Other Pornography Commissions and Social Science Research

Part: 
Four
Chapter: 
3

Other organizations which have studied pornography such as the Williams Committee in England and the Fraser Commission on Pornography and Prostitution in Canada have also examined social science research evidence on the effects of viewing pornography. (Report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, 1979; Report of the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, 1985).

The Williams Committee, working between 1977 and 1979, commissioned two reviews of the existing literature. One review examined the effects of viewing pornography (Yaffe and Nelson, 1979) and the other examined the effects of exposure to media violence (Brody, 1977). Both reviews highlighted the difficulties of studying human behavior and of understanding human motivations. The review of the effects of viewing sexually-explicit materials concluded that "there is no consensus of opinion by the general public, or by professional workers in the area of human conduct, about the probable effects of sexual material." The review on the effect of exposure to media violence similarly maintained that "social research has not been able unambiguously to offer any firm assurance that the mass media in general, and films and television in particular, either exercise a socially harmful effect, or that they do not."

The long track record of media violence research and antisocial behavior makes the latter conclusion somewhat surprising, particularly since an opposite conclusion was arrived at by a similar commission working under the direction of the United States Surgeon General in 1972, which had examined the effects of exposure to media violence (Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, 1972).

The conclusions of the Williams Committee on the effects of viewing pornography may not be as surprising since much of the experimental work was published after 1978. It is not clear, however, how much value these studies would have had for the Williams Committee since its call for more research was predicated on the importance of studying "the human personality as a whole, rather than to specific questions about violent or sexual materials and their supposed effects" (p. 4). The Committee further appeared to give greater attention to correlational studies as it examined in considerable detail studies by Court (1977) and Kutchinsky (1973). The Committee was highly critical of Court's methodology but also pointed out that the Danish data did not lead to the conclusion that the availability of pornography resulted in a decrease in sexual offenses.

The Canadian Fraser Commission similarly sponsored a research review (McKay and Dolff, 1985) and concluded that "the research is so inadequate and chaotic that no consistent body of information has been established. We know very well that individual studies demonstrate harmful or positive results from the use of pornography. However, overall, the results of the research are contradictory or inconclusive." (Report of the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, v. 1, p. 99).

The commissioned review was exceedingly critical of the research, maintaining that the studies in every aspect exhibited "conceptually cloudy thinking," that they were characterized by "blatant silliness" and had no integrating framework, that "the literature is rife with speculation and unwarranted assumptions." The low regard for behavioral science methods is evident throughout the review, with major criticisms focusing on the uselessness of the experimental paradigm (p. 86-87), and the inability to draw conclusions from correlational research. Despite this assessment, the Commission proceeded to recommend criminal sanctions for sexually violent material and child pornography and limits on public display for nonviolent pornography. These recommendations were based on the Commission's observations that these materials were contrary to Canadian values of equality and human dignity.

It is obvious that the contribution of social science findings to policy considerations can vary, from being the sole or primary basis for policy recommendations, as was the case for the 1970 Commission, to being close to irrelevant to such considerations, as seemed to be the case with the Canadian pornography commission.