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July 7, 2011

"Would porn incite prison violence?"

The question in the title of this post is the main heading given to this new piece at Salon, which carries this subheading: "An inmate sues over a ban on explicit material, but officials say smut causes aggression. We look at the evidence." Here are excerpts:

A 21-year-old inmate is suing the governor and state of Michigan for depriving him of porn while locked up. This case follows on the heels of a suit last month by the ACLU to force a South Carolina prison to loosen its broad restrictions on reading materials, which was sensationalized in the press as a push for porn in prison, causing officials to explain that smut was a danger to inmates because it would cause aggression and violence.

Is there really evidence that it would, though?

The short answer is: No, there isn't solid proof that it would. The longer answer is, as Joseph Slade, the author of "Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide," tells me: "No responsible academic researcher claims that evidence supports pornography's causing hostility or violence, principally because of the number of variables involved in constructing studies, the divergent definitions of pornography, and the sometimes unconscious biases of those who look for effects," he said. These studies also focus on the immediate, short-term impact. "That does not mean that there are no effects, just that they cannot be ascertained." That's exactly why in 2007, Sweden's Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing porn in prison: Officials couldn't prove that it would "jeopardize the safety of the institution."

In a piece for the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, researchers Milton Diamond and Ayako Uchiyama pointed out that there is a fundamental problem with assuming that people in the real world function just like the college students in these laboratory experiments: "In real life, individuals can elect to experience some pornography for minutes or hours, at a single session, or over years. In real life, individuals are free to satisfy different sexual urges in ways unavailable to students in classroom situations." (Just to further complicate things, none of these studies specifically look at the effect in prison, which is, clearly, a very unique environment with yet more variables.)

Setting all those serious caveats aside for a minute, a meta-analysis attempted to settle the debate once and for all by surveying the sizable amount of research on the effects of pornography and concluded that viewing "pictorial nudity reduces" -- yes, reduces -- subsequent aggressive behavior. At the same time, though, "consumption of material depicting nonviolent sexual activity increases aggressive behavior," but "media depictions of violent sexual activity generates more aggression than those of nonviolent sexual activity."...

So, as I said, the short answer is that there isn't evidence that porn causes aggression -- and yet prisons continue to ban explicit material on those very grounds. Considering our general disregard for science -- not to mention the fact that prisoners' sexual fantasy lives are not at the top of most people's lists of important world problems -- it's no real surprise.

July 7, 2011 at 05:20 PM | Permalink

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Comments

"So, as I said, the short answer is that there isn't evidence that porn causes aggression -- and yet prisons continue to ban explicit material on those very grounds."

I think porn is banned for the same reason that lots of other inconsequential things are banned in prison: the general opinion is that it's supposed to be an unpleasant place, and allowing porn inside the prison creates an image of a libertine environment. Added to this is the general puritanical attitudes in this country toward sex--let's face it, the reason prisoners want porn is because their sexual outlets are few, and pictures of beautiful naked women are an aid to self gratification. Ew. No one likes the idea of a bunch of guys spending their time doing. . . you know. . . while they're supposed to be punished. Finally, prison administrators just don't want to have to deal with the public relations problems these things create (remember the hysteria over gym equipment creating "super predators" in prisons?).

But prison officials have learned long ago that if you want to ban what inmates read or look at, your best defense it to make it a security issue. Most courts are wary of second guessing prison officials' opinions about what constitutes a security hazard, so wardens and jailors know now to phrase every regulation in terms of security. Hence, long beards and dreadlocks are not offensive because the represent a strange religion the warden doesn't like, but they are hiding places for contraband. Pornography, including such tame magazines as Playboy, is a security risk because inmates will, well, I don't know, fight over it or something.

Posted by: C.A.J. | Jul 8, 2011 1:25:16 AM

"general puritanical attitudes in this country toward sex"

I don't think that argument has much force anymore. We are, after all, a country where most of the porn is produced and consumed; where strip clubs and prostitution is readily available; and more importantly, where most people have pretty permissive attitudes about most sexual practices.

Posted by: osh | Jul 8, 2011 8:26:41 AM

Let's face it human sexuality is one of the most natural things out there. It is naive to assume that criminals do not feel this sort of thing. I say leting them have this aspect of culture/experience is one of the things that will keep them a bit under control

Posted by: Sarah | Jul 8, 2011 10:17:42 AM

I believe that real porn was allowed in the BOP up until about 10 years ago. They currently allow psuedo-porn. Pictures of mostly clothed females (and males - but why bother if you are in an all male facility?) are for sale and available to prisoners.

Posted by: anon2 | Jul 8, 2011 10:11:39 PM

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