On the economics of rape, and the validity of criticisms against pornography

Tyler Cowen writing over at MarginalRevolution (probably said this a dozen times by now, but it’s one of the more consistently “out-of-left-field” interesting blogs out there) calls attention to the economics of rape, which doesn’t get much discussion it seems. Full paper here. From the abstract (emphasis all mine):

In 2006, approximately 49% of violent crimes were not reported to police. Being the victim of sexual assault is expensive; each incident imposes an external cost of over $100k on the victim.

However, recent estimates of the total social cost are an order of magnitude larger suggesting that from a social welfare standpoint rape is likely to be underreported if the victim’s demand for reporting is price elastic. In spite of the centrality of victim reporting in the functioning of the criminal justice system, to date there is very little systematic evidence on what governments can do to encourage victims to report crimes.

We estimate the sensitivity of victims to the cost of reporting in an Alaskan city between 1993 and 2006, during which time a chief of police publicly supported a policy of charging victims of sexual assault for medical procedures required to collect evidence against their attackers. Using a triple differences approach that compares trends in reported sexual assaults to other index crimes over time and across Alaskan cities, we estimate that this shift in cost of approximately $1,200 from the city government to victims reduced the number of reported rapes by between 50 and 80%.

This large response highlights the importance of public policies which reduce the private cost of reporting crime.

Holy wow, I didn’t even know victims of sexual assault were required to pay – much less that exorbitantly – for medical procedures needed to collect evidence against perpetrators. That’s a huge disincentive, even by the standards of my currently-uncalibrated intuition on this issue; this shows pretty clearly in the numbers too.

The second part of today’s blog title refers to this post by Garth Zietsman, which I thought was an extremely level-headed discussion of the validity of the traditional criticisms of pornography in favor of making it illegal.

(Societal mores and personal taboos still working really well here – I’ve never ever considered pornography a candidate for level-headed academic discussion. It’s “just something embarrassing/morally depraved people do” which incidentally rakes in more money every year than even Hollywood.)

Here are the standard objections as outlined by Zietsman:

The sociological objection is that pornography decreased respect for long-term, monogamous relationships, and attenuates a desire for procreation. Pornography can “potentially undermine the traditional values that favor marriage, family, and children”, and that it depicts sexuality in a way which is not connected to “emotional attachment, of kindness, of caring, and especially not of continuance of the relationship, as such continuance would translate into responsibilities”.

The religious/conservative objection is similar to the sociological objection. They argue that this industry undermines the family and leads to the moral breakdown of society. They say that it is amoral, weakens family values, and is contrary to the religion’s teachings and human dignity.

Some feminists argue that it is an industry which exploits women and which is complicit in violence against women, both in its production (where they charge that abuse and exploitation of women performing in pornography is rampant) and in its consumption (where they charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment). They charge that pornography contributes to the male-centered objectification of women and thus to sexism.

And here’s his breakdown:

Firstly (using the General Social Survey) I found no relationship between being pro the legality of porn, or propensity to watch porn, and pro social behaviors e.g. volunteer work, blood donation, etc.

We can dismiss the feminist (and sociological) charges of porn increasing sexual violence and leading to sexism. The USA, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands (2) and Japan were just some of the countries that suddenly went from no legal pornography to quite widespread availability and consumption of it. These studies all found that greater availability of, and exposure to, pornography does not increase the rate of sexual assaults on women, and probably decreases it (3). Japanese porn is quite frequently violent and yet even there rape decreased from an already very low base. It’s interesting that an increase in porn exposure decreases sexual violence only, and has no effect on other crime. Economists would put this down to a substitution effect.

…I didn’t know that. Reminds me of how bad my absurdity heuristics still are. Continuing:

Several countries have sex offender registers – mainly of pedophiles. A wide variety of professions are represented on these registers. Members of professions that supposedly promote morality e.g. clerics or teachers, are quite common on it yet conspicuously absent from such registers are men who have worked in the porn industry.

Brings to mind the tangential point that U.S. states whose residents have more conservative religious beliefs on average tend to have higher rates of teenagers giving birth. Going on:

This study (1) found no relationship between the frequency of x-rated film viewing and attitudes toward women or feminism. From the GSS (controlling for IQ, education, income, age, race and ideology) I found that those who are pro the legality of porn are less likely to support traditional female roles, more likely to be against preferential treatment of either gender, and to find woman’s rights issues more frequently salient. Although I found that women’s rights issues are less salient to male watchers, and female watchers are less likely to think women should work, I also found that watching porn is unrelated to negative attitudes toward women and feminism.

How is this not revelatory?

Of course descriptions do not imply prescriptions (remember Hume and his guillotine; also correlation-causation and confounding factors etc): I’m not suggesting we should watch more pornography – should be a personal decision. It’s just good to know the extent to which traditional criticisms leveled against pornography are valid, as an instance of inculcating good-reasoning attitudes.

But we’re not done yet.

The sociological and religious charge that pornography undermines monogamy and family values does however receive support. From GSS (and controlling for IQ, education, income, age, race and ideology) I found that men who are pro legalizing porn are less likely to marry and are more pro cohabitation. There was no such association for women. A higher propensity to watch porn movies is also associated with a lesser likelihood of marrying but is unrelated to cohabitation attitudes – in both men and women.

So a pro porn attitude is consistent with a reduced respect for marriage.

Both genders also tend to have fewer kids in marriage, if they are pro the legalizing of porn. However, for men, a higher propensity to watch porn movies is associated with having MORE children within marriage. Note that pro legal porn attitudes and porn movie viewership is not associated with having children out of wedlock – for men its associated with a lower chance of that happening – so porn doesn’t lead to that kind of irresponsible behavior.

Possibly part of this general pattern, I found that both being pro the legality of porn and watching porn are related to lower voting rates in general elections. (haha.)

I found no relationship to a variety of ‘family values’ type questions e.g. importance of family, or to the value of relationships and friendship.

Being pro the legality of porn, and porn viewing, are associated with unhappiness with the family or marriage – especially for men. Those who are pro porn also tend to have a greater number of sexual partners and are more likely to have a sexual affair. This supports the 1984 and 1988 discoveries of Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant (4) that the effects of repeated exposure to standard, non-violent, commonly available pornography includes: increased callousness toward women; distorted perceptions about sexuality; devaluation of the importance of monogamy; decreased satisfaction with partner’s sexual performance, affection, and appearance; doubts about the value of marriage; and decreased desire to have children. Later research studies further confirm their findings.

Zietsman concludes thus:

The smart approach to pornography is to regard its consumption as a minor, largely harmless issue, and making it illegal for adults is stupid. The actual personal consumption of pornography is neither correct nor incorrect, in spite of its proven potential to change relationships.

References from Zietsman’s post I couldn’t find online:

2. Pornography and rape: theory and practice? Evidence from crime data in four countries where pornography is easily available. Katchisky B. International Journal of Law Psychiatry, 1991: 14(1-2), 47-64.
3. The pleasure is momentary …. The expense damnable?: The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Ferguson CJ, Hartley RD, Aggression and Violence Behavior 2009, 14(5): 323-329.
4. Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations by Jennings Bryant, Dolf Zillmann.


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