Does Religion Cause Rape?

One argument made for religion by its proponents is that it instills in its believers a sense of morality that atheists can’t possess. This argument suggests that without religion’s stick-and-carrot approach to morality (heaven if you obey, hell if you don’t), people will naturally revert to selfish, violent, animalistic behaviour.

If true, this raises a dilemma for Atheists: should we raise our children to fear a non-existent God if it makes them “better people”? Is lying to our kids acceptable in exchange for the benefits it may yield? But is religious morality the right morality anyway? After all, Deuteronomy 22:20-21 insists that women who aren’t virgins on their wedding night should be stoned to death. Which seems a little harsh, and in modern Britain wouldn’t leave society with many women suitable for marriage.

In order to prove their thesis that lack of belief leads to lack of morality, statistics are sometime used (or more accurately misused) by advocates for religion – take the following tweet for example, which came from @Eugene037:

Sweden, a country w/ most Atheist, has d most no. of rape cases n Europe accdg to UN Stats

Let’s break this down. First, is Sweden really the “country w/ most Atheist”? On the whole, Europe is less religious than any other continent, and religion is in rapid decline across the region. Wikipedia’s Demographics of atheism page breaks belief into three types: belief in a God, belief in a more general “spirit or life force”, and non-belief (Atheism). While belief in a specific God is low in Sweden, at 23%, there are countries with lower belief still: Estonia and the Czech Republic. However, Atheism in Sweden is only recorded at 23%, which is lower than Estonia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany. In other words, the statement is false: Sweden is not the country with the most Atheists.

Furthermore, Sweden doesn’t deserve its reputation for liberal attitudes: it is a socially conservative country by European standards. In recent years it set the standard for European sexual conservatism, making paying for sex illegal (conversely, here in “uptight” Britain, prostitution is legal, which gives protections and benefits to sex workers that their Swedish counterparts are now lacking. I’ve interviewed sex worker activists on this subject, and will air these discussions in an upcoming podcast).

And finally, Sweden has a far broader definition of rape than most countries, making the quoted statistics suspect – free information activist Julian Assange is accused of rape, and is fighting extradition from Britain to Sweden, because he is alleged to have penetrated a woman without a condom during consensual sex. By the standards of most places, this isn’t rape.

Having dispatched @Eugene037’s claims, let’s find some statistics that might more clearly reveal any correlation between religious belief and rape. Comparing stats between different countries is suspect, as varying laws, enforcement and cultural norms make accurate comparison difficult. Instead, I’ve chosen to compare US states with each other, as the legal and cultural differences between them are smaller than between nation states. For simplicity, I’m using voting behaviour as a proxy for religiosity – Republican “red” states have higher levels of religious belief and observance than Democrat “blue” states. I combined 2008 voting behaviour from 270towin.com and crime statistics from infoplease.com and the results are interesting:

Rapes per 100,000:

  • Average in Republican-voting states: 34.96
  • Average in Democrat-voting states: 28.33
  • Average in marginal states: 29.47

(I’ve uploaded my spreadsheet as a PDF if you want to examine the data for yourself: Crime stats by US state).

In other words, a woman living in a red state is around 23% more likely to get raped than one living in a blue state. (Murder rates are closer, but slightly higher in red states, while robbery is significantly higher in blue states, probably because they are more urbanised, and most robbery takes place in cities).

If you have trouble believing these numbers, think about this: the Bible doesn’t view rape as a serious crime. While a woman who isn’t a virgin on her wedding night must be stoned to death, a man who rapes a woman must simply pay a fine to her father (women are, after all, the property of their father or husband) and marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) – and in a number of other passages, the book explicitly allows the kidnap of women to take as sex slaves. Take for example, Numbers 31:14-18:

Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

The women themselves, of course, have no say in the matter. Women have little status in any of the ancient religious texts; which perhaps explains why they are more likely to be raped if they live in a more religious society, even today.

I’ll finish by trying to answer the question posed in the title: does religion cause rape? If I were to use the dishonest reasoning techniques of proponents of religion, I could say yes, based on the above evidence. But correlation doesn’t mean causality; it’s more honest to say that high incidence of rape and high religiosity have the same root causes: poverty, illiteracy, a lack of education, and a lack of trust in authority. Fix these things, and both rape and religion go into decline.

The Guardian’s Sexual Hang-Ups

Stripper Edie Lamort
Photo courtesy Millie Robson Photography www.millierobson.com

The British press is among the best in the world. And among the worst. We have some of the most intelligent journalism that can be found anywhere, but also some of the most moronic. There are five daily newspapers (Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent and FT), from across the political spectrum, that are worth reading; of these, the Guardian often stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to providing high-quality journalism. The Guardian, for example, carries much of the credit for exposing the corruption at Murdoch’s News International. When it comes to challenging dangerous abuse of power within the British state and corporations, The Guardian is often alone in publishing stories ignored by the rest of the British media.

At a time when social conservatism is on the rise in many pernicious ways, it was good to see a Guardian article yesterday by Zoe Margolis (aka The Girl With The One Track Mind) challenging the anti-sex crusade spear-headed in parliament by rightwing Tory MP Nadine Dorries. And yet, on the broad subject area of sex and sexuality, The Guardian, more often than not, comes down on the side of repression. The paper comes very much from the liberal, middle-class, English tradition, and the one subject the English middle-classes have always had trouble dealing with is sex. The Guardian also tends to take anti-sex campaigners more seriously if they adopt the “feminist” label than if they crusade under a more old-fashioned “morality” banner. On this subject, the Guardian’s coverage can swing from liberal to deeply conservative in the blink of an eye.

I blogged recently about the UK Government’s steps towards Internet censorship, using the excuse of “protecting children from pornography”. The Guardian, normally a warrior against censorship, lost its mind in an editorial on the subject, using Daily Mail-type phrasing such as “…bombarding of people’s homes and children by pornography…” and “…the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values…“. The editorial also mentioned a recent government-commissioned report on “sexualisation”, neglecting to mention that it came from a Christian lobbying organisation. The idea that anyone who doesn’t want to see porn is “bombarded” with it is of course laughable, and serious research on porn has yet to reveal the harmful side effects claimed by conservatives of various shades.

And this wasn’t a one-off: on the icky subject of sex, The Guardian is often deeply conservative. I recently interviewed strippers who are defending themselves against campaigners who threaten their right to work in the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets (podcast coming soon). These women are articulate, well-paid and belong to trade unions. Yet, the Guardian is apparently convinced that stripping is bad, and refuses to take seriously the voices of the women themselves who earn a living that way; instead, they give a platform to “feminist” (aka sexual morality) groups who use fascist-style propaganda methods (such as claiming a non-existent link between strip venues and rape) to attack the venues and the people who work in them. While women who strip have offered to write for the Guardian about their experiences, only one ex-dancer, Homa Khaleeli is published, because she tells “the truth about lap dancing” – in other words, she makes the “exploitation” and “objectification” noises that Guardianistas want to hear.

The Guardian has a confused idea of defending sexual freedom. While Gay, Lesbian, Transgender issues are treated with the appropriate straight-faced correctness, other forms of sexuality and sexual freedom have Guardian journos giggling like school children. Fetishes, swinging, polyamory, BDSM, open lifestyles, bisexuality and sex work… these aren’t causes for free speech but excuses for The Guardian to pander to middle-England prejudices (and have a good, Carry On giggle in the process).

It’s not that I’m asking for the Guardian to become a campaigner for sexual freedom; but it should be delivering the quality of journalism it does so well elsewhere. Repeating misinformation about porn leading to marriage break-up, lap dancing leading to rape or most prostitutes being “victims” isn’t good journalism. Accepting the word of a woman simply because she calls herself a feminist but ignoring the many voices of women who earn their money this way isn’t fair or balanced. Ignoring researchers in these fields but listening to morality campaigners lets down the readership.

It’s not that The Guardian is the worst offender – not by a long way! – but it’s the one (or am I being naive?) that should “know better”. In fact, the most level-headed coverage of sex and the sex industries comes from the Financial Times and its stable mate The Economist, but these are targeted primarily at business people. Among mainstream press, the Guardian, often alone, has the courage to expose police brutality and corporate corruption. Why not maintain the same high standards on the difficult subjects of sex and sexuality? Up your game Guardian, and stop being so damn English about sex!

How The Religious Right Censored The UK Media

Beyonce Dancing
Does This Image Damage Your Children?

Although the Internet’s roots lie in defence and academic research projects in the 50s and 60s, it only exploded into the public consciousness in the mid-90s, after Tim Berners-Lee created the technologies behind the Worldwide Web.This was, not only in hindsight but widely recognised at the time, a hugely significant moment in human development; a point at which anyone, with a little technical skill and a little cash, could share their thoughts, beliefs, ideas, or products with a global audience. The control of publishing and broadcasting had always been concentrated in the hands of an elite. These few had a stranglehold on deciding what constituted acceptable culture, and what ideas should be kept away from the masses. They defined the consensus.

Now, ideas deemed “dangerous”, “immoral”, “obscene” or otherwise previously unacceptable could be publicly aired. Publishers could choose, if they wished, to remain anonymous. The implications were enormous – and given the benefit of hindsight, the predictions of the day weren’t overblown; the effect of the new communication medium has been social dynamite.

Given that the peoples of the developed world could, for the first time, choose exactly what content to consume, the Internet could be seen as a measure of repression; people would naturally use it to fill vacuums previously unoccupied by other, censored, media. How would people use the Net?

We quickly found the answer; although there was of course a true explosion of creativity, bringing us services from Amazon to Hotmail, the overwhelming majority of network bandwidth was used by people downloading pornographic imagery. There was a simultaneous exponential rise in the use of anonymous “dating” services to find sexual partners, either to engage in cybersex or to meet “in real life”. The Internet had provided the first unbiased survey of what the world was thinking; and what the world had on its mind was Sex. Few had realised how ruthlessly sex had been censored from human discourse in the preceding decades and centuries; only when all censorship was removed did we find out just how controlled our lives had been prior to the Web.

From day one, it was inevitable that the authorities would catch up with this turn of events and try to crush it; surely, our rulers hadn’t spent centuries pushing sexuality underground, only to have the whole project die in a few short years. The American religious right was quickly on the case; it had been funding academic research since the 1980s trying to prove that porn in some way caused harm to people and society. The religious right was joined in its efforts to stigmatise porn (and other open expression of sexuality) by a new strand of feminism; this time, instead of fighting for the rights of women to enjoy their sexuality without stigma, these new feminists were insistent that free sexuality was harmful to women. Collectively, I refer to the religious right and neo-feminists as the New Puritans.

With no academic research to back up their claims, the New Puritans took to establishing myths in the public consciousness. The Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels is famous for his observation that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. There are many “facts” about porn and sexual imagery that many liberal-minded people have accepted as true with little thought: sexual imagery “objectifies” women; the free expression of sexuality somehow benefits men and subjugates women; porn is “linked to” misogynistic thinking; porn is “linked to” sexual violence; sexual freedom is “damaging to” relationships.

It may come as a surprise to many people who have heard these ideas that none of these “facts” is backed by any research whatsoever. Indeed, attempts by the New Puritans to find “smoking guns” have failed dismally, after more than two decades of trying. The research that does exist suggests the opposite to what is claimed by the New Puritans. Most remarkably, in those societies that have embraced sexual freedom in its many forms, rates of sexual violence have fallen massively. Porn video first became widely available in the United States with the widespread adoption of VHS in the late-1970s. In 2006, the Washington Post reported that the incidence of rape in America had fallen by 85% from 1979 to 2004. Of course, availability of porn was one of many social changes taking place in the US during this period, but the conclusion seems to be that greater sexual freedom in society makes women (and almost certainly children) safer from sexual violence.

Scientific research has firmly dismissed the “porn causes harm” myths, with the publication Scientific American recently reporting on a number of studies that seemed to show the opposite – that porn use is correlated with positive outcomes. In the UK, researcher Clarissa Smith has studied the effects of porn over 20 years and has come to similar conclusions (her research is soon to be published).

So, game over for the puritans? Of course not; freeing sexuality means less money for religions that reap the benefits of sexual guilt; there’s also money in selling “cures” to the (probably imaginary) ailment of porn addiction and writing books about the evils of pornography.

With the election of a Conservative government in the UK in May 2010, the New Puritans saw new opportunities. Claire Perry, a right-wing MP, began a parliamentary enquiry into “protecting children online”. Simultaneously, a Christian lobby group known as the Mothers’ Union began a media campaign to convince people that children were being “sexualised”. This was a good, old-fashioned attack on “permissive media”, packaged into a fancy new term. Pretty soon, even level-headed people were believing that children were being “sexualised”, without any clear idea of what that meant. So far, so predictable.

Then it gets weird; David Cameron appoints an “expert” to carry out a review into sexualisation; this expert is none other than Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union. So without public consultation, representatives of the religious right are writing policy proposals at the request of the British Government. In response to this absurd coup, the media outcry was… non-existent. An incident which should be treated as a political scandal has been ignored or even applauded. The very notion that children are being “sexualised” or that something should be done about it has been passed on without question in the mainstream press.

Reg Bailey published a report which was swallowed without comment by the government (I wrote about this in June). It stated, without being backed by research, that children were being sexualised, and that widespread media censorship should take place, from billboards to music videos to the sale of children’s clothing. Having now established religious prejudice as fact in the mind of the British government and media, a raft of censorship measures is beginning to be implemented.

The latest measure was announced this week when the government came to an agreement with large ISPs that consumers would be asked whether they want the ability to see porn when they sign up for a home Internet connection. This is done in the name of “protecting children”, although filtering solutions for children already exist (and have done for many years), and the effect of blocking an entire household can only be to prevent adults from watching porn. Although the measure is voluntary, there have already been attempts to stigmatise parents who are too “permissive” with their children; Clarissa Smith (mentioned above) says that parliamentary committees are already talking about “bad parents” who choose not to block porn to their household. Undoubtedly the next step will come when religious lobbyists report to MPs that parents are (shock, horror) choosing to remove the ISP block and watch porn in their own homes. Homes that have children in them!!!

The UK government has taken its first, definitive step into Internet censorship – something it has castigated other governments for in the past. It has been unclear about exactly what content is considered “unsuitable for children”; undoubtedly this definition will become ever broader with time. Undoubtedly too, the voluntary block will be under review, and the New Puritans will be demanding more sites to be blocked, and measures to make it harder (or impossible) for adults to access certain types of content via their home connections.

The response of the mainstream media has been almost non-existent. Most disappointingly, The Guardian writes in Daily Mail-esque terms about “the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values, harming not just children but also adults” while blissfully ignoring that the claims of harm exist nowhere but in right-wing propaganda, and are not backed anywhere by research. In any other field of interest, The Guardian would undoubtedly investigate such claims, something that in the areas of laws related to sex and drugs, it repeatedly fails to do.

It was clear even 15 years ago that governments and corporations would never allow the Internet to continue as an uncensored medium; too many powerful vested interested are harmed by an open network. The US at least has the first amendment, making it harder to introduce censorship. But there’s little doubt that the Mothers’ Union, fresh from its success at turning the UK into a flagship for its “sexualisation” idea, will use us as a case study to campaign for similar measure elsewhere.