OTTAWA – There are certain subjects that stymie scientific examination not due to their complexity or because they have an innately opaque nature, but because the realities of non-scientific fields (like the law, for example) greatly complicate the process of setting up experiments that might shed light on underlying scientific truths.
If one wants to probe the impact on children of viewing violent pornography, for example, any experimentation involving actual exposure to pornography by actual children would be a patently illegal act on the researchers’ part — and for obvious reasons, it’s not the sort of violation anybody in politics would be quick to argue ought to be set aside in the name of conducting reliable research.
So, when I read about proposals like the one offered by Canadian MP Arnold Viersen, which calls for a House of Commons Health Committee study to “examine the public health effects of the ease of access and viewing of online violent and degrading sexually explicit material on children, women and men,” the first question that sprang to mind was “How are they going to conduct this study when it comes to the effects of violent porn on children?”
Somehow, I doubt the Health Committee is going to put out a call for Canadian parents interested in having their children sit around watching violent porn while a team of researchers hooks them up to electrodes and scans their little still-developing brains. Having adults do so would be less controversial (and more legal) of course, but also likely useless in terms of revealing anything about how a child would respond to the same materials.
For the MP calling for the study to be conducted, I suspect such questions are immaterial, because he’s not really calling for research to divine some previously undiscovered evidence; he’s just looking for scientific backup for sociological claims he long ago accepted as true.
“Sexually explicit websites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined, with PornHub, the largest free site in Canada, alone receiving over 21 billion visits in 2015,” Viersen told the Health Committee, additionally claiming 90 percent of the videos featured on porn sites feature violence against women.
Even without seeing the data on which these claims are based (assuming Viersen relied on any actual data in concocting them), I can say the one about 90 percent of porn videos featuring violence against women is likely false — in no small part because a decent percentage of online porn videos happen to be gay porn, which typically features no women at all, much less violence being perpetrated against them.
As for porn sites getting more traffic than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined, why should it be a surprise free websites representing an entire category of popular entertainment combine to receive more traffic than three individual mainstream sites, one of which is a retail outlet and another of which requires a subscription to use?
While you consider the answer to the above question, also consider the possibility the claim isn’t true to begin with. Twitter, by itself, reportedly has more than 100 million daily users and more than 550 million people have sent tweets. Another 500 million people visit the site each month without ever logging in. Netflix, meanwhile, reportedly has nearly 94 million paid subscribers; combined, they consumed 42.5 billion streaming hours in 2016.
Setting aside the “visitors” metric for a moment, consider the relative revenue produced by any porn site as compared to Netflix. Does anybody, even MindGeek’s most passionate supporter (or hater), believe for a second the company rakes in more than $300 million per year by charging $0 per video watched? Adult tube sites are popular, yes, but have them all start charging $8 a month and we’ll see how popular they are 90 days after the change is made.
In his comments to the Health Committee, Viersen also cited the oft-referenced but never-sourced claim the global porn industry generates “over $97 billion per year” and some equally loose “facts” about what percentage of internet content is pornographic.
“Sexually explicit material has become the primary source of information about sex and a significant factor influencing sexual behaviors for children and adolescents,” Viersen said. “Let that sink in for a minute — a $97-billion industry that makes up 35 percent of all the internet downloads is easily accessible by the click of a button and primarily features violence and degradation of women is the primary sexual educator of our youth, starting from the age of 12.”
Of course, those numbers aren’t particularly well-sourced either, and quite a number of researchers who have looked into the question of just how much of the internet is “for porn” (and who actually cited their sources in the process — fancy that!) have arrived at significantly smaller sums — like porn sites constitute around 4 percent of all websites and searches for porn-related terms comprise approximately 13 percent of all searches.
Obviously, in addition to the vexing question about how the Health Committee will go about investigating porn’s impact on those who watch it, we also need to ask an important follow-up: Given how loose and easy its members play with facts already available, why would anyone give credence to those the committee comes up with on its own?