Rape Rap


Proponents of censorship claim that rape rates soared as pornography proliferated in the 1970s and '80s. "The violence toward women is there, everywhere," Eleanor Smeal, head of the Fund for a Feminist Majority, said after a March 11 conference on pornography. "I don't want a police state….But to do nothing out of fear is wrong."

Yet according to a study published in the Spring issue of the Maryland Law Review, the best evidence does not support a connection between pornography and rape. Measuring pornography sales in constant dollars, Rutgers University law professor George C. Thomas III finds a fourfold increase during the last two decades. And according to the source most commonly cited by anti-porn activists, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the rape rate increased from 0.24 per 1,000 people in 1973 to 0.41 in 1990.

What's more, the UCR data do not differentiate between stranger and acquaintance rape, so the figures may be inflated by changes in the definition of acquaintance rape. Thomas cites two studies in which groups of university students were asked about a situation in which sex occurs after a woman clearly and repeatedly rejects a man's advances (and does not ultimately consent). The percentage who considered this rape increased from 58 percent in 1981 to 97 percent in 1992. As more incidents come to be viewed as rape, the number of rape reports would naturally rise, even without a change in the number of incidents.

Unlike the UCR, the Justice Department's National Crime Survey, which polls a representative nationwide sample, divides rapes into "stranger" and "nonstranger" categories. Since the "stranger" category should not include any incidents reported due to changing attitudes about what constitutes acquaintance rape, Thomas concludes that it provides the best available measure of the trend in rapes. According to this measure, the rape rate has actually fallen by about 50 percent since 1973.