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Pornography May Have Postive Social Benefits, So Don’t Ban It

By Taylor Marvin

Via Think Progress, presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have pledged to ban pornography if elected president. This is silly. The Supreme Court has upheld the gradual retreat of US anti-pornography laws, and attempting to restrict adult internet pornography — which is extremely common and decentralized — would be a futile waste of police resources. However, what is interesting about this pledge is, religious opposition to pornography aside, easy access to porn seems to have some degree of positive impact on society.

On of the most interesting examples of this is the relationship between pornography and the incidence of rape in society. Reported rapes in the US have plummeted in the last 30 years:

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This encouraging trend is mostly unrecognized in the American public consciousness, but it’s astounding. Rapes have become much, much rarer in the last 30 years. What is especially remarkable is that we would expect the percentage of rapes that are actually reported to police to have risen during the same period as the social stigma against rape victims has slowly begun to erode (though of course this stigma is still prevalent, and is a very serious problem). The fact that the number of reported rapes have dramatically fallen while the expected percentage of total rapes that are reported is strong evidence that the actual, unobserved rape rate has declined even more dramatically.

There are many potential explanations for this dramatic decline. It’s possible that the social acceptance of rape has fallen since the early 20th century, discouraging many potential rapists from actually committing crimes. Similarly, advances in forensic technology have made rapists more likely to be eventually caught, a likelihood shows like Law and Order or C.S.I. exaggerate in the public consciousness. Similarly, falling incidence of rape likely increase the marginal reduction in the rape rate in positive feedback loop — if people believe rapes are rarer in their society, their more likely to rationally judge that rapists are likely to be caught and have further incentive not to actually commit rape, or that rape is simply socially unacceptable.

However, there is also evidence that internet access, and specifically access to pornography, lowers incidence of rape. The basic logic behind this relationship if fairly intuitive. The wide proliferation of internet access in the 1990s made pornography much more accessible and, importantly, able to be more easily consumed in private, which likely lessened its social stigma. Because pornography seems to be at least a partial substitute for actual sexual contact and there is some empirical evidence that rape is motivated by sexual as well as a power motives, it follows that access to pornography could lead to a net reduction in actual rapes. This relationship seems fairly well supported by actual US rape statistics. While this potential causal relationship does not explain all of the US fall in reported rapes, it likely contributes to it.

Just because access to pornography could reduce the incidence of rape doesn’t mean that pornography does not have negative externalities — it clearly can. But any policymaker that attempts to ban pornography should be aware that there is significant empirical evidence that supports the idea that access to pornography can be at least partially a social good. Because banning pornography would be a severe restriction of individual liberty, it should only be pursued if access to pornography fails a broad cost-benefit test. This evidence suggests that it doesn’t.

Note: Alyssa Rosenberg has a good take on Bachmann’s anti-porn pledge.

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