Do human rights have a “dark side“? There are some specific complaints about the nefarious or even evil consequences of certain particular human rights, and there are complaints about the harmful consequences of human rights in general. The former complaints are a lot easier to deal with, and I’ll start with those.
Complaints about particular human rights
Freedom of expression is believed to be harmful because it protects pornography, which in turn leads to gender based violence and gender discrimination. Furthermore, it implies the free dissemination and reproduction of hate and it therefore fosters violence, racism and different kinds of “phobias”. And, finally, it allows blasphemy and hence it encourages religious tensions and violence.
Those human rights that guarantee a fair trial, and more particularly the rights of defendants, make it more difficult to have an effective criminal justice system. As a result, it becomes more likely that dangerous criminals return to society. Also, the right to life makes it harder to justify capital punishment, with the same result.
The right to privacy can support gender subordination and make it more difficult to tackle domestic violence.
Some human rights can even bring us to the edge of destruction (a ban on torture makes it impossible to deal with ticking time bomb terrorists).
Such specific complaints against particular human rights can be countered rather easily. Most if not all of the harmful consequences of rights are violations of other rights. If we grant that rights are limited by other rights, then we can balance rights against each other. Or one can argue that the supposed harmful consequences of some rights will (almost) never occur, or that they aren’t really harmful at all. For example, if we don’t torture we won’t make terrorism more likely. And some forms of pornography or hate speech aren’t really very dangerous.
Complaints about human rights in general
A lot harder to answer is the challenge that there’s something wrong, not with particular human rights, but with human rights as such. This challenge can take different forms.
Human rights are supposed to be the fig leaf of international intervention and modern imperialism. The anti-Taliban intervention in Afghanistan, for instance, was partly a reaction to 9-11 but it was also justified by reference to the brutal rule of the Taliban. It may be a meager defense, but if we were to reject everything that can be abused we wouldn’t have much left. The question then becomes one of degree: are human rights more likely to be abused for imperialist reasons, or more likely to serve the beneficial goals for which they are intended? And what is the probable balance of good and bad that will result from those different uses of human rights? I think the good that comes from human rights clearly outweighs the bad, and that the bad will happen anyway, whether or not people use the excuse of human rights while making it happen.
There’s a similar claim about the inherent cultural imperialism in human rights. Human rights, even when they’re not used to justify war, military intervention or territorial occupation, are still imperialist because they imply the imposition of western values on other cultures. Human rights are then believed to be a form of cultural aggression and part of a neocolonial effort to extend the individualist, secular and modern culture of the West elsewhere in the world, destroying the indigenous cultures in the process. This claim, however, is based on some rather shaky foundations: that human rights can only be found in the West, that intercultural transmission is necessarily aggressive, one-sided and involuntary, that human rights express a culture, that human rights are individualist etc.
Then there’s the claim that the abstract nature of human rights removes the personal and the specific from cases, and removes therefore the things that make us care about cases. I dealt with this complaint before, so I won’t repeat myself. The core of the reply would be that one approach – an abstract one – doesn’t exclude a more contextualized and specific one. For instance, one can talk about the abstract desirability of the right not to be tortured and about the errors in reasoning of those arguing for exceptions to this right, and at the same time one can talk about specific cases of torture.
Another complaint is the classic marxist one: the individualism of human rights spills over into egoism and capitalist greed. Again, I refer to an older post for a detailed reply. Suffice it to say that human rights as claims on others can indeed lead to divisiveness and a lack of social harmony, and that human rights as claims for your rights can promote selfishness. These tendencies, however, are canceled by the more communitarian nature of other uses of rights (religious liberty, tolerance, freedom of association etc.).
Still another complaint is about the victimization inherent in human rights. Focusing on people’s human rights violations means focusing on their status as victims, and talking about people as victims is somewhat infantilizing. Human rights activists do indeed often view non-whites, non-males and non-westerners as passive victims, incapable of agency, waiting to be rescued by do-gooders. This obviously reinforces their subordination. (More on self-defeating human rights policies here). This complaint is more about the way people act when trying to promote human rights than about human rights as such.
A final complaint about human rights is that they give people false hope, at least those people in the poorest countries of the world. What is the point of having a right when you don’t have the means to realize that right, when there’s no way of securing the things you have a right to? For billions of people all over the world, the right not to suffer ill health, poverty or homelessness is just a sick joke. Why should we have rights when there’s no way to make them real? Good luck going to a judge in a famine infested country and asking him to respect your right to food. And even if we can make our rights real, it’s better to use politics, science and economics than abstract rights that don’t tell us how to move forward. The reply to this complaint would focus on the benefits of having rather ambitious goals, even if the complete realization of those goals is not yet possible. At least one can measure progress. And it would also focus on the realistic nature of most human rights goals. For example, it’s simply not true that poverty eradication is utopian.
More posts in this series here.
While you might think of masturbation as a sort of last refuge for the incarcerated — a truly inalienable freedom, given the happy proximity of the sex organs — that is not the case. In fact, a number of state prisons regard jerking off as a rule infraction. … [Such restrictions are “well-entrenched” in the correctional environment [in the U.S.]. (source)
And probably elsewhere as well. The rules apply even when there’s no indecent exposure. In the 19th century, some U.S. prison officials even
chloroformed masturbators and implanted metal rings through their foreskins. (source)
These days, prison officials often turn a blind eye and don’t enforce the rules. But sometimes
prisoners do … get in trouble for engaging in autoerotic behavior. Early on the morning of May 16, 2000, in South Carolina’s Lieber Correctional Institution, Officer Patricia Sinkler saw inmate Freddie Williams “in the front entrance of the shower, curtains open, with his left hand propped up against the wall, turned sideways, making back and forth movements with his right hand on his penis,” according to a court document. Sinkler filed a disciplinary report recommending that Williams be charged with sexual misconduct, and he was brought before a hearing officer and convicted. Williams appealed multiple times, insisting he had not intentionally exposed himself; the officer had simply walked past when he was going at it. He lost and had to relinquish 240 good-time credits.
A similar case occurred in Florida in 2006: Broward County inmate Terry Lee Alexander was sitting alone on his bunk masturbating when a female deputy who was monitoring him from a central control room more than 100 feet away took exception to Alexander’s “blatant” exertions and wrote him up. Alexander was charged and convicted of exposure, with the jury determining that a cell is “a limited access public place.” The same deputy had also filed reports on seven other locked-up masturbators. When Alexander’s attorney asked the deputy in court if she had considered calling a SWAT team to halt his client’s activity, she replied, “I wish I had.” (source)
Whether all this means that prisoners – or the population in general – should have a legal right to masturbate, is another matter. Probably not I guess. Not every prohibition on government intrusion should necessarily be translated into a right. The right to privacy should be sufficient to protect the act of masturbation and a specific right to masturbate is superfluous. And yes, inmates shouldn’t lose their right to privacy just because they’re in prison, even if some limitations of that right are inevitable in their case.
Especially for the general population, a right to masturbate is utterly superfluous, since people normally enjoy enough privacy beyond the prison walls in order to be able to masturbate without government intrusion. Prisoners, however, may not always be granted enough privacy, as the cases cited above make clear. But instead of claiming a right to masturbate, inmates should insist on their right to privacy.
What about the right to be able to consume pornography? Again either for prisoners only or for the general population. For the latter, this right is covered by free speech. For the former, such a right would entail the additional right to be given pornography, as prisoners can’t go about procuring it themselves in the free speech marketplace. A prisoners’ right to pornography is not covered by free speech. However, I doubt it would be a good thing to have it. It may be good policy if prisons make porn available, but that doesn’t mean prisoners have a right to be given porn. Which doesn’t mean that prison officials have a right to take pornography away from prisoners once they have it. People don’t lose all their rights when they are incarcerated. And that includes private property.
In any case, taking away prisoners’ porn or their right to masturbate is likely to be counterproductive, as it will create unrest and lead to an increasing number of sexual predation cases among prisoners.
Another way to frame the question in the title of this post is: what falls under the header of “expression”, and what not? Only if something is justifiably called expression can it enjoy the protection of the right to free expression. I’ll argue below that “expression” covers more actions than the ones we intuitively classify under that concept. Hence, freedom of expression protects more than we think it protects.
And yet, it’s not because something is expression that it automatically enjoys protection. Some actions which we readily classify as “expression” are not and should not be protected by freedom of speech. In other words, freedom of expression covers more and at the same time less than we think.
The obvious type of action that is covered by the right to free speech, and the type that represents the large majority of expressive actions, is speaking and writing in day-to-day language. Such actions enjoy a prima facie protection by the right to free speech. Nothing special about that. However, the right also applies to other expressive actions, ones that do not involve speech or writing in ordinary language:
- some non-linguistic means of expression, such as visual art
- some forms of protest such as the burning of a draft card, a flag or a cross
- the display of symbols (e.g. a swastika)
These types of expressive actions can also claim protection in certain circumstances.
So, some things which are not readily identified as speech are nevertheless considered as speech acts and receive some form of protection from the right to free speech.
Free speech therefore covers at the same time more and less than a cursory examination would conclude. However, the broad definition of speech that expands speech beyond mere linguistic acts does create a problem. Non-linguistic expressive actions are hard to delineate. All actions can include an expressive component, and it’s often difficult to determine when an agent intended to convey a message through her actions. So the concept can become too broad, and we risk, as a result, that freedom of speech covers all actions and becomes indistinguishable from freedom tout court. That can’t be the purpose.
Notwithstanding this problem, it’s obvious that not all linguistic or non-linguistic expressive actions should enjoy protection by the right to free speech. Terrorism is certainly an expressive action, but no one would claim that it should be protected by freedom of speech.
Beside the “freedom of what?” question, there’s another interesting one: “freedom from what?” Usually, freedom of expression, like many other type of freedom, is believed to be primarily or exclusively a freedom from government interference with speech. While that’s an important dimension of freedom, it’s not the only one. Rights have a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension: citizens can also violate each others rights, and hence freedom of expression for example is also a freedom from interference by fellow-citizens. More on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.
Some human rights make themselves impossible some of the time. Take the right to free speech: some forms of the exercise of this right make it difficult if not impossible for others to exercise their version of the right. Free speech for some can silence others. That may sound strange because it’s usually the violation of the right to free speech that silences.
I’m not talking about obvious cases such as the heckler’s veto because those are not really interesting. Below are some more contentious examples.
A lot of pornography depicts women as inferior and consequently contributes to the continued subordination of women. Both men and women can come to see women as subordinate objects of desire, unable or at least unlikely to speak, complain, withhold consent or resist. Pornography is then taken to provide factually accurate and morally correct information about women as silent and submissive objects of desire and sexual use. In the case of women, this process may silence them, and not only with regard to sexual consent. It’s not just that women’s speech fails to persuade or that men fail to listen (“when a woman says ‘no’ she doesn’t mean it”). It’s worse because women may even fail to attempt to persuade in the first place: they learn that their silence is the right attitude. Pornography deprives women of the capacity to speak.
Politically correct talk
Some of us use our right to free speech as a means to propagate the rule that certain words shouldn’t be said or certain topics shouldn’t be discussed because these words and topics tend to cement prejudice and to have self-fulfilling effects. Others may decide to remain silent as a reaction to this rule, because of shame, because they fear professional or reputational consequences, or because they genuinely believe that speaking in a certain manner or about a certain topic does have negative consequences for minority groups. Hence, political correctness silences certain perspectives, but probably not in the same deep manner as pornography.
Powerful voices, by which I mean voices backed up by lots of money or influence, can monopolize discourse and drown out competing voices. When certain points of view are pushed by well-funded think tanks and lobbyists or by unbalanced media outlets, then less competitive or powerful perspectives are silenced.
When members of minority groups are consistently harassed by hateful voices, when crosses are burned in their front yards, when they’re told not to go to certain places or relate to certain persons, then they may decide that it isn’t wise to protest. They may even internalize the discourse about their inferiority, in which case they are similar to women who have internalized the pornographic female ideal.
These 4 examples of the right to free speech eating itself show that this right – and perhaps other rights as well – should include the right to conditions favorable or necessary to its exercise. When combating restrictions on free speech, we should not only include explicit restrictions but also restrictions of its preconditions. Free speech doesn’t only get hard when governments or fellow-citizens overtly interfere, censor or persecute you for speaking your mind. In free societies you can supposedly say what you want, but how can you say what you want when the “you” in question is shaped and deformed by forces operating under the surface and is turned into a subordinate object that doesn’t even think of speaking? Or, somewhat less extremely, when fear of consequences forces you to remain silent or when a lack of balance in public discourse makes it impossible for you to be heard?
This last point raises a potential confusion: the right to free speech doesn’t include a right to be heard or to be listened to; the duty to respect free speech doesn’t include the duty to listen. That would go too far, even if we admit that free speech is useless without anyone listening. There’s a difference between a duty to listen and a duty not to silence. The latter duty may imply that we need to impose some restrictions on some forms of speech. If pornography or hate speech silences women or minorities, then the right to free speech of women and minorities may require restrictions on the right to free speech of pornographers and haters. Paradoxically, restricting speech can enhance speech.
Pornography is not a necessary cause of terrorism. The abolition of pornography would not lead to the cessation of terrorism in the world. Terrorism existed well before graphic pornography and its mass spread via the internet.
Likewise, pornography is not a sufficient cause for terrorism. There are pornography users, even addicts, who do not become terrorists. Given how widespread the viewing of pornography is today, if the direct result of each individual’s pornography use were terrorist violence, one could conceivably argue that pornography proliferation would pose a more widespread threat to human existence than nuclear proliferation.
Yet pornography now appears frequently in the possession of violent terrorists and their supporters, including Osama bin Laden. …
I wonder whether the pornography of today—now ubiquitous and increasingly grotesque—is one of the influences warping the mentality of those who aspire to or who actually go on to engage in ever more grotesque public violence. … Why, after all, would an al-Qaeda affiliate, as reported in 2009 from interrogations in Mauritania, select pornography to target new recruits? We need to know.
As terrorism researchers Daniel Bynum and Christine Fair point out in an article about the modern terrorists we have been pursuing, especially since 9/11, the fact of the matter is that “they get intimate with cows and donkeys. Our terrorist enemies trade on the perception that they’re well trained and religiously devout, but in fact, many are fools and perverts who are far less organized and sophisticated than we imagine. Can being more realistic about who our foes actually are help us stop the truly dangerous ones?” (source)
Yes, indeed, “we need to know”. Perhaps. Or perhaps there is nothing to know. Who knows? I have rarely seen a pile of insinuations so completely devoid of data and evidence. I do admit that the effects of porn consumption on people’s actions are a worthy subject of scientific investigation. Some forms of pornography can have a dehumanizing effect and may change men’s perceptions of women, perhaps to such an extent that porn can lead to violent acts such as rape. But the evidence available so far is mixed. And in the specific case of terrorism caused by porn, all we have are flimsy anecdotes and insinuations. I’m sure you can find just as many little stories about terrorists and violent games, terrorists and early child abuse, terrorists and poverty, terrorists and beards and so on.
The story above is just a free floating riff. “The U.S. government has had opportunity to observe, and in many cases, acquire, personal media from untold numbers of those involved in terrorism and the support of terrorism … [we] may be sitting on a massive data set for studying the intersection of pornography use and support for twisted violence such as terrorism” [my emphasis]. But then again, we may not be sitting on a massive data set. However, that’s no reason not to speculate, right? As I see it, there isn’t even a correlation, let alone evidence of causation. Just random anecdotes that are of no help at all explaining terrorism. You need to do better than that if you want to find the causes of some of today’s most horrific human rights violations.
More posts in this series are here.
A child protection official for the Catholic Church has been caught with 4,000 pictures of child porn. Father-of-four Christopher Jarvis was arrested after uploading pictures of children being abused to a website.
Married Jarvis, 49, a former social worker, was employed by the church following sex scandals about pervert priests. His job was to monitor church groups to ensure paedophiles did not gain access to children in the church’s congregations. …
He admitted 12 counts of making, possessing and distributing indecent images when he appeared before magistrates in Plymouth and is likely to face jail when he returns to court for sentencing next month. Jarvis, who has been sacked from his job as child safeguarding officer, worked the Diocese of Plymouth for nine years. (source)
More ironic human rights violations are here.
A recent US Supreme Court ruling invalidated a California law that banned the sale of certain violent video games to children on the grounds that the law violated freedom of speech. The controversy is an old one, and goes roughly as follows. Proponents of laws banning violent media – especially the sale of violent media to children – point to different studies arguing that violence in media promotes violence in real life and that children in particular are at risk of becoming violent adults. Since people have a right to be protected against violence and children have a right not to suffer the psychological harm that purportedly comes from the consumption of violent games, we have here a case of rights conflicting with each other: on the one hand the free speech rights of the makers and sellers of games, and on the other hand the security rights of the potential victims of violent behavior provoked by the consumption of violent games, as well as the mental health rights of the consumers of those games. Hence, one of those rights should give way to the other rights.
Proponents of restrictions of free speech in this case argue that a prohibition of the sale of violent games to children is the best option since the speech value of a violent video game is small, and since producers of such games still have the freedom of “artistic expression” because they can still sell to adults. The cost of limiting free speech in this case is small compared to the gains in terms of physical security and psychological health. And there are precedents such as movie ratings.
The opponents of limitations on free speech can also point to studies showing the absence of an effect on real life violence or even the opposite effect – the so-called “pressure valve theory“. They can also use the slippery slope argument and claim that the sale of many classical works of fiction should then also be prohibited on the same grounds, since they also contain scenes of violence.
The US Supreme court sided with the opponents, unsurprisingly given the near absolutism of free speech protection in the US (only a couple of exceptions to free speech are recognized in US jurisprudence, and expression of violence isn’t one of them).
While I personally find US free speech jurisprudence difficult to accept and generally hypocritical – why can obscene material be censored but not violent material? – I think in this case the SCOTUS decision is probably right. The psychological evidence does not, as far as I can tell, clearly show an effect of media violence on real life violence, and even if there is a small effect, a general prohibition on violence in media probably goes too far, as does a general prohibition on the sale of media containing violence. Even a prohibition on the sale of such material to children is probably too much, even given the fact that children are more impressionable. Violence has many causes, and the “pressure valve” theory has some intuitive appeal (also in the case of pornography by the way). A rating system, allowing parents to do their job, is probably better.
Here are some interesting numbers on the way Americans think about certain human rights issues:
Assisted suicide is, unfortunately, still condemned by a small majority. Official homicide, on the contrary, is believed to be a good thing according to a large majority. (However, it has been shown that approval rates drop sharply when the alternative to capital punishment is life without parole). Pornography, which according to some is a free speech issue, is rejected by a two-thirds majority. And abortion, according to some a violation of the right to life, is condemned by a small majority. Homosexuality is now accepted by a small majority.
More human rights facts here.
A former middle school teacher in Meridian has pleaded guilty to possession of visual representations of child sex abuse.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said Steven Kutzner, 33, had downloaded more than 70 animated cartoon pornographic images on his computer. Many of them depicted child characters from The Simpsons.
Kutzner was a former middle school teacher at Lake Hazel Middle School in Meridian. He resigned immediately after the search warrant was served at his home.
Kutzner will be sentenced Jan. 5, 2011. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000. (source)
I guess it must have been more explicit than this:
Anyway, I advise you not to google it, at least not if you ever want to enjoy the series again. While there’s certainly something creepy about this, nobody seems to be harmed by it and so no reason to make it a crime.
More on child pornography and pedophilia. More here on so-called “virtual child pornography”, images that appear to depict minors but that were produced by means other than using real children, such as through the use of youthful-looking adults or computer-imaging technology. More absurd human rights violations.
- Glee, The Simpsons, and Virtual Child Porn (reason.com)
- Steven Kutzner Pleads Guilty to Simpsons Porn (nowpublic.com)
In its irresistible march toward the deification of the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has again decided in favor of free speech absolutism. (And it’s not like I don’t care about free speech). In United States v Stevens the Court ruled that a federal law criminalizing the commercial production, sale, or possession of so-called crush videos was an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The movies in question are depictions of cruelty to animals, used to satisfy a particular “sexual fetish”. They feature the intentional torture and killing of helpless animals, often by women wearing high-heeled shoes who slowly crush animals to death while talking to them in a dominatrix voice (source).
Let’s assume that cruelty to animals is universally considered a crime. If we can agree on that, we can – I think – also agree that filming a crime and distributing the movie is not, by definition, a crime in itself. On the contrary, it can help solve the crime. Think of the Rodney King video for example. However, if a crime is filmed, and the makers of the film fail to notify the authorities, then they can be considered as accomplices or guilty of criminal neglect. The crime then is the failure to notify the cops, not the act of making a video. The video itself should not be banned or criminalized, only the failure to report a crime.
But we can go one step further. In the case of crush videos, the video of animal cruelty is not contingent to the act of cruelty itself. In other words, the act of cruelty – the crime – would not have taken place had it not been filmed. The precise purpose of the act of cruelty is its videotaping and the subsequent sale of the videotaped cruelty. There would have been no crime had it not been filmed. So, we can reasonably assume that the act of cruelty, the filming of it, and the distribution of the film are in fact one and the same act. It’s therefore wrong to claim that we are dealing here with a simple case of free speech. The speech part of the act – distributing the film – is inseparable from the other parts of the act – cruelty and filming. If you care about the enforcement of anti-cruelty laws, you should make the distribution of such movies illegal and carve out an exception to free speech. If, on the contrary, you allow the distribution, then you provoke, condone or at least accept the existence of cruelty. In the words of Alito – dissenting:
criminal acts . . . cannot be prevented without targeting . . . the creation, sale, and possession for sale of depictions of animal torture.
If you enforce anti-cruelty laws, you de facto limit freedom of speech. So, either you take an absolutist position on free speech and you have to allow animal cruelty and violation of the law, or you don’t want to allow that and then you can’t take an absolutist position.
(source, click image to enlarge, more Calvin and Hobbes)
Anyway, free speech absolutism isn’t a widely held position, not even in the Supreme Court. Many kinds of speech have historically been granted no constitutional protection by the Court (“well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem”):
- defamation and libel
- fighting words
- child pornography
- speech integral to criminal conduct and
- solicitation of crime.
However, in this case, the Supreme Court was not inclined to add an exception for another type of speech, even though the harms caused by animal cruelty perhaps outweigh those caused by obscenity for instance. This disinclination is even less understandable when you consider that in United States v Stevens, Justice Roberts – for the majority - cited the older rationale for prohibiting child pornography, namely that it’s a special case because the market for it is intrinsically related to the underlying abuse. How is the same rationale not applicable in the case of animal cruelty? It seems to me that both child pornography and depictions of animal cruelty fall within the Court’s longstanding jurisprudence that “speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute” (source) is a valid exception to the general rule of freedom of speech.
In this old post in the blog series on limiting free speech, I mentioned the possibility that pornography causes sexual violence, and that this violence could be one of the justifications for prohibiting or limiting pornography, and hence for limiting one form of free speech. (The physical integrity rights of the victims of pornography induced sexual violence outweigh the rights to free speech of pornographers and their clients). I also cited some scientific research corroborating the link between pornography and sexual violence.
Now I came across some evidence pointing in another direction. We all know that porn is one of the main reasons to use the internet. Large increases of internet use of the last years, together with a proliferation of websites offering free porn, should, in theory, lead to a large increase in the numbers of rape. But that isn’t the case.
The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments. The bottom line on these experiments is, “More Net access, less rape.” A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines. And, according to Clemson professor Todd Kendall, the effects remain even after you control for all of the obvious confounding variables, such as alcohol consumption, police presence, poverty and unemployment rates, population density, and so forth. Steven E. Landsburg (source)
A vocal segment of the population has serious concerns about the effect of pornography in society and challenges its public use and acceptance. This manuscript reviews the major issues associated with the availability of sexually explicit material. It has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased. (source, source)
So it seems that the opposite is true: more porn = less rape. Maybe porn is a substitute for rape. In which case, one of the justifications for restricting the free speech rights of pornographers collapses. However, I mentioned in my old post that sexual violence isn’t the only possible reason to limit the rights to free speech of pornographers. Pornography can, for instance, perpetuate discriminatory gender roles. And the quote below shows that there is some evidence that pornography increases the likelihood of re-offending:
In this study, we examined the unique contribution of pornography consumption to the longitudinal prediction of criminal recidivism in a sample of 341 child molesters. We specifically tested the hypothesis, based on predictions informed by the confluence model of sexual aggression that pornography will be a risk factor for recidivism only for those individuals classified as relatively high risk for re-offending. Pornography use (frequency and type) was assessed through self-report and recidivism was measured using data from a national database from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Indices of recidivism, which were assessed up to 15 years after release, included an overall criminal recidivism index, as well as subcategories focusing on violent (including sexual) recidivism and sexual recidivism alone. Results for both frequency and type of pornography use were generally consistent with our predictions. Most importantly, after controlling for general and specific risk factors for sexual aggression, pornography added significantly to the prediction of recidivism. Statistical interactions indicated that frequency of pornography use was primarily a risk factor for higher-risk offenders, when compared with lower-risk offenders, and that content of pornography (i.e., pornography containing deviant content) was a risk factor for all groups. The importance of conceptualizing particular risk factors (e.g., pornography), within the context of other individual characteristics is discussed. (source)
This is a relatively easy case, compared to the previous ones we investigated in this blog series. Advertising is a form of speech which should be protected by the right to free speech. But there are some relatively uncontroversial exceptions:
- lies in advertising
- certain types of advertising for kids
- advertising for harmful products
- and hidden persuaders (also called subliminal advertising using mostly hidden sexual images to attract attention and seduce possible buyers).
These are types of advertising that clearly cause harm. They take away people’s freedom of choice at an often very deep and unconscious level; they harm people’s health; or they mislead people and force them to buy stuff they really don’t want to buy (or shouldn’t buy in the case of children). The freedom to increase one’s profit doesn’t outweigh the benefits of limiting these kinds of advertising. And anyway, it’s a general rule that the freedom of one shouldn’t limit the freedom of another.
Often, in advertising, there’s a kind of objectification and dehumanization of women, akin to what happens in pornography. To the extent that this can be a reason to prohibit (certain kinds of) pornography (and limit freedom of speech), it can also be a reason to prohibit certain types of advertising.
And now the fun part. Some examples of subliminal advertising:
The words “obscenity” (from the Latin obscenus meaning “foul, repulsive, detestable”), “salaciousness” or “salacity”, are legal terms describing acts or cases of speech that are prohibited because they offend a society’s prevalent sexual morality. As such, these prohibitions are limitations of the freedom of speech and often include censorship of obscene material, punishment for obscene acts or distribution of obscene material etc. The question is whether such prohibitions are legitimate in light of the importance of the right to free speech.
What is or is not obscene differs from society to society, from individual to individual, and from time to time. What used to be considered obscene may today be banal. This makes it difficult to establish what is and is not obscene, and this difficulty has consequences for those wishing to make rules prohibiting obscenity.
Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court of the United States famously stated:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced but I know it when I see it.
The Supreme Court does use a somewhat more precise rule, called the “Miller test“, to establish if something is obscene and hence doesn’t merit protection under the First Amendment:
- whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
- whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
- whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Most forms of obscenity aren’t speech: walking naked in a shopping mall, for instance, or performing sex acts in public toilets, aren’t acts intended to transfer information or opinions. Hence they cannot be protected by the right to free speech (whether or not these acts need to be protected at all, and how, is not the topic of this post).
Obscenity can, with some credibility, claim protection under freedom of speech when it is in the form of printed material (including publication on the internet), because then it is a form of speech. In many cases, obscenity in such a form can be equated to pornography (although not all pornography is obscene and not all obscenity is pornographic). In many jurisdictions, this kind of obscenity is also traditionally considered as a justified limit on freedom of speech. But is it really justified?
In a previous post in this series, I discussed pornography and the possibility to limit the freedom of speech of pornographers. I concluded that this possibility exists in certain cases, namely those cases of pornography that cause harm. For instance, child pornography, pornography in which violence or force is used against the participants in the pornographic material, pornography that is associated with human trafficking etc.
The rule should indeed be: does it harm anyone? Whether it appeals to the “prurient interest”, or whether it lacks “some artistic interest”, is essentially irrelevant. Does it cause harm in the sense of rights violations? Of course, this kind of harm isn’t always easy to establish. It is in the case of child pornography. But many feminists make a convincing case that pornography, even pornography depicting consenting adults and consumed by consenting adults, dehumanizes women, solidifies mentalities in which women are second class citizens, and glorifies violence against women.
However, depicting violence is not necessarily the same thing as incitement of violence. The latter causes harm, the former not necessarily (otherwise we would have to ban all detective stories).
(copyright Ric Stultz, source)
Violence is the aggressive exertion of force so as to injure or abuse, physically or mentally. Injury and abuse are inflicted on fellow human beings in order to achieve a certain goal, e.g. profit, pleasure, political gain, revenge, recognition, respect, honor, destruction, exploitation, fear, oppression etc.
In some cases, there doesn’t seem to be a goal and violence is committed just for the sake of violence. This, however, is exceptional. Most violence is instrumental, and the goals which have to be achieved can be:
- Selfish and individual: respect, honor, profit, envy, hate, revenge…
- Communal: respect for a religion, genocide, riots, ethnic cleansing…
- State sponsored: oppression, war, torture, capital punishment…
- Global: utopian violence, communism, terrorism, crimes against humanity…
It’s apparent from this that the concept of “violence” can be broken down into different types of violence, but it can be done according to different kinds of distinctions. The distinction above is only one possibility. Below I will use the distinction between interpersonal violence and collective violence. Others have used other classifications, for example:
- Violence classified by its causes: genetic causes, psychiatric disorders, economic causes (e.g. poverty), ideological causes, political causes, cultural or religious causes (for example female genital mutilation), social causes (e.g. dehumanization)…
- Violence classified according to its effects: e.g. direct or indirect effects. Pornography for example is often called an indirect form of violence because it is violence which is said to cause other violence. Some kinds of violence have more indirect effects than others. Violence in general places a massive burden on national economies, costing countries billions of US dollars each year in health care, law enforcement and lost productivity. But war obviously causes a heavier burden than assault.
- Violence classified according to the type of victims: racial violence, gender violence, ethnic violence, religious violence, domestic violence…
Worldwide, an estimated 1,6 million people lost their lives to violence in 2000. About half were suicides, one-third were homicides, and one-fifth were casualties of armed conflict (World Report on Violence and Health, World Health Organization, 2002).
Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15–44 years worldwide, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females.
Fatal interpersonal violence, i.e. homicide
Here’s a world map with the number of murders or homicides per 100.000 inhabitants during the last years:
And here are the same data for some selected countries:
And this is how the homicide rate in the U.S. evolved during the last decades:
All in all, this is still almost 20.000 murders a year in the U.S. (more data on crime in the US. here). On the level of the World, an estimated 520.000 people were killed in 2000 as a result of interpersonal violence worldwide – a rate of 8,8 per 100.000 population. (source)
Non-fatal interpersonal violence
For every person who dies as a result of violence, many more are injured and suffer other harms (psychological, financial etc.). One example is rape. The following graph shows the number of attempted and completed cases of rape in the U.S.:
Self-inflicted violence; suicide
Globally, an estimated 815.000 people killed themselves in 2000. (source)
Collective violence and war
This includes armed conflicts within or between states, and state-perpetrated violence such as genocide, torture, repression, some kinds of famine and poverty, and other abuses of human rights.
Since the beginning of recorded history, around 3600 BC, over 14.500 major wars have killed close to four billion people.
During the 20th century, one of the most violent periods in human history, an estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of armed conflict, and well over half of them were civilians. In 2000, about 310 000 people died as a direct result of conflict-related injuries – the majority of them in the poorer parts of the world. (source)
Terrorist violence also falls under this header:
First of all, whatever we think of pornography, we should admit that it is a kind of speech, just as cross-burning, flag-burning, hate speech etc., and hence it is at least possible that it falls under the protection of the right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has at different occasions decided that pornography should be protected under the First Amendment:
There are two types of pornography that receive no First Amendment protection — obscenity and child pornography. The First Amendment generally protects pornography that does not fall into one of these two categories. (source)
Other jurisdictions have also protected pornography.
Violence IN pornography
The quote above already indicates that an overall protection of pornography widely defined is not acceptable and that certain limits on the freedom of speech of pornographers are possible. According to the rules set forth in the introductory post of this series a right can be limited if it violates other rights or the rights or others. This is obviously the case of any child pornography or pornography in which violence or force is used against the participants, such as certain kinds of extreme sadomasochistic porn.
Another reason why there can be force and violence in pornography is human trafficking. Many girls are forced to participate in porn movies because they are victims of human trafficking. They are modern slaves in the sex industry.
Violence BECAUSE OF pornography
There is still some discussion in the scientific community as to whether pornography, and especially hardcore and violent pornography, promotes sexual violence in society. This is not easy to establish because the interactions of mass media and human behavior are complex. If pornography promotes sexual violence, we have another justification for limiting its distribution.
The weight of evidence is accumulating that intensive exposure to soft-core pornography desensitises men’s attitude to rape, increases sexual callousness and shifts their preferences towards hard-core pornography. Similarly, the evidence is now strong that exposure to violent pornography increases men’s acceptance of rape myths and of violence against women. It also increases men’s tendencies to be aggressive towards women and is correlated with the reported incidence of rape. Many sex offenders claim they used pornography to stimulate themselves before committing their crimes. (source)
In Australia, the federal government has tended to relax its controls on pornography since 1970. Different states have, however, implemented these changes to varying extents and, as a result, have unwittingly conducted an interesting experiment on the effect of pornography. Queensland, the most conservative state, has maintained the strictest controls on pornography and has a comparatively low rate of rape reports. By contrast, South Australia, the most liberal state in relation to pornography, has seen escalating reports of rape since the early 1970s:
Businesses spend billions of dollars on advertising, in the belief that media can and do have an effect on human behaviour. We support and encourage the arts, in the belief that novels, films and such have the capacity to uplift and enhance human society; in other words, that the arts have a capacity to influence people. Yet we are expected to believe that the increasing tide of pornography does not affect attitudes to women. (source)
The image of women in pornography
One reason why porn can cause violence in society is the image of women that is created through pornography. In some porn, rape is explicitly legitimized, but in all kinds of porn women are depicted as constantly and immediately available for sex. We can assume that long term consumption of porn from an early age onwards, creates the opinion that it is not necessary for men to establish whether a female partner consents to having sex since porn tells them that such consent is automatic. In real life, of course, this is not the case and hence there will be rape.
Porn also objectifies women. It turns women into objects of sexual desire and sexual use. Here are a few examples of this objectification of women. This picture shows a woman as a piece of meat for consumption, in the manner in which a pig would be depicted in a butchery:
This one puts “live girls” on the same level as lunch or “stuffed sandwiches”, and one can assume that it’s possible to consume both at the same time:
Objectification of women is of course not limited to pornography. Advertising also regularly uses women as means or tools or objects. Here’s an example:
The objectification of women means dehumanization. And there are more things you can do to a non-human than to a human. Objectification therefore can promote violence against women. To the extent that is does, we have another justification for restrictions on pornography. See also this post on dehumanization.
Moreover, pornography shapes and reinforces a male-dominant view of sexuality and of gender relations. It’s not far-fetched to claim that pornography contributes to gender discrimination, machismo, sexism, paternalism etc.
All this is the case not only for violent porn but for porn in general and could therefore justify restrictions on non-violent porn.
Different kinds of restrictions
There are different kinds of pornography, different circumstances in which it is distributed, and different people respond differently to pornography. So restrictions on pornography may differ according to circumstances. People with a history of sexual violence are more obvious targets of a ban on the use of hardcore and violent porn than other people. Young people, for the reasons given above, may have more restrictions, including non-violent porn. Pornography in a library is not the same thing as pornography on the streets…
Soft porn or “artistic porn” should be treated differently. An all-out ban on all kinds of pornography would be just as unwise as an all-out protection. Many classic works of art would have to be forbidden if no pornography were allowed. We have to admit that porn can be art and art can be pornographic. Take this example:
Here are some data on the porn industry and porn consumption in the US:
Here’s a small catalogue of examples of dehumanization, of the ways in which humans try to exclude others from humanity, to deny them equality, to ridicule them, to render them objects in their plan, instruments for their advancement or pleasure. It ranges from the harmless national stereotypes and political humor, to the incitement of genocide. It has been said that the only way to violate people’s human rights is to deny that they are human.
The Jews, of course, have a long experience of exclusion and dehumanization. Here’s a cartoon from Der Sturmer, Nazi newspaper:
The cartoon suggests that Jews are sucking the economic life from Gentiles. The newspaper is infamous for comparing Jews to inhuman and unpleasant creatures.
Much of contemporary anti-jewish propaganda in Arab media often refers to the old anti-semite tradition of depicting Jews as animals:
There’s the human pyramid in Abu Ghraib; treating people like toys to be played with:
Oddly reminiscent of the way in which women are often treated as sex-objects:
You can find more on the dehumanization of women in pornography here.
And there’s the racist view that whites are somehow the end of evolution, and blacks still closer to apes:
This perception of the Negro has undoubtedly contributed to slavery since slavery is the commodification of the human. If the Negro is less than the white person, then he can be considered as a commodity which one can buy, sell and use in slavery.
The man-monkey analogy has also been used for non-racist, political purposes:
The Rwandan radio station “Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM)” played a major role in the Rwandan genocide:
(Translation: “What’s happening?” “They killed Habyarimana (Hutu President of Rwanda)” “We ask all our Hutu brothers not to let this crime remain unpunished. Get up. Get to work. Take your tools and eradicate this race of cockroaches. Find them in all the holes…”)
And then there are the relatively harmless national stereotypes (although one can claim that all dehumanization starts with this):