Friday, April 26, 2013

Correlation Is Not Causation : Pornography and Rape in India

The rape scene in New Delhi might frighten the sock off any female wanting to visit India these days (forgive my pun). And the shock of a nation is not surprising. The number of rapes reported so far this year in India stands at 460+. Compared to 2012, statisticians say that figure has risen by more than double.

While rapes have risen, the population of India has also gone up as well. In 2012, India boasted 1.210 billion people. In 2013, that has gone up to 1.270 billion. So has the rape rate per x number of people really increased compared to last year while checking for population growth? And was 2012 a smaller year for rape because rapes weren't reported as much?

I'm a doubting Thomas by nature. It's always good to check your numbers.

Having said that, it is shameful and revolting to think that India is making waves in one particular area - child rape. Minors, even under the age of 10 are not spared by these criminals. The particularly disturbing nature of these crimes is that because victims are under aged,  they do not have ready access to report the incident. The police don't always care and in some cases will seek to bribe sources to shut them up.

So what's wrong? Are sexually repressed derelicts going bonkers all of a sudden? Rape isn't prosecuted strictly? Education is not enough? Children aren't monitored? Alcohol to blame? The police force ignores? Porn black market unregulated?

India is a country that is traditionally conservative in sexual matters. The caste system has given ground to a predominantly patriarchal society. Arranged child marriages still happen in many Indian communities with many rituals and festivities. Yet, sex has been thoroughly mystified for many years. Sex education is not widely existent like in other nations. Open discussion of sex is oh-so-taboo in families and schools. Hardcore pornography is outlawed. In states where censorship isn't so tight, filmmakers get away with softcore porn but essentially, the reel stops at the thighs or a scene rapidly changes when partners are seconds away from as much as a kiss. Sex crimes exist in this roughly painted, if not inaccurate, environment.

In the emotional whiplash after a rape, people are easily prone to pointing fingers at all sorts of reasons. In the latest horrific case of a 5 year old's rape in the capital, activists claim that there was strong correlation between the perpetrators watching pornography on their cell phones and their aggression to commit the crime. The link between porn and perversion is now seriously being investigated by the Indian Supreme Court.

So if the recent rape cases ignite the debate on whether we need to curb pornography, the hypothesis must be that there is a strong causal link between pornography and rape. As of writing this, I know that various studies have debunked this claim that one causes the other. An interesting Denmark based paper to read is linked here.

Regardless, we can make this a highly academic investigation involving Indian research subjects and seek to understand if the mechanism works in India. Here's one I recently dreamed up and I wonder if it can ever be practically done. Feel free to find faults.

The protocol : Take a large group of Indian derelicts with suspect background, put them in a room for months on end and pamper them with pornographic videos without suppression. The videos must have contain explicit content depicting scenes of "adult" female sex slaves satisfying every craving of their adult male masters. Rape, or intent to rape and mild violence is free for the viewing. Viewing can be done solo or in groups.

At the same time, gather another "control group" of derelicts with suspect background and bombard them with videos showing women's rights activists exposing the crude behind the scenes in brothels, porn business, modeling industries etc and how this is against the values of a family, a society and a country.  Show them anything and everything that seeks to portray sexual immorality in bad light. Teach them about diseases and cures, prevention and prohibition. Throw some religion in there as well, oh yeah that will do the trick!

After all this, give these guys a survey. Inform them that that they will be left into a conservative society that has no serious repercussions for committing crimes against women, where police are easy going and may even act in support of them even if they committed the crime. They are free to walk in gangs and do what they please as long as they don't cause uproar.

Openly ask them if this information would make a few of them want to consider committing a sexual crime against a female. Monitor the response of both the groups. Specifically which person responded yes to that?

What would you really find?

Perhaps the guys who watched porn for so long got addicted to it so much that they would want to try it in real. Or perhaps the people who weren't shown satiating porn to "get it out of their system" would be more prone to want to rape. I'll leave that to social scientists and crime busters to figure out because I frankly don't know the answer. I wish that it will be conclusive but I won't be surprised if isn't.

The diagnosis of rape and pornography as a cause for the issue is a highly controversial issue not just in India but globally. As humans, we seek to understand causes to crimes and in moral panic, anything and everything as a social cause for crime, especially rape, is bound to the table and inspected.

It is interesting to note that in the United States, any outcry that goes against the grain of the Amendments of the Constitution will not find an easy time gaining ground. The backlash against prohibition of guns has the same political basis as the backlash against pornography. The right to bear arms is a fundamental right of Americans. The right to free speech, liberty and privacy is also a fundamental right of Americans. Child pornography has been outlawed by all American states' standards, hence it does not enjoy First Amendment protection. Other types of pornography have received varying levels of inspection on a case by case basis.

Both Nixon and Reagan commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials caused social violence.  Here, it is instructive for Indian lawmakers to study two reports produced under the two different American administrations : "Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography" (RCOP) and the "Attorney General's Commission on Pornography" or the "Meese Report".

RCOP under the Nixon administration stated explicitly that there was "no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behavior among youths or adults." The report was of course dismissed by Nixon. The reasons had more to do with politics because Nixon was obviously nervous of losing conservative support.

On the other hand, the federally funded 1,960 page Meese Report supported the conservative view that consumers as well as participants of pornography are harmed and as a whole, porn represented a clear and present danger to American public health. It came under sharp criticism from upholders of the Constitution, the media and especially social scientists who ripped it apart mainly due to what appeared to be shoddy research behind its conclusions.

This has been somewhat the theme behind the pornography debate in the United States. Lawmakers of an administration with a conservative bias will tend to say one thing, those wanting to gain liberal support will say another and somewhere in between, the media, especially the multi-billion dollar porn industry will tend to sway decisions in their favor, well actually the multi-million dollars in taxes they pay will usually do the talking. Inadvertently, a few of the porn moguls will directly or indirectly have a hand in electing a President so there you go...its an endless chain. After all this, someone will revisit the topic again in 4 years!


In a popular paper titled 'Porn Up, Rape Down'. a North Western University Law Professor argued that when internet access and pornography increased, per capita rape declined. He found the relationship to be correct to within 95% confidence. Source.

While we step away from the United States to India, it is instructive to understand that reasons for or against prohibition are often politically motivated. Having said that, if our nation really wants to understand the link between porn and rape, I still think we need to make it a rational approach and make it locally sensible to implement.

Show us data that says there is a strong causal link between rape and pornography. Study other developed nations that have investigated causal links and what they have done. Study the possible parameters that could be included in this Pareto chart for rape in India. And then attack the low lying fruit first. Ours is a nation of 1 billion scientists, computer programmers and engineers. Surely we can take a rational approach to this issue?

I wish the media would stop inviting the people from the film industry and women's rights activists into a panel and make a circus on TV. It really won't solve a thing other than fueling fire for endless debate. Rather, give the issue to the right people and let them decide upon an objective strategy. I hope India can go in the right direction and decide upon something that makes sense for India. Let's hope for an end to child rape. 

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