WeeklyWorker

06.06.2013
Warping minds

Porn and crime: Causative or correlative link?

In the wake of the April Jones case Christina Black looks at the role, or not, of 'violent' and 'hardcore' porn in violent crime and murder, and the ensuing media moral panic

As is often the case when the media deals with emotional issues, irrationality replaces any form of sane, measured or analytical response - in the last week this has taken the form of calls to police more effectively what can or cannot be accessed on the internet.

The abduction and murder of April Jones in west Wales last year provoked the kind of emotional public outpouring of collective grief that sells loads of newspapers. Terrible, tragic murders of children seem to have their place in a, roughly two yearly, news cycle. The much more unpleasant truth is that the murder of children happens considerably more frequently than that - but it does not always make for such a good story. The reality is that the vast majority of murder and rape cases, where the victim is a child or young person, are committed by a close family member or someone they know well.

According to statistics collated by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, child homicides in England and Wales occur around one per week (52 per year), two thirds of the victims are under five years of age and in most cases a parent is the prime suspect.1 This makes more uncomfortable, less titillating reading than the ‘crime drama’ notion of the deranged stranger waiting for the one moment when you are not dutifully watching your daughter play, to snatch her away in his car (loaded with sweets and puppies).

Last week, following the sentencing of April Jones’s murderer, Mark Bridger, the NSPCC stated that there was a “worrying link” between his viewing of pornography online and the violent crime he went on to commit. This was reported by The Daily Telegraph in its front-page lead, headed: “Murder of April Jones ‘proves porn link to sexual assaults’”.2 But at no point in the Telegraph’s story, or that of any other media outlet, as far as I know, is there any evidence of causation. Sure, there may well be a “link”, but is it merely correlative? Or can we prove that the watching of pornography has caused the individual to commit the violent crime?

One would have thought that someone who has sexually violent urges towards children would be more likely to seek out pornographic material of that nature than the majority of the population. Does viewing this material make the person in question more likely to offend? Has the perpetrator of the crime gone from looking at increasingly explicit material to acting out their fantasy in a spiral of ever more demanding gratification?

The counter-argument is that, rather than encouraging someone to go out and commit violent sexual crimes, living out the fantasy through a video can act as a release. For example, professor Todd Kendall’s paper on Pornography, rape and the internet claims that in countries where pornography had been harder to come by instances of rape have decreased since the arrival of the internet3. Naturally, the accepted wisdom is that the opposite is true, but personally I would be wary of how statistics are used to support either argument - it could equally be the case that the viewing of pornographic material has no effect on violent crime statistics whatsoever.

The claim that viewing extremely violent porn or child pornography (and, whatever one’s views on the sex industry, it is important to make a distinction between these two things) causes people to mimic what they view online seems not to take into account people’s ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. A small minority of people may not be able to do so - quite possibly this is true of Bridger - but should it then follow that all hard-core porn be banned? The same Telegraph article reported that the End Violence Against Women campaign has called for “a change in the law to close a loophole that allows some simulated images of rape”.

While we are at it, let us also ban extremely violent movies and games such as Grand Theft Auto, where the player steals cars, bangs hoes and gets involved in all sorts of unsavoury criminal activities. Of course, this is a ridiculous proposal. Why? Because, by and large, people can watch movies and play computer games without feeling the need to go off on a murdering spree. For those who cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy, their problems are much more deeply rooted and will not be solved by the banning of explicit material (incidentally, certain types of pornography are, of course, already illegal - yet people who wish to access them still manage to do so).

One of the demands provoked by this story is that Google and other internet service providers need to tighten up their controls on sexually explicit material involving children. For the sake of the argument let us assume we are discussing actual children. The production of such material clearly involves the exploitation and sexual abuse of those children and therefore is, and should be, illegal. Those producing videos and photographs of actual child abuse should be charged appropriately.

In relation to this, how should those people who deliberately view online content of this nature be dealt with? By being punished for what is, to all intents and purposes, a thought crime? It has been argued that it is the demand for the material that causes the sexual abuse and exploitation of young people in the first place, and so the viewer should be regarded as complicit in the abuse. One could make a similar argument about sweatshop labour and technology. Probably what is more to the point is that, because society (myself included) finds the idea of viewing child pornography as morally repulsive, people are more likely to seek punitive rather than restorative solutions to issues surrounding paedophilia. So the act of looking at something that most people find horrific carries with it a prison sentence. As with all aspects of censorship, the question is, at what point is the line drawn? Animated, computer-generated images of an explicit nature? Books or films such as Lolita? Anime films depicting rape? The video of the primary school Christmas play that was posted on a social media site?

It is very important to make the distinction between child pornography and hard-core porn - it seems that the two things are being equated by the likes of The Daily Telegraph. What might be deemed ‘hard-core’ porn is all over the internet, easy to access, and perfectly legal. It is made and produced using adult performers who have given consent. I am not including snuff movies in this definition, which fit none of the above stipulations (seemingly these are referred to as “criminally obscene material”). The idea that governments should force internet service providers to block adult content, but over-18s can opt in using a credit card, is fraught with difficulties. Firstly, teenagers are remarkably clever at subverting and overcoming rules and restrictions: they are generally more savvy than their parents when it comes to technology and will work out the PIN code (possibly their own birthday or their parents’ wedding anniversary) or just ‘borrow’ their credit card. Secondly, perhaps not all members of a household are upfront with each other about their online habits, which could lead to all sorts of domestic fun. And, most importantly, it is generally speaking a bad idea to call on the state to censor online material: ‘First they came for the pornographers ...’

The moral panic-mongers in the print and broadcast media are quick to blame the internet for all social ills - not just sexual violence, but other hot topics such as Islamic extremism. But, if it were true that internet porn was to blame for sexual violence, then one would expect an exponential rise in instances of rape over the last 15 years or so. Yet, we know this is not the case. In other words, there is no rationale behind the panic, beyond politicking and selling newspapers.

Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell (jailed for the murder of his partner’s granddaughter, Tai Sharpe) were both found to have sought out sexual images - in the former case of young children; in the latter of violent rape and incest. Would these men have committed these acts, had they not accessed these images? Quite possibly. Would having tighter controls on Google have prevented them accessing such material? Doubtful - if someone is prepared to rape and murder a child, they probably have very few qualms about flaunting censorship laws. Does the fact that these two men accessed horrific imagery prior to committing a crime prove a causal link between pornography and violent crime? Absolutely not.

Child pornography and snuff movies are already illegal. Those who operate within such circles and know each other from prison, etc will be able to access the material they want irrespective of Google - so tighter controls will make little, if any, difference.

Knee-jerk calls for more censorship are idiotic. As with most censorship, increased restrictions on who can view legal online pornography will be ineffectual and pointless. If what you consider ‘hard-core’ offends you, don’t watch it. The idea that in general people imitate whatever they see - whether it is porn movies, films or video games - would suggest that the human race is entirely delusional.

Some deeply dysfunctional people will commit horrible crimes. Whether they are influenced by the material they view or read, or whether they seek out such material because of their existing impulses, is up for debate. Either way, it is unlikely that further legislation will affect people’s behaviour very much.

Notes

1. www.nspcc.org.uk/inform/research/statistics/child_homicide_statistics_wda48747.html.

2. The Daily Telegraph May 30.

3. http://obu-investigators.com/xuk/porn/clemson/kendall.pdf.