Explained: Why banning porn doesn’t guarantee a drop in sexual assault cases

News of a 10-year-old being raped and murdered, allegedly by a porn-addicted teenager, has raised the old demand of banning X-rated content online. But studies show countries which loosened porn restrictions witnessed a decrease in sex crimes and experts say porn may act a ‘safety valve' for men

FP Explainers November 30, 2022 16:19:14 IST
Explained: Why banning porn doesn’t guarantee a drop in sexual assault cases

As per PornHub's internal data, India is the third largest consumer of pornographic content | Image Credit: Wiki Commons

News of a 10-year-old girl in Chhattisgarh being raped and murdered, allegedly by a teenager addicted to pornography, has left many reeling.

The juvenile’s statement that he watched porn for hours before committing the crime has also raised, in some quarters, the old demand of banning porn.

Especially considering the frequency with which similar cases seem to be hitting the headlines.

However, is there really a link between pornography and sexual violence? And what do experts say?

Let’s take a closer look:

India and porn

First, let’s briefly look at the relationship between India and porn.

While watching porn itself is not illegal in India, there remains a ban on its creation, publication and distribution.

Data showed that in 2019, around 89 per cent of mobile phone users in India watched porn on their phone.

Explained Why banning porn doesnt guarantee a drop in sexual assault cases

One study showed 89 per cent of Indians watch porn on their phones. Representational Image/Pexels.

Which shouldn’t be surprising given the fact that India has 750 million smartphone users – a figure expected to reach 1.2 billion by 2026 with rural areas driving growth – and internet data packs being among the cheapest in the world.

As of 2018, India was the third largest consumer of porn (beaten by the US and the UK) with Indian women comprising 30 per cent of those watching – which puts paid to that particular myth.

That same year, the average porn Indian spent eight minutes 23 seconds on the website Pornhub (per session).

Forty-four per cent of Indian visitors were between the ages of 18 and 24 years; 41 per cent were in the 25-34 range.

The average age for an Indian porn watcher was 29.

And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic – which saw a massive spike in porn consumption with India registering a 20 per cent jump according to one study.

That seems to be in line with the 18 per cent jump Pornhub, the world’s largest website, saw in April 2020 after making its premium content free for 30 days, as per The Conversation.

However, according to The Times of India, another study placed the average surge in porn-watching from India at a whopping 33 per cent during the pandemic.

Centre vs porn websites

Despite the Centre attempting tried time and again to take action against such websites, porn on the internet remains freely available.

The government in September 2022 asked internet companies to block 67 websites which  ‘tarnished the image of modesty of women’ and violated the 2021 IT rules.

In 2015, the Centre ordered a ban on 800 websites – which some big name sites circumvented by changing their domain names.

That decision was eventually rolled back with the government placing the onus on the hands of the Internet Service Providers.

In 2009, the government banned the popular porn cartoon character Savita Bhabhi – to the dismay of the 60 million monthly visitors to its website.

One big problem is that there is no way that the Centre can keep up with the multitude of porn websites sprouting up all over the internet.

Another is that users can bypass these bans on blocked URLs through VPNs and proxy servers.

Another wrinkle is the way porn is being consumed by Indians – a massive amount is actually being circulated through apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

Case studies abroad

Politicians and those that see themselves as the guardians of morality and Indian culture have long blamed sexual assaults on the easy availability of pornography.

Explained Why banning porn doesnt guarantee a drop in sexual assault cases

VPNs and proxy servers make it virtually impossible for governments to ban porn Image courtesy: Unsplash

By their logic,  the availability of X-rated content on the internet – which began gaining popularity in the 1990s – should have increased rates of sexual assault all over the world.

But studies show that’s not the case.

According to Psychology Today, the rate of sexual assault in the US has dropped 44 per cent from 1995 to 2016.

According to Yahoo News, University of California at Los Angeles, querying both upstanding citizens and convicted rapists on their porn habits, found that the former watched more than the latter.

The Kathmandu Post quoted law professor at Northwestern University Anthony D’Amato as uncovering research between 1980 and 2000 that showed states with minimum internet pornography access witnessed a 53 per cent increase in rape cases compared to a states where porn was most accessible which saw a 27 per cent drop in rape crimes.

The Czech Republic, examining the incidents of rape for nearly two decades before and after the legalisation of porn, found that rape cases actually decreased after porn was legalised.

Japan, China and Hong Kong also saw sex crimes decrease as porn became more easily available.

Going back even further to the 1970s, when Denmark loosened its pornography restrictions, rates of sexual assault and rape allegations saw a notable decrease, as per Yahoo News.

What do experts say?

Some argue that porn may in fact act as a ‘safety valve’ for men.

“Porn doesn’t incite men to sexual violence. It looks more like a safety valve that gives men an alternative outlet for potentially assaultive energy. Instead of attacking women, men who might commit that crime can masturbate to unlimited amounts of internet porn,” the Psychology Today piece noted.

Others contend that we may simply be looking at the topic all wrong.

A piece in The Conversation, examining the role porn may play in violent crime, says the most honest answer to whether there is a link between men watching porn and committing violent crimes may simply be: “We don’t know.”

There’s no one perfect kind of research that we could do to find out whether porn causes violence. We can show students porn in the lab and see whether they give somebody more electric shocks afterwards, but would the findings apply to people in the real world?” the piece asked.

“We can study whether countries that have more porn have higher levels of sexual violence. But even if they do, does that mean that the porn causes the violence, that violent people consume more porn, or that something else, such as the way a culture encourages men to behave is responsible for both trends. It’s the classic problem that correlation does not equal causation,” the piece noted.

The piece added that porn may simply be a ‘handy scapegoat’ while trying to comprehend senseless and horrific crimes.

“It enables us to focus on an evil outside force, rather than asking more uncomfortable questions about the role of structural inequalities in crime. It also focuses attention away from the problematic ideas about sex, gender and violence that are around us all from the start of our lives, in our everyday conversations and in mainstream media, not to mention court cases and political debates,” the piece concluded.

With inputs from agencies

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