Misrepresenting the evidence in the great porn debate


Not so long ago, Gail Dines came to Australia. Her tour and speaking engagements, including on Q&A, attracted a lot of attention to her campaign, the message of which is basically that porn is very bad; bad for men, bad for women, and bad for the women who perform in it.

She believes performances for women consist primarily, if not exclusively, of women being forced into violent, degrading sexual practices. When Howard Jacobson suggested there was something “in our natures” that makes us want to watch porn, Dines retorted: “I refuse to accept that my boy came out with a homing device for gagonmycock.com.”

Debates about porn among women who identify as feminists go back 30 years. In the ‘80s, the pro-porn feminists identified as sex-positive feminists. The most prominent anti-porn feminists were Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. In my view, the better arguments and evidence were on the side of the sex-positive feminists, and a comprehensive rebuttal to the ‘MacDworkin’ position was provided by former American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen in Defending Pornography.

For her part, while Dines has not adopted the same type of censorship model as Dworkin and MacKinnon, she has freely acknowledged Dworkin’s influence:

The place where I discovered my power was radical feminism. When I read Andrea Dworkin’s work my life was turned upside down. All of a sudden I could make sense of my life and understand why I was treated the way I was. I broke free of all the ideological myths that patriarchy delivers to women and for the first time, I felt like I could really see the world.

Since the ‘80s and ‘90s, porn’s reach has expanded. Now that, in the West at least, most people have internet access, most people have ready access to porn. If people are voting with their, err, mouse-clicking fingers, then people are voting for porn. As I googled the word porn just now, I found 1,960,000,000 results. A few years ago, a Canadian study “hoping to compare men who watch porn with those who haven’t encountered it has been derailed – because researchers couldn’t find any men who hadn’t indulged in X-rated material”.

It seems to me that with such an enormous market, based on what are really basic, pervasive urges among men and women, it would take considerable state intervention to try to “close down” the industry, the modest task Dines sets herself.

As the argument is old, the question is: does Dines have persuasive new arguments and evidence, which will finally turn society against porn? Well… the signs do not seem good.

Leslie Cannold posted excerpts from an academic review of two books on pornography, in a journal called Violence Against Women. One of the reviewed books was Dines’ Pornland. It concluded that:

The books under review offer little useful, evidence-based information. Overall, these books present an extremely biased picture of pornography that stands in stark contrast to sound scholarly research.

More recently, there has been a more convenient way to test the claims of Dines. New Left Project ran a four-part debate on pornography, between Dines and British journalist Sarah Ditum. Tracing just a few threads of the debate is, in my view, deeply revealing. I think the debate shows a lack of good faith on the part of Dines, and a disturbing approach to evidence.

In my view, the most revealing thread of the debate is this. In part one, Ditum writes:

Dines claims in the text that there are ‘a slew of psychological studies to support [the] claim’ that ‘porn does indeed help to shape the worldviews of men who masturbate to it’, and yet in the endnotes she only cites one review from 1989. This is poor scholarship.

Dines replies to this point directly. I will quote it at length:

I was surprised to find a very clear error in Ditum’s account of Pornland. She states that when I discuss the studies, I cite only one study, from 1989. She then goes on to say that this is poor scholarship. Damn right it is! Who can make a generalisation from citing one study? Not me. I cite the 1989 study in footnote 6 of chapter 5. Then, in footnote 7, I cite Pamela Paul’s qualitative study from 2005, and then in footnote 12, I cite an article by Neil Malamuth, Tamara Addison, and Mary Koss from the Annual Review of Sex Research. I talk about this article in the book because it is a review of meta-analytical studies of the effects of porn. This means that Malamuth and his colleagues do a detailed analysis of over 30 years’ worth of studies. They do not “cherry pick” studies but instead examine the weight of the evidence and conclude that “experimental research shows that exposure to non-violent or violent pornography results in increases in both attitudes supporting sexual aggression and in actual aggression”.

Does Ditum think that Malamuth, one of the most respected researchers in the world in this field, is going to make some wild claim without first looking at the body of research that has accumulated over 30 years? Ditum wants “sturdy evidence” before she will accept that porn has an effect on consumers. If hundreds of peer-reviewed articles don’t constitute “sturdy evidence”, then I don’t know what does.

If Dines has the one footnote for that claim, then it is not Ditum who has made the error. Dines’ footnotes are obviously to different points. Dines implies that Ditum has claimed that there is only one study cited in Pornland, which is obviously not the point that Ditum made. Ditum was saying Dines made a claim, which was supported by one study from 1989. Dines cannot refute this by saying in other parts of her book she cites other studies. This seems a rather elementary point.

Ditum responds directly on what Malamuth’s study said:

While Malamuth et al tentatively endorse the idea of an association between pornography consumption and sexual violence, they stop a very long way short of asserting a causal relationship. I will quote from the paper at length: “On the basis of the research available, it is not feasible to gauge the relative importance of media influence generally, and of pornography in particular, in relation to other factors […] It is unlikely that in and of itself any type of pornography exerts a powerful influence on large numbers of people.”

Interested readers can consult the study for themselves. A lot of the study is technical and difficult. Page 79 reports that “We cannot conclude on the basis of these analyses that pornography is a cause or an outcome of sexually aggressive tendencies (or both), although the association does not appear to be a spurious relationship”. On page 84, they explain that “scientific causal models may … be better framed in terms of the confluence of several factors”, not in the ‘but for’ test familiar to people who study or practice law. That is, ‘but for porn, x wouldn’t happen’. It concludes that there seems to be a correlation between particularly sexually aggressive men and very frequent pornography use, suggesting the need for “increased research attention on the use and impact of pornography in men at elevated risk for sexual aggression”. However, the “current findings do suggest that for the majority of American men, pornography exposure (even at the highest levels assessed here) is not associated with high levels of sexual aggression”.

In short, this is a study which hedges its findings in many ways, but hardly seems accurately represented by Dines’ claim about what the researchers who wrote this study (which she showered with praise) “conclude”.

Ditum stresses how alarming this is:

Dines’ use of this study to support her argument that all porn makes all users into sexual aggressors is to her discredit, and the disadvantage of all who would benefit from an open debate about the nature and influence of pornography. Furthermore, it is alarming that Dines is misrepresenting research in order to propagate an ideological line that is counter to human rights. That is a strong way to put it, but I do not see how else to interpret the work of an academic who shows such severe disregard for the caveats put in place by a report’s authors.

Dines had the opportunity to reply at length to this particular claim – indeed, she was allocated 2,000 words. About five months later, Dines sent in her brief reply, according to Ditum.

Dines did not address this issue at all. Dines declared she would “end this debate”, because “At root what we have here are deep philosophical differences”. After all, Dines is “a radical feminist who is opposed to the commodification of human life”. Presumably, Ditum is supposed to be in favour of it.

Dines goes on to make the kind of claims about sex industry workers that I’ve repeatedly heard vehemently rejected by sex workers who organise for Scarlet Alliance and the Sex Industry Network in Adelaide. Rife with bad faith, Dines does not deign to address anything Ditum wrote, but grandly claims that:

I have no studies up my sleeve to prove to Guyland men that women deserve true equality. As with civil rights, this is a political principle, not an empirical question. In any event, studies do not change the world. …We believe in a future free of oppression, and a cornerstone of this future is a world free of commodified sex and a media landscape that does not reproduce patriarchal culture. This is a truth we hold dear and there is no study, argument, or theory that will persuade us otherwise.

To claim in a debate with another woman that she has no studies to prove that “women deserve true equality” is … I cannot think of a word to properly encapsulate its audacious effrontery.

As a final example of Dines’ bad faith, and substitution of rhetorical games for evidence, consider this vignette from her first contribution:

I remember giving a lecture at a hideous conference at Yale University Law School in which I was the only anti-porn feminist on a panel of six. Nauseated by the pro-porn drivel coming from the other panellists, I went to sit in the library at lunchtime, away from my “colleagues”. I got talking to the cleaner, a woman pulling a double shift on a weekend to pay for her daughter’s college tuition at the nearby public university. I wondered what this woman would have made of listening to a bunch of academics talk about porn as empowering for women when she was scrubbing floors for her daughter’s education. I bet she would have thought that these academics had lost their minds.

To show how radical she is, she describes talking to a cleaner. I guess, because she really cares, and is on the side of the workers, not like the snooty highbrow capitalists who speak at Yale. Why didn’t Dines ask the cleaner what she thought about porn?

Perhaps Dines was being too busy being on her side. What possible relevance does such an anecdote have? What could it possibly prove?

It has been said that people have a right to their opinions, but not to their own facts. To argue in the manner she does, I think, fundamentally shows a level of disrespect for her audience. In my view, a writer’s primary duty is to the truth. They should present the evidence for their views as carefully as they can, so that readers can make up their own minds and be persuaded by the evidence presented by the author. Everyone makes mistakes and will on occasion inadvertently misrepresent the evidence. Dines appears to regard the evidence as a distraction from the truth she holds dear, irrespective of any “study, argument or theory”. In my view, Dines has shown that she cannot be trusted by readers to honestly and accurately represent the truth about what she writes.

Misrepresenting the evidence in the great porn debate