For years social scientists have tried to gauge the effect of porn on men’s behavior. You have probably read some of their conclusions in newspaper editorials or on fliers from antiporn ministers, or heard them in diatribes by feminist law professors, or in pompous speeches from politicians considering new antiporn legislation. In short, the finely hedged message seems to be that certain types of porn increase the chance of aggressive behavior toward women.

Social science in this case seems to blend seamlessly with political science. When expert testimony from social scientists favors prevailing social wisdom, it’s cited and applauded. When it goes against the prevailing social consciousness, it’s ignored.

The experiments that seek to prove that all men are potential rapists, beasts who can turn violent at the glimpse of a woman being treated violently, have always troubled us. Now we know why.

William Fisher, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, reviewed a previous experiment and discovered a serious flaw. Fisher followed the structure of the original experiment, which can be viewed as a bad three-act play.

Act one: A male college student enters a lab, where he meets a female “teacher.” The student writes an essay or performs a task; the woman gives him six to nine powerful electric shocks, supposedly to help him learn. In some experiments, the woman adds insult to injury by asking derisively, “How did you ever get into this university?” or commenting within earshot, “If I had to choose between a bed of nails and this guy, I’m not sure which I would choose as the brighter.”

Act two: A social scientist has the student watch either a neutral film, nonviolent porn or some slimy concoction that shows a woman being raped violently (and apparently enjoying it).

Act three: The student sits at a machine and is ordered to question the same woman who pissed him off in act one. When she answers a question incorrectly, the student must give her an electric shock. By fiddling with a dial, the student can change the level of the shock.

In the original experiment, men who saw violent porn administered a higher level of shock to the woman than men who watched nonviolent erotica. To us the experiment proved one thing: If a person in a white lab coat tells you to do something, adding that it will help you learn, you’ll do it. The experiment seems more about authority than about sex.

Obedience to authority, no matter what personal morality dictates, is a phenomenon psychologist Stanley Milgram documented in the 1960s. His experiments showed that people who were not normally cruel were quite capable of inflicting pain if told to do so by someone in authority. In following Milgram’s research, other researchers found that people of both sexes were willing to administer shocks when they had nothing to gain or lose by refusing, even when the decision was left up to them. So if there is blame to lay, it is with the individual, not with the stimuli.

But that is not what the public wants to hear about pornography. And so, says Fisher, “the social scientists just said, ‘In laboratory studies, exposure to pornography causes men to be physically aggressive against women.’

Fisher re-created the experiment with one vital difference: "I sat the guys in front of the shock generator. At this point in the original experiment—and this is the killer issue—the guys had no choice. I asked myself, What if they could just walk away? What if they could talk to the woman?”

Fisher gave 14 men the choice to leave. Twelve did. Real men don’t put up with bullshit experiments.

Were the two others rapists? No, says Fisher. “One of them was a computer hacker, sort of a computer hobbyist; the other was a ham radio operator. They were mechanically inclined. Both saw the shock generator before the experiment and said, 'Can’t wait to use it.’”
Real men leave. Maybe because the woman pissed them off or tried to fry their balls or because in the face of insult, they calculated that there was little chance of getting laid. Maybe they just went somewhere to masturbate. As for the techno-dweebs? Boys love toys.

On a talk show devoted to bias in social science research, Fisher described another approach to this experiment: “Say we were to run experiments in which a woman received massive exposure to soap operas and was then told to press a button that would result in a man somewhere being nagged. If we wrote this up, saying that soap operas cause women to nag men, we would justifiably be laughed at. But because the artificial experimentation of the original study dovetailed with prevailing wisdom about 'Men: Threat or Menace,’ it got wide play in the literature.”