Opinion: rather than using pornography as a scapegoat, society needs to address the factors behind violence against women

Conversations on pornography have again surfaced in Ireland, given the horrific murder of Ana Kriegal and subsequent court case. Much of the focus of the aftermath has been on pornography rather than nuanced conversations on violence against women. 

However, research results on links between pornography and violence are mixed, with sensationalist headlines that often misrepresent findings. This results in a confusing quagmire that can be difficult to make sense of for educators, parents, and consumers themselves. 

One review of existing research was conducted in 2009 by Christopher Ferguson and Richard Hartley, who examined existing meta analyses of pornography's effects. The researchers found there is no concrete correlation between watching pornography and increased risk of committing violence, stating that "it is time to discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behaviour". They provided statistics on rape rates from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), who reported a steady decline in rape rates from 1988 to 2005 at the same time as consumption of pornography increased. However, this is in need of updating given the use of pornography on smart phones and the expansion of the internet. 

From RTÉ 2fm's Eoghan McDermott Show, Dr Phillipa Kaye discusses the effects of porn on teenage mental health

Another systematic review conducted by Miranda Horvath and others in 2013 found that evidence to support a blanket hypothesis that pornography causes violence in adolescents was inconsistent and unsupported overall. The researchers found numerous gaps in knowledge in relation to links between a direct or indirect link between pornography and violence, and sexual offending and pornography consumption in children and young people. They also note that "hardly any" of the papers reviewed have used non-offending control groups when looking at young sex offenders. 

Milton Diamond has conducted a number of studies in various countries and found consistent results concerning pornography access and rape rates. Diamond examined decades of data on the rates of availability of pornography and the rates of rape and sexual assault in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Croatia, and Finland and consistently found the same results: in places where pornography was freely available, rape statistics were lower than in places where pornography was banned.

While these countries experienced access to pornography growing over time, Diamond found the same result when access to pornography occurs more swiftly. In the Czech Republic, legal and easily accessible pornography became an almost overnight sensation after the sudden fall of communism in 1989. But apart from an initial spike, Diamond observed that rates of recorded rape declined steadily since the mid 1970s to 2007 despite this sudden burst of availability of pornography. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Kate Dawson from NUI Galway discusses her study that tracks young people's engagement with pornography

A quick read of these statistics might lead one to believe this is strong evidence for a conclusive answer. However, several factors must also be accounted for. Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, and it is additionally underreported in those with minority backgrounds, such as those from ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, sex workers, trans/non-binary individuals and minors.

Statistics on sexual assault in Ireland are relatively new, but sexual assault is not new in Ireland. One may argue that the increase in pornography available in Ireland has been analogous with an increase in sexual assault rates, given that over 3,200 sexual offences were reported to Gardai in the first quarter of this year, an increase of 10% on last year. However, we also need to account for the increased willingness of victims to report sexual assault, as the veil of secrecy and silence around sexual assault is slowly being lifted.

We are in urgent need of contemporary research in this area that is nuanced and inclusive of a wide demographic. This future research needs to account for increased internet usage and the availability of a variety of pornographic content. Contemporary pornography studies call for pornography to be studied in context, as pornography is not consumed in a vacuum. Therefore, other forms of media must be included, as well as any predispositions to violence. 

A review found that evidence to support a hypothesis that pornography causes violence in adolescents was inconsistent and unsupported

Research in this area would benefit from being situated in context with research on misogyny, and domestic violence. At the same time as the recent case of Ana Kriegal, we also saw headlines about the police calling to Boris Johnson's house after his partner was heard screaming and we saw a video of British MP Mark Field assaulting a woman at an event. We have also seen recent cases where a male doctor in a hospital in Kilkenny did not seek consent for invasive procedures on women and a husband was charged with the murder of his wife in Mayo. There were a reported 20,000 incidents of domestic violence against women and children in Ireland last year, and refuges across the country are regularly full.

Violence against women is endemic in Ireland and across the world. Rather than finding a convenient scapegoat solely in pornography, we need to address the many factors behind violence in society and especially violence against women. Human actions are not simple and a simple analysis of human behaviour does not solve the problem. We must insist on nuanced conversations that explore these issues rather than take the lazy option and repeat the cycle of soundbites and silence.  


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ