We Still Don’t Need No Stinking Evidence

February 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology isn’t just “common sense,” we tell our students on day one of the intro coruse. First, one common sense proposition can contradict another. And in any case, the only way to find out if common sense is right is to look at systematic evidence rather than relying on intuition and experience. 

So here is Ross Douthat on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast on Thursday, talking about his “Let’s Ban Porn” column in the Times (see this post from last week).  Asked about the negative effects of pornography, Douthat says,

I think we spend a lot of time in the media landscape today arguing about studies, and in certain ways in this case I’m appealing to cultural experience and moral intuition

Early in the discussion, Douthat had referred to the “experiment” we have conducted “in using not just pornography but hard core extreme obviously misogynistic pornography as a kind of broad based form of sexual education for young men.” He didn’t specify the outcome variables of this experiment, though the hosts of the show mentioned that at the same time that porn was spreading wildly, the subjects of the experiment (teenagers) were racking up lower rates of casual sex, pregnancy, abortion, and rape.

Nearly an hour into the podcast host David Plotz asks about evidence. Douthat refers to the relation between porn and “anti-social behavior writ large – depression, unhappiness.” I would have thought that unwanted pregnancy and rape were writ just a bit larger than unhappiness. But even with the variables he mentions, Douthat acknowledges that the studies showing a relationship between porn consumption and unhappiness come from a think tank that is hardly neutral (the Witherspoon Institute), and that these studies suffer from the problem of endogeneity, a word that here means that even if there’s a correlation, it’s hard to figure out which is causing which. (Douthat says nothing about the studies that contradict his desired result that porn makes kids unhappy.)

Douthat mentions other outcomes: “Young men are messed up. . . .Relationships just aren’t working that well. . . People seem really unhappy with the dating landscape.” If there’s evidence that all of these were different in some pre-porn paradise, Douthat doesn’t cite it.

For sex conservatives, the question of the evils of porn is just too important to be left to empirical evidence. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a similar post (“Data? We Don’t Need No Stinking Data”). The names of the conservatives have changed (Kristol out, Douthat in) but the idea is the same.

Does watching porn or listening rap make kids more promiscuous? Why waste time figuring out how to get data on the question? Just take it from Irving Kristol (William’s dad) from some years back writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Is it not reasonable to think that there may also be such a connection between our popular culture and the plagues of sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the increasing number of rapes committed by teenagers? Here again, we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case.
    Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our “rap” music is without effect?
By “here again,” he apparently means that there are several other areas where we are better off not trying to get evidence.


In the years since Kristol wrote that, our popular culture became more sexual and more violent. But sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the number of rapes committed by teenagers all decreased.

But What Can We Do When It’s Too Late?

February 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NRA doesn’t really have to marshal arguments against the gun control laws that will again be proposed in the coming days and weeks. If legislators ain’t gonna legislate, you don’t really need to support your position. But argue they will. Their basic argument is that good guys need guns to defend themselves against bad guys, and the bad guys have lots of guns.

The country is so awash in guns that your only hope is to buy a gun, thus putting still more guns into circulation, creating an even greater need for people to buy guns. It is a feedback loop devoutly wished for by the NRA and gun manufacturers.

They also argue that the huge number of guns (300 million – an average of one per person – and counting) also makes anti-gun action a fool’s errand. As Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg argued (here) four years ago in the wake of the Aurora massacre, “It’s too late.”

It’s Vietnam all over again. In the late 60s, as it became clear that the US war in Vietnam was a mistake, war supporters made a similar argument. “Yeah, you were right about not getting into the war and then sending hundreds of thousands of more troops. But what we can do now? The war is not going well for us, so we have no choice but to send even more troops.” The Bush administration made a similar response when their invasion and de-stabilization of Iraq turned out to have been a predictably terrible idea.

Here’s one idea about what we can do. It’s not really a policy, but it might provide a start on finding a better policy: Stop electing the same kinds of politicians and the same party that got us into this mess in the first place.

In a post last November, I said (here) that the NRA policy on guns is like addiction: trying to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem in the first place. We wouldn’t put a Mexican heroin cartel in charge of the DEA. But we keep electing NRA-certified politicians to write our gun laws. Then, we’re shocked and dismayed that there’s so much gun violence.

Victims and Policies

February 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Right-wingers used to smugly say, maybe they still do, that a conservative on crime is a liberal who’s just been mugged. It seems logical. But twenty-five years ago when I was working on a criminology textbook, I could find no systematic evidence showing a link between victimization and political attitudes.

At the time, I thought that the problem might be that while most victimizations might be upsetting, they were not permanently traumatizing. If one day I stepped in dog shit because some inconsiderate New Yorker hadn’t bothered to obey the pooper-scooper law. In the moment, I would to immediately be rethinking my position on the death penalty.

But the emotion was transitory and faded quickly. It was the same when I found the window of my car smashed. Perhaps those victimizations were not serious enough. They were property crimes, not what the UCR calls “crimes against the person.” But I knew people who had been mugged – this was, after all, New York in the bad old days – and they had not adjusted their politics.

During the lockdown at the Stoneman Douglas school in Florida, while the shooter was still at large, one of the students interviewed others hiding with him in a closet.


There is only audio, no video, for the second girl interviewed, but  ABC posted a captioned version on Twitter. Here is a composite screen shot.


Maybe a liberal on gun control is an NRA hopeful who has just been shot at. But maybe not. In any case, whether this girl retains her new position on gun control, the evidence suggests that a mass shooting, even one covered extensively in the media, will have little impact on opinion nationwide. With Republicans in control of the government, yesterday’s killings might not even bring the customary increase in sales of guns and assault rifles.

In states that already have some sentiment in favor of stronger gun laws, a local massacre might be enough to tip the legislative balance. That’s what happened in Connecticut following the slaughter of children in Newtown. But in the legislatures of states like Florida and in Congress in Washington, these mass slaughters – even when the victims are children, even White children – count for little.

The kid who made the video, David Hogg, said on CNN, “We're children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action. Work together. Come over your politics.”

The public may be upset, but the emotion is transitory, unlikely to last much past the funerals of the next few days. The pro-gun forces are strong and steady. It seems unlikely that Hogg’s simple request, despite its wisdom, will have any impact on laws or policies.

Porn and Pandora

February 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat wants to ban porn. No wonder he buries the lede even though it’s the only bit of systematic evidence he cites in his column today.

According to Douthat, we had a chance to ban porn a few decades ago. We could have done it. And we all, especially women, would have been better off – happier in our sex lives. Instead we “surrendered” to smut. But why?

Between the individualistic drift of society, the invention of the internet, and the failure of the Dworkin-Falwell* alliance’s predictions that porn would lead to rising rates of rape, the anti-porn case was marginalized  — with religious conservatism’s surrender to Donald Trump’s playboy candidacy a seeming coup de grace. [emphasis added]

Like Trekkie Monster in “Avenue Q,” I have no doubt that the internet made for much wider consumption of porn. As for US society being more individualistic now than it was 40-50 years ago, I would prefer to see some evidence. But on cause #3 – the failure of those predictions about rape – Douthat glides past an important fact. The rates didn’t just “not rise.” They fell. A lot.

The BJS victimization survey (here) shows that rates of rape and sexual assault in 2010 were less than half of what they were in 1995. More recent BJS surveys show no significant increase since 2010.


The same is true for victimization among college-age women. For both students and non-students, victimization rates in 2013 were about half of what they had been before the internet-porn explosion.



Maybe some John Lott of porn will write a book – More Porn, Less Rape.

Douthat doesn’t like porn. So rather than confront this large but inconvenient fact about porn and sexual assault, he buries it in the middle of a sentence one-third of the way into his column. 

It’s not just porn that Douthat doesn’t like. He doesn’t like sex for sex’s sake. He’s condescendingly dismissive of sex ed that is not focused on repression.

The sex education programs in my mostly liberal schools featured a touching faith from the adults in charge that they were engaged in a great work of enlightenment, that with the right curricula they could roll back the forces of repression and make sexuality a place of egalitarian pleasure and safety for us all.

The students of the 90s, when Douthat was in those classes, wound up being much less sexually assaultive and sexually victimized than their counterparts of earlier years. No matter. Douthat likes those “forces of repression” and wants to see them rolled out again.

Don’t hold your breath. That Pandora’s box has been opened. Those erotic evils will continue to float unconfined, and Pandora herself has gone into the Internet music biz. So we are all free to pontificate, unconstrained by data, about what would happen if porn were banned. But if we’re going to speculate about the effects of pornography, we should pay at least some attention to the evidence we have about what actually did happen.

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*Andrea Dworkin did not coin the phrase “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice.” That was Robin Morgan. But Dworkin, in her vigorous fight against porn, espoused that causal idea. Falwell is Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. He too did not like porn, though in my very unthorough Google search, I could find no reference to his claiming that it caused rape.