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Health

Porn, rape, and a 'natural experiment'

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 2, 2013 12:24 PM
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Credit: Plp Update: To be explicit, I'm not claiming that the correlation is causal. Rather, I'm pointing out that the explosion in porn use does not seem to have led to a concomitant explosion in sex crimes, which would have been the prediction by social conservatives and radical feminists if they could have known of the extent of penetration of pornography into culture and private lives over the next 20 years in 1990. I am almost literally one of the last of the generation of young men for whom the quest for pornography was an adventure. One could say that I had the misfortune of my adolescence overlapping almost perfectly with the last few years prior to the 'pornographic singularity.' I speak here of the internet, circa 1995 and later. Prior to this era of the 'pornographic explosion' one often had to rely upon a lax or absentee father of a friend, from whom the porn was 'borrowed,' and then returned with the owner none the wiser. My youngest brother, who is 15 years my junior, would no doubt find my escapades as a 15 year old bizarre in the extreme (though I believe I did not view video pornography until I was 16). In fact, I recall realizing that something radical had occurred when visiting my family and observing my brother, who was 8 at the time,

deleting porn spam from his Hotmail account. 

Porn as nuisance rather than treasure would have amazed my adolescent self. It seems plausible that the generation after 1995 has witnessed levels of aggregate porn consumption orders of magnitude greater than that before 1995. This is a massive natural social experiment. As with any social experiment you have anecdata-driven 'moral panic' pieces in the press which don't seem to align well with what you see in the world at large. Mo Costandi pointed me today to one such piece about porn 're-wiring' the brains of young boys and making them sexually dysfunctional. Standard stuff. On Twitter I pointed out to Mo semi-seriously that actually crime had declined since widespread pornographic consumption in the mid-1990s. Quite reasonably Mo inquired specifically about sex crimes. Fair enough. As it happens the FBI has records of 'forcible rapes' reported to the police in the USA going back to 1960. Here they are in absolute numbers:

rape.png

And now standardized by the populations of the decennial Census (and per 1,000,000):

rape2.png

The problem, from what I can see, is that the only young males who talk at length about their porn consumption to professionals and the media are those who have problems with that consumption. In contrast, for most men the consumption of porn isn't a major issue, it's just part of their life, or not, depending on the situation, and at most it comes up in a humorous manner. Additionally, my own suspicion is that the perversity of online pornography is driven by the fact that perverts are disproportionately represented among the small minority of men who pay for porn in this day and age. On a more scientific note, some of the fears of porn destroying the male ability and inclination to have sex with women* could be alleviated if people were more aware of the concept of an alief. One can illustrate the relationship of an alief to sex rather easily. Imagine that you, a heterosexual male (if you aren't a heterosexual male, just put yourself in that individual's position), meet a very attractive woman at a party, and kiss her and touch her breasts. You are likely rather aroused and excited at this point. You then reach down and feel a penis. Now you are probably quite turned off. Can you appreciate that you were excited literally the moment before? Would you wish to repeat the experience of initial pleasure, and then shock? The key takeaway is that a major part of the pleasure of an experience is the broader contextual framework in which the pleasure is occurring. Kissing a woman is preferable for a heterosexual man not just because a woman has smooth skin, and attractive facial features, but because the target of their affections is a woman. If that woman turns out to be a very feminine "ladyboy," then all the pleasure disappears, even if in an objective and reductionist sense nothing has changed about the previous experiences (if you want a deeper exploration of this topic, I recommend Paul Bloom's How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like). Obviously sex is a somewhat mechanical operation for many males. Ergo, the ease with which males can relieve themselves with masturbation. But you can't just transpose the mechanics of consuming pornography to the mechanics of sex with a real woman. Porn exists to facilitate masturbation, but so does your hand. Ultimately a woman is preferable to your hand because a woman is a woman, and your hand is just your hand.** In other words, the modern male, porn-consuming though he might be, still generally prefers sex with real live women. We're born that way. * From what I can tell pornography has more mainstream acceptance in the gay male community. And yet to my knowledge gay males are no less interested in sex than straight males. ** I'm stripping away the reality that sex within a relationship is more than arousal and climax, but an essential part of the relationship being more than just a friendship.

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