Overview of the 1970 Commission Research Conclusions

Part: 
Four
Chapter: 
3

The period prior to the creation of the 1970 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography was marked by a paucity of research on the effects of exposure to pornography (Cairns, Paul and Wishner, 1962). A Commission-sponsored review of the literature in 1970 later concluded that "we still have precious little information from studies of humans on the questions of primary import to the law ... the data stop short of the 'critical point'". (Cairns, et al, 1970). Much of the Commission-sponsored studies thus constituted some of the earliest investigations on the issue of pornography.

The 1970 Commission funded over eighty studies to examine various aspects of pornography. Surveys included a national in-person survey of public attitudes toward and experiences with pornography (Abelson, et. al., 1970). A number of correlational studies examined social indicators of crime rates (Thornberry and Silverman, 1970; Kupperstein and Wilson, 1970; Ben-Veniste, 1970) while another cluster of studies investigated sex offenders and their previous experiences with erotica, patterns of exposure and self-reported arousal. Finally, another group of studies was commissioned (laboratory experiments) to examine causal links between exposure to pornography and effects (see Technical Reports of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, vols. 1, 6, 7, and 8, 1970).

The national survey findings (Abelson, et. al., 1970) showed that between two-fifths to three-fifths of the respondents believed then that sexually-explicit materials provided information about sex, were a form of entertainment, led to moral breakdown, improved sexual relationships of married couples, led people to commit rape, produced boredom with sexually-explicit materials, encouraged innovation in marital sexual technique and led people to lose respect for women (see comparison between 1970 survey findings and 1985 Gallup poll results below).

Experimental findings showed brief increases in sexual activities and fantasies after exposure to sexually-explicit materials but no significant alterations of established sexual behavioral patterns. The Commission further determined that there was no detectable relationship between availability of pornography and crime rates in the United States but suggested that removal of restrictions on pornographic material was correlated with lower sexual crime rates, as determined from Danish data prior to and after the removal of restrictions on pornography (Ben-Veniste, 1970; Kutchinsky, 1970, 1973).

The 1970 Commission concluded:

... In sum, empirical research designed to clarify the question has found no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behavior among youth or adults. The Commission cannot conclude that exposure to erotic materials is a factor in the causation of sex crimes or sex delinquency (p. 223).

The Commission's conclusions were challenged and a number of methodological issues were raised (Cline, 1974; Eysenck and Nias, 1980). At the very least, these conclusions were described as "premature" (see Liebert, 1976). Researchers who have done studies subsequent to the 1970 Report have also consistently identified a major flaw in the 1970 studies: the absence of any investigation of the effects of violent pornography.

On balance, however, the impetus for further research on the effects of exposure provided by the 1970 Commission cannot be overlooked. As the Effects Panel noted in its report,

One of the contributions of the work of the Panel has been to place the dimensions of human sexual behavior on the agenda for continuing inquiry. By providing resources in terms of funds and technical guidelines, the Panel has helped to legitimate systematic inquiry into an area that heretofore has either been ignored or feared.

It is difficult to quarrel with this observation.

Since the 1970 Commission report, in fact, numerous research studies have been done exploring various aspects of the effects of pornography. Since 1970 the quantity and quality of the research has been impressive. While much remains to be explored, not only has the volume of studies conducted steadily increased, but the programmatic nature of the research conducted by various individuals and research teams has provided a better insight into understanding the various conditions under which certain effects may or may not occur.

Studies done for the 1970 Commission were hampered by time constraints. As the research director for the 1970 Commission pointed out, "most of the researchers had less than nine months in which to establish a research team, arrange a research setting, develop measuring instruments, secure subjects, collect the data, reduce the data, and write a report." (General Preface to Technical Reports, Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, 1970, p. vii)

Methodological advances in measurement procedures have also enhanced the reliability and validity of research instruments and findings. For example, measures of sexual arousal in some of the 1970 studies were based almost entirely on self-reports (e.g., Cook and Fosen, 1970; Goldstein, et. al., 1970; Davis and Braught, 1970). Since then, the poor correlation between self-reports of sexual arousal to sexually explicit stimuli and physiological measures of arousal has been well documented (Abel, Barlow, Blanchard and Guild, 1977; Blader and Marshall, 1984).

More recent studies have used instruments such as the penile plethysmograph (Malamuth and Check, 1980a), thermography procedures (e.g., Abramson, et. al., 1981) or the vaginal photoplethysmograph (see Sintchack and Geer, 1975; Hatch, 1979) to evaluate arousal (see also Geer, 1975; Heiman, 1977), or have combined physiological measures (e.g., blood pressure readings) with paper-and-pencil tests. Researchers have also attempted to validate paper-and-pencil measures, a critical methodological requirement (see, for example, Burt, 1980; Malamuth, In Press). Finally, more sophisticated statistical techniques have allowed for better data analysis, control, and interpretation. Multiple regression techniques, for instance, have allowed researchers to specify how much each explanatory variable contributes to changes in the variable being measured. Various other statistical techniques have also helped in deciding whether correlational data give any credence at all to the possibility of causal linkages.

A final observation might be made with regard to stimulus differences between the 1970 studies and more recent ones. Stimulus materials used in the 1970 studies were obtained primarily from sex research institutes (the Institutes of Sex Research at Hamburg University in West Germany and at Indiana University) and the Bureau of Customs confiscated contraband collection. One researcher (Tannenbaum, 1970) resorted to producing his own film which he described as showing a young lady "going through the motions of disrobing in a fairly sensuous manner in apparent preparation for the arrival of a lover." These materials were also presented primarily in the form of slides, magazine pictorials, mimeographed passages and film.

It is perhaps as much a function of availability and changing technology that more recent studies have used as stimulus materials films, audiotapes, videos, and material from various "adult men's" magazines, all easily available from outlets as diverse as the neighborhood video store, the corner newsstand, or the local adult bookstore.