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It’s not video games and porn that’s causing knife crime

10 March 2019

8:07 PM

10 March 2019

8:07 PM

Diane Abbott knows what’s behind the spate of fatal stabbings plaguing the capital. The shadow Home Secretary told an interviewer that video games and hardcore pornography may be a contributing factor because they ‘desensitise’ the young to violence. Abbott opined to The House magazine: ‘You’ve got your smartphone, you can see stuff you could have never have seen at that age. Normally, you would have had to have gone into a news agency and they would have said, “I’m not selling you that, you’re only eight, go away”. There is an argument that exposure to hardcore pornography is connected with violence. I wouldn’t say that’s the main thing. That’s a thread and it’s something that’s there.’

It’s really not. It might sound true. It might feel true. It certainly fits neatly with the current hysteria over ‘toxic masculinity’ (read: being heterosexual while male). But the evidence just isn’t there. You might remember evidence as the basis of policies pursued by progressives, apart from when it’s not, in which case merely to request it becomes an act of contrarian gammonry. You might notice, too, that Abbott is not being piled on by Woke Twitter despite voicing a superstition so normie, you could type it up, sign it ‘Yours, Disgusted of Dunstable’, and read it in the letters page of tomorrow’s Daily Express

Attempts to blame hardcore porn for real-world violence are a persistent feature of most (though not all) feminist discourses, largely in relation to rape and sexual assault. The argument is that porn operates through a dominant male gaze, objectifies women and in doing so reinforces male sexual entitlement which reacts aggressively when frustrated on the interpersonal level. The evidence, however, is lacking. The 2009 Ferguson and Hartley study, which reviewed 40 years worth of research into porn and violent (sexual) crime, concluded that it was ‘time to discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behaviour’. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest porn acts as a release valve and therefore reduces acts of physical aggression. (Even better: a 2015 study discovered that male consumers of porn were more likely to express support for female empowerment, labour market equality and abortion.) Admittedly, Abbott points to hardcore porn in connection with non-sexual violent crime — a link not as commonly made — but the sexual crime literature would suggest causation is unlikely. 


Nor is she on solid ground when it comes to video games. A 2018 study at the University of York observed 3,000 gamers and found that playing video games did not ‘prime’ them to replicate virtual behaviours offline. The DeCamp and Ferguson study (2016) investigated the drivers of violent or antisocial behaviour in 9,000 American high school students, indexed against duration spent playing video games. The researchers concluded that ‘increased time playing violent video games does not significantly affect the risk of violent behaviour. Rather, it is the social and familial background that seems to play a larger role in determining risk of violent behaviour instead of video games’. The American Psychological Association, a reliable critic of violent games, published a 2014 study in its own journal that recorded higher levels of prosocial behaviour, memory function and perception among gamers. 

Abbott’s argument is more nuanced and better qualified than many in this genre but it still belongs to the long, persistent timeline of moral panics about media effects, from Legion of Decency C-ratings and Congresswoman Kathryn Granahan (porn turns you into a communist) to Britain’s ‘video nasty’ spasm and Tipper Gore’s epic rap battle. There is a common impulse to derive meaning from senseless violence committed by children and young people, to assign it a frame through which we can understand it. An external influence warped their minds, a movie or lyric or technology turned them into monsters. Someone else was to blame. 

This line of thinking particularly appeals to parents, for it reassures them that confiscating a gaming console or changing the wifi password is enough to prevent their child becoming the next talking point on Jeremy Vine and an insurance policy that, if he does, the fault lies not with them but with the media, social networks or a culture of this or that. Well-documented examples of this racket include fact-averse efforts to link Child’s Play 3 to the murder of Jamie Bulger and Marilyn Manson to the Columbine massacre. If a straight-to-video slasher or a shock rocker are to blame, there needn’t be uncomfortable conversations about family breakdown, child protection services or firearms availability. 

I don’t know what is causing these terrible crimes in London. No doubt my assumptions — it’s about poverty; it’s about Tory police cuts; it’s about absent fathers and poor discipline — are as open to debunking, which is why I don’t assert them as contributing factors. I know what it’s not about, though. It’s not about video games and it’s not about porn. If Diane Abbott wants to be Home Secretary, she needs a better explanation of violent crime than that. 


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