By Tim Worstall
We’re well aware that the availability of pornography is at an all time high these days. What might be less obvious is that the level of sexual crime is falling, falling like a stone actually, and has been for well over a decade. Economists posit that there’s a link between these two things: that the technology of the internet has made the porn more available and this has led to a reduction in the level of meatspace sexual violence. In the jargon the question is whether porn and sexual violence are complements or substitutes. Does the first encourage the second or does it in some manner replace it?
The truth is always going to be complex: for some people will undoubtedly act out what they see while for others the fantasy replaces the real world activity. What we’d like to know is what is the overall effect? Or if you prefer, which effect predominates? The general supposition (backed by good evidence) is that porn is a substitute for the sexual violence, even while it may in certain cases prompt it. So far so good, this is reasonably well known.
What isn’t so well known is that the same effect appears to be true with respect to child pornography. And given that it’s not well known this explains the outrage which has greeted the words of a British judge:
A judge in the James Bulger case sparked anger last night as she defended the release of one of his killers and cast doubt on links between watching child porn and carrying out sex abuse.
Jon Venables was set free last week after serving three years in jail for downloading horrific photos of sex assaults on children.Baroness Butler-Sloss, who gave him and Robert Thompson lifelong secret identities after they committed one of Britain’s most notorious child murders, said he did not deserve to be locked up for ever.
And she denied there was evidence to show that paedophiles who seek out indecent images online also carry out physical assaults.
Naturally there’s been an outcry about this:
James’s mother Denise Fergus, 45, said last night: ‘Baroness Butler-Sloss obviously has no idea what a disgusting animal like Venables is capable of doing.
‘A lot of paedophiles start off by looking at porn on the internet and then they move on to rape and murder.
And Tory MP Julian Brazier, a member of last year’s Parliamentary inquiry into online child protection, said he ‘strongly disagreed’ with the former judge’s comments. ‘The evidence presented to the commission was overwhelming. There is ample evidence of correlation and we have seen an alarming rise in children who have become sexual predators,’ he said.
As above there will be that correlation. For it is almost certainly true that some people do move from one to the other: that for some they are complements. However, what we’d really like to know is what is the general effect: across the population are they complements or substitutes?
Pornography continues to be a contentious matter with those on the one side arguing it detrimental to society while others argue it is pleasurable to many and a feature of free speech. The advent of the Internet with the ready availability of sexually explicit materials thereon particularly has seemed to raise questions of its influence. Following the effects of a new law in the Czech Republic that allowed pornography to a society previously having forbidden it allowed us to monitor the change in sex related crime that followed the change. As found in all other countries in which the phenomenon has been studied, rape and other sex crimes did not increase. Of particular note is that this country, like Denmark and Japan, had a prolonged interval during which possession of child pornography was not illegal and, like those other countries, showed a significant decrease in the incidence of child sex abuse.
So the judge was in fact wrong: we do have evidence about this. It’s just that the evidence points to the two being substitutes. More child pornography seems to lead to less child abuse. All of which leaves us in a difficult position. That any child be harmed in the production of pornography is of course an outrage and one that we most certainly should not be willing to allow happen. But we’re still left with that fact that this places more children at risk of attack rather than less. Just one of those problems that doesn’t really seem to have a solution.