In the article, “In Defense of ”Rape“ Fantasies,” Tracy Clark Flory quotes the Atlantic Wire:
The inference is pretty clear. It suggests there’s an inverse relationship between pornography and sexual violence — as access to porn increases, sexual violence decreases.
In this case, the caveat — “The connection between actual real-life violence and porn is blurry at best” — wasn’t enough. It didn’t stop the inference from being carried on and reproduced by any number of bloggers, writers, and reporters. The direct quote has been reproduced by NPR, Wonkette, Salon, and who knows how many other sources have paraphrased it.
And it’s true. In the US, porn is up and rape is down. The problem is that the statistics show correlation, not causation. The statistics don’t prove any sort of relationship between the two. There are lots of other correlations that may also contribute to the decrease in rapes. Allow me to suggest a few:
In the US, incidence of rape declined 85% in the past 25 years…
…while efforts for victims advocacy have increased.
…while investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault have increased.
…while programs to educate people about rape myths have increased.
…while women’s groups have sought to raise awareness about sexual assault.
Any/all of the above may prove some correlation, but none of them prove causation.
After reading the quote in Salon, I wanted to find out where it came from.
It sounds as if that juxtaposition of rape statistics in India vs. the United States came from the New York Times. It didn’t (at least not in the way the Atlantic Wire presented it). And it’s not even the New York Times, it’s a blog(?) hosted on the International New York Times website called India Ink.
According to India Ink:
Not quite. The “research” is by Anthony D’Amato, not Glenn Reynolds.
And I wouldn’t call it “research.” India Ink links to a ‘working paper’ titled “Porn Up, Rape Down,” by Anthony D’Amato.
It’s just over six pages (and includes tables and charts), and I strongly suggest reading it if you’re curious about it’s credibility. (In fact, please read it and tell me if his statements on correlation and causation are as confusing and misleading as I think they are.)
In the paper, D’Amato juxtaposes statistics on increasing access to pornography and decreasing incidence of rape. He uses this as a foundation on which to forward his own personal theory:
Here, he calls it a correlation, but then he suggests one “accounts for” the other. That’s not how it works — correlation does not imply causation — but D’Amato implies it anyway.
Later on, he says it himself: “proof of correlation is not the same thing as causation. If autumn regularly precedes winter, that doesn’t mean that autumn causes winter” (4). He doesn’t explain, but instead, talks about a colleagues study on abortion and explains his interest in rape statistics (which, after reading another ‘article’ of D’Amato’s, seems like a grudge against the Meese Commission).
And it gets weirder from there.
He thought? Maybe it reduces rape? Evidence?
There it is. D’Amato states the statistics are “evidence” that pornography reduces rape. He states it, but that doesn’t make it true. D’Amato never proves causation.
Despite this, maddeningly, he closes his paper with this:
There it is again. “…pornography is the most important causal factor in the decline of rape.” (I have no idea what he means by “the rest can safely be left to the imagination.”)
In brief, D’Amato provides statistics that show correlation, states that correlation isn’t causation, and then calls it causation anyway.
For the record, I have no doubt the statistics he uses are credible, but his text isn’t, and it shouldn’t have been used to provide ‘support’ for the inference that more porn leads to less rape, an inference that, unfortunately, is all over the place.
(If you’re interested in the D’Amato credibility rabbit hole, you can read all of what I found here. In brief, “Porn Up, Rape Down” is a ‘working paper’ that has not been published by any credible journal. It hasn’t really been published at all — D’Amato simply uploaded it to a “research network.” It’s not been peer-reviewed or refereed. It contains typographical errors, misleading citations, and missing links. While one imagines D’Amato’s expertise is in some area of law, his paper doesn’t actually mention law. And on top of all that, he seems to have a personal grudge against the Meese Commission.)
More Criticism of D’Amato
I’m not the only one to see problems with D’Amato’s assertion.
Ann Bartow, of Feminist Law Professors, admits she isn’t “an expert in the social science research related to the causes of rape,” but suggests “[…] there are some things [D’Amato’s] paper doesn’t address.” She outlines seven issues/questions, and among them are the following:
Ampersand’s critique, “No, Porn Doesn’t Prevent Rape,” identifies three problems with D’Amato’s text:
- “During recent years, the NCVS [National Crime Victimization Survey] has found a steep decline in all violent crime, not just rape. It seems likely that whatever’s causing the decline in all violent crime measured by the NCVS, is also causing the decline in rape measured by the NCVS; but it seems unlikely that pornography reduces all violent crime.”
- “Particularly notable is this study, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which directly compared the NCVS’s methodology for measuring rape prevalence with modern ”best practice“ survey design – and found that the NCVS vastly undercounted rape.”
- “D’Amato has no measurement of porn prevalence other than internet access, nor does he do any real statistical analysis. In contrast, studies with sophisticated statistical analysis and more accurate measures of porn usage – such as the study published in Four Theories of Rape in American Society – tend to find that porn usage has little or no correlation with rape prevalence.”
My Point (or, The Bottom Line for Responsible Debate):
If you’re going to cite studies, statistics, make inferences, or suggest your readers draw their own, know what you’re referencing… particularly when it’s an important issue and particularly when the “evidence” isn’t clear.
So what of that ‘evidence’? The more I read, the more I believe there’s no way to reliably prove a direct, causal relationship, even if there is one.
With that said, I think opponents of the UK rape porn ban are being reductive in their repetition of what supports their position. While it’s true — there are no statistics to prove rape porn causes sexual assault — that’s only part of the truth. First, it seems finding evidence would be damn-near impossible. Second, there are other factors, cultural ones, that are potentially significant and worth considering.
In my next post, I’ll present some studies that address cultural factors. While they have significant limitations (ones I’ll point out myself), I believe they’re compelling enough to deserve consideration as part of the larger debate.