Robert Jensen: When Examining Complex Social Phenomena, Scientific Method Has Limits; Listen to the Stories of the Victims (explicit language)

Writing in
Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (1998), Robert Jensen addresses a tactic we’ve seen a lot of in Northampton’s porn debate.

Because “science” has not yet conclusively shown a causal link between the use of pornography and sexual violence, some pornography supporters argue, no collective action is possible… I will simply assert that such a link is beyond the capacity of science to determine. Holding out such proof as a requirement before we act is the equivalent of saying we can never act. Instead of being paralyzed by the limitations of social science, we can pay attention to testimony about the ways in which people act out pornographic sexual scenarios, which gives us some understanding of how pornography works in the world. And, rather than constraining the discussion with simplistic notions about how mass communication causes specific behavior, we can think about how pornography cultivates certain views about sexuality…

So, even if definitive judgments about causation are difficult to make, there is much to be said about the role of pornography in our culture. Discussions need not be derailed. (p.4-5)

[S]hould we ask, “Does pornography cause rape?” Or, should we ask, “Is pornography implicated in rape?” The form of the question suggests different research methods: The search for causation demands “science,” while a concern for pornography’s role in rape leave us more open to listening to stories. Because science has no way to answer the question, predictably the search for causation and the use of science leads most everyone to conclude that we just don’t know enough to say for sure. But a shift in emphasis and method offers a way to state not The Truth (or conclude we don’t yet know The Truth), but a way to tell true stories and begin to make trustworthy moral and political decisions… (p.101)

[T]he lab experience is unreal in terms of both the physical and the psychological environments, and researchers have only the sketchiest notions of what they are measuring. If experimental data seems to suggest, for example, that exposure to depictions in which women appear to enjoy being raped can increase men’s acceptance of sexual violence against women and increase men’s endorsement of that rape myth (Malamuth and Check, 1981), can we assume those effects will be even more pronounced on a man who views that same sexual material in a real-world environment [e.g. the living room of a fraternity house] in which male aggression is often encouraged? Since it would be impossible, not to mention ethically unacceptable, to recreate such a situation in a lab, the value of lab data is questionable. Instead of assuming that the lab overstates the potential for aggression, we should consider how it could understate the effect…

Rather than bemoan the loss of alleged objectivity and the hope of generalizability that comes with a shift to the narrative method, I want to explore the possibilities opened up by a commitment to listening to people’s stories… (p.104-5)

Isolating with any certainty the effect of one particular manifestation of misogyny (pornography) in a culture that is generally misogynist, is hopeless. In fact, the danger of pornography is heightened exactly because it is only one part of a sexist system and because the message it carries about sexuality is reinforced elsewhere… [P]ornography does not cause rape but rather helps make rape inviting… The work of judging narratives can be difficult and sometimes messy; the process doesn’t claim clear, objective standards that experimental research appears to offer. There are no experts to ask for authoritative answers; we are all responsible for building responsible and honest communal practices. (p.108)

It is important to remember that the feminist anti-pornography critique grew out of these stories. The harms…women coerced into making pornography, forced to view pornography, sexually assaulted in ways connected to pornography, defamed by pornography, and trafficked in pornography–were identified not be experimental research but by taking seriously the lives of women… (p.108)

In a typical comment reported by the victims [street prostitutes who had been raped], an assailant told the woman:

I know all about you bitches, you’re no different; you’re like all of them. I seen it in all the movies. You love being beaten. (He then began punching the victim violently.) I just seen it again in that flick. He beat the shit out of her while he raped her and she told him she loved it; you know you love it; tell me you love it… [Silbert and Pines, 1984, p.864]

Another woman reported this experience:

After he finished raping me, he started beating me with his gun all over. Then he said, “You were in that movie. You were in that movie. You know you wanted to die after you were raped. That’s what you want; you want me to kill you after this rape just like (specific pornographic film) did…” [Silbert and Pines, 1984, p.865]

Russell Study [1980]:

My husband enjoys pornographic movies. He tries to get me to do things he finds exciting in movies. They include twosomes and threesomes. I always refuse… He also wanted to pour champagne on my vagina. I got beat up because I didn’t want to do it…

Minneapolis Hearings [1983]:

He told me if I loved him I would do this. And that, as I could see from the things he read me in the magazines initially, a lot of times women didn’t like it, but if I tried it enough I would probably like it and I would learn to like it… About this time when things were getting really terrible and I was feeling suicidal and very worthless as a person, at that time any dreams that I had of a career in medicine were just totally washed away… He would read from pornography like a textbook…he read in a magazine how to tie the knots and how to bind me in a way that I couldn’t get out… [Ms. P describing her husband]

[W]hen he thought that I was relaxed, he squeezed my nipple really hard. I did not react. He held up a porn magazine with a picture of a beaten woman and said, “I want you to look like that. I want you to hurt.” He then began beating me, and when I didn’t cry fast enough, he lit a cigarette and held it right above my breast for a long time before he burned me.
[Letter from a former prostitute]

Ms. X, a Native American woman, described how she was raped by two white men who made reference to a pornographic video game called “Custer’s Revenge” in which a white Army officer scores points by raping Indian women:

They held me down and as one was running the tip of his knife across my face and throat he said, “Do you want to play Custer’s Last Stand? It’s great. You lose but you don’t care, do you? You like a little pain, don’t you, squaw?… The only good Indian is a dead Indian… A squaw out alone deserves to be raped.”

Attorney General’s Commission [1986]

[Letter to the commission]

The incest started at the age of eight. I did not understand any of it and did not feel that it was right. My dad would try to convince me that it was ok. He would find magazines with articles and/or pictures that would show fathers and daughters and/or mothers, brothers and sisters having sexual intercourse. (Mostly fathers and daughters.) He would say that if it was published in magazines that it had to be all right because magazines would not publish lies…

He would say, “See it’s okay to do because it’s published in magazines…”

These are excerpts from the narratives of women who have been hurt by pornography. To acknowledge and believe them does not mean we have to pretend there aren’t women who see pornography as a positive force in their lives (McElroy, 1995). To point out that some women have pornography forced on them is not to argue that no woman ever choose to look at pornography. There is no need to pretend the women speak with one voice. We desperately need, however, to listen to these women, to acknowledge that their experiences are real, to acknowledge that they are real, and that they matter. (p.119)

14 thoughts on “Robert Jensen: When Examining Complex Social Phenomena, Scientific Method Has Limits; Listen to the Stories of the Victims (explicit language)

  1. So many people have tried so many times and in so many ways to explain the problems with drawing legitimate conclusions from anecdotal evidence that it’s surprising and deeply disturbing to see that you’re still trying to do it. Actually, it’s not surprising. But it is disturbing, and more than a little sad.

    Robert Jensen, you failed to mention, is an assistant professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. UT is a great school, but Jensen is no scientist. I wonder why I should take his word for it when he tells me which questions we should ask and how we should go about answering them, especially when it comes to extablishing causal links, or mere “implications.” What is an “implication,” anyway? It sounds like it’s just a fancy verbal trick that allows him to lower our standards concerning quality of evidence.

    By the way, did you ever find out where Dr. Skinner went to school, or what his professional reputation is among the LFMTs?

  2. Mr. Jensen makes an excellent case for why we need to access multiple ways of knowing when dealing with complex social phenomena. It would be a shame if you discounted all people’s stories about their experience because it wasn’t “scientific”. These stories could improve your understanding of the risks of porn and help you make better decisions.

    Ultimately, you can guide your life by whatever information you choose. If you refuse to give weight to other people’s experience, it don’t think it will be as pleasant as it can be.

  3. Prof. Jensen obscures the issue by choosing to make a case for the “implication” of porn in rape, rather than relatively clear concepts such as “causation” or “contribution.” I don’t konw what “implication” is supposed to be, and he doesn’t explain it. By using a poorly understood, sophisticated-sounding term that he just made up, it becomes easier for him (and you) to pull the wool over our eyes with weak arguments.

    He says, it is very hard to prove causation. The rigorous, scientific way of proving that porn causes rape won’t really work because of the complexity of human minds and the difficulties surrounding isolating potentially relevant factors. That’s true, and that’s a reason to be very, very cautious when reviewing evidence that porn causes rape, or that adult-use zones have secondary effects, and so on.

    Then he says, so let’s not worry about whether porn causes or contributes to rape. Let’s worry about whether porn is “implicated” in rape. Since he just made this concept up, he’s free to use it however he wants. And since the word he chose to name this new concept with is a familiar one, it “feels” like I know what he’s talking about. But I really don’t know at all, because he doesn’t explain the concept. Why should I accept a lower standard of evidence for “implication” than I would for causation or contribution?

    If you go around believing that every story is typical without having any information about the actual degree to which it is typical, you may be happier, but you’ll be wrong an awful lot.

  4. But yet you freely discount the overwhelming number of people who DO utilise pornography with no ill effects?
    If you’re going to “weigh other people’s opinions”, you have to do it fairly. You can’t pick and choose just those that happen to agree with you!

    PS: When the word “science” is in quotes? Just skip that article.

  5. As an easily memorable rule of thumb, we at the MoPorn Institute find the word “scientific” — when surrounded by quotes — to be a big time red flag. Watch:

    scientific = credible.

    “scientific” = not credible.

    Before you even ask: “scientician” , “science-ish”, and “sciencesque”, also not so much.

  6. This Robert Jensen is as dangerous as they come: educated, not especially bright, and prone to passionate moralizing.

    Measuring “complex social phenomena” is indeed tricky, but that is no reflection on the scientific method. This way of thinking can solve any problem, provided you have the quantitative information to feed it. That’s actually what’s going on here; Jensen is using science, he’s just opting for stories and omitting the quantitative data part, cuz it’s like, hard.
    What he’s missing is that objective data and logical conclusions are how we make policy without simply trampling on other people’s rights.
    He’s not totally against the scientific method, he just thinks it doesn’t work with “complex (read: touchy) social phenomena.”
    (Incidentally, this is the same argument used most often for Intelligent Design: it’s complex to us, so it must be designed by a being! It’s just pretending that the word “complex” is not relative to how much one already knows.)

    How “complex” must a phenomenon be before we abdicate quantifiable data and just start moving in whatever direction victims’ stories tell us to? Naturally, since it’s his idea, only jensen would know. i.e., if he doesn’t get it, you’re out of luck, because he’s going to go with his gut, but only after the traumatized and despairing victims have spilled theirs. From there, anything goes, maybe as long as it makes the victims happy.

  7. I dispute your claim that the “overwhelming number” of porn users suffer no ill effects. The lab experiments that have been conducted indicate that viewing both violent and non-violent pornography can:

    • increase the acceptance of rape myths
    • increase male aggression toward females
    • decrease sensitivity to the crime of rape
    • predispose willingness to rape
    • increase the acceptance of violence against women
    • decrease support for women’s rights
    • alter perceptions of “common” sexual behavior
    • decrease sexual satisfaction with self and partner

    Results like these frighten ethics boards to the extent that it’s hard to get them to approve more studies. We are compelled today to ‘go into the wild’ to get our data.

    We have acknowledged that there are a handful of studies and papers that purport to
    show that porn is harmless or even beneficial. We haven’t found these
    studies to be particularly compelling (see example 1, example 2, example 3, example 4).
    The strong majority of the evidence is in fact that porn is harmful to
    people and communities. Marital counselors, divorce lawyers, police
    departments, serial killers, academic researchers, city planners and
    ordinary citizens report that porn is a serious problem (see our posts
    in Impact of Porn).

  8. your “scientific lab experiment” link takes us to a story about two guys who went to a strip club and murdered a stripper. That’s horrible, but it’s not a lab experiement like you promised it would be, and doesn’t involve porn. You cannot infer from the fact that she was a stripper and they went to a strip club that porn had any impact.

    The website you link to, one angry girl, is a commercial site that sells t-shirts. The angry girl who sells the t-shirts has some links to some lab experiments that are supposed to show that porn is related to violence. So, after I looked around a lot, I found the lab experiments you refer to. (They’re just outlines of the experiments, by the way. They’re not the actual lab reports.)

    Here’s the thing about those lab experiments: all but one of them fail to control for the distinction between violence and porn. All but one of the experiments show that after watching a brutal, violent act of rape, the men in the experimental group were more likely to be violent, whereas men in the control group, who watched some G-rated, non-sexual, non-violent movie were not more likely to be violent.

    In the one study where an effort was made to distinguish between violent porn and nonviolent porn, it is clearly the violence, and not the porn by itself, that is linked to a tendency toward violent behavior. That is, viewers who were shown violent images, whether those images were pornographic or not, had an elevated tendency toward violent behavior. Viewers who saw nonviolent images, whether they were pornographic or not, did not have an increased tendency toward violent behavior.

    So your lab experiments seem to show that violence, not pornography, is related to an increased tendency toward violent behavior.

    When Balance says, “if you’re going to “weigh other people’s opinions”, you have to do it fairly,” she makes an excellent point. When evaluating anecdotal evidence, it is important to know the degree to which the anecdote is typical. If you don’t have statistics, you can’t know how typical the anecdote you’re listening to is. That’s why it’s important to do science, not just “science.” You need to do real science in order to know whether the relevant anecdote is typical or aberrant.

    The fact that you’ve found a lot of anecdotes should not be confused with a legitimate statistic. This is a huge country, with over 300 million people in it. Porn is a giant, multi-billion dollar industry. There are lots of stories. The fact that porn and violence appear together in some of them should not be surprising. You need statistics to know whether it’s a coincidence or a correlation.

    Your lab studies, however, suggest that it’s coincidence. Violence, whether pornographic or not, is related to increased tendencies toward violence. But nonviolence, whether it’s pornographic or not, is not.

  9. I’m not sure I see what the point of all this is. I’m not sure I follow the thread of this discussion. You post this entry about Robert Jensen, who says that it’s too hard to study the effects of porn scientifically, so we shouldn’t bother to do it. We should just listen to the stories people tell. Then some people say, whoah, Seabiscuit. Just because the science is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Without quantitative statistics, you can’t tell whether the conclusions you’re drawing from the anecdotes are legitimate.

    Since you apparently endorse Jensen’s methods and conclusions (you’re the ones who brought them up, after all), I expected you to defend them. But you didn’t. You said, “oh yeah, well here’s some science.” And you link to a website whose primary business is to sell T-shirts, but who also attempts to debunk certain myths about porn. The T-shirt website references several psychological experiments that are supposed to show that porn is statistically linked to certain violent attitudes toward women.

    But in this context, that doens’t make sense. The point you’re using this Robert Jensen material to make is that there is no need for this kind of scientific study. Jensen says, I admit it. It’s so hard to study this stuff scientifically that it hasn’t been done well by anyone yet. But our hands are not tied. We can listen to anecdotes. Then, in defense of this point, you say, look at all the scientific studies I found to support what I’m saying. [Rubs eyes; checks to ensure he’s wearing the correct glasses]

    Do you see what I’m getting at? If the point is that the science is bad and so anecdotes are sufficient, then why would you turn around and start defending the science? The premise of this whole discussion is that a) there is no good science about this topic, and b) that doesn’t matter because it’s unnecessary anyway. When you defend the science, you claim that both (a) and (b) are false. You claim that there is good science, and it’s necessary and interesting. I don’t understand what you’re doing.

  10. Just getting people to shun violent porn would be a major achievement. Clearly there’s plenty of it around and Capital Video is not afraid to sell it. We have also presented evidence that the porn industry as a whole is moving towards portraying more and more violence.

    A major reason why there aren’t more scientific experiments with porn is because ethics boards are reluctant to approve them. They know the risk of harm is real.

    When evaluating anecdotes, you bring your own judgment and life experience to it. If the anecdote is logical and conforms to reality as you experience it, then it is worth listening to. You might want to believe the porn will not damage your emotional life. All we ask is that you look inside yourself, look at people you know who consume porn, and ask honestly if that’s true.

    A laboratory can’t reproduce the whole of the social environment we live in. If you only bring “lab-tested” knowledge into your thinking, you’ll be missing a lot. We are not talking about experiments with gravity, where there are a reasonable number of variables. We are talking about interactions between people, a far more complex and dynamic situation.

    Ann Russo addresses how to work with conflicting stories here.

  11. What we’re doing is giving you all the evidence we have, whether generated from scientific experiments or from research in the field. Scientific evidence has a role in the debate, and so does listening to people’s stories.

  12. According to the studies that are described on the t-shirt website, viewing violent images, not violent porn in particular, is related to the ill-effects you describe. According to the studies you cite, watching Die Hard is as dangerious as violent porn, and watching The Accused is more dangerous than watching MILF Bonanza. If the MILF Bonanza isn’t violent, then according to the studies you cite, *it’s not dangerous at all.* So the effect of getting people to shun violent porn is dubious, since violence itself is the real culprit and violence in the media is ubiquitous.

    I didn’t see where Russo explains how to reconcile conflicting anecdotes. She says something about how she doesn’t suggest that stories of coercion automatically cancel out stories of empowerment, but that stories of empowerment also don’t cancel out stories of coercion. That’s fine, and sounds right to me, but it’s not particularly helpful.

    I don’t have a better suggestion, I’m sorry to say. The only thing I have to offer is this: when dealing with a subject that is as hard to study as this one, caution is the best policy. Reducing our standards to fit the inadequacy of the available research methods is a very bad idea. Saying that since it’s hard to study whether porn has these effects, we should just assume that everything is just as it seems is foolish. And saying we should just ask whether porn is *implicated* in rape without saying what “implication” means, how it differs from real causation, and why it, as a concept, is preferable to causation is irresponsible.

    It’s true, a laboratory can’t reproduce the complex social environment we live in. You should therefore be very careful about people who claim to know what factors cause human beings to behave in certain ways. When someone says he knows that something causes people to do things, you should be skeptical. When he defends the claim by telling a story in which the alleged cause makes an appearance and is followed later by the alleged effect, you shouldn’t reduce your skepticism much. That kind of evidence isn’t very strong. The fact that it’s hard or impossible to gather good evidence doesn’t make bad evidence stronger.

    Your method appears to be this: listen to anecdotes. Decide if you like the point of the anecdote. Believe the point if you like it. I don’t see how this procedure results in learning or knowledge. It seems to merely result in an automatic reenforcement of whatever your beliefs already are. If you like the point of an anecdote, you say it conforms to reality as you experience it, and you accept it, because you already do. If you don’t like the point of an anecdote, you can say it doesn’t conform to reality as you experience it, and you can reject it on that basis.

    At best this results in a house of cards. At worst, the result is a vicious circle of falsehoods. Stop it. Stop acting like this is a responsible way to conduct research. Stop acting like we’re irresponsible for refusing to do it.

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