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How Feminist Attacks on Porn Enable Rapists

Smut critics give ammunition to attackers who blame porn for their actions.

Flickr-ThomasHawk FoterFlickr-ThomasHawk FoterThird-wave feminists are the best friends a rapist could ask for. With their promotion of the idea of "rape culture"—the notion that images and culture propel men to hate and harm women—they have done more than anyone to diminish rapists' responsibility for their foul crimes. And the evidence suggests rapists are really grateful.

A recent horrific murder in Britain confirms that, 30 years on from Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon's scaremongering over porn and its impact on the putty-like male mind, feminists are still depicting porn as the instigator of criminal activity. And in the process they're excuse-making for criminals.  

Last week, Nathan Matthews, 28, was found guilty of murdering his 16-year-old stepsister, Becky Watts, during a sexually motivated kidnap plot. Matthews and his girlfriend, Shauna Hoare, had been text-messaging each other about kidnap fantasies. They also watched a lot of teen-themed and violent porn. Matthews later suffocated Becky and then sawed up her body.

It was an unspeakable crime. The court, in Bristol, found Matthews guilty both of having a criminal mind and of carrying out a criminal act: he was punished as a murderer. But in the days after his trial, something perverse happened: feminists, those who should be most keen to see the likes of Matthews held fully responsible for their foul plotting and behaviour, offered up an explanation for his wickedness that will have given him some comfort.

The revelation that Matthews was obsessed with porn became a key part of the media coverage. He was branded a "paranoid pervert." Some reporters gave the impression that the porn he watched drove him to kill. He was a "porn-obsessed recluse" who "let sick fantasies overtake him.” Another said Matthews may have suffered the "desensitising effect" that apparently comes from living in a porn-saturated world: porn dulls our feelings, apparently making us cavalier about hurting others.

The hacks who focused on Matthews' obsession with porn no doubt thought they were exposing what a despicable character he is. But their reporting had a different, unwitting impact: it absolved Matthews of full culpability through claiming he had been "taken over" by porn. Some of the coverage verged on presenting Matthews as a victim; a victim of "porn culture.”

Feminist commentators got closest to diminishing his responsibility. In the New Statesman, Sarah Ditum argued that Matthews, like other men who watch porn and then kill or rape, will have "learned" from all his porn what "women are supposed to be for": "something to fuck, something to use, something to hurt if you'd like to."

Ditum went so far as to suggest that many men are almost possessed by porn. "This is how porn operates," she said: "first through the eyes, and then in the mind, and then back through the body, against other bodies." So porn takes hold of us, took hold of Matthews, and drives us, automaton-like, to evil. If Matthews has read Ditum's words, he will have found comfort in them: perhaps I'm not evil, he’ll have thought; perhaps I am just the slavish enactor of cultural trends. "Humans are creatures of culture," said Ditum. How surreal that it was a feminist who unwittingly absolved Matthews of wickedness through claiming that porn acted through him—through the eyes, the mind, the body—rather than this being a case of him acting upon his own warped volition.

In the Telegraph, Joan Smith argued that the "normalisation" of watching hardcore porn has made murders like Matthews’ more likely. It is time, she says, to make the anti-porn message part of every child's schooling, so that they know that watching twisted porn is "not healthy or acceptable behaviour." "However liberal we might want to be," it is time to address how "desensitising" porn culture can be, she said.

Here, again, Matthews is effectively excused. He was desensitised, programmed, and if only educators had protected him from porn, perhaps Becky would still be alive. The porn made him do it.

These feminists' unwittingly friendly overtures to rapists and killers show how dangerous the idea of "rape culture" is. "Rape culture" is the name given to a vast array of mostly harmless cultural practices—from saucy magazines to sexist banter on campus—which feminists claim contribute to a social disregard and even disdain for women's equality and security. On both sides of the Atlantic, the rallying cry of third-wave feminists is that culture makes men wicked and reduces women to victims.

There are two big problems with the idea of "rape culture." The first is that it is built on some very shoddy statistics. As Christina Hoff Sommers, Cathy Young, and others have amply demonstrated, it simply isn't true that one in four women are sexually assaulted or that women in the 21st century live in a "sea of misogyny."

The second problem is that the fetishisation of culture as the cause of violence and shaper of attitudes smashes the idea of free will and moral autonomy. And this is a boon to those who have chosen, freely, to do something awful with their moral autonomy. Like rapists.

The notion that porn directly acts on society, as if it were some sentient force moving "through the eyes" and "against other bodies," is not new. It was promoted by Dworkin and MacKinnon in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was challenged, brilliantly, by feminist libertarians like Nadine Strossen, author of Defending Pornography (1995).

As Strossen argued, "a causal connection between exposure to pornography and the commission of sexual violence has never been established." And it still hasn’t been: not one serious study shows any link between the availability of porn and spikes in misogynist violence. Indeed, Strossen pointed out that in countries where possession of porn is severely punished—like Saudi Arabia—women are far more likely to face everyday prejudice and violence. In the West, meanwhile, the explosion in online porn has coincided with a general fall in violence.

But one group of people have fully welcomed censorious feminists' fact-lite association of porn with rape and murder: rapists and murderers.

Strossen pointed out that in the 1980s and 90s, some men who had committed foul deeds fell back on the Dworkinite idea that the culture made them do it in an attempt to shrink their guilt. Marcia Pally, academic and feminist against censorship, wrote about how in the mid-1980s, when the court refused to declare him insane, Ted Bundy started "collecting information attesting to the negative effects of pornography," in order to show that wicked images made him wicked. He started quoting academic research as part of his attempt to "bolster his pornography-made-me-do-it claim."

At the time of Bundy's execution in 1989, Dr Gene Abel, Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, wrote of Bundy's "false beliefs" that were designed to "explain his behaviour." He summed up Bundy's excuse-making as: "It wasn't my fault, these are pornographic things that I've seen." In the Harvard Civil Rights - Civil Liberties Law Review, Barry Lynn wrote of how in the 80s and 90s, "some defendants [were using] pornography as a convenient excuse for their actions."

How long until Nathan Matthews uses the porn defense, too? The case is already being made for him—by feminists. What a damaging idea "rape culture" is, pushing for censorship, spreading fear about sex, and, worst of all, allowing Bundy, Matthews and other nasty men to present themselves as victims, effectively. Rapists could not ask for a more favourable ideology than rape culture. It's what they've been waiting for. The feminist-rapist alliance—it has come to this.

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  • saloliunega||

    Your strident and completely unnecessary trumpeting of the long ago thoroughly debunked concept of free will ruined the completely valid point of your article. It also resulted in your repeated gratuitous demonization of bad actors. Lose the anger. Read up on free will.

  • sofubar||

    I didn't want to, but some neurons fired, and voila!

  • Notorious UGCC||

    You guys just write that stuff because you're programmed to do it.

  • MSimon||

    Could you give us the first cause? Like what caused writing? Who writes the programs.

  • Long Woodchippers||

    I do believe that culture suggests to every individual what acceptable and expected behavior is, and that will vary by culture - but it is still up to each individual to choose to act.

  • Akira||

    I heard that pornography is illegal in most of the Middle East.

    I bet, like, nobody gets raped there ever! It must be a women's rights utopia!

  • MSimon||

    The Jews are using porn to undermine Middle Eastern culture. Thus any rapes there are the fault of the Jews.

    Jewish Porn Sweeps The Arab World

  • Mark6||

    The quickest way for the feminists to get rid of porn is to claim it's responsible for climate change!

  • Akira||

    1. Porn causes men to masturbate
    2. Men clean up their emissions with napkins, toilet paper, and paper towels
    3. This prompts the paper product corporations (probably owned by the Koch Brothers) to cut down more trees in mad pursuit of more profits
    4. Mass deforestation causes climate change

    That was easy! I think they owe me a check for that infallible argument that they will no doubt use in the future.

  • Sir Doombringer of SexBot||

    Would 'feminist attacks on porn' be considered part of the bondage subgenera?

    Cause I love a bit of that shit too.

  • retiredfire||

    It would save a lot of time if we would just realize that virtually everything that comes from the "feminist" movement is hysterical bullshit.

  • lukasvonamen||

    why would you think so? i guess that you only met stupid feminists?

  • Long Woodchippers||

    At least for me, porn is a release. I see some women, more hormones escalate, I watch a video or read a story and toss one off - the male hormones have gone back to their benign state.

  • lukasvonamen||

    for me too. and i don't think that mainstream porn should influence our way of seeing sex but for most people, it's not like that, and it's a shame. and a lot of people claim "oh, porn is bad, porn is aweful" but then don't even research on things like feminist porn or what not.

  • mtrueman||

    This is O'Neill trying to squeeze a column out of some pretty thin gruel. The resulting farago is one of the weaker things I've seen published at Reason.

    "And the evidence suggests rapists are really grateful."

    I see no evidence here to support this nonsense. People, even rapists, are influenced by the society around them. If you feel pointing this out threatens your "free will and moral autonomy" then I just don't know.

  • toolkien||

    When did everything become a dialectic? Everything is an on/off switch?

    People's lives stink. So they self medicate. For some it keeps them from going completely nuts, if there's some moderation. For some, they go too far, addictions set in, and things are worse having gone too far. But without the moderate middle ground, you'd have people thinking strapping on bomb vests is a neat idea (just as a possible example).

    So, guys get horny. Some will use porn as a release. Probably keeps some over hormoned guys in check (if not a lot). Some guys go too far (and probably a few ladies). So the idea is to get rid of it for everybody? At what consequence?

    The example given the story is horrible. But any more or less horrible than a woman who stabs her pregnant friend and cuts out the baby? We see this every three or four years. What causes it? Too many blue booties? What can be banned when stuff like this happens? Of course, nothing, because it's a cultural outlier, just like Snuffy McSawington.

  • lukasvonamen||

    but, you know, there is feminist porn. not every feminist / woman dislikes porn. for instance, have you ever heard about the pornstar amarna miller? yes, she is a pornstar, i know, but she defends her and every woman's rights. or erika lust, she is a filmmaker, a porn filmmaker, and she does feminist porn, you might want to check that out. i know there are other women out there starting to make porn so... i guess we just have to look for them?

  • patskelley||

    I'm female and I watch porn. Not so much any more because I'm old. An old, used to be feminist female. I don't recognize or identify with the censorious C-word's these days.

  • Lucia||

    Way too many "rabbit ears" to take this seriously. This "essay" is as credible as any other rape apologist garbage. Much along the lines of, don't call out the guy who's beating up his wife in public because he'll only beat her worse in private. Best to leave it be, eh?

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