William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Internet Porn Reduces Rape?

I want to be charitable. I really do. But as I reviewed the paper “Pornography, Rape, and the Internet” by Clemson professor Todd Kendall (author of “Celebrity Misbehavior in the NBA”), my sarcastic juices began to flow, I became tense and felt a driving pressure. Finally, I sought release—by writing this post, of course. Thank God for the internet, else I might have lashed out physically!

Kendall’s theory is that internet porn inoculates the potential rapist against his pusillanimous proclivity. In his words, “potential rapists perceive pornography as a substitute for rape.” As a non-“sick”, non-“lunatic” potential rapist—he claims current “research” shows that rapists are neither of these things—as, that is, this ordinary person sates himself on-line, he therefore loses the urge to track down and rape real people. If Kendal is right, then we could potentially eliminate rape by mandating all young men view pornography. High school will suddenly become fun for at least half of our nation’s youth.

Kendall says, “The only subnational data on forcible rape is that provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. These data do not, unfortunately, provide information on victim or perpetrator characteristics, nor report the relationship between them.” This admission is the same as saying, “We cannot know why rapists raped”, which is seemingly damning, at least if your goal is to say why rapists raped. But this impassible obstacle did not deter Kendall—nor any of his multitudinous colleagues (see his paper for citations).

Evidence? Kendall divided our United States into the haves and have nots, internet-access wise. The haves are those states which had the most rapid increase of internet penetration from 1998 to 2003, and hence of potential availability of porn. (My guess would be that as penetration increases, household “consumption” decreases.)

Kendall assumes, or rather asserts, that the relationship between number of households connected to the internet and porn “consumption” (his word) is linear and fixed through time. He also assumes the kind of porn viewed is constant in time, at least with respect to its effects on decreasing the desire to rape. It has to be emphasized that Kendall did not measure porn “consumption”, merely numbers of households with internet access.

The 25 states with the most spanking new internet connections saw their per-capita rape rate drop 14% from 1995 to 2003 (that’s not 1998 to 2003, but let’s not be picky). Those in the have-not states whose sad peoples still had to subscribe to the paper edition of Playboy saw their per-capita rate drop by only 6%. Clearly, this difference had to be—had to be!—because the have-not states did not get enough porn. Or did not have enough access to the internet and its possibility of porn.

Yet the have-not states went from 42.3 to 39.8 rapes per 100,000, while the haves went from 33.6 to 28.9. This suggests that perhaps—just maybe—something else besides porn-viewing habits accounted for the difference in the drop in rates (Kendall checked state-level beer consumption).

Look here: the internet did not just bring porn to the slavering masses, it brought web sites like this one, too. Just think! I could be responsible for the drop in rape. Potential rapists might not have had as much time for their avocation because they were too busy checking Facebook. Or day trading, or uploading pictures, or chatting, or doing any other damn thing besides imitating Onan in front of a glowing screen.

Interent penetration was also not the only thing to increase (or decrease) over this same time period. Kendall did not present evidence that he checked all other possible variables that could also have been associated with the drop in rape rates.

Now, it might be true that watching porn decreased the number of rapists, but then what caused the drop in arson, murder, theft, forgery, vandalism, and other crimes we also saw over this same time period? Is porn to be our savior, the answer to all social problems? Kendall thought of this and tried his model on a few other crimes. For example, his “internet penetration” variable was “significantly” associated with an increase in runaways. Internet porn causes runaways?

Steve Chapman writing in The Examiner said, “if expanding the availability of hard-core fare doesn’t actually prevent rapes, we can be confident from the experience of recent years that it certainly doesn’t cause such crimes.”

No, we cannot be confident. Since rape rates were already falling before the advent of the internet, it could be that these rates would have dropped even faster had rapists not had access to on-line porn.

13 Comments

  1. Hats off to Professor Kendall for the double-play: an ecological fallacy AND a correlation-causation fallacy rolled into one! I’m just surprised he didn’t manage to work Climate Chaos in there, too.

  2. Now, it might be true that watching porn decreased the number of rapists, but then what caused the drop in arson, murder, theft, forgery, vandalism, and other crimes we also saw over this same time period?

    Idle hands are the devil’s workshop so…

    For example, his “internet penetration” variable was “significantly” associated with an increase in runaways. Internet porn causes runaways?

    Maybe they were trying to find those “local girls looking for you” but got lost.

    My hat’s off to Briggs as I could gone on for pages making jokes and dozens and dozens of links to TV Tropes…

    Actually I think TV Tropes reduces crime. Because once on there, nobody leaves for several hours. Thus: “I know I’m supposed to rob that bank in ten minutes but I’ve got to see what a Butterfly of Doom is!”

  3. Researchers have tried to explain the crime downtrend in various ways. My preference is demographics (David Foot)…

  4. Ahem. I’ll bashfully and not very reluctantly claim credit for the national downturn in violent crimes of all types, including rape, because Kendall’s stats truthfully better support the theory that my choice of “49erDweet” as a nom-de-blog in 1995 [or was it 1998?] was the “butterfly flapping its wings in China” that started the chain of events which eventually turned around the FBI’s stats. You’re welcome. But you can cite me if you need a source.

  5. Whatever IT is, it’s due to global climate warming-change-disruption. Obviously. Everything is. No other explanation is necessary and certainly not desirable.

  6. Did the government already start controlling the interweb? Based on half the words in this post’s title I’d thunk by now there’d be a jillion or two hits and at least 50 comments.

  7. Briggs,
    I am struggling to guess why you thought this paper merits any attention at all?

  8. Yessiree Bob! This one ranks right up there with the “Eating fried fish may cause strokes” study that I read about four days ago.

  9. Onan wasn’t a masturbator, he practiced birth-control by coitus interruptus. Give the guy a break.

    Unless you meant Dorothy Parker’s parrot in which case it works quite well.

  10. Here is a simple case of seeing what one wants to see. I always wonder whether (besides corrupt bias motivated conclusions) a simple lack of imagination is at play with these studies. I imagine that many people can easily imagine how a data set could be explained by other causes than the one selected — or by simple randomness that looks like something important was at work causing the resulting data set.

  11. Briggs

    7 January 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Eric Dailey,

    Only because Kendall’s work was mentioned in more than one press outlet, none of which pointed out the paper’s flaws.

  12. I remember when Playboy, Penthouse and many others were found in large stacks in news paper outlets. Now days these magazines are rare to see, I can’t figure it out myself.

    Heck, I bet he could find a correlation between cartoon magazines like Mad, Cracked, Superman and rape.

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