COVER

VIEWERS AND VICTIMS

MARK NICHOLS October 11 1993
COVER

VIEWERS AND VICTIMS

MARK NICHOLS October 11 1993

VIEWERS AND VICTIMS

In a pornographic film made somewhere in the United States, a man is shown performing a sexual act with a girl of about 4. Bill Marshall, a psychology professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who has seen the movie, says that the little girl keeps looking past the camera at someone-perhaps a parent or other relative. "She is frightened," says Marshall, "and she is looking to this per-

son for help.” The ugly images reveal the effect that the experience had on the child. But what effect does such pornography have on the

viewer? Marshall is convinced that in some cases pornography can play a role in sexual offences. As director of a sexual behavior clinic in Kingston between 1980 and 1985, he interviewed 120 men who had raped women or molested children.

He concluded that in 25 per cent of the cases, pornography appeared to be a significant factor in the chain of events leading to a deviant sexual act. Not all people will be as dangerously affected by violent pornography or by pom involving children, adds Marshall, “but some vulnerable people will be.”

In attempting to establish links between pornography and sexual offences, most other researchers do not go quite as far as Marshall. Neil Malamuth, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, cautiously concludes that the messages contained in some types of pornography—combined with other factors, including personality type—can probably, in some cases, “contribute to antisocial behavior.” And Edward Donnerstein, a psychologist who teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says that violent pornography may make some people less sensitive to violence. As for sexually explicit, nonviolent images involving consenting adults, says Donnerstein, “there is absolutely no evidence that shows this stuff is harmful.”

In his Kingston study, Marshall found that pornography could play

Does sexually explicit material promote criminal activity?

a number of roles in sexual offences. In some cases, men told him that they looked at pornography with the intention only of masturbating, but then became aroused and “decided to go out and assault a woman or a child.” Other offenders said that they deliberately used pornography to “prime” themselves to commit sexual assaults. Marshall believes that the men who cited pornography as playing some role in their offences “might have been looking for excuses.” But “keeping that in mind,” he adds, “I still think pornography was a factor in their behavior.” Other social scientists have carried out studies in which ex-

posure to pornography appeared to make antisocial behavior seem acceptable. In a study during the early 1980s, two leading U.S. researchers, Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, subjected some male volunteers to explicit pornography that included movies in which women were depicted as sexually insatiable. Later, the volunteers were asked to suggest prison terms for a man convicted of rape. The men who had viewed the pornography were more inclined to suggest more lenient prison terms than members of a control group that had not seen the porn.

While researchers agree with the laws against child pornography in Canada and the United States, they differ over whether sexually violent material should be suppressed. The latter is illegal in Canada, but can still be legally obtained in the United States. According to Donnerstein, studies have shown that nonsexual materials featuring violence—many TV shows and movies fit the bill—can influence attitudes as much as violence combined with sexually explicit material. “If you start banning things,” says Donnerstein, “then the problem is, where do you stop?” Instead, Donnerstein argues that society must begin offsetting the effects of mass media and pornographic violence through massive education programs starting at the grade-school level. “As educational programs take effect,” adds

Donnerstein, “certain kinds of images will become unacceptable, just as the racist attitudes reflected in the movies of 50 years ago are completely unacceptable today.”

The jury is still out on the precise role that sexually explicit material featuring consenting adults may play in promoting violence. While a few

researchers insist that there is a direct connection, others believe that pornography is just one of many factors. “If somebody says that certain kinds of pornography are the major cause of child abuse, rape or discrimination against women,” says Malamuth, “then our data show that’s not true. But if someone says that there is no relationship between these things, then that’s not true either.” Faced with cautious and contradictory findings, Canadians seem destined to debate endlessly just what, if anything, should be done to control society’s ubiquitous images of sex and violence.

MARK NICHOLS