War on porn

F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

We have the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, and now, the War on Porn.

In a Sept. 20 story in the Washington Post, writer Barton Gellman revealed that the FBI has signed onto the Bush administration’s War on Porn by recruiting agents for a special anti-obscenity squad. And they won’t just be looking for child porn, either, but pornography for grown-ups, made by grown-ups, featuring grown-ups.

Critics say the specter of 10 G-Men hunched over video screens watching porn princess Raylene diddle the pool boy may not be the best use of the FBI’s time. Advocates say it’s long past time the government cracked down because pornography can turn people into sexual predators.

Anti-porn crusades have been tried before, of course. During the Reagan administration, for example, attorney general Edwin Meese III convened a controversial study panel to examine the effects of pornography and suggest ways to prosecute purveyors. In the end, nothing much came of it.

Certain fundamentalist religious groups and strains of feminists never gave up, however, and now Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, spurred by congressional legislation, has taken up the cause.

But if sources for the Post story are any indication, FBI director Robert Mueller may have a tough time finding agents who take the job seriously. Not only are they more focused on, say, rooting out terrorists and making sure CEOs don’t run off with the shareholders’ dough, but an awful lot of the FBI no doubt have some personal experience with porn.

“Honestly,” Gellman quotes one, “most of the guys would have to recuse themselves.”

A danger to society?
Of course, if porn really is such a danger to society, the effort might be worth it. The problem is, the research doesn’t support the worry. And if recent studies by Danish psychologist Gert Martin Hald of the University of Aarhus stand up, it’s not likely to.

Hald recently conducted a yet-to-be-published study on the usage of porn by men and women in Denmark that showed porn has become a part of the sexual lives of most people.

In a representative sampling of 688 young people aged 18 to 30, he found that 98 percent of men and 80 percent of women had viewed porn. About half of those women used it at least once per month. Men used it much more often. About 38 percent of men used it three times per week or more, which makes you wonder what these guys do for a living.  

We’re not talking Playboy, either. Hald didn’t count such images as pornography. For the purposes of the study, porn included “any kind of material which aims to create or enhance sexual feelings or thoughts in the recipient and, at the same time, (a) contains explicit exposure and/or descriptions of the genitals and (b) clear and explicit sexual acts such as vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, bondage, sadomasochism, rape..." (Interestingly, this is pretty close to the definition used in many obscenity statutes.)

“Especially we were surprised that so many women had used pornography and used it on a regular basis,” Hald told MSNBC.com. Men don’t have much room for an increase. “Ceiling effect,” Hald joked. 

Men do use porn differently from women. Men tend to avoid “chick porn” that depicts deep relationships. They like porn women fast and loose and willing to go nasty, largely because men use porn as masturbation aids more often than women, who tend to view it with a partner. In fact, only 17 percent of female viewers in Hald’s study used it alone.

No hike in sex crimes
So if all those people are seeing all that porn, you'd think Denmark would be a chaos of sex crime. But it's not. In fact, in an influential 1991 study, Hald's (now deceased) compatriot Berl Kutchinsky of the University of Copenhagen concluded that in the United States, Denmark, Sweden and West Germany more and more porn did not equal more and more rape.

"In none of the countries did rape increase more than nonsexual violent crimes," he wrote. "This finding in itself would seem sufficient to discard the hypothesis that pornography causes rape."

But it didn't, of course, and some lab studies did show that exposure to especially violent or degrading porn beefed up male aggressiveness toward women, though a link with actual crime was tough to prove.

Eight years later, a lengthy 1999 paper by Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii's Pacific Center for Sex and Society and Ayako Uchiyama of Japan's National Institute of Police Science backed up Kutchinsky and found that more porn in Japan did not make for more sex crimes.

"In sum," they said, "the concern that countries allowing pornography would show increased sex crime rates due to modeling or that adolescents in particular would be negatively vulnerable to and receptive to such models or the society would be otherwise adversely affected has not been vindicated. It is certainly clear from our data and analysis that a massive increase in available pornography in Japan has been correlated with a dramatic decrease in sexual crimes."

An earlier study by Hald on the effects of porn might explain why. In this study, he exposed volunteer subjects — a representative sample larger than many other such studies — to video clips from those classics of cinema, Latex and Gigantic.

Hald's conclusions: “The study failed to confirm commonly feared adverse effects of exposure to pornography on nearly all measures. More specifically, the study failed to find any immediate main or stratified effects of exposure to pornography in regard to the following dependent variables: Acceptance of Interpersonal Violence, Gender Stereotypes, Negative Attitudes Toward Women, Positive Emotionality, Rape Myth Acceptance [belief in the myth that women secretly want to be raped], and Sexism.”

In other words, looking at porn did not turn men into rapists. It did not make them want to become rapists.

There was one potentially important exception. In a certain subset of people, those whose personality profiles ranked low on “agreeableness,” which Hald defines as “altruistic, modest, trusting, empathic, compliant, polite,” the porn did seem to “have a moderating effect on the relationship between Agreeableness and Rape Myth Acceptance (RMAS).” After performing statistical corrections, however, “all previous significant moderating effects of exposure to pornography turned non-significant i.e. disappeared.”

So what does that mean, exactly? I asked Hald if people who are not very agreeable come to accept the rape myth after viewing porn and might be more inclined to commit a sex crime.

“No. It is not a causal connection," he says. "Having a high level of rape supportive attitudes does not in and of itself lead to sexual aggression such as rape. Nor can you infer a causal connection between low agreeableness, viewing porn and having higher rape supportive attitudes.” Agreeableness, he says, is but one of many factors determining the RMAS score.

A popular pastime
So it seems adult porn consumed by adults doesn’t do much of anything other than get people worked up and make them wish their partners looked a lot more like Lexington Steele or Cinnabunz.

Well, you might say, Hald works in Denmark. And you know the Danish, all liberal and Euro and so very different from us. But Hald is now working at UCLA as a visiting researcher and, he says, “I strongly believe social context [and] norms are factors influencing the effects of pornography and consumption rates.”

But, he says, in both Denmark and the U.S. “we see time and again high prevalence rates of porn consumption, a general lack of research showing consistent adverse effects of pornography for the general consumer, and that individual differences are important mediators of effects. Research shows that this holds true for both the American and the Danish context.”

Maybe that special FBI squad should plant porn inside terrorist cells. You know, keep 'em busy.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.