Entertainment

07.09.14

Is Bondage Porn to Blame for a Murder?

A teenage model was tragically murdered in the U.K. by hanging, and the tabloids have helped spin it into a war on hardcore pornography.

The Daily Mail is widely known to be a tabloid rag with low moral standards, but a recent piece by Andy Dolan exploiting the grief of the parents of a murdered girl to push the idea that pornography causes men to murder is particularly low, even for them. At issue is the sad story of 17-year-old Georgia Williams, who was lured by Jamie Reynolds into his home under the pretext of a modeling shoot, where he proceeded to hang her to death for his apparent sexual gratification. Now the victim’s parents are speaking out against Internet pornography, telling the Mail they blame it for their daughter’s death, saying “men, including Reynolds, are re-enacting what they see online” and demanding more government censorship of online porn.

It’s understandable that the parents of a murder victim are going to look for the “cause” of the murder, and it’s understandable to want to give press coverage to their arguments. In many cases, parents of murder victims possess valuable insights about policy changes that need to be considered. Take Richard Martinez, who called for stricter gun control measures in the wake of his son’s shooting death by UCSB killer Elliot Rodger. In the case of Georgia Williams, it’s important for journalists to be cautious about not exploiting people’s grief to stoke unnecessary paranoia or spread myths that do more harm than good. And the claim that porn—even very violent porn—is the cause of violence against women is one that needs to be handled with a level of care not shown in this careless article.  

To start with, there isn’t any clear-cut evidence that porn causes violence against women. In fact, violence against women has gone down as Internet porn use has surged, though it’s probably more of a coincidence than a causal connection. (Crime overall is down, so it stands to reason that violent crimes against women would be as well.) While there has been research showing that porn may subtly influence viewers to more readily believe misogynist ideas—e.g. that women can “ask for” rape—most research shows there’s just not much reason to think, at present, that media imagery or even porn turns nonviolent people toward violence. That violent men often end up having a browser history full of stomach-turning violent porn doesn’t necessarily mean the porn caused the violence, as the Daily Mail implies. It more likely means that violent men are drawn to violent imagery. You can accuse directors of violent porn of profiting off the whims of violent men at best, but you can’t really accuse them of causing violence. The evidence just isn’t there.

Porn is really the same as any other media product: People manipulate it to their purposes more than they are manipulated by it.

None of which is to say that porn is free of ugly messages about how sexually active women are degraded and deserve to suffer for it. Anyone who’s being honest about their online porn consumption can attest that some of it is downright hateful to women. But porn is hardly alone in pushing the message that sexually active women are dirty and should be punished for it. You can hear that message in pop music, movies, and TV shows. And it’s not just pop culture, either. Churches, politicians, and now even the Supreme Court are all guilty of reinforcing the idea that sexually active women are undeserving of full human rights. While cultural misogyny plays a huge part in violence against women, it’s important to understand that this misogyny comes from all corners of society, and that porn alone cannot shoulder the blame.

Even if porn is ever shown to have some influence on violence, odds are it’s going to be more with run-of-the-mill cases of sexual coercion—not murder. In the case of Jamie Reynolds, there’s even more reason to be cautious about blaming his horrifying act on porn, despite his penchant for violent imagery. Reynolds seems to fit the profile of a serial killer, albeit one who was thankfully caught after one killing. He attempted to kill a teenage girl in 2008 but failed. Odds are Reynolds wasn’t so much inspired by porn, but merely using it to get his rocks off while plotting to take his fantasy to the level of murder.

Unfortunately, serial killers who are motivated by perverse sexual fantasies predate not just Internet porn but the entire modern concept of “porn”, much less some of its more violent manifestations. Jack the Ripper operated at a time when erotic imagery was by and large limited to naked women posing in boudoirs, yet he still had the desire to rip prostitutes open from head to toe. And he was just one of many serial killers from the 19th or early 20th century who had a sexual drive toward murder. In fact, one infamous serial killer from the early 1900s, Bela Kiss, had an M.O. quite like Reynolds’ of flattering women to lure them to his house, where he strangled them to death.

Violent crime is a complex subject and there are many causes and policy solutions for it. However, many of the actual policy solutions for violent crime—such as better policing, better education, better job opportunities, and a stronger social safety net—are long-term ones that cost money and inconvenience those in power, so it’s often easier to run around blaming media—particularly media that seduces the young but baffles the old—for the crime in question.

But the problem with blaming the media is that it doesn’t do anything to fix the problem and only makes older people feel justified in resenting younger people for having different tastes than they do. Consider, for instance, how Judas Priest was unfairly blamed for a young man’s suicide, even though anyone who actually understood their music knew that their dark posturing is totally tongue-in-cheek. Or, more recently, stories trying to blame a fictional “Slender Man” character for violence committed by very young kids, even though odds are high that the kids were just using it as an excuse for the violence they planned on committing anyway.  

Porn is really the same as any other media product: People manipulate it to their purposes more than they are manipulated by it. That there is so much violent porn out there is, admittedly, quite terrifying to ponder sometimes, though it’s worth noting that many of its consumers may be intrigued by violent fantasies but have no actual desire to commit violence themselves. Porn is a market and violent porn exists because consumers demand it, not because porn is turning men towards violence. This distinction is incredibly important to understand when covering the relationship between violence against women and porn.