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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Everything bad is good for you

Slate's wonderful "Everyday Economics" columnist Steven E. Landsburg writes that internet porn reduces incidents of rape, and that violent movies reduce violent crimes:
What happens when more people view more [porn]? The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments.

The bottom line on these experiments is, "More Net access, less rape." A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes.
OK, so we can at least tentatively conclude that Net access reduces rape. But that's a far cry from proving that porn access reduces rape. Maybe rape is down because the rapists are all indoors reading Slate or vandalizing Wikipedia. But [Clemson] professor [Todd] Kendall points out that there is no similar effect of Internet access on homicide. It's hard to see how Wikipedia can deter rape without deterring other violent crimes at the same time.
psychologists have found that male subjects, immediately after watching pornography, are more likely to express misogynistic attitudes. But as professor Kendall points out, we need to be clear on what those experiments are testing: They are testing the effects of watching pornography in a controlled laboratory setting under the eyes of a researcher. The experience of viewing porn on the Internet, in the privacy of one's own room, typically culminates in a slightly messier but far more satisfying experience—an experience that could plausibly tamp down some of the same aggressions that the pornus interruptus of the laboratory tends to stir up.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Feb 11, 11:46:00 PM:
I wonder if the same correlation is found when you consider kiddie porn. Given that so much child sex abuse occurs within the family (and goes unreported), I would think that more kiddie porn might = more rape/sexual abuse.
Blogger Ben on Mon Feb 12, 06:53:00 AM:
Also the reason viewing child porn is illegal is that the market for it, and the resulting creation of it, is damaging to the children involved--very different from adult porn (though some would argue not) and from actors in a violent movie.

Also consider this article from the American Scientist. Would availability of porn and violent movies be an incitement or an escape valve?

Consider the Virginia man who at around age 40 became obsessed with child pornography and eventually molested his eight-year-old stepdaughter. He had no previous history of pedophilic inclinations, and his interest in child pornography completely disappeared with the surgical removal of a tumor of the frontolimbic system, which had invaded the hypothalamic area of his brain. Along with other appetites, sexual drive is regulated in the hypothalamus. Some months later, when the tumor grew back, his preoccupation with pornography returned, only to vanish again with repeat surgery. Because the waxing and waning of his sexual compulsions corresponded to the waxing and waning of the tumor, his was not a standard molestation case. So long as his limbic structures are tumor-free, it seems rather pointless to punish him for a pornographic pursuit that was alien to his character. Punishment would not make sense either as deterrence or as retribution.

Consider a more complicated discovery. In a landmark longitudinal study in New Zealand that followed the lives of about 500 men from infancy to about age 26, a significant subpopulation showed a strong and unmodifiable disposition to engage in antisocial behavior, including irrational and self-destructive violence. Genetic analysis revealed that most of the men in that subpopulation carried a mutation for a particular enzyme, monoamine oxydase A (MAOA). The enzyme metabolizes three neuromodulators (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, all of which are relatively concentrated in prefrontal areas of cortex), thereby inactivating them. Environment was also a factor: In the group with the MAOA mutation, the criteria for adolescent conduct disorder (a measure of antisocial behavior) were met in about 85 percent of those who had been severely maltreated as children, in about 38 percent of those who had probably been maltreated and in only about 22 percent of those who had not been maltreated. Among those who did not carry the MAOA mutation but had been severely maltreated, only about 42 percent had the conduct disorder.
Blogger Alice on Wed Feb 21, 07:18:00 PM:
Kendall makes an important point when he says it's difficult to measure the variables of the tests about watching pornography under research supervision. I had a similar question about the Milgram experiment when you wrote about it in December. Perhaps Milgram or others have addressed this problem, but how do you know that research subjects weren't responding in part to participating in an experiment--although they believed they were participating under different circumstances and thought they were assisting testers, not being the subjects themselves? Could some of the reactions be due in part to the desire to be a good research participant, to provide their superior, the scientist, with data about how to test the shocks? Does this make sense as a question? I'm wary of applying the conclusions of the Milgram experiment to other situations of power and subordination for this reason, that I'm not sure the researcher-tester relationship is a model for other relationships of power.