Exploring the Connection between Pornography and Sexual Violence

Article excerpt

This article examines the relationship between sexual violence and pornography. Data about women's experiences of sexual violence and their abusers' use of pornography were collected at a rape crisis center from 100 survivors. Findings include that 28% of respondents reported that their abuser used pornography and that for 12% of the women, pornography was imitated during the abusive incident. The effects of pornography on women's experiences of sexual violence are discussed.

Since pornography became increasingly available throughout the 1960's and 1970's in the United States, the effects of such materials have been largely debated by politicians, religious leaders, activists, and academics. The relationship between sexual violence and pornography has been of particular concern to researchers and is the focus of this article. This debate is critical given the prevalence of violence against women and the consumption of pornographic material in the United States. Researchers estimate that in 1995, 43% of American men were exposed to one of the seven most popular pornographic magazines1 (Russell, 1998). Diana Russell (1998) argues that this is probably a conservative estimate of pornography usage, given that hundreds of magazines exist and that this estimate does not include the number of men who regularly watch pornographic movies, look at pornographic pictures on the Internet, or create their own pornographic material.

Two schools of thought have emerged about the effects of pornography and whether or not there is a causal connection between pornography and violence against women. On one side of the debate are those who argue that pornography has no harmful effects. In fact, some early research on pornography found it to produce a "cathartic effect" and thereby to reduce the amount of sexual assault (Ben-Veniste, 1971; Kutchinsky, 1971). As a result, laws restricting the production, sale, and distribution of pornography were relaxed and pornography became a more prevalent part of American culture (Russell, 1993).

On the other side of the debate, many feminists have argued that pornography is associated with violence against women and contributes to the high incidence of rape in this country (Russell, 1993). Evidence documenting the harmful effects of pornography for women has led some feminists to organize and fight against the pornography industry in a variety of ways including engaging in acts of civil disobedience, boycotting publishers of pornography, picketing video stores that distribute pornography, and so forth (see Russell, 1993). While some feminists (see Dworkin & MacKinnon, 1988)2 have argued for a civil rights approach to challenge pornography on the basis that it has detrimental consequences for women, others oppose pornography but maintain that the creation of civil rights antipornography ordinances is a dangerous form of censorship (see Vance & Burstyn, 1985).3 Feminist analyses of pornography vary considerably as do the social and political strategies recommended by feminist activists, however, most agree that the relationship between pornography and violence against women is cause for concern. Before addressing the role that pornography played in the experiences of sexual violence of women in this sample, we will briefly discuss the connection between pornography and abuse evidenced in previous research.

Early evidence for the "cathartic effect" of pornography was derived from a Danish experiment (Ben-Veniste, 1971; Kutchinsky, 1971). This so-called natural experiment showed an overall decrease in sex crimes after the repeal of laws restricting the sale of pornography. However, many researchers have criticized the conclusions reached by Kutchinsky and Ben-Veniste (Baron & Straus, 1984; Court, 1984). For example, Baron and Straus (1984) in their discussion of Kutchinsky's findings argue that:

... a closer look at his data shows that, although the total number of sexual offenses decreased, the number of rapes reported either stabilized or increased. …