porn, media, and doing your own homework

The National Post published an opinion piece about Parliament’s decision to investigate the impact of violent porn on children, women and men. The opinion piece was highly critical of this decision as utterly pointless based on the “evidence” of science.

The author appears to have assumed that readers would not engage in one very simple act that would cast serious doubt on her entire perspective. The simple act of clicking on the links she provided.

Many times in my articles I provide links to back up the claims I make. I am not under any delusion that people are going to blindly believe me, nor would I want them to. I have this lofty expectation that people will take the time to investigate important issues for themselves instead of simply trusting the claims of others.

But sometimes writers include links to give the appearance that the links support their claims, but they must secretly hope that the reader will never actually click on the link. I strongly suspect this is precisely one such instance. Let’s take a look at her link. She writes,

Despite Conservative MP Arnold Viersen’s suggestion otherwise, there is no causal link between sexual violence and pornography. It’s something both far-left feminists and rightious-right [sic] Bible thumpers have argued for years, but lots of scientific research shows it simply isn’t true.

As she describes it, the evidence is in, the science is settled, and the only people prone to still raising the issue are the dreaded “extremists,” especially those darn Bible thumpers. We all know how ignorant they are!

Especially when the “scientific research” has proven them wrong. Not just some scientific evidence, “lots” of it. When we click on the link we arrive at an article entitled, Watching porn does not cause negative attitudes toward women, contentious Canadian study finds. Contentious? Pardon me? That hardly sounds like a “settled” issue. That hardly sounds as though it establishes beyond any shadow of a doubt “there is no causal link between sexual violence and pornography.” This hardly sounds like “lots of scientific research.”

This is a single study, and it is contentious. Even within the article another scholar is quoted,

One prominent, anti-pornography academic, however, charges that the study is at odds with the vast majority of research in the area, akin to denying climate change or the harms of smoking.

So the author of this opinion piece managed to dig up a “contentious” study that “is at odds with the vast majority of research in the area” and concluded, based on that single outlier study alone, that “lots of scientific research” confirms what the study says.

Hardly.

So let’s look at that study. I believe this is the study that is being referenced, though there isn’t a specific reference in the article itself (grrrr) so we are left doing a bit of guesswork. How good is this research? On the one hand, it has some obvious strengths. The sample size is massive, and about as properly random as one is likely to see. It is based on the American population, so it lacks geographical diversity, but that’s not a huge drawback for this subject.

[The study involved multiple authors including Taylor Kohut. Remember that name…]

But, the study has an absolutely massive flaw; the results are all based on self-reporting. Not only that, but self-reporting on questions that are so obviously politically loaded that one is almost morally obligated to toe the party line. I am firmly convinced that self-reporting, especially of unverifiable things like politically loaded ideologies, is often mostly useless. People can say just about anything and nobody can independently verify what they say. How many self-proclaimed Christians go around living in a manner that is utterly inconsistent with Christianity? And how many men who secretly fantasize about rough sex with women are going to publicly acknowledge that they see women as objects for their personal satisfaction?

[Update: Ok, so I overstated the unreliability of self-reporting. In some circumstances, and for some research questions, it can be sufficiently reliable. In a case like this, however, it’s just bad. If you find that a study relies on self-reporting take a careful look at the questions that were asked of the participants.]

No, self-reporting does not give me a whole lot of confidence, especially considering the nature of the questions. Here are a few of them:

  • Do you think of yourself as a feminist or not?
  • Do you agree or disagree with this statement: Women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men?
  • These items asked participants if they thought that it should be possible for a woman to obtain a legal abortion under different circumstances

There is also reason to believe the data itself is not representative of the general population. According to the study, “22.82% (n = 5,715) of participants indicated that they had viewed a pornographic movie within the past year.” Seriously? That’s it? Less than a quarter of participants watched porn in the past year? The study even acknowledges that this is suspicious in the next paragraph because it does not take into account the sweeping changes in the porn landscape that arose with the advent of the internet. It may be entirely possible that only a quarter of participants watched a porn “movie” in the traditional sense of the idea (this study was started in the 1970’s after all) but that’s not really asking the question that is most pressing in today’s world. Internet porn is a far bigger problem than, and has taken on an entirely different form compared to, the porn of your parents and grandparents. That the study doesn’t account for this makes it a potentially useful assessment of the effects of porn as it existed 40-50 years ago. Before the internet. Before smartphones.

[The average age of participants was 45 years, according to the study. Another indicator that this study is not exactly focused on today’s version of porn.]


Ok, so the first link she provided was, to put it mildly, at odds with most of the research on the subject and fraught with methodological challenges. Not necessarily false, but not exactly giving us the kind of information we can confidently use to evaluate the challenges society is facing today. That the research is obviously outdated makes Parliament’s decision to investigate the issue all the more relevant; to test and prove/disprove archaic studies such as these.

But that’s not all. The author at the National Post provides even more links. For the sake of brevity I will not consider each of them in depth; I already spilled a reasonable amount of electrons investigating and reporting on the first, and most important, link in the line of reasoning.

The second link was meant to prove another point:

There’s a reason psychology associations refuse to include porn and sex addictions alongside drug addiction in clinical guidelines — not because there isn’t evidence they can be addictive in some people, but because psychologists don’t want it conflated with physical addiction or the word to be bandied about too loosely.

The point she is trying to establish is that the APA hasn’t labeled porn addiction as a real addiction. However she clearly implies, right there in her article, that there is evidence that porn can be addictive in some people.

So she seems willing to acknowledge that porn can be addictive for some people, which on its own would seem to be sufficient reason for Parliament to investigate it. Unless porn addicts are somehow disposable? Not really human? Not worth caring for?

But what about the APA’s unwillingness to label porn as an addiction? When we visit the link we find some fascinating information. First of all, as the article itself says,

Whether or not you think it’s moral, the fact is, people like porn. Various international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50 percent to 99 percent among men, and 30 percent to 86 percent among women,

[The astute reader will note that 50% – 99% of men, and 30% to 86% of women is a far cry from the 23% noted in the previously quoted study; casting even further doubt on its validity.]

When porn use is so ubiquitous, the question of addiction serves as a red herring. Who cares if people are “addicted” in some psychologically precise sense of the word; they are getting their fill of the stuff and we need to know if that is having a negative impact on civilization. Even somebody who is not technically an alcoholic will still see the effects of alcohol if they have enough of it over time. Society is widely exposed to porn – addicted or “under control” – so it is in our best interest to understand what the effects are.

Parliament has made the right decision.


The author of the opinion piece goes on to write,

And while evidence is admittedly somewhat mixed, there is as yet no clear proof that pornography fuels sexual violence — and actually some studies actually suggest the exact opposite. There’s even competing evidence whether watching porn is good or bad for relationships.

Three links are provided in this one paragraph.

  1. The first link allegedly points to evidence that “the exact opposite” is the case. Opposite of what? That porn fuels sexual violence. So the opposite would be the claim that porn actually lessens sexual violence. If you go to the link you find no such claim. The title of the article is a rather modest “porn doesn’t lead to rape culture” which is quite different from claiming “porn diminishes the rape culture.” The author of that article merely points out that all violent crime has been on the decline, including sexually violent crime, but does not claim that porn is causing the decline. At best, that article claims there is “no link,” it certainly does not claim porn is somehow healing the problem. The article alleges a long list of benefits from porn, but reduced sexual violence is not on that list. Again, this is flagrant misrepresentation.
  2. Another study is presented that “defies conventional wisdom” in much the same way that the first study I looked at was “contentious.” Interestingly, it’s the same author – Taylor Kohut – who was referenced for both studies. And, as with the previous study by the same author, “… some researchers are already criticizing the new study’s methodology, and noting its results conflict with years of data – and the experience of therapists and marriage counsellors.” Skeptical yet?
  3. The last link shows some research indicating that couples who view porn are twice as likely to divorce. If you follow the links far enough you end up here, at the actual source material. Here’s one key difference about this study compared to the previous one I looked at in depth; it is based on objective, measurable, data; not subjective self-reporting. Any person can claim to be a feminist, and there is no way to independently verify that. But divorce is an objective measure that can be independently measured and cannot be faked. That alone is a very good start.

But there is another aspect to this that the author seems to deliberately gloss over; whether porn fuels sexual violence is only one of the possible effects. The list of effects that have been investigated over the years is far longer than that. It would be like me saying, “Science has found no correlation between Fentanyl use and violent attacks involving Samurai swords.” Would you then conclude that Fentanyl isn’t all that bad? Or would you be inclined to expand the line of investigation just a wee bit beyond that fairly narrow criteria? Even if Fentanyl is not associated with sword attacks doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other negative effects, and even if porn is not associated with sexual violence does not mean it doesn’t have other negative effects.

[By the way, there is the question of reporting. Just because reports of sexual violence are down does not mean sexual violence is down. It could be that in today’s world it is more common for young men and women to both assume that violent sex is somehow “normal.” Thus neither would be inclined to report that which they think is not a crime. See the case of Jian Ghomeshi for some of the confusion on this issue. He, apparently, thought it was “normal” and consensual. They did not, but they also didn’t report it for a long time. Same with Bill Cosby. Just because reports are down…]


In summary, this opinion piece was fraught with problems, but for the casual reader those problems likely would have gone unnoticed. And it is this unwillingness / inability of readers to actually investigate the alleged “evidence” supporting a person’s claim that is a major problem today. So when you see me provide links in my writing, please follow them. Maybe not all of them (sometimes I go overboard) but at least do some of the follow up research on your own.

Think for yourself. Do not blindly trust anybody, even your’s truly.

And those readers of this opinion piece who do think for themselves, and take the time to actually click on the links provided, will find that the scientific evidence weighs heavily in favour of the conclusion that porn has harmful effects. Maybe not necessarily rape, per se, but clearly a lot of harmful effects. But there is much more that we could possibly understand, especially in light of the rapidly changing face of porn. Studies from decades ago are certainly useful, but we need to keep the research project alive and well as the face of the monster changes with time.

[As a side note, the research she provided did not support her conclusions; how much more do you think other research, that she selectively chose not to provide, might cast doubts on her thesis? Perhaps the case against her opinions is far worse than what we have already seen? Food for thought. Stay tuned for my forthcoming book.]

More work can always be done, and should be, which is why Parliament’s decision on this issue is critically timed, and critically important. Kudos to them for making the right decision at the right time, contra the naysayers like the one we’ve just considered.

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