Social Sexual Experiments and Ethics: A High Social Cost
All too often governments, groups, or individuals make decisions based on beliefs, hunches or bad information rather than facts. These miscalculations frequently are religiously tainted since they are often linked to things associated with church teachings. In other instances the decisions are for some supposed health or medical reason as judged by savants of one sort or another. And, in other cases the decisions are predicated on a belief they would serve the public good. These decisions can be based on political goals or personal prejudices as well. When the results are only of importance or related to the personal matters of a few or of little general consequence these might go unnoted. When, however, these decisions involve government or institutional systems, at any level, they can have serious consequences and actually extract a high social and ethical cost even, as they often are, made with the best of intentions.
This essay will discuss three examples of medical and social policy related to sexual themes that were originally established without firm and reliable evidence justifying the actions. These examples are:
- Sex Assignment or Reassignment and Surgery based on poor science
- Gender Variation controlled by prejudice
- Censorship of pornography
1. Sex Assignment or Reassignment and Surgery based on poor science
Despite public impression that people are born in only two “types,” male and female, it is an actuality that more frequently than one in a hundred births welcomes an infant with an intersexed condition1. With this reality, much more frequently than typically recognized, about one in 2000-4000 individuals are born with external genitalia that are ambiguous as to sex, that is they have genitals that appear to be a combination of male and female. Or persons are born with chromosome sets that are atypical combinations of male and female sex chromosomes (such as XXY, XXXYY, etc.) or such persons have gonads or other internal organs that are characteristic of both males and females.
Since sexual and related matters are usually held private, such common findings are seldom spoken of and until the late 1990s were rarely discussed outside of medical or biological contexts. Physicians treating children with intersex characteristics, and counseling their parents, found themselves in uncomfortably difficult positions; what would be best for such an infant and how should such cases be managed? Should the ambiguous genitalia be surgically modified to look as typically male or typically female? Should such children be assigned as boys or girls on the basis of their genitalia or on some other criteria? Should these children and their parents just be informed of the situation and counseled how best to deal with the reality?
Based on early case studies of how persons with differences of sex development (DSD)—a more current and preferred term for intersex conditions—had fared until the mid 1950s,psychologist John Money at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University promulgated the idea that humans were psychosexually neutral at birth and it didn’t matter whether such infants were raised as boys or girls. To best adapt to whichever sex would be assigned, however, three practices were encouraged. The practices decided upon were: 1) The ambiguous genitalia should be normalized by surgery; 2) The child should not be told of the original ambiguity or subsequent surgery; 3) The child should be brought up consistently without any doubt as to the proper gender. And since it was easier to fashion a female appearing set of genitals than to fashion a functional male penis and scrotum many male infants were sexually reassigned as girls. As long as these infants were brought up properly, it was predicted, they would develop into typical men and wom2,3. This idea that gender consistent rearing and socialization would resolve any difficulties of the child became well accepted. Along with this mode of thinking, surgical advances in the last century made it possible for physicians to choose a gender for the child and to sculpt gender-appropriate genitalia of approximately normal-looking appearance. For the most part, when choosing surgical treatment, physicians opted for a female form because it was easier to fashion female genitalia than male. Relying on a nurture-based theory of gender identity, physicians have advised parents to surgically alter their intersexed infant and to raise the child in a manner consistent with the child’s surgically altered genitalia, without regard to the gender identity that might have naturally developed. The same advice has been given when a male infant’s penis has been severely mutilated by trauma or was considered significantly small. Clinicians have assured parents that the surgical potential for normal-looking (usually female) genitalia should dictate the child’s gender and that any innate gender propensity of the child can be changed by careful upbringing. This advice is still in vogue4.
Despite a paucity of confirming evidence, medical literature in the 1960s and 1970s had promoted this treatment. In 1972, the medical community was presented with a report that seemed to strengthen the belief that a child’s male gender could be successfully changed to that of a girl by socialization5. Identified in 1997 as the John/Joan case, this story involved a set of monozygotic twins. At the age of seven months they were sent for circumcision and one had his penis accidentally burned off. To the anguished parents it was recommended that without a penis, their son’s life would not be bearable so he should be raised as a girl with the prediction this would be satisfactory6,7. The parents accepted this advice and the sex reversal was reported to have worked successfully5,8,9.
Based on the bolstered belief that sex reassignment was possible for a typical child, clinicians reasoned that it could be suitable for the numerous individuals whose genitalia were ambiguous. It is safe to say that around the world there were many thousands of such treatment combinations for intersexed individuals or for males with traumatized genitals. And without adequate follow up to see how persons receiving such surgeries and reassignments fared, these surgeries continued into the late 1990s and still do.
Things changed in 1997 when an article appeared that detailed a follow-up to the John/Joan case7. Instead of supporting the original claims that a typical boy could have his gender successfully reassigned to that of a girl, the new report documented the opposite. At the age of 14 years, despite being reared as a girl and undergoing psychiatric counseling and an estrogen regimen to reinforce a female identity, Joan (actually David Reimer) reassigned himself to live as a boy. He never had accepted his original gender reassignment. Other cases where the sex reassignment of intersexed children was rejected also were reported10,11.
The new evidence from this John/Joan case seemed to indicate that people were not psychosexually neutral at birth but rather psychosexually biased and predisposed. The belief that one’s sexual identity could be modified easily by rearing lost its footing and a dramatic shift in thinking about the management of intersex conditions gained momentum. New principles of management for intersex conditions were provided12.
In a follow up to this new report, at a 1998 national meeting of the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), evidence was offered that their standards of care for intersex management were on shaky ground. Three strong recommendations were offered3,13.
“There should be a general moratorium on sex assignment cosmetic surgery when it is done without the consent of the patient.”
This recommendation did not infer that such surgery had no application; however, no evidence had been presented that the surgery was beneficial. The implication for such surgery was based on anecdotes and some case reports, not evidence-based medicine. Because there was no reported evidence for the practice, and such evidence still remains elusive, the golden rule of medicine seemed appropriate “First do no harm, Primum non nocere.”
“This moratorium should not be lifted unless and until complete and comprehensive retrospective studies are done and it is found that the outcomes of past interventions have been positive.”
Because long-term follow-up studies on the old protocols were lacking, evidence must be gathered to justify the practices. Because so many procedures had been done over the years, at least the records of those physicians and surgeons who were still active should be examined. Since genital surgery was involved research must inquire in detail about sexuality, orgasmic thresholds, identity and the like. Simply asking if one is sexually active or sexually experienced—whatever that could mean—or if one is dating or married is insufficient.
It was admitted that future research may find that such operations and procedures are appropriate; however, not having the evidence lends uncertainty to life features of dramatic importance. The negative cost of ill-advised surgeries and sex reassignments can be high.
“Efforts should be made to undo the effects of past physician deception and secrecy.”
Often, parents and physicians had concealed aspects of surgery and treatment from the child and excluded maturing children from medical management decisions. Furthermore, secrecy has kept intersexed individuals isolated from honest contact with their families, physicians and others who had a similar diagnosis. Typically, patients discover their condition from an inadvertent family slip, community gossip, personal investigation into puzzling aspect of their lives, or mix up at the doctor’s office. Then the patient learns that s/he has been deceived since childhood by the people who should have been the most trustworthy—parents and physicians. All of this is damaging. To the extent that these children are misled, as they mature to adulthood they cannot act rationally from a realistic appraisal of their medical condition.
One rapid result following the publication of the follow-up to the John/Joan case and the presentation to the American Academy of Pediatrics was a call for a conference to consider the implications of the findings and the subsequent three original recommendations. The conference was held in Dallas, Texas in the spring of 1999. From the Texas conference14, two themes were reinforced: (1) more research with long-term studies are needed and (2) patients should be as informed as soon as possible as to their condition. A third theme emerged: the brain has to be recognized as a sexual organ and “Since the human brain is sexually dimorphic, it is not always possible to predict whether the adult will be happy with their gender 20 or 30 years after such a critical decision has been made in the first days of life”14. A moratorium on infant surgery was considered unrealistic, however; mostly because it was hypothesized that it would not be accepted by parents15.
The situation has changed, however. Intersex conditions are no longer seen universally as disorders or errors of development but are increasingly being seen as “differences” of life (Differences in Sex Development = DSD). And since 1998 the Standards of Care for intersex conditions have changed markedly. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics modified their standards in recognition of the new evidence16. Similarly in 2001 the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons modified their standard of care for intersexed children17. In these new guidelines, some concessions were made to the three recommendations. Neither group accepted a moratorium, however. They did, nevertheless, encourage more caution in recommending sex reversals, they called for new research and recommended greater candor and honesty in dealing with patients and their families.
In 1998, the Constitutional Court of Colombia, South America, ruled that sex reassignment of children would no longer be legal in that country. The Court’s purported goal was “forcing parents to put the child’s best interest ahead of their own fears and concerns about sexual ambiguity”18. The Colombian Constitution guarantees free development of one’s own personality, which implies a right to define one’s own sexual identity.
Presently, many physicians who used to sex reassign males who had traumatic early loss of their penis or are born with a micropenis, are now more likely to let them be and allow the maturing boy a say in how this will be managed. Surgeons also are less likely to reduce an enlarged clitoris in a girl with the intersex condition known as Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH). Many other physicians are critically examining old and new research regarding intersex treatment to provide the best care possible and increasingly medical ethicists are getting involved in the solutions (e.g. 19). This is all a marked step forward.
The traditional efforts on behalf of the individuals with DSD were well meaning but mistaken. And it is certainly now well known that human behavior is not so easily manipulated that one’s basic and natural character can be easily changed even by intense socialization, hormone administration, psychiatry, and surgery.
With the best interests of the child involved, they themselves should be involved in any decision regarding such an important feature of life. Rather than the comfort of the parents or physicians, while well meaning, their needs have to come after that of their intersexed child himself or herself20,21.
2. Gender Variation control
In Western society it is common to think, as in regard to sex as discussed in the section above, that males should live as boys developing into men and females should live as girls and then develop as women. It is further believed that such development and consistent distinctions and separation between the sexes is “the way it should be,” is correct, and best for society. In this discussion male and female are taken as biological terms representing the two common sexes while terms like boy and girl and man and woman are seen as social/cultural descriptions22. It is apparent, however, that gender living is not that simple. Well known to even those most sheltered, is that some apparently biologically intact males elect to live as girls and women and some biologically intact females choose to live as boys and then men.
The reasons for such occurrences are hotly debated but the evidence for there being a biological basis for such happenings is gaining strength23. And, indeed, cross-cultural studies of societies around the world has shown that many have accepted different manifestations of gender shifting24. These examples of gender blending range from the Hijras of India to the Berdache of the American Indians to the Mahu and Fa’afafini of Oceana. Individuals in the Industrialized West who exhibit such traits range from transsexuals at the most extreme, to cross dressers and drag queens and kings at the other, and those who are visibly androgynous.
It perhaps can be said that the West became graphically aware of transsexualism in 1953 with the publicity attending the sex change of Christine Jorgenson25. Soon following this public awareness the involved surgeon received more that 460 written requests for similar surgeries26. The desire for such transitions had obviously been long in waiting.
A boy of 12 is now believed to have become the world’s youngest patient to convince doctors that he should live the rest of his life as a female. This Viennese boy—originally called Tim, but now known as Kim—has started to receive hormone treatment, in preparation for the operation that will eventually complete the sex change27.
Kim was diagnosed as a transsexual three years ago, when doctors and psychiatrists concluded that his claims to be “in the wrong body” were so deeply felt that he required treatment. The therapy involves artificially arresting male puberty, with a series of potent hormone injections before the administration of female hormones to initiate the development of features such as breasts28.
Now aged 15, and officially registered as a female, Kim looks like a typical girl of her age. She dresses in fashionable clothes, has long blonde hair and blue eyes and dreams of moving to Paris to become a fashion designer. Her parents eventually grew accustomed to seeing Kim as a girl. The parents say Kim liked to play with Barbie dolls, enjoyed wearing dresses and, from the age of two, insisted that he was a girl. This case is not very different from that of Alex in Australia. The only difference is that Alex was transitioning from a female to live as a male29.
Transsexuals experience the onset of puberty, and the physical changes it brings, as a serious trauma. Usually society, unaware of the forces involved, has a general lack of empathy with transsexuals. These persons are not freaks, nor do they suffer mental illness. I believe, as similar to the intersex cases mentioned previously that their brains develop in the direction of one sex while their bodies develop in the other. There are now literally many tens of thousands of persons in countries around the world that have made a transition similar to that of Kim and Alex although most are made at older ages after living years of desperate frustration. And there is an even larger contingent of persons that, while not making a full transition of one sex to the other, elect or feel compelled to mix, share, blend and bend stereotypical male and female models sufficient to be considered transgendered. While the cause of transsexualism or even cross-dressing is not firmly established, some evidence is available. One thing, however, seems certain. These are not conditions due to faulty rearing or infant experiences. How well transgendered persons fare in transitioning or dealing with their condition, however, is related to the support of family and other social institutions such as school and religion and finally employment. It can also depend upon professional psychiatric support. While psychotherapeutic treatment remains, for many, a helpful ingredient in dealing with the inevitable distress caused by this condition, “severe gender dysphoria cannot be alleviated by any conventional psychiatric treatment”30. The aim of psychiatric treatments is, therefore, not to remove the condition, but to mitigate its most stressful aspects.
Anecdotally, aside from the inevitable stress occasioned by their efforts to suppress cross-gender behaviors, trans people do not describe any particular trauma to which their condition might be attributed31. Autobiographical accounts of adult individuals indicate an early awareness of discomfort that is often not articulated during childhood. Severely gender disturbed young people frequently succumb to the considerable pressure to comply with the gender role expectations of family, friends and society. In cultures where greater allowance is made for gender expression that is less distinctly bipolar, the dissonance experienced by those with a form of transsexualism, seems considerably lessened. However, in Western societies most trans people give accounts of their strenuous efforts to fit their respective stereotypes32. This may result in an appearance of conformity, while simply making the individuals more acutely aware of the dissonance. Despite these stereotypical behavioral expectations and even punishment for exhibiting cross-sex behaviors, many of these individuals eventually undergo transition33,34,35,36.
Causes of Trans Conditions
Taken in conjunction with the evidence from the other histories of conditions involving anomalies of genitalia (as in the preceding section) it seems that gender identity—how one sees self within society—resolves independently of genital appearance, even when that appearance and the assigned identity is enhanced by medical and social interventions. It is, therefore, postulated that inborn “brainwiring” is often the stronger factor in determining gender identity3,37,38,39.
Other studies also support the hypothesis that there are psychoneuroendocrinological links in the development of transsexualism, that is, that the prenatal endocrine environment impacts on the neural organization of potentially sex dimorphic areas of the brain; these, in turn, influence the psychological identification as male or female40,41,42,43,44,45.
Sex differentiation of the mammalian brain has been shown to be initiated during fetal development and continues after birth46,47,48. It is also postulated that the hormonal effects on the brain occur at several critical periods of sex differentiation during which gender identity may be established. So, at present, although the exact mechanism is incompletely understood, it is hypothesized that an atypical hormone environment at a critical time in the organization of the fetal brain may be associated with a conflicted brain-body gender outcome23,37.
Several studies have found several sex-dimorphic nuclei in the hypothalamus and other areas of the brain49,50,51. Of particular interest, in regard to transsexualism, is the sex-dimorphic region called the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTc). The Kruijver et al. study43 found that in the case of trans women the size of this nucleus and its neuron count was in the same range as that of the female controls and, therefore, women in the general population. When all the subjects were included, the neuronal differences between the groups were found to be highly significant. In the only available brain of a transman, the volume and structure of this nucleus was found to be in the range of the male controls and, therefore, men in the general population.
In line with the hypothesis outlined above, that the fetal hormone milieu is critical to the sex differentiation of the brain, it is suggested that a number of factors may contribute to an altered environment at the critical moments in its early development. These factors might include genetic influences52,53,54,55,56,57 and/or medication, environmental influences58,59,60, or stress or trauma to the mother during pregnancy. Three genes under investigation may enhance the susceptibility for transsexualism56,61.
Gender identity may be understood to be “much less a matter of choice and much more a matter of biology”. The scientific evidence supports the paradigm that transsexualism is strongly associated with the neurodevelopment of the brain. It is clear that the condition cannot necessarily be overcome by “consistent psychological socialization as male to female from very early childhood” and it is not responsive to psychological or psychiatric treatments alone.
Over and above any discussion already presented, it is imperative to emphasize that attention to the needs of trans people should be extended on the basis of human rights, justice, ethics and equality. Medical and scientific findings are often amended and clarified, but the right of individuals to appropriate care and respect remains. Societies around the world have accepted great variations in the roles and behaviors of males and females and are mostly richer for such tolerance.
3. Censorship of pornography
Things being forbidden in different societies are not new. Some things are restricted by religious writ. Other restrictions are based on political fears such as what might be read or seen. These taboos are not based on scientific evidence of harmfulness. Perhaps one of the most widespread injunctions is that related to the availability and consumption, either in word or visual form, of sexually explicit materials (SEM).
Those against the availability and ready access to pornography usually argue such materials are detrimental to social order leading to rape and sexual assault or other sex related crime. Others argue that such resources, even if not leading to physical crimes, contribute to the degradation of women in different ways: they claim there is harm to the women who perform sexually, (whether or not they appear to consent to participate in it they are being exploited economically or physically coerced to do so); they claim there is harm to the women who do not participate in it but are denied their own, supposedly non-pornographic, sexuality, because they are encouraged to perform the unpleasant acts depicted in it by men who are acculturated by it; and they claim harm in the sense that the depicted acts can lead directly to conditions of physical endangerment for all women62,63,64. And at the very least it is argued that pornography sets an “unhealthy” moral tone within society that particularly puts children at risk of exploitation.
In their efforts to improve society as they see it, those against pornography call for its elimination and censorship. With such strong feelings at stake, what is the evidence for negative effects of pornography? Considering that the production, distribution and sale of sexually explicit materials are world-wide and part of a multibillion dollar industry with ready access to anyone with a computer, or a so-called “Adult” store, one would think the negative affects, if actual, would be obvious and readily available.
Pornography incorporates any sexually explicit materials, in any form or media, that are basically intended to be erotically entertaining and or arousing. What sort of evidence is there that pornography is detrimental to society? Is there any evidence for its benefit? Are the efforts to censor and restrict the availability of such material worth the social and economic as well as legal cost of restricting it?
Consider the following: some 11,000 new pornographic DVD titles are published each year and the new Blu-ray format is preferred so the latest production techniques are incorporated65. The Free Speech Coalition, a porn industry-lobbying group in the U.S., estimates that adult video/DVD sales and rentals amount to at least $4 billion annually; critics claim the figure may approach $10 billion. Revenues from phone sex are thought to be exceeding $1 billion 66.
According to recent statistics from “ITFacts WWW”note1 the following were reported: 10% of UK teenagers visit adult web sites; 28% of internet users download porn at work; 20% of adult industry revenues are Internet-driven; 73.7 million Web users went to porn sites in April 2004, 70.7 million in April 2005.
In a Christianity Today survey in 2000, 33% of clergy admitted to having visited a sexually explicit web site. Of those who had visited a porn site, 53% had visited such sites “a few times” in the preceding year, and 18% visit sexually explicit sites between a couple of times a month and more than once a week. And it is not just men but women too who are increasingly indulging in both the use and production of porn67. “Safe Families” reported that 34% of female readers of “Today’s Christian Woman”’s online newsletter admitted to intentionally accessing Internet porn. The Nielson/Net Ratings report for September 2003 reported that more than 32 million unique individuals visited a porn site in September of 2003. Nearly 22.8 million of them were male (71 percent), while 9.4 million adult site visitors were female (29 percent). Also to be considered is that the production of porn is not always by large commercial entities. The proliferation of amateur and home videos available on the Internet testifies to both the domestication of pornography and the “porning” (68 p.51) of the domestic.
Research on pornography has generally been of various types. Probably most common are studies that involved exposing experimental conditions of varying media to students or other subjects and measuring some variable such as changes in attitude or predicted hypothetical behaviors. Another type of research involved interviewing sex offenders and asking them of their experiences with SEM. And a third type involved interviewing victims of sex abuse in trying to evaluate if pornography was involved in the assault69. Surprisingly few studies have actually linked the availability of porn in any society with associated antisocial behaviors or sex crimes in particular.
According to Bauserman, two questions arise in the study of pornography and its relation to sexual offending, “whether or not exposure to pornography plays a role in the development of offending behavior and whether use of pornography plays a role in the commission of actual offenses70.” The literature provides much clearer data with respect to the commission of the offense as opposed to the development of a pattern of behavior.
Against pornography the work of Donnerstein and Malamuth is frequently cited. Referring to Malamuth and his colleagues’ work, Donnerstein & Linz71 state that a non-rapist population will show increased sexual arousal after having been exposed to “media-presented images of rape,” especially when the female victim demonstrates signs of pleasure and arousal. This exposure may also lead to a lessened sensitivity toward rape, acceptance of rape myths, increased self-reported likelihood of raping and self-generated rape fantasies. These were the findings from attitude studies, not actual behavior research.
What sorts of actual research data are there? Examining Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1960 to 1969, Kupperstein and Wilson72 found an overall decrease in sexual offenses with the exception of forcible rape, prostitution and commercialized vice. However, these accounted for less than 2 percent of arrests from 1960 to 1969. Compared to the forcible rape, arrests for criminal homicide, robbery, grand larceny, and auto thefts increased by 4 percent during the same period. A Danish study revealed that the number of arrests for sex offenses dramatically decreased from 1958 to 1969, despite an extensive increase in the circulation of pornographic material73. A later study found similar results74.
Despite the increase of reported rapes, these did not differ from nonsexual violent crimes such as aggravated assault from 1964 to 1984. The rates for rape and aggravated assault in the United States experienced similar growth; assault increased at a faster pace than rape rates in Denmark, Sweden, and West Germany. Kutchinsky suggests that “the two developments [rape and aggravated assault] are related and should be explained in the same terms.” This is consistent with the view that rape is an act of aggression, not a sexual act75 and “refute[s] the belief that explicit sexual material is somehow related to rape”76.
Yet another study conducted in the United States examining arrest data in Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington during the periods of time when these states’ pornography statutes were inoperative, found an upsurge in explicit pornographic media, a decrease in murder and robbery arrest, and an increase in rape and aggravated assault. Despite these increases, however, arrest rates for sex crimes were well below the national average. Over the fourteen-year period studied, compared to the pre-suspension periods, no significant changes occurred in observed rates of arrest for rape, prostitution, and sex offenses. Winick & Evans77 offer various interpretations for their findings. They postulate the possibility that there may not exist a relationship between the use of pornography and the commission of sex offenses, or that the availability of pornography may alternately increase rates of sexual offenses for one group, decrease it for others, or have no impact on the majority of individuals.
Challenging the belief that increased availability and circulation of pornography in effect leads to an increase in rates for rapes, Kimmel and Linders78 found just the opposite, mainly, that rape rates along with aggravated assault increased while pornography consumption decreased. Thus, it is evident that “a steady decline in consumption of printed pornography and a steady rise in rape rate” was in effect. It was also found that among the cities studied (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Dallas, Jacksonville, and Louisville) “the proportion of rapes reported for the core cities had decreased from 1979 to 1989 in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Louisville, remained fairly stable in Cleveland and Jacksonville, and [slightly] increased in Dallas.” Additionally, a negative correlation between circulation rates and rape rates between 1979 and 1989 was found nationwide. Similar correlations were found at the state level, The authors conclude that “just as legalizing pornography has not, and ... will not lead to an increase in rape rates, banning pornography [as was done in Cincinnati and Jacksonville] will not lead to a reduction in rape rates.”
In addition to refuting the so-called increase in sexually violent portrayals, Scott & Cuvelier76 state that “these data question the alleged link between increased sexual violence in adult magazines and rape rates” by citing relevant literature. They argue that given the increase in X-rated video rentals in the U.S., one would expect that rape rates would have increased if the assumption that pornography causes individuals to rape held true, but this has not occurred.
Additional research has been conducted to assess the effects of pornography, violent and nonviolent. According to Donnerstein & Linz, exposure to nonaggressive pornography may have one of two effects: either (1) individuals predisposed to aggress who are later exposed to nonaggressive pornography may have the opposite effect, it may reduce subsequent aggressive behavior. They go on to state that no evidence exists “for any ‘harm’ -related effects from sexually explicit materials. But research may support potential harm effects from aggressive materials. Aggressive images are the issue, not sexual images”79.
One can compare how pornography has effected total societies when such material has gone from being illegal and relatively scarce to being legal. Or vice versa; one can investigate what happens when a community goes from having relatively large amounts of sexually explicit material to relatively small amounts. Perhaps the best known of these societal studies are those of Ben Kutchinsky of Denmark, who studied different countries80,81,82,83. For the countries of Denmark, Sweden and West Germany, the three nations for which ample data were available at the time, Kutchinsky analyzed in depth the crime statistics and pornography availability for the years from approximately 1964 to 1984. Kutchinsky showed that as the amount of pornography increasingly became available, the rate of rapes in these countries either decreased or remained relatively level. These countries legalized or decriminalized pornography in 1969, 1970 and 1973 respectively. In all three countries the rates of nonsexual violent crimes and nonviolent sex crimes (e.g., peeping, flashing) essentially decreased also. Only in the U.S. did it appear that in the 1970s and 1980s as porn became increasingly available, did rape appear to increase. But Kutchinsky (1985a; 1991) also noted that how rape was newly recorded then could account for the apparent increase in sex crime rate.
In Britain, the privately constituted Longford Committee84 reviewed the pornography situation in that nation and concluded that such material was detrimental to public morals. It dismissed the scientific evidence in favor of protecting the “public good” against forces that might “denigrat[e] and devalu[e] human persons.” The officially constituted British (Williams) Committee on Obscenity and Film censorship, however, in 1979 analyzed the situation and reported85:“From everything we know of social attitudes, and have learned in the course of our enquiries, our belief can only be that the role of pornography in influencing the state of society is a minor one. To think anything else is to get the problem of pornography out of proportion” (p. 95).
A 1984 Canadian study found similarly. A review by McKay and Doiff for the department of Justice of Canada reported: “There is no systematic evidence available which suggests a causal relationship between pornography and the morality of Canadian society ... [and none] which suggests that increases in specific forms of deviant behavior, reflected in crime trend statistics (e.g., rape) are causally related to pornography”86. The Canadian Fraser Committee, in 1985, after a review of the topic, concluded the evidence so poorly organized that no consistent body of evidence could be found to condemn pornography87.
To see if these observations would hold for different types of societies, the situation for Japan was studied88. In Japan, sexually explicit materials which cater to all sorts of erotic interests and fetishes are readily available.
However, according to police records, it is readily obvious that the incidence of rape has been steadily and dramatically decreasing over the past decades. The character of the rape also changed markedly. Early in the period of observation, many of the rapes were gang (more than a single attacker) rapes, thus accounting for the number of offenders exceeding the number of rapes reported. This has become increasingly rare. The number of rapes committed by juveniles has also markedly decreased. Juveniles committed 33% of the rapes in 1972, but only 18% of those committed in 1995. Over the same time period, the incidence of sex assault had also decreased. However, the incidence of reported sexual assaults rebounded. It is also noteworthy that during this period, according to Japanese National Police Academy records, the rate of convictions for rape increased markedly from 85% in 1972 to more than 95% in the 1990s.
To add to these data it should be added that yet unpublished studies in Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic, Croatia as well as Shanghai, China found that as the availability of pornography increased the incidence of sex crimes decreased.
Data from the United States are equally persuasive. By whatever methods of documentation, it can be stated that the amount of pornography available now in the United States is considerably greater than twenty or even ten years ago. Such sexually explicit material is available to satisfy almost every paraphilia including a minority of illegal child pornography (e.g. 89,90).
Despite this availability of SEM, according to FBI Department of Justice statistics we can see that the incidence of rape declined markedly over the twenty years from 1975 to 1995.This was particularly seen in the age categories 20-24 and 25-34. In the other categories, the rate of rape essentially did not change. During the years 1980 to 1989 the contrast is great between the rates of rape, declining or remaining steady, while the rates of non-sexual violent crimes continued to increase (91, p. 365).
In 2008 an article by law professor Anthony D’Amato entitled “Porn Up, Rape Down” essentially confirmed that the trends that had been starting years ago have continued especially in the United States92. He summed up his report this way:
The incidence of rape in the United States has declined 85% in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. The Nixon and Reagan Commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials produced social violence. The reverse may be true: that pornography has reduced social violence.
With these data from a wide variety of countries and cultures, we can better evaluate the thesis that an abundance of sexual explicit material invariably leads to an increase of illegal sexual activity and eventually rape. Similarly we can now better reconsider the conclusion of the Meese Commission that there exists “a causal relationship to antisocial acts of sexual violence and ... unlawful acts of sexual violence” (93, p. 326). Indeed, the data we report and review suggests that the thesis is myth and, if anything, there is an inverse causal relationship between an increase in pornography and sex crimes.
We live in what Walter Kendrick (94, p. 95) terms a “postpornographic era,” one in which a growing slice of the nation’s disposable income (and leisure time) is allocated to the acquisition of highly diverse visual sexual representations, mediated sexual experiences and sexual fantasy goods.
Criminalizing or legalizing pornography should depend on whether it can be shown to be seriously harmful or not; not whether it is found to be beneficial. If pornography cannot be shown to be seriously harmful, there is no reason it should not be legal. There is no evidence that sexually explicit materials lead to any increase in sexual crimes or social disruption and there is some indication that the availability of pornography serves some useful purposes; it certainly seems entertaining and pleasurable to a large segment of society. While critics invoke charges of the dishonoring of women seen in SEM, others see it as empowering them. Without evidence of social harm from pornography, especially those varieties without aggression or violence, there is no reason it should not be legally available.
This review has presented three of many areas related to sex that are used as examples where prejudice, ignorance and narrow-mindedness held sway in regard to how they were or are managed. This is not the best way to protect and foster the finest interests of any society. Many of the related practices are unethical. Hopefully the future will recognize the value of first studying any issue from a multiplicity of perspectives, where at least one of them incorporates research and a tendency to ethics and freedom rather than restriction and prejudice.