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Sexual Abuse

April 20, 2010
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I’m hesitant to write this kind of post.  In the first instance, it will be seen as defense of the church.  Some will even see it as a defense of sexual predators.  There are a lot of assumptions about sexual abuse, and they carry over into our everyday conversations.  To start, I’m going to just give some basic facts.  These numbers are from the CDC.

  1. Among high school students, 8% are reported to have been forced to have sex.  In other words, they were raped.  By gender, the breakdown is 11% of females and 5% of males.  To put that in perspective, I go to a fairly large parish where a mass will have 500 people.  So at any mass, I will likely be with 40 rapes victims, roughly 28 female and 12 male.
  2. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have reported an attempted or completed rape in their lives.  At my parish mass, this would translate to 42 women and 8 men.  (These are two different surveys which is why in part there is a discrepancy between 1 and 2.  CDC is citing DOJ numbers here.)  These are just reported cases.

Another web site is Darkness to Light, which has a reference section that appears reputable.  A quick gloss of the statistics:

  1. 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 18.  1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before 18.
  2. There are an estimated 39 million survivors of sexual abuse in the United States today.
  3. Only 10% of children are abused by strangers.
  4. The median age for reported sexual abuse is 9-year-old.
  5. Almost 80% of abuse victims initially deny abuse or are tentative in disclosing. Of those who do disclose, approximately 75% disclose accidentally. Additionally, of those who do disclose, more than 20% eventually recant even though the abuse occurred.
  6. Nearly 70% of child sex offenders have between 1 and 9 victims; at least 20% have 10 to 40 victims.

I bring up the raw statistics, because I don’t think people have a good idea of the faces of those who are victims of sexual abuse and those who are perpetrators.  Goodness, I was somewhat prepared for what I would I find, and I still managed to be shocked and sickened.  I wish there was more granularity in the last statistic.  My guess would be that between a third and half of the 70% of offenders that have fewer than 10 victims have only one victim.  While one victim is still too many, I bring it up because many people have this idea in their head that a sexual abuser is a sick guy going around targeting victim after victim.  The truth is that a typical sexual abuser has lived a relatively normal life and his sexual assault of a child was aberrational behavior.

People have a tendency to think that they are very perceptive.  They like to believe that when they encounter an evil person, they’d know it.  No matter how many times experience tells us otherwise, we convince ourselves that we’d see the obvious.  The truth is that it is exceedingly rare for us to mark a person as evil and even more difficult to do so when we know them.  In every abuse case, you will find a trail of people convinced that the abuser didn’t do it, was misunderstood, or even was the one being manipulated by the victim.  In the case of the church, you have people claiming if women would have been around, things wouldn’t have happened.  Unfortunately those working in the parish offices, almost exclusively women, were often the biggest deniers that Father was abusive and sometimes were even enablers.  This shouldn’t be shocking, but for whatever reason people are still shocked by it.  People don’t want to believe that they know or actually care and love an evil person.  It is a very powerful defense mechanism.  Yet about the only person who doesn’t engender the shock of society when she defends the perpetrator of a crime is the mother of the perpetrator.

Yet still we hear about how people should have been more perceptive.  We hear how people shouldn’t have believed the pleas of remorse from the perpetrators.  People have a tendency to grossly underestimate the ability of perpetrators to be convincing, and perhaps they simply underestimate their own willingness to want to believe that people are basically good.  Take Jeffrey Dahmer.  (We don’t always have to use Hitler.)  The human flesh rotting in his apartment stunk so badly that a neighbor finally confronted Dahmer.  Dahmer talked his way out of it.  Another time, a 14-year-old boy escaped naked from Dahmer’s apartment.  Dahmer noticed he was missing and went to search for him.  Dahmer found him.  He’s being interviewed by Milwaukee police who had found him drugged and bleeding from the rectum.  Dahmer convinces the officers that the boy is 19, his lover, and they hand him over to Dahmer.  It is easy to convince oneself that I wouldn’t have been duped by Dahmer.  I’m smarter than those stupid Milwaukee police and all the other people that had clues to the heinousness of this man.  It is the height of arrogance to believe that though.

As we go forward, we are going to be lulled into a comfort.  We are going to see statistics showing reported abuse cases among priests have gone down.  The numbers already show it.  Don’t believe them for a second.  You don’t get statistics indicating over 15% incidence among youth without wide prevalence; and there is no good reason to believe the priestly population is excluded.  Remember that the profile of a sexual abuser is not necessarily one of a person piling up the victims.  I would love to tell you that there is some sure-fire way to protect your child.  There isn’t.  Personally I look at everyone as a person of suspicion.  I try to insure to the maximum extent possible that opportunity is avoided for my children to be victimized.  Still, the odds are significant that at least one of my children will be a victim of abuse.

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33 Comments
  1. David Nickol permalink
    April 20, 2010 6:29 am

    Not to say that sex abuse isn’t a significant problem, but it can be so broadly defined that of course the statistics sound staggering. Here’s the report prepared for the Department of Education by Charol Shakeshaft, for example. It’s a wonder that all the numbers aren’t 100%. Here’s a bit of it:

    During your whole school life, how often, if at all, has anyone (this includes students, teachers, other school employees, or anyone else) done the following things to you when you did not want them to?
    • Made sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks.
    • Showed, gave or left you sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes.
    • Wrote sexual messages/graffiti about you on bathroom walls, in locker rooms, etc.
    • Spread sexual rumors about you.
    • Said you were gay or a lesbian.
    • Spied on you as you dressed or showered at school.
    • Flashed or “mooned” you.
    • Touched, grabbed, or pinched you in a sexual way.
    • Intentionally brushed up against you in a sexual way.
    • Pulled at your clothing in a sexual way.
    • Pulled off or down your clothing.
    • Blocked your way or cornered you in a sexual way.
    • Forced you to kiss him/her.
    • Forced you to do something sexual, other than kissing.

    How many people make it through school and totally avoid “sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks”?

    Shakeshaft does describe what she is talking about as sexual misconduct, not sexual abuse, but this hasn’t stopped people like George Weigel from siting the report as about sex abuse.

  2. April 20, 2010 7:53 am

    Richard Dawkins:

    “Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692… All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affections for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless, if, fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defense, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience).

    The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium. For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can’t help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonized over the issue, especially in Ireland and America… We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown great courage, in the face of spiteful vested interests, in demonstrating how easy it is for people to concoct memories that are entirely false but which seem, to the victim, every bit as real as true memories. This is so counter-intuitive that juries are easily swayed by sincere but false testimony from witnesses.”

    (The God Delusion, pp. 315-16)

  3. Mark Gordon permalink
    April 20, 2010 8:06 am

    This just reinforces the conviction that the Catholic sex abuse scandal isn’t really about sexual abuse. It’s about episcopal incompetence, indifference, and outright criminality. If these cases had been dealt with properly, the incidence of sexual abuse by priests would be statistically indistinguishable from other clergy, and quite possibly (one would hope) signficantly lower!

  4. brettsalkeld permalink*
    April 20, 2010 8:51 am

    I, for one, am scared out of my wits. Sexual abuse (from quite minor to deathly serious) has been with humanity forever in high numbers. I wonder what percentage of children, historically, were conceived by rape. Especially in cultures where war was almost perennial, I am sure the numbers are huge.

    But even with this history, what scares me is that, as my children grow up, they will encounter the first generation of adults where the majority (of men at least) are addicted to porn and have been since they were teenagers. The majority of my kid’s teachers, coaches, pastors etc. will have struggled with an addiction to pornography. Now I’m not saying that everyone who uses porn is an abuser, but we do know the role that porn played in the distortion of the personalities of many abusers.

    If the Catholic Church can get this right, the things we learn about dealing with abuse as an institution will be sorely needed by many other institutions in the generations to come.

    • April 20, 2010 9:24 am

      Brett

      Very well stated. And this is why it is important for the Church to take the judgment upon herself first, since then she can become the sacrament she is meant to be. The transformation is needed.

  5. David Nickol permalink
    April 20, 2010 10:10 am

    the majority (of men at least) are addicted to porn and have been since they were teenagers

    Brett,

    What??? Addiction is a very strong word. And how is it possible to know whether those who abuse children do so because they have an “addiction” to child pornography, or whether they collect child pornography because they are predisposed to be very much sexually interested in children?

  6. digbydolben permalink
    April 20, 2010 10:21 am

    I’m a jealous contributor and would prefer to have my post discussed rather than people simply talking about what they want to talk about. I’ve been overly tolerant of thread jacking already today. -mz

  7. brettsalkeld permalink*
    April 20, 2010 10:54 am

    David,
    I’m not sure what exactly the problem is that you have with my comment. ‘Addiction’ is a strong word, but I didn’t think that porn’s addictive nature, nor its prevalence in the culture were in any doubt. You can substitute “habitually using” for “addicted to” if you prefer. In any case, I think the point stands.

    As to your next sentence, I am having trouble making the link between it and anything I have said. I mentioned nothing about child porn. I only indicated that the use habitual use of porn has messed some people up. If it is used by more people, I think it is safe to assume it will mess more people up.

    I recently watched a documentary about school kids here in Toronto and the kinds of expectations that girls have for how guys will treat them in the porn age. Eye-opening to say the least. And we’ve all heard about ‘sexting.’ Porn is a major formative influence for our young people and their understandings of relationships. Two teachers in Manitoba just lost their jobs because of a lap dance in front of students at a rally that included simulated oral sex. I would be shocked if these two teachers have had no involvement with porn.

  8. ben permalink
    April 20, 2010 1:34 pm

    Mark Gordon,

    Good News! It is already the case that the incidence of abuse among catholic clergy is no higher than for clergy of other churches, and is lower than among the general population!

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/236096

  9. April 20, 2010 1:39 pm

    M.Z.

    I’ll discuss your post: I disagree.

    First, whether female secretaries in the church office gave “Father” the benefit of the doubt when seeing him in contact with the kiddos, is not the issue. The issue is whether women in decision-making positions over whether Father would have reassigned him to give him more access to more kids, once the accusations piled up.

    You are correct that there are many myths about abuse, but in dioceses across the country (and hopefully, to be expanded across the globe), everyone who comes in contact with kids has to take courses in “Keeping Children Safe”. Your argument that such courses, and raising awareness, will all be futile, based on some statistics about how widespread abuse is, simply does not follow.

    I do not have a handy statistic or study, but I believe the consensus is that predators are opportunistic. Where programs are in place to keep children safe, you are going to find less abuse — I don’t relish the idea that by keeping them out of our parishes, we’re sending them to the playground across town, but having the Church keep its own backyard free of predators has to be the first step.

    R

  10. David Nickol permalink
    April 20, 2010 1:55 pm

    I’m not sure what exactly the problem is that you have with my comment.

    Brett,

    Pornography is such an emotional subject that I am not sure how much use there is in discussing it. I am unconvinced that pornography “causes” anyone to abuse children or to do anything else to other people. I have very limited time today to use Google to search the Internet to find research that I can selectively quote to “prove” I am right, but here’s something from Psychology Today:

    If porn is a significant contributor to social harm, we would expect to see substantial increases in sexual irresponsibility, divorce, and rape since the late 1990s when the Internet suddenly made X-rated material much more available to those who might instigate sexual mayhem, overwhelmingly men.

    Guess what. Since the arrival of Internet porn:

    • Sexual irresponsibility has declined. Standard measures include rates of abortion and sexually transmitted infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since 1990, the nation’s abortion rate has fallen 41 percent. The syphilis rate has plummeted 74 percent. And the gonorrhea rate has plunged 57 percent.

    • Teen sex has declined. The CDC says that since 1991, the proportion of teens who have had intercourse has decreased 7 percent. Teen condom use has increased 16 percent. And the teen birth rate has fallen 33 percent.

    • Divorce has declined. Since 1990, the divorce rate has decreased 23 percent.

    • Rape has declined. According to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, since 1995, the sexual assault rate has fallen 44 percent.

    Why would social ills decline as porn becomes more widely available? No one knows. But the one thing porn really causes is masturbation. Internet porn keeps men at home one-handing it. As a result, they’re not out in the world acting irresponsibly-or criminally.

    People who are going to become “addicted” to pornography have something wrong with them in the first place, and porn “addiction” is a symptom, not a cause.

    Porn is a major formative influence for our young people and their understandings of relationships.

    Someone would have to demonstrate this by some good studies in order for me to take it seriously. I think young people are a lot more free and open about sexuality and about things that used to be close to taboo (like oral sex), but I don’t see how Internet porn has caused that to be the case. I think “sexting” in and of itself is harmless, although I would certainly caution people never to create and send a picture of themselves that they would be embarrassed to have fall into the wrong hands.

    Regarding sex abuse, I think the pendulum in some ways is swinging too far in the direction of uncovering it and being in terror of it. I don’t doubt that child sex abuse can be devastating, but I have a feeling that some people who experienced rather minor, and perhaps ambiguous, abuse have now whipped themselves into a state of hysteria over it and are traumatized in retrospect.

    One of the most important factors in how an abused child will react is how the parents and other adults around the child react. We are currently creating a climate in which sexual abuse of children is being regarded as a fate worse than death, and this is not conducive to parents reacting in a rational and restrained manner if their child is abused.

    Some of the priests accused of sexually abusing children were truly psychopathic predators and moral “monsters,” but a lot of them were also one-time-offenders who no doubt were sorry and remorseful. All abusers are now being lumped into the “moral monster” category, which is not only unfair, but also makes the Catholic Church seem even worse than it was. (I do think, by the way, it was pretty bad.)

    With all the emphasis on sexual abuse, people seem to me to be paying too little attention to the physical abuse of children, which seems to be on the rise, although it is often difficult to know if there is more abuse (sexual and physical) or more reporting.

    One more thought. A very large percentage of adults who abuse children were abused as children, and no doubt it broke the hearts of those around them. We are naturally always upset when children are abused. But adult abusers are very frequently abused children who have grown up with emotional problems as the result of their abuse. Many of us now stand ready to throw these abusers in the trash heap, when what they are doing is manifesting the results of having been abused as children. While we must hold everyone accountable for his or her behavior as a practical matter, adult abusers are in many ways still victims — they have just grown up.

  11. M.Z. permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:14 pm

    Regarding sex abuse, I think the pendulum in some ways is swinging too far in the direction of uncovering it and being in terror of it. I don’t doubt that child sex abuse can be devastating, but I have a feeling that some people who experienced rather minor, and perhaps ambiguous, abuse have now whipped themselves into a state of hysteria over it and are traumatized in retrospect.

    The studies suggest even with horrific abuse that actual trama doesn’t manifest itself until the child has an understanding of the degree that what was done to him was wrong.

    this is not conducive to parents reacting in a rational and restrained manner if their child is abused.

    True. One of my goals in writing this was to have people understand that this isn’t something that is isolated. Regrettably it is pretty mainstream.

    All abusers are now being lumped into the “moral monster” category, which is not only unfair, but also makes the Catholic Church seem even worse than it was.

    Subsequent studies of people classified as sex offenders has born this out. It simply isn’t true that sexual crimes have strong recividism rates as they are attributed.

    While we must hold everyone accountable for his or her behavior as a practical matter, adult abusers are in many ways still victims — they have just grown up.

    I’m not sure I would go that far. We do have to move beyond the mindset that if we build enough prisons and just figure who the bad guys are going to be, the problem will go away.

  12. M.Z. permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:22 pm

    The issue is whether women in decision-making positions over whether Father would have reassigned him to give him more access to more kids, once the accusations piled up.

    I think the evidence is shows that women would have behaved as men did.

    Your argument that such courses, and raising awareness, will all be futile, based on some statistics about how widespread abuse is, simply does not follow.
    The programs aren’t futile. They just have the tendency to give a false sense of comfort. A child is most likely to be abused by someone they are supposed to be with. There is no magical avoidance scheme that can protect the child. Acknowledging this is different from claiming that training children to understand their bodies and the respect others owe their bodies is somehow a bad thing. It is in fact a very good thing, much like teaching a child how to cross street is better than teaching him to never go in the street unless accompanied by an adult.

    I do not have a handy statistic or study, but I believe the consensus is that predators are opportunistic.

    Certainly they are. But the predator is likely to be someone the child knows and trusts. The predator has decent odds of having never abused a child previously. There is an exceedingly small chance that the predator will be on some sex offender list. When it gets down to it, there is no good indicator seperating a generic you from a predator. We act foolishly when we act like there is.

  13. David Nickol permalink
    April 20, 2010 3:00 pm

    I’m not sure I would go that far. We do have to move beyond the mindset that if we build enough prisons and just figure who the bad guys are going to be, the problem will go away.

    M.Z.,

    My point is that while we would feel sympathy and compassion for a child who was abused and who exhibited emotional disturbance immediately, or a year later, or two years later — because we would think of him or her as a victim of child abuse — if the emotional disturbance manifests itself ten years later or twenty years later, it’s still a reaction to the abuse, but we no longer feel sympathy any more. We feel hatred. We can’t, of course, excuse anyone who abuses a child. But we don’t have to demonize them. One of the brilliant things about The Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is that the bad guy really is a twisted monster, but when you are presented with his childhood, you feel genuine sympathy for him. However, you would not want him on the loose!

    There should be a way to keep those who sexually abuse children away from children. I don’t see the point of sending them to prison. Somebody should get creative and figure out ways of punishing criminals other than by incarceration. Something akin to a penal colony (with no children) would be an alternative to prison. There have got to be better solutions than prison to the problem of keeping offenders away from situations where they will offend again.

  14. Dan permalink
    April 20, 2010 3:14 pm

    David,

    If you’re looking for objective evidence, I would suggest you look outside the blogosphere. The credibility of the article you posted is summed up by the final paragraph:

    “In fact, as porn viewing has soared, rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, teen sex, teen births, divorce, and rape have all substantially declined. If Internet porn affects society, oddly enough, it looks beneficial. Perhaps mental health professionals should encourage men to view it.”

    (Right, because porn is the cause of less STD’s, not sexual education or better treatments…)

    While we’re using Google as an authority, here is something with more credibility than the article that you posted:

    http://www.hawaii.edu/PCSS/biblio/articles/2005to2009/2009-pornography-acceptance-crime.html

    “In fact, as reported above, the non-rapists had seen more pornography, and seen it at an earlier age. These investigators also found that what does correlate highly with sex offense is a strict, repressive religious upbringing (Goldstein & Kant, 1973). Green too reported that both rapists and child molesters use less pornography than a control group of “normal” males (Green, 1980).”

    So according to the “research”, religion is the main cause of sexual abuse. Oh but wait.. more from the same article:

    “In the only three countries known in which child porn has been legally available, Denmark (Kutchinsky, 1973), Japan (Diamond & Uchiyama, 1999) and the Czech Republic (Diamond, Weiss & Joziflova, in press) the incidence of child sexual abuse declined after possession of child porn was decriminalized.”

    Wait… what? Sexual abuse declined by decriminalizing the sexual abuse of children? Huh?

    Seems to me that someone can find stats to justify any position they want.

  15. Mark Gordon permalink
    April 20, 2010 5:35 pm

    ben,

    Thanks a million for that link. Very good stuff.

  16. David Nickol permalink
    April 21, 2010 9:23 am

    Dan,

    It sounds to me that you stand prepared to reject any and all evidence that pornography does not lead to rape or sex abuse. It is certainly possible for people to argue that pornography is immoral, but I don’t see how anyone can claim pornography influences people to commit sex crimes without doing (or citing) empirical research. It is simply not self-evident that porn causes people to commit crimes.

    Wait… what? Sexual abuse declined by decriminalizing the sexual abuse of children? Huh?

    Note that your quote says possession of child porn was decriminalized. I am quite sure creation of child porn was not decriminalized.

    Whether or not it is true, I don’t know, but it does seem plausible to me that rather than inciting people to commit sexual acts in real life, pornography might serve as an outlet for forbidden sexual desires and actually lessen the actual number of crimes committed. It also might be that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between viewing porn and committing sex crimes, but sex criminals view more porn than people who are not sex criminals.

    The point is that there is no way to determine how the availability and use of pornography affects the rate of sex crimes without doing empirical research.

  17. April 21, 2010 10:57 am

    I’m not sure to what extent your claim is contrary to Bret’s statement, David. It could certainly be both that there is not a strong statistical link between people viewing porn and people committing punishable sex crimes such as rape, and that porn creates attitudes toward sex, women and marriage which Bret would very much not want to see in people interacting with his children over the next twenty years.

    It may be fairly reasonable to claim that porn is not going to cause someone to go out and rape people — after all, going out and raping people is a pretty abnormal and unusual activity. (As you pointed out above, most “sex abuse” is not rape.) But it strikes me as straining credibility that consistently watching porn would not change the way that someone looks at, thinks about, and interacts with people in real life. Nor does it seem at all unreasonable to me for a Christian parent to not want these attitudes in the people interacting with their children.

  18. Dan permalink
    April 21, 2010 3:55 pm

    It sounds to me that you stand prepared to reject any and all evidence that pornography does not lead to rape or sex abuse.

    The point is that there is no way to determine how the availability and use of pornography affects the rate of sex crimes without doing empirical research.

    I’m not irrational, so I will of course reject no evidence. However, I do call into question how one can quantize the human psyche and put it in a neat little statistical box. Especially when using societal trends as one of the criteria – it could be the drinking water as much as the presence/absence of porn.

    In the absence of true objective empirical research, which is well beyond the technological capacity of our current society, these studies are typically filled with bias and speculation and should be seen with skepticism.

  19. Dan permalink
    April 21, 2010 3:57 pm

    And yes, that applies to both sides of the debate.

  20. David Nickol permalink
    April 21, 2010 7:03 pm

    But it strikes me as straining credibility that consistently watching porn would not change the way that someone looks at, thinks about, and interacts with people in real life.

    DarwinCatholic,

    You could say that about reading novels, too.

    I’ll venture to say that most porn is basically just people having sex. There’s no meaning and no message. The point is to sexually arouse the viewer. It would seem to me that television and movies would have far, far more impact on people than porn. I found this:

    The Nielsen Co.’s “Three Screen Report” — referring to televisions, computers and cellphones — for the fourth quarter said the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month. That’s about five hours a day and an all-time high, up 3.6% from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.

    I think one is more likely to be influenced by television and movie comedy and drama far more than by porn for two reasons. One is just the amount of time people spend watching it. The other is because it involves viewers in a way that porn does not. It makes a stab at showing something “realistic,” and gets people emotionally involved with plots and characters in a way that porn does not.

    I used to know a psychologist who said he could not imagine there was no effect on people who spend so much time watching something that was not real. This was before we had reality shows, but of course they aren’t real either. Unless people are watching only news, sports, and documentaries, they are spending a tremendous amount of time in fantasy worlds. A good case can be made that that’s more troubling than watching porn occasionally. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching 5 hours of porn a day.

  21. David Nickol permalink
    April 21, 2010 7:12 pm

    . . . . these studies are typically filled with bias and speculation and should be seen with skepticism.

    Dan,

    I think that is the case with all studies in the social sciences and even findings in the hard sciences. No one study or experiment ever proves anything. However, evidence does accumulate and become more convincing over time. Of course, Catholic teaching would be against porn no matter what social scientists were able to prove conclusively. If it was found that watching 20 minutes of porn a day reduced stress, lengthened life, had the effect of lowering the divorce rate, and so on, the Catholic Church would still be against it. The case against porn doesn’t rest on its social consequences.

  22. April 22, 2010 3:33 pm

    I apologize to MZ if this is getting too far afield, and will drop this if so directed, but David’s claims above strike me as very odd from a human and moral perspective and I’d like to poke at them a bit more:

    I’ll venture to say that most porn is basically just people having sex. There’s no meaning and no message. The point is to sexually arouse the viewer. It would seem to me that television and movies would have far, far more impact on people than porn. … I think one is more likely to be influenced by television and movie comedy and drama far more than by porn for two reasons. One is just the amount of time people spend watching it. The other is because it involves viewers in a way that porn does not. It makes a stab at showing something “realistic,” and gets people emotionally involved with plots and characters in a way that porn does not.

    I suppose views on the human experience in relation to fiction/entertainment can vary (I’d be curious to hear Kyle’s take on this if he’s reading) but it seems to me that based on what you say the effect would the be opposite of what you predict.

    First off, you say the purpose of porn is to cause arousal, though depictions of nudity and sexual activity. Thus far I agree.

    You then say that watching comedies or dramas would involve one more personally, because it attempts to be realistic. From this you derive that watching TV shows “influences” people more than watching porn.

    Now, I would not disagree with you that watching TV influences people, and that this influence is often less than positive. (This is why I made a decision a few years ago that my family simply wouldn’t get TV any more: no cable, no antenna, we only use the TV to watch movies from Netflix.)

    However, let’s think about your other claims a bit. First, realism. The entire point of porn (and I can thank long years of subscribing to the LA Times for my knowledge of what they consider to be one of the region’s most interesting local industries) is that it depicts real nudity and real sex acts. And the point of watching porn is for the viewer to experience real arousal and real sexual release.

    Compare this to the experience of watching a fictional TV show. A viewer may be excited to see how a CSI mystery is resolved, or what happens to the characters on LOST, but the viewer is fully aware that what they’re watching is fictional. The people on 24 are nor real investigators fighting real terrorists, and no one is really being tortured. There is no real island on which a couple dozen people are trapped after a plane crash and tasked with pressing a mysterious button.

    Viewers do experience excitement when watching a drama, and they may feel anger or sadness or fear when “participating” in a fictional narrative, but they are in fact far from the real experiences involved. The viewer of LOST does not have to find food to survive on a tropical island, and the viewer of 24 does not experience the sensations of chases, gunfights and interrogations.

    The viewer of porn experiences sexual arousal and release while watching what he knows are real sex acts being performed by real people — the viewer of 24 does not chase people or shoot a gun while watching, and he knows (at least intellectually) that the actors are not really engaging in gunfights and chases either.

    As such, it seems to me that the experience of porn would much more directly affect the viewer’s approach to sexuality and to women than watching fictional TV shows would affect the viewers approach to the rest of life. (And frankly, if 24 changes the way people feel about interrogation or LOST changes the way people feel about tropical islands, those are still situations pretty distant from most people’s everyday lives, while people potentially deal with sexuality on a daily basis.)

    Given all this, it seems to me entirely reasonable to believe that porn has a direct (and corrupting) effect on people’s relationships and sexuality to a much greater extent than fictional TV shows do to their lives in general.

  23. Dan permalink
    April 22, 2010 5:06 pm

    If it was found that watching 20 minutes of porn a day reduced stress, lengthened life, had the effect of lowering the divorce rate, and so on, the Catholic Church would still be against it. The case against porn doesn’t rest on its social consequences.

    Why would they be against it if it was found to be beneficial to all parties involved? They eventually conceded to the heliocentric model based on evidence. Why wouldn’t they do the same? I don’t think anyone in the Church has a vendetta against sex for the sheer sake of it.

  24. David Nickol permalink
    April 22, 2010 5:51 pm

    Why would they be against it if it was found to be beneficial to all parties involved?

    Dan,

    Because the purpose of porn is sexual arousal, and deliberately arousing oneself (except, perhaps, in the context of intercourse between a married man and woman) is considered a sin. Also, viewing porn is frequently for the purpose of masturbation, which is such a heinous act that a man is not permitted to do it even to provide a sperm sample to a fertility clinic.

  25. Dan permalink
    April 22, 2010 6:33 pm

    Because the purpose of porn is sexual arousal, and deliberately arousing oneself (except, perhaps, in the context of intercourse between a married man and woman) is considered a sin.

    But the premise of your argument is that there was conclusive evidence to show that it is not sinful, but beneficial. So under what pretext could they then consider it a sin?

  26. David Nickol permalink
    April 22, 2010 9:40 pm

    not sinful, but beneficial

    Dan,

    I never said “not sinful.” Something can be beneficial and sinful, too. We were taught in grade school that one must never tell a lie, even if doing so would save the whole world. Some things are “intrinsically evil” because they do not conform to “natural law.” I think almost all psychiatrists and psychologists (and urologists) would agree that masturbation, for example, is normal and natural and not in and of itself harmful. But the Church still considers it gravely sinful because, the argument goes, the purpose of sex is procreation, and masturbation is nonprocreative sex.

  27. David Nickol permalink
    April 22, 2010 10:34 pm

    Given all this, it seems to me entirely reasonable to believe that porn has a direct (and corrupting) effect on people’s relationships and sexuality to a much greater extent than fictional TV shows do to their lives in general.

    DarwinCatholic,

    I don’t have the time tonight (or tomorrow) to devote the time to responding that your message deserves, so I will be brief now and come back to the topic later.

    My point is that I don’t see how watching people having sex in a porn film would affect the way a person interacts with other people, since there is little or no content in porn films relating to interactions with other people. (I suppose the argument against that is that porn turns people into objects, and porn would influence people to treat people like objects, but I really don’t see that.) On the other hand, movies and television are largely devoted to romantic and/or sexual relationships between men and women, and consequently bombard viewers with ideas about what such relationships are about or should be about. In addition to fictional depictions, you also have “experts” on television giving all kinds of guidance and advice about love and marriage. Porn is educational in a very limited way, but adults (and particularly children) watching television 5 hours a day are being indoctrinated (or socialized).

    Also, I would say just the opposite of what you do. People watching porn know they are watching porn, and they know it’s not reality. People watching Lost — one of my absolute favorite shows of all time — certainly know they are watching fiction, but on the other hand, they take quite seriously how the characters relate to one another.

    So I am maintaining that, say, someone involved in a difficult relationship is much more likely to be influenced by what goes on between Jack and Kate, Kate and Sawyer, and Sawyer and Juliet than by what happens in a porn film.

    Two small points: First, “good” porn (say, films produced by the major studios in the adult film industry) is just as much an artificial depiction of “reality” as any other kind of film. Porn stars aren’t average people, and their sexual performances are filmed over long periods of time and edited, just like any other movie performances. Second, it’s odd that you picked CSI as an example of what people know to be fictional, because CSI (what are there — four shows now?) has had a very significant impact — the CSI effect. I have read several articles about how jurors and potential jurors have very unrealistic expectations of how much forensic evidence will be presented in trials and how conclusive it will be.

  28. David Nickol permalink
    April 23, 2010 8:40 am

    DarwinCatholic,

    I might add that I can’t imagine there is any way to prove what I am saying. It’s just my sense of how things “must be.” And when you Google for information about the effects of porn, you find mostly emotional and religious arguments and very little scientific research.

  29. April 23, 2010 9:24 am

    My point is that I don’t see how watching people having sex in a porn film would affect the way a person interacts with other people, since there is little or no content in porn films relating to interactions with other people. (I suppose the argument against that is that porn turns people into objects, and porn would influence people to treat people like objects, but I really don’t see that.)

    It’s the influencing people to treat others like objects (and changing people’s expectations in regards to interacting with the opposite sex) that is exactly what I’m trying to get at here — though I think part of the difference here is that I don’t see people’s sexuality as some area of their lives hermetically sealed off from the rest of their personal interactions and expectations. To the same extent which it is your sense that it “must be” that people can enjoy porn every so often and not have it affect the rest of their lives, it seems to me that it “must be” that it would significantly change their expectations and interactions in looking at and relating to members of the opposite sex.

    If an example will help at all: When I was fresh out of college I worked for a while in the sales office of a small company in LA selling industrial chemicals. It was small enough not to have an HR department or many of the workplace rules that you see in large companies, and the owner and a couple of the top sales guys were in the set that went to parties at the Playboy Mansion. Thus, there were no rules being enforced against the sales guys pulling up porn on their computers at work, so long as they met their sales quotas.

    On days when they did start emailing around pictures and video clips to each other, their interactions with female office staff went down hill very fast. (Frankly, I was surprised the company never got sued.) Their attitudes towards wives and girlfriends were, to my mind, pretty crass in the first place. But it was definitely the case that when they started passing porn around at work, any woman who entered the sales room was being imagined in the situations or poses they’d been looking at.

    I might add that I can’t imagine there is any way to prove what I am saying. It’s just my sense of how things “must be.” And when you Google for information about the effects of porn, you find mostly emotional and religious arguments and very little scientific research.

    I work in data analysis, and I have a lot of respect for the kind of insights it can provide, but this strikes me as an example of people trying to use “scientific research” in ways that it’s simply not capable of doing. If it’s the case that porn as a genre tends to degrade people’s relationships, expectations, and personal interactions — why would one imagine this would be something one could successfully gather scientific research on, when it’s not possible to define scientifically what a “good” relationship is or a “good” way of looking at or interacting with members of the opposite sex. Science isn’t capable of making or measuring moral judgements. This doesn’t mean that moral judgements are discussing something that doesn’t exist, it just underlines that science is a field which is very good at addressing certain topics, and not others.

  30. brettsalkeld permalink*
    April 25, 2010 12:11 pm

    Hi all,
    Sorry this took me so long. My blog mojo is at a low ebb. In any case, I must admit that David’s stats struck me as counter-intuitive and I really don’t know what to make of them. I would be interested to see responses from experts in the field who find fault with the studies.

    In any case, I have noted a lot of anecdotal evidence for the effect of porn on people’s sex lives. I don’t often look this stuff up, but when I sign out of my e-mail their are often “relationship” articles that I peruse to stay on top of the contemporary situation. Two things from those articles stand out for me right now, though I can’t provide references. One was a comment from a fellow who does research on university campuses about the sexual habits of the students. He noted that more and more women are engaging in anal sex, even though they find it distasteful and painful, because it has become a standard expectation of young men in the porn age. He gave the impression that the young women were quite unhappy with this development, but the men were very happy with it. The second thing I recall is seeing a woman counseling other women to let their boyfriends ejaculate on their faces. The basic take was, “Men really like it and it’s not so bad once you get used to it. Give it a try and keep a towel handy.”

    I have a tough time imagining that these two developments don’t have a serious impact on the way women feel about the men they sleep with that will play out somewhere in the relationship, or that they don’t say something about how men understand their relationships to women generally. (I’m guessing that divorce rates probably won’t be affected since most of the strife would be premarital, though it’s just a guess.) I also have a tough time imagining these developments have nothing to do with the prominence of porn in these men’s lives.

    In any case, those anecdotal (though one was from a study) bits are enough to make me hesitant about sending my (as yet hypothetical) daughters to places that almost certainly employ men who are addicted to porn. It also makes me really nervous about the guys they bring (or don’t bring) home. It also makes me fairly anxious to figure out a way to raise my boys so that the don’t expect some poor girl to grin and bear it (whatever “it” is by then) so they can feel like a man.

  31. David Nickol permalink
    April 25, 2010 5:32 pm

    It does seem to me quite plausible that the one area where porn would be influential is in the area of what people do (or expect) when having sex with other people. What I find implausible is the notion that men looking at pictures of naked women (as in Playboy) or watching films of people having “normal” sexual intercourse would have some kind of change in how they regarded or related to women.

    I still say that attitudes about relationships are much more likely to be formed by five hours of television a day than by porn. I am not sure what porn “addiction” is, or if it exists, but obviously if someone is overly involved with *anything* in a self-destructive way, it is likely to affect their lives in a negative way. Einstein was far more interested in physics than in working to have a good marriage. (Not that this is an example of addiction, but it is similar.) Picasso was not a model man when it came to relationships with women.

    I am not sure how seriously to take the stories about college women, but of course women of high school and college age have long been pressured when it comes to sexual behavior.

    It does seem to me that for all the talk about the complementarity of men and women, same-sex partners are much more sexually compatible than opposite-sex partners.

  32. brettsalkeld permalink*
    April 25, 2010 7:20 pm

    I will add that I have no problem with the claim that watching 5 hours of Sex and the City or some such thing has a significant impact on people’s expectations for relationships. It strikes me as part of the same problem, not an example of something different.

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