There are frequent calls for action to be taken over pornography but what is the evidence it harms people who view it?
In 1961, a psychologist called Albert Bandura carried out a groundbreaking experiment. He had children watch an adult beating up an inflatable doll, then left each child with the doll to see what he or she would do. The children also threw punches at it.
He concluded that we are inclined to copy violent behaviour, rather than find it cathartic.
Years later, Neil Malamuth, a psychology student at UCLA, decided to test our reactions to pornography in a similar way and has spent his career researching the subject.
In an experiment in 1986, he recruited 42 men and assessed them on the “likelihood of rape” scale. Then he divided them randomly into three groups. The first was given a selection of sexually explicit materials containing scenes of rape and sadomasochism. The second was given non-violent pornography. The third group – the control – was given none at all.
About a week later, in what they thought was an unrelated experiment, each of the men was paired up with a woman, and told that she was not attracted to him. Then they had to play a guessing game, with the man having an option to punish the woman each time she got the answer wrong.
From this and many other experiments, Malamuth concluded that if a man is already sexually aggressive and consumes a lot of sexually aggressive pornography, there is a greater likelihood that he will commit a sexually aggressive act.
Some campaigners have used this research to claim pornography leads to rape – but Malamuth says that is too simplistic.
He draws an analogy with alcohol.
“For some people alcohol simply has the effect of making them more relaxed, letting them have more fun. For other people it’s true that alcohol can increase the likelihood that somebody will behave in a violent way.
“But if I simply make the overall generalisation alcohol causes violence or leads to violence, you’d probably say that’s glossing over a lot of the nuances.
“Similarly with pornography, for some people, it may be viewed as a positive aspect of their life and does not lead them in any way to engage in any form of anti-social behaviour. For some people who do have several other risk factors, it can add fuel to the fire.”
Anti-pornography campaigners are concerned that extreme pornography is becoming mainstream.
Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, believes it is a struggle to find non-violent pornography online.
“Even Jules Jordan himself, a very well-known porn director, has said they cannot keep up with the fans’ desire for violent porn,” she says.
Earlier this year the UK children’s commissioner asked academics from Middlesex University to review all the available evidence about the effect on adolescents. They excluded articles that had a very “particular ideological angle” or gave them a very low ranking – particularly if they also had methodological problems. They used a weight of evidence approach to rank the quality and relevance of the papers – and gave them a strength rating of high, medium or low.
More than 40,000 papers were submitted, but only 276 met their criteria.
Forensic psychologist Miranda Horvath and her colleagues were shocked by the quality of the research and by “how many very strongly worded, opinion-led articles there are out there which purport to be producing research, producing new findings when actually it’s really based on opinion”.
What did they conclude about the effects of pornography on young people?
“Pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex, beliefs that women are sex objects, more frequent thoughts about sex, and children and young people who view pornography tend to hold less progressive gender role attitudes.”
Most of the recent studies in this field have been correlational. That means you ask a sample of young people whether they’ve seen pornography, or how often, and then ask them what they think of sex or gender role attitudes, for example.
But it is not possible to establish causation from correlational studies, and to say whether pornography is changing or reinforcing attitudes.
“That is the real next step that research needs to take,” says Horvath, “to try to identify which came first.”
The only sure way to do that is with the kind of randomised, controlled experiments that Malamuth carried out at UCLA, where you expose people in the laboratory to violent pornography and observe what effects it has on them.
But Malamuth says he can no longer conduct such tests – in case he is right.
“We and other researchers have come up with a dilemma of ethics committees saying, well, we believe your effects are valid and, therefore, we’re very afraid that at some point we might be sued if even one person claims that they went out and committed an act of rape by having been exposed to certain materials in your research.”
In other words, it is unlikely that researchers will ever be able to prove that pornography is causing behaviour change.
Horvath believes it is time to give up looking for cause and effect and instead “focus on identifying young people’s characteristics, vulnerabilities and strengths and how and why they might be related to their experiences of pornography”.
The next step, she argues, is for researchers to broaden their questions to consider pornography in a wider context.
“You will often hear people saying, I saw a music video or I saw something on the telly which is very similar to what you would see in pornography.
“Young people see these sexualised images day to day in a whole variety of contexts and we don’t fully yet understand how they process that, and how or whether they even do distinguish between, say, a music video and pornography.”
I was at Oxford in 1980 studying English. There were only four women on the course – the Brontës, George Eliot and Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf was not taught – and because I had been plodding through English Literature in Prose A-Z since I was about 12, at the Accrington public library, I hadn’t reached W.
Then I found A Room of One’s Own – but that didn’t hit the button back then – probably because I had been living in a Mini of My Own and a Tent of My Own.
Instead I found Adrienne Rich’s early poems, The Will to Change – and because they moved me so much, I started to read her essays – there is a great one about her winning the Yale Younger Poets prize and being patronised by WH Auden (women just write about themselves … blah blah), and suddenly I understood about women’s voices, creativity, silence. Crucially in the opening Thatcher era of the individual, I realised that patriarchy is a collective problem – a structural problem.
Thirty years later, filming part of a BBC2 Imagine about me, at my college, an old tutor went out of his way to insult me. The same sneer. The same contempt. And in the sting of it, I remembered that at 16 I had reached N – Nabokov – and that perhaps feminism for me had started there, in that canonised classic about serial child rape and the coercive control over the woman HH marries so that he can fuck her daughter. That was on our reading list, of course.
Of the 113 women killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year, 85 died in their homes, according to the Femicide Census, an annual analysis by the charity Women’s Aid.
Nine in 10 women killed during 2016 died at the hands of someone they knew. Of these, 78 women were killed by their current or former intimate partner, three by their sons and five by another male family member. Nine were killed by a stranger.
Women’s Aid said that the census revealed patterns in the killings. Many were committed in similar locations, a sharp instrument was used as a weapon in 47 cases.
“More needs to be done to address men’s fatal violence against women, as once again the Femicide Census reveals fatalities not as isolated incidents but as part of a repeated pattern of male violence against women,” said Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid.
“Shockingly, in 2016, over two-thirds of women killed by a man were killed by a current or former intimate partner; 83% of these women were killed at their own home or the home they shared with the perpetrator.
“The government must urgently put the prevention of femicide at the centre of its work to combat male violence against women and girls.”
Women escaping domestic violence can be rehoused in refuges, but Ghose warned that the government was planning to remove supported housing funding for refuges, placing women in greater jeopardy.
“Without a safe space to escape to, more women will be killed by men that they know,” Ghose said. “The government must act now. Refuges are a vital lifeline, not an optional extra; they are not just a bed for a night but essential for women and their children to safely escape domestic abuse and rebuild their lives away from the perpetrator. A crucial part of preventing more fatalities must be to ensure sufficient provision for domestic abuse and sexual violence services, including refuges.”
She added: “Demand for refuges already far outstrips supply and the proposed funding model could be the breaking point. Refuges will be faced with the awful reality of either turning more women away or closing their doors for ever.
“Only by creating a long-term and sustainable funding model for a national network of refuges can we ensure that every woman can safely escape domestic abuse.”
Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of the charity, nia, which campaigns to end violence against women and children, said the census provided vital data allowing for male on female violence to be contextualised.
“Men are killing women and girls; most often women and girls that they are related to,” she said. “Nine out of ten women killed by men in the census were killed by someone they knew. Over three quarters by a current or former partner. Every woman killed was important. But when we think about women killed by men, it’s important that we don’t forget about women who were killed by a man who wasn’t a partner; in 2016 they included a 30-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted and killed as she walked to work, a 20-year-old woman who suffered 60 separate injuries as she was raped and murdered by a delusional sexual predator who had promised to help her get home safely and an 81-year-old woman who was battered on the head and set alight by an intruder in her home. Men’s fatal violence against women extends beyond their partners and families.”
The National Domestic Violence helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247
Feminism exists so that no woman ever has to face her oppressor in a vacuum, alone. It exists to breakdown the privacy in which men rape, beat, and kill women. What I am saying is that every one of us has the responsibility to be the woman Marc Lepine wanted to murder. We need to live with that honor, that courage. We need to put fear aside. We need to endure. We need to create. We need to resist, and we need to stop dedicating the other 364 days of the year to forgetting everything we know. We need to remember every day, not only on December 6. We need to consecrate our lives to what we know and to our resistance to the male power used against us.
Andrea Dworkin on the mass murder in Montreal where 14 female students were murdered by anti-feminist Marc Lepine on Dec. 6, 1989
Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the far-right group whose posts were retweeted by US president Donald Trump last week, is accused of trying to persuade the victim of an alleged sexual assault from making an official complaint, the Observer has learned.
The 31-year-old deputy leader of the anti-Muslim group Britain First is said to have tried to persuade the victim not to complain after she alleged she was sexually assaulted by the group’s leader, Paul Golding, in July. The alleged attack occurred after one of the group’s demonstrations in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, when members congregated at a hotel after a rally denouncing child sex abuse.
Former Britain First member Graham Morris, in the hotel that night, says he witnessed Fransen encouraging the victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, to stay quiet. Morris said: “Jayda was saying, ‘I can give everything you need, a platform. I’ll do this for you, that for you.’ She was offering her all sorts. I’m thinking this is sick, but [the alleged victim] went along with it. I was there and I saw exactly how it went.” Morris, who says he was dating Fransen at the time, then alleged that the Britain First deputy told the victim that she should go back to the hotel bar where other members of the group were drinking.
He added: “Jayda said: ‘You’re going to have to come back to the bar and let everyone see you with Paul [Golding] so it looks like a misunderstanding. I was disgusted that a woman could try and encourage another woman not to report what happened.”
Fransen did not return the Observer’s calls. Britain First did not comment.
The alleged victim did eventually report Golding to police in early September; Morris, 54, from Leicestershire, revealed that he had also contacted police about the claims he makes about Fransen. Despite Fransen’s tweets being retweeted by Trump, Britain First is described by critics as a modest movement riven with infighting.
Fransen, who has ambitions to lead the party, is awaiting trial for hate speech at a rally in Belfast.
QotD: “Domestic violence refuges are the refugee camps of women and children on the front line of the war waged by male violence”
Domestic violence refuges are the refugee camps of women and children on the front line of the war waged by male violence. Women must protect these spaces furiously.