Is there really a link between pornography and sexual violence?
The report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, now at the printers, will say that there is. But two members of that commission, in a near-textbook model of professional integrity, say the panel's research was so flawed and its report so rushed that they cannot in conscience support its conclusions.
The two -- Ellen Levine, editor of Woman's Day magazine, and Judith Becker, a clinical research psychologist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute -- have issued a 20-page statement in dissent.
"The idea that 11 individuals studying in their spare time could complete a comprehensive report on so complex a matter in so constricted a time frame is simply unrealistic," they wrote. "No self-respecting investigator would accept conclusions based on such a study."
Perhaps the most interesting thing about their dissent is that both of them find certain kinds of pornography objectionable in the extreme and particularly offensive to women. But they draw a sharp distinction between their personal tastes and supposedly objective research.
Not only does the report overemphasize the negative effects of pornography, they say, but the evidence brought before the panel was "skewed to the very violent and extremely degrading," leading to the unwarranted conclusion that most pornography can lead to sexual violence.
"The majority of the people we heard from were law enforcement officers, whose responsibility is to prosecute violators of the obscenity laws," Becker, a specialist in sexual aggression, said in a telephone interview. "We also heard from women who described themselves as victims of pornography, when in fact they were victims of coerced and unwanted sexual behavior. Many of those who testified had a preexisting belief, based on no discernible evidence, that the material would lead people to engage in behavior they otherwise wouldn't."
In addition, she said, the report plays down the testimony of experts whose research demonstrates no negative effect from exposure to nonviolent sexual material -- the bulk of the pornography available on the open market -- and misinterpreted some of the evidence the panel heard.
For instance, one study showed that two states -- Alaska and Nevada -- with the highest circulation of pornographic materials also have the highest incidence of rape. The panel's report assumes a causal relationship between the two, though the expert who testified on the study concludes otherwise.
Becker makes clear that she is no fan of pornography. She is especially harsh in her criticism of so-called kid porn, which she says "should be prosecuted because it portrays the victimization of a child who could not legally have given consent. Her objections are equally strong to the portrayal of sexual violence, on the ground that it might "maintain a deviant individual" in his antisocial attitudes and behavior.
"But when I saw 'Playboy' -- one of the magazines some retail chains have removed from their shelves apparently because of pressure generated by the Pornography Commission -- I did not see any depiction of behavior our society deems to be inappropriate."
Is there harm to women in nonviolent pornography that nonetheless portrays women in degrading or humiliating situations? Maybe, said Becker, although the panelists could not agree on what constituted degrading or humiliating portrayals, but since there has been very little research on the question she said she could not extrapolate from her "personal offense" to a finding that it leads to violence against women.
Becker's own attitude is clear: "I don't want women depicted as objects of abuse. I should think men would object to being depicted as the abusers of women. But I took my role very seriously. I felt I was not there to present my own personal view but to try to reach objective conclusions."
Her conclusion: a small percentage of commercial pornography -- principally involving children and violence -- is harmful. Most is not, even if many women find it objectionable.
Not only did she and Levine refuse to be buffaloed into unsupported conclusions, but they also took the trouble to record their strong dissent -- in my view a salutary display of intellectual honesty, professional integrity and guts.