There’s a Gordian knot of a conundrum that I’ve been trying to unpick for a long time. I think I may have finally untangled it and reached what I hope you will agree is an unarguable conclusion: The single most effective preventative measure to protect society from sexual and domestic abuse is a picture of a kitten.
You may be sceptical, but let me explain. Over the past couple of decades, access to the internet and other digital communication technologies has increased exponentially to become the most important and influential portal to information, entertainment and media since the invention of television. More than two thirds of Europeans use the internet once a week or more, and we’re still behind the Americans. This, I hope, is uncontroversial.
This revolution has blessed the world with communication and knowledge, but principally it has brought a limitless stash of pornography directly into the living rooms and bedrooms of the developed world. Much of the human race is now just a couple of clicks away from any manner of nudity, erotica, hardcore fuck films, sadomasochism, bondage, cock and ball torture and enough depravity to make de Sade say sacre bleu! Whatever individual tastes and fantasies one might have, there is a porn site somewhere that’s just for you. All the evidence is that large proportions of the population, including or especially younger people, have, to some extent, availed themselves occasionally or regularly of the opportunities on offer. I’d furnish you with statistics, but that would require me to Google the word “pornography” and I‘d never get this blog finished. Again, all of this is uncontroversial and so I hope you can take it on trust.
Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to establish whether exposure to pornography is harmful. Actually cancel that, it is not true. Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to prove that pornography is or is not harmful, in accordance with their prior assumptions. Pretty much every study that has ever set out to demonstrate harm has demonstrated harm, while virtually every study that has set out to demonstrate that there is no harm has demonstrated that there is no harm. Funny that.
There are genuine grounds for concern about the effects of pornography on the individual and their relationships, in terms of habitual and addictive behaviour, skewed perspectives on human sexuality, blisters on the palms of the hands and so on. But socially and politically, by far the most important question is whether exposure to pornography increases the likelihood that someone will commit violent and sexual crime, most obviously against women and girls. The role of porn, and more broadly a heavily sexualised culture, is cited constantly as a major factor in discussions of sexual and partner violence. In a speech to a meeting this Monday, Jon Cruddas MP placed the issue at the heart of the campaign to prevent violence against women and girls. The NSPCC did the same in relation to sexual abuse of children. A couple of years ago the last government ran a major consultation on domestic violence, and the only causative factor on which they invited comment was pornography and sexualisation.
What such claims ignore is that we are currently in the midst of a humungous real world experiment. If it is true that exposure to pornography is a significant cause of sexual violence and domestic abuse, we would surely expect to see the rates of such crimes rise in keeping with the prevalence of porn. What has happened? Here is a handy graph from the US National Victimization Survey – not reported crimes, but the world’s largest and most authoritative survey on actual trends in attacks over time. I’ve marked the point at which Tim Berners-Lee announced the development of the Hypertext Protocol for the World Wide Web – generally agreed to be the point where this internet stuff began in earnest.
Perhaps there is something unique to the USA there, so let’s look at some different data, the British Crime Survey’s estimates of domestic abuse – again, a large and authoritative victim survey. This time I’ve mapped it against some stats for internet use. I realise they are global, not just UK, but they were the only ones I could find and it would stretch credibility to imagine the British trend has been notably different.
It is, as I said at the beginning, a conundrum. For decades we have been told authoritatively that exposure to pornography and the sexualisation of society causes people (or more commonly, men) to become rapists and abusers. And yet at a time when access to and consumption of pornography has increased exponentially, rates of sexual and interpersonal violence, including that against children have been plummeting according to pretty much every available measure.
For a long time, the mainstream feminist and political consensus has assured us that pornography leads to violence and abuse, and they can’t have been lying to us. Something else must be going on. Something has been happening, simultaneous to the pornographic revolution, which has had a powerful enough effect to not only cancel out the harms of porn, but push the overall rates of violence in precisely the opposite direction. So what is it? I propose to you that the answer is kittens. Yes, kittens.
It has been often observed that no matter what random words you type into Google image search, within the first few dozen results there will be a pornographic snap. What must be noted is that the precise same thing is true of pictures of kittens. Try it. What’s more, at least Google has a safe search option which significantly reduces your chances of encountering accidental porn, but there is no kitten filter. Once upon a time kittens were personal things, they lived in a cardboard box under our beds and if we took photos of them we would only rarely show them to special friends. If you wanted to buy a photo of a kitten you had to go to a specialist shop with a name like Athena. Now people are flashing them all over the internet without shame, even setting up webcams so complete strangers all over the world can coo over their kitties. They are ubiquitous, inescapable, and they have undoubtedly saved us from the horrors of Pornogeddon.
Is this credible? It must be. The only other explanation for the available data would be that actually the true causes of violent and sexual crime have little or nothing to do with exposure to erotic (or for that matter violent) media materials, and is much more to do with early socialisation, exposure to and experience of real world violence, emotional neglect, abuse and maltreatment within the family home. That theory would also be in keeping with the available data. Unfortunately it makes for less snappy and sexy soundbites. It’s just so much easier to blame the porn.