Nonviolent, Sexually Explicit Material and Sexual Violence

Porn Studies > Meese Report Table of Contents

  1. Background
    1. Problem of Definitions
    2. Evidence and Standard of Proof
  2. The Evidence
    1. Changes in Rape Rates
    2. Correlational Evidence
      1. Danish and Other Cross-Cultural Data
      2. Sex-Magazine Circulation
      3. Sex Offenders and Pornography
      4. Conclusions from Correlational Evidence
    3. Experimental and Clinical Evidence
      1. Arousal
      2. Effects on Attitudes Toward Rape- "Disinhibition"
      3. Overall Evidence for "Causation"
    4. Evidence Against Causation
  3. Conclusion
  4. Notes


The alleged relationship of sexually explicit material and sexual violence has long been a subject of acrimonious but compelling debate. The "Effects Panel" of the 1970 Commission, often accused of denying such a link, instead stated a relatively moderate view of what was then an almost entirely new area of inquiry: "On the basis of the available data . . . it is not possible to conclude that erotic material is a significant cause of sex crime."[1] Recognizing the impossibility of ever proving "conclusively" the existence of such a casual connection, the 1970 Commission nevertheless determined that the evidence did not, at the time, suggest a "substantial basis" for such a proposition.[2]

The findings of our predecessors, though beleaguered in this area by extensive professional criticism,[3] are entitled to significant deference, especially because the 1970 Commission took pains to explain the basis of its conclusions. Rape, however, is among the most violent and damaging of crimes: not only inflicting deep injury on its victims, but also standing as a powerful obstacle to the fight for sexual equality in a democratic society. It is, further, an evil which has increased at shocking rates over the last fifteen years. We thus have the grave, and undeniably unpleasant, duty to examine again the possibility that consumption of sexually explicit materials and some rapes are causally linked-and to report, on the basis of the evidence available now, whether a "substantial basis" exists for believing in such a link.

We have with little trouble concluded that circulation of materials which themselves portray graphic sexual violence is a probable "cause" of rape-at least in the sense of being one factor among many (and not necessarily the most important) which increases the likelihood of rape. With regard to sexually explicit materials which do not include depictions of violence our task is more difficult because so many of our witnesses, so many professionals, and so many of our fellow citizens disagree vehemently on the issue. Tempting as it is simply to wash our hands of the question by noting the existence of the dispute and refusing to "take sides" in it, we cannot avoid sifting through the evidence and attempting to come to our own conclusions on the matter. Even if we cannot ultimately agree on the purport of each piece of evidence, or the meaning of all the data collectively, our views should be fully, and publicly explained.

Problem of Definitions

One serious obstacle to such explanations, unfortunately, arises immediately in the guise of defining the material under examination. For purposes of general discussion about the possible "harms" of sexually explicit material we have found it useful to divide that material into three somewhat imprecise, but nonetheless useful categories: that which is (1) violent; (2) "degrading" but not violent; and (3) neither violent nor "degrading". Unhappily our scheme was not anticipated in advance by researchers and, though a useful blueprint for future scientific inquiry, has not formed the basis for research conducted in the past. The only distinction adhered to with some consistency in the past research has been that between those materials which depict violence and those which do not. Obviously that distinction is a crude one given the wide range of nonviolent "pornographic" materials, yet it may in some sense correspond with popular perception: thus public opinion seems strongly opposed to free circulation of materials "that depict sexual violence," but sharply divided over the fate of materials that "show adults having sexual relations," with no further explanation of whether the materials in question are "degrading" or not.[4]

For purposes of examining the evidence regarding sexually explicit materials and sexual violence, then, it seems useful to begin, at least, without clearcut distinctions based on the "degrading" character of particular items. Rather, the case for linking nonviolent materials and rape should be examined on its own terms-that is, on the basis of definitions contained in the relevant research-with attention, ultimately, to those pieces of evidence which bear on the question of distinctions among various categories of nonviolent materials. Until we sort through the evidence on this issue we cannot, after all, be certain that boundaries useful for distinguishing among materials on observable attitudinal effects are equally valuable with regard to behavioral impacts.

Evidence and Standard of Proof

The assumption that consumption of sexually explicit material "causes" sexual violence is one that some 73 percent of Americans would accept as true,[5] but it is unclear what evidence they would point to as crucial to their judgment. From our standpoint some forms of evidence are clearly more persuasive than others, but no one is useless and nondispositive. Evidence from the social sciences-correlational, clinical and experimental-seems by a wide margin the most important tool of analysis in this area, in part, paradoxically, because its limitations are most apparent. The results of individual experiments or studies can be rigorously challenged on terms universally accepted by social scientists, and can be examined as carefully for what they do not "prove" as for what they do. Anecdotal evidence, even that presented by skilled professionals, has an unfortunate tendency to touch on a wide range of questions without furnishing the basis for answering any single one of them.

Particularly on an issue as bitterly fought and important as this one, therefore, reliance primarily on data from the social sciences seems appropriate and quite possibly imperative. That does not mean, however, that we are bound by the standards of "proof" which govern the work of social scientists. Our task after all, is to recommend policy based on existing knowledge in an area that will always be plagued by uncertainty. Because of limitations on the capacity of social science to measure events outside the laboratory, and because of clear ethical boundaries on what research can be conducted in this area even in the laboratory,[6] it seems wholly unlikely that the extremely high standards for "scientific proof" can ever be satisfied one way or the other on this issue.

The standard more appropriate for our purposes is suggested by the phrase used by the 1970 Commission: is there a "substantial basis" for believing that nonviolent but sexually explicit material is causally linked to sexual violence? If so, what evidence suggests the opposite conclusion-that no such link exists? Finally, which evidence on balance is more persuasive? (This standard was used by us as "the totality of the evidence" in our discussions.) Because rape is so widespread and so dangerous an evil, government action against constitutionally unprotected material might be appropriate if a "substantial basis" for believing in a causal link between such material and sexual violence exists, and might seem imperative if the evidence allows a stronger assessment. Just as government action against cigarette advertising could not await final, irrebuttable "scientific proof" of the causal link between cigarette smoking (let alone cigarette advertising!) and lung cancer, so the government may not be able to await scientific consensus on the pornography/rape connection-even if such consensus were imaginable.

Statement of Father Bruce Ritter

Porn Studies > Meese Report Table of Contents

Copyright 2005