Ban On Internet Porn Not Supported By Science - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Ban On Internet Porn Not Supported By Science

Ban On Internet Porn Not Supported By Science

Published March 19, 2013

Recent news reports have indicated that Iceland is considering a ban on internet pornography possibly to include filtering of pornographic websites or bans on paying for pornography using Icelandic credit cards. Free speech advocates are concerned about the consequences of censorship. As a researcher who has published widely on media effects, I tend to take interest in these issues. As such, I can speak to the research on pornography, which may help bring these debates into some focus.

It’s important to acknowledge that, at least in news accounts in the UK and US, it is unclear what would be banned as “pornography,” which doesn’t appear to have been clearly defined. Perhaps the focus would be on violent sexual images, which most would agree are morally repugnant, although research has indicated that the consumption of such images tends to be relatively uncommon already. Of course conservative elements even of most democracies often advocate the censorship of all porn, even nude images of adults, and so it’s not unreasonable to worry whether an initial ban on some material might be extended to a broader array of content.

The ostensible reason for the proposed bans appears to be the desire to protect children. Of course, the rallying cry of protecting children has been used to advocate the censorship of multiple forms of media from books to music, to comic books to, most recently, video games. But the actual research on pornography’s effects on society is such that it is difficult to make conclusive statements. As is typical for media research, there are some studies indicating that pornography may cause small increases in some undesirable outcomes such as sexist attitudes, but there is other research to suggest pornography effects are negligible or may even relate to positive outcomes. Much of this research has been done with college students and suffers from considerable methodological flaws, so it is difficult to make conclusive statements based on this data.

Perhaps more crucial, however, are societal data. As researcher Milton Diamond has shown in his work, liberalisation of porn is typically associated, cross-nationally, with reduced violence toward women including rape and domestic violence, and increased egalitarian attitudes toward the role of women in society.  Of course this observation does not mean that pornography is responsible for these positive developments, indeed a general liberalization of culture may simply lead both toward greater tolerance of porn and higher valuing of the role of women in society. However, this data does indicate that the explosion in availability of porn during the internet age has not sparked a societal crisis. A lurch back to greater conservatism and censoriousness may not bode well for other liberalizing trends in society. Or, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Pornography is an easy moral target, of course. My suspicion is that many people publically condemn porn while privately consuming it. Indeed, in the United States, the “Bible Belt” states that tend to be most known for condemning porn also consume the most porn per capita. Of course it is well within reason to have personal moral values that look upon porn negatively. But we must be careful not to assume that speech we disapprove of morally constitutes a public health crisis, particularly when evidence of a public health crisis is absent. One is not truly a champion of free speech unless one champions speech that one doesn’t like alongside speech that one does like. With the exception of child pornography, in which children are exploited and harmed in the making of such pornography, banning pornography is likely to do more harm than good. I hope that the government of Iceland will reconsider efforts that involve censorship. 

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