that the breadth and depth of desire and fantasy out there is okay. That and regulating aspects of porn on the Internet.

Restricting how porn is advertised just like cigarettes and alcohol would be a step. Encouraging safe Internet use, and computers that children have access to needing both security and safety programs installed. Used correctly with a good password this should filter out a lot of content.

Another big aspect of children and young people being exposed to porn that I think is really important is that the onus of protection is on their parents, teachers and adults responsible for them to monitor them on the Internet. A large variety of websites that young people use state quite explicitly in their user agreements (those ones that no ones reads but probably should) an age requirement. On Facebook’s user agreement it clearly states it should not be used by anyone under the age of 13. FanFiction.net’s user agreement is the same – 13. As is Tumblr’s.

That message then, I think is pretty clear. If you’re not prepared to sit with your young child and use the Internet with them – they probably shouldn’t be on it. Speaking as a hip, young 24 year old who didn’t have a computer or Internet access until I was well into secondary school (High school) – it didn’t kill me. There are these things, you see…called books. Great for information too until you grow up a bit. Otherwise in a lot of ways, even if it isn’t porn – there’s no way your children won’t eventually read something inappropriate or upsetting, like a very upsetting news story on animal vivisection with pictures.

I can’t stress how important I think this is to be honest – this same thing has really bothered me about video games in recent years. By and large the current gen and upcoming gen of video games are aimed at adults and young adults with maturity and money. Children shouldn’t be playing these things, they have long since stopped being the driving force behind the games industry – if they even ever were. And I really think the naive or willfully deluded parents who continue to buy their children 18 certificate games are the ones at fault – not the games developers who’ve put adult themes in their games.

That’s why the certification system exists. A common complaint against this is that they or their child are ‘mature’ enough for these 18 rated games. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a child shouldn’t really be ‘mature’ enough for an 18 – it’s not a good thing that they are. And honestly, it’s not like the games industry will stop making games any time soon, I’m pretty sure most people could wait the few years it takes them to grow up – considering they’ll have decades and decades as adults to play video games. Or indeed access the Internet.

Another interesting aside, coming from the Daily Mail of all places, is Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman saying that we should have more representations of relationships and sex in media for young people. I think this is a really interesting idea, actually. Giving young people and children ‘good’, healthy and age appropriate material as they’re growing up, maybe before they find themselves on the wide open freedom of the Internet. If you want them to have good ideas about sex, relationships, bodies etc – then give them some.

Finally, as a quick aside moving away from children, I did want to talk about the second big issue that a lot of people have, women in porn. A large portion of porn is aimed at white men – shot in a particular way for the male viewers enjoyment. It doesn’t do much for women or to represent women. I do think that fan-fiction has the advantage here in it’s huge female writer and audience count, and it’s also why open education – not just about the basics – but about desire, lust, fantasy and all these things that girls have just as much as boys. The idea that it’s okay to want to have sex, that they aren’t a ‘slut’ if they do want to have sex, as long as you’re safe.

But the porn landscape has been changing a little at a time for quite a while, opinions just need to catch up. We now have websites such as GoodForHer.com with their Feminist Porn Awards. The Guardian featured an article about porn made by women for women. I think this would be a really great thing to encourage so women can have porn aimed at them, that informs on their experience and that they can enjoy it. Erika Lust, a female porn director is quoted as saying “It is a prejudice to say that women don’t like porn…In mainstream porn everything is about male pleasure and women are objects…We produce adult movies. We publish erotic books and magazines. Our works speak about sex, lust and passion. We enjoy exciting you and exciting your mind.” That sounds awesome, surely? As another female director points out, we’ve had a sex toy revolution, why not a porn revolution?

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