The Williams Report

A generation ago a Royal Commission chaired by Professor Bernard Williams of Oxford conducted an authoritative and comprehensive investigation of the topic. Their analysis is still of great relevance today.

Effects on Sex Crimes and Violence

6.1 We start our review of the harms possibly caused by pornography and violent material with the area where the harms alleged are of the most definitely identifiable kind, and where it is suggested that the effects of the material are kinds of behaviour which tend to be noticed particularly because they conflict with the law.

6.2 The arguments here are that certain kinds of behaviour, particularly in the form of criminal offences of violence and of a sexual nature, are either directly provoked by exposure to particular stimuli – such as the reading of a sex magazine producing a state of arousal which is manifested in rape or sexual assault, or the viewing of a film producing imitative violence are at least more likely to occur in an atmosphere created by pornography and violent material. The arguments suggest, therefore, that the proliferation of pornography results in increasing sexual offences and that violence in the media leads to an increase in offences of violence.

6.3 Submissions made to us on this subject, where they considered it necessary to support simple assertions by some kind of evidence, rested on three different classes of information. One kind may be called (without disrespect) “anecdotal”, and is drawn from particular instances in which an association between, crime and pornographic material has been observed, and a causal connection, it is claimed, can plausibly be supposed. We consider in this context also considerations put to us by psychiatrists on the basis of clinical experience. A second kind of evidence is drawn from research, involving experiments or guided observations, into human responses to particular kinds of material. Such research, obviously enough, does not itself involve the subjects committing crimes (or at least none that does has been drawn to our attention). What it rather does is to enquire whether reactions in the experimental set-up are of a kind – for instance, of an aggressive kind – which would lead one to expect crime or other anti-social behaviour as a response to that material in ordinary life. The third kind of evidence – the kind that has commanded a great deal of attention and aroused a great deal of controversy in this subject – is that drawn from statistical analysis of trends in known crime relative to the varying availability of pornography.

6.4 The relations between the last two kinds of evidence we take to be the following. A positive result in the second, experimental, kind of enquiry might be expected to show up in the statistical enquiry, if that is reliable, since if greater availability of pornography in real life is not connected with more crime, then the experimental results cannot have the significance for real life that is ascribed to them. On the other hand, a positive result from the statistical enquiry would be compatible with negative results from the experimental enquiry, since it might be that crime and pornography were linked in real life, but not by any mechanism which was revealed under those experimental conditions.

6.5 We will consider these kinds of evidence in turn.

Anecdotal and clinical evidence

6.6 A number of cases was drawn to our attention, and our own enquiries brought others to light, in which particular publications or films or a general interest in pornography, had been connected with the commission of offences. We saw a number of press reports in which the defence had alleged on behalf of a man charged with sexual offences that the commission of the crime could be ascribed to the influence of pornography. To lay weight simply what is said by the defence would be rather naive; offenders or their counsel are not slow to proffer an excuse which mitigates the seriousness of the offence or reduces the individual’s responsibility for having committed it, and it was noticeable that there were fewer cases in which the trial judge offered his own comment on the influence of pornography. Two notable cases mentioned to us were those of the Moors Murderers and the Cambridge Rapist, in both of which it has been alleged (not by the trial judge in either case) that the corrupting effect of pornography played a role.

6.7 In the case of the Cambridge Rapist, the defence tried to emphasise the influence of pornographic films and magazines and the local Chief Constable stated at the end of the trial that the case had “proved the real danger of pornography” . We do not believe that a study of the case permits such a simple conclusion. The offender was a man with a long history of mental disturbance and criminal activity, with psychopathic tendencies evident from an early age. He had shown an interest in pornography but there was nothing to suggest that the particular methods which he had chosen to use in committing his offences owed anything to the pornography he had seen or that he would not have committed the offences had it not been for the influence of pornography. Somewhat similar considerations applied in the case of the Moors Murderers, though in that case less emphasis was placed on the influence of the publications in the possession of the offenders, both during the trial and in subsequent comment. Both these cases seem to be more consistent with the preexisting traits being reflected both in a choice of reading matter and in the committed against others. It would be extremely unsafe, in our view. to conclude, even tentatively. that exposure to pornography was a cause of the offences committed in those particular cases.

6.8 The same point applied to the other cases which came to our attention (and indeed, the indications from research, as Yaffe has pointed out, are that sex offenders have had less recent exposure to sexual material than other groups). Although there was on occasion some evidence of a link between an offence committed and a previous exposure – in the form of some common feature, for example – even this is no evidence that the link is a causal one; as one of our witnesses put it to us, to give a person who is predisposed to commit crime an idea of a particular way in which to do it is really very different from instilling the disposition in the first place. We discussed these matters with a number of psychiatrists and psychologists, including some with special experience of the treatment of offenders, but we were struck by the fact that none of them was able to tell us of a case of which they had experience in which there was evidence of a causal link between pornography and a violent sexual crime. None of our psychiatric or psychological witnesses in fact saw very great harm in straightforward sexual pornography, and some indeed felt that cases more frequently occurred in which the effects of pornography were beneficial rather than harmful. Dr P L G Gallwey of the Portman Clinic was one of these, stressing the sense of security that was sometimes generated, particularly through a lessening of the sense of exclusion and by assuaging the violent feelings associated with exclusion. Professor H J Eysenck of the Institute of Psychiatry, despite his serious reservations. which we will consider later, about violent matter, agreed that, depending on how it was portrayed, sexual material could reduce violent activity. Dr A Hyatt Williams of the Tavistock Clinic told us that his experience was that the outlet provided by pornography could prevent the commission of offences and that an offence could result if a person dependent on that kind of satisfaction were deprived of it. It was also widely agreed that if published pornography was not available, some people would simply produce it for themselves; Dr Gallwey, for example, showed us a highly pornographic and very disturbing story written by a young offender he had treated and cited to us another instance of a man using what materials were available to him in prison – even The Farmers’ Weekly – to construct pornographic pictures.

6.9 This does not mean that no harm was seen in pornography. Dr Hyatt Williams, for example, was less concerned about the possibility of initial corruption than about the way in which certain patients might have their recovery impeded if they were again exposed to pornography and he made the point that dependence on pornography, even when it had a cathartic effect on those otherwise disposed to commit offences, masked the need for the person concerned to seek treatment which might provide a cure. Dr Gallwey, too, made the point that for some people on the edge of psychosis pornography served to weaken their grip on reality. Our witnesses emphasised to us, however, that it was only a very small minority of people who were likely to be affected in this way and there was a general reluctance to suggest that the balance of advantage lay in attempting to place more severe restrictions on pornography in order to safeguard them.

6. 10 Clinical opinion and our impression of the anecdotal evidence cohere; the cases in which a link between pornography and crime has even been suggested are remarkably few. Given the amount of explicit sexual material in circulation and the allegations often made about its effects, it is striking that one can study case after case of sex crimes and murder without finding any hint at all that pornography was present in the background. What is also striking is that if one tried to eliminate the stimuli in published material which may have some relation to sexual deviation or the commission of offences, the net must be cast impossibly wide. As an illustration of this point, Dr Gallwey mentioned to us a patient who had killed himself in the course of his masochistic practices which had started when, as a disturbed child of only 8 or 9 years, he had been excited by coming across a picture of a woman bound to a stake. The protection of the young raises special considerations which we shall come to later, but even so it is clearly impossible to suppress pictures of Joan of Arc. A glance at the list of books found in the home of Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, makes the same point. There are people who will gain a perverted satisfaction from reading accounts of Nazi atrocities or of other historical happenings, or even passages in the Bible, but publications cannot be suppressed on that account. All kinds of literature can have a destructive effect. The case of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, which was said to have made suicide fashionable, is famous, but equally we heard of a romantic novel linked to the drowning of a teenage girl and of an Agatha Christie story linked to a real-life poisoning. There can be no question of suppressing such works. Art galleries cannot be closed to those who find. excitement in paintings of barbarous acts or semi-clad women; nor can such people be kept away from beaches or be prevented from reading daily newspapers. For those who are susceptible to them, the stimuli are all around us; but the main point we wish to make from our study of the anecdotal and clinical evidence is that there is very little indication that pornography figures very significantly among these stimuli.

6.11 Our expert witnesses had more reservations about violent material, though again we heard no direct evidence of cases in which it was considered that crime had resulted from a particular stimulus. But both Professor Sir Martin Roth and Professor Trevor Gibbens told us that it was pornography with a violent content which concerned them most. Some cases were brought to our attention by other witnesses in which such effects were alleged to have occurred, and perhaps the chief object of such allegations was the film A Clockwork Orange which after its release early in 1972 was cited in a few court cases as the cause of real-life violence perpetrated by young men. The film was undoubtedly a powerful one and it seems clear that aspects of the were deliberately copied by some youths who engaged in violence. Whether that violence occurred only because they had seen the film is of course more difficult to say and Mrs Mary Whitehouse, in the evidence submitted to us by the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, was perhaps not on the strongest ground when she attacked the film principally on the basis of a case in which a 16 year old youth had brutally murdered a tramp; the youth con- cerned, though certainly fascinated by the story, had not in fact seen the film. (Since the film was classified as unsuitable for persons under 18 years, if he had seen it, he would not have done so legally.) We came across just three other cases in which A Clockwork Orange had been mentioned. Another film mentioned for its disturbing and anti-social effects was The Exorcist, and we read about two cases in which young men took their own lives (in only one of these was the link with the film very strong), and three other cases in which sexual offences or murder were associated with the film. The case involving murder, which was brought to our notice by the Nationwide Festival of Light, illustrates what we said earlier in this chapter about such films being made an excuse. The young man concerned had said that he had committed the offence while possessed by an evil spirit, after seeing the film The Exorcist; but it seems, from the press reports, that he admitted on the last day of his trial that he had simply made up this story after seeing a copy of the book in the police car. In the two other cases the film did not, even superficially, appear to be the dominant influence in the offences.

6.12 With respect to violence, the same point arises as before. The net would have to be cast very wide to prevent actual events from being influenced undesirably by what people see. It was, for example, a televised version of The Brothers Karamazov which was said to have influenced a young man to attempt to kill his parents with a meat cleaver in 1976, and it was the American television series Roots which was alleged to have prompted a Jamaican in London to rape a white woman, saying that he was going to treat her as white men had treated black women. While we have been preparing this report, the IRA have planted a bomb in a manner modelled on an incident in a television crime series; a 12 year boy has been reported as shooting himself in Detroit while playing Russian roulette after seeing The Deer Hunter; and an 8 year old girl has jumped from a second-floor landing in Barcelona after telling her playmates she was Superman.

Research studies

6.13 A great deal of research work – more in the United States than in this country – has been undertaken into the effects of exposure to pornographic or explicit sexual material or material having a violent content. Unfortunately, no very clear impression emerges from the results of this work and, as we shall see, even those who have surveyed it cannot always agree about the conclusions which can be drawn from it. We had available to us two reviews of the relevant literature, by Mr Maurice Yaffe on the effects of obscene material (1) and by Mr Stephen Brody on Screen Violence and Film Censorship (2). Besides the general evidence which was put to us on these matters, we also had the advantage of discussing the lessons of work in this field, particularly in relation to violence, with two other authors who had made a study of it and published the results, Professor H J Eysenck (3) and Dr Guy Cumberbatch (4).

6.14 Some serious reservations inevitably attach to research in this field. There is the absolutely general point that correlation experiments in artificial conditions are regarded by many competent critics as an unilluminating and unreliable way of investigating complex behaviour, even in many other species, let alone in human beings. But further, more specific, criticisms apply in the case of the kinds of behaviour that are in question here. Since criminal and anti-social behaviour cannot itself, for both practical and ethical reasons, be experimentally produced or controlled, the observations must be made on some surrogate or related behaviour, often expressed on a representational object, in some fictional or “pretend” context. This feature of the work can come close, in some cases, to simply begging the question. The fundamental issue in this field concerns the relations that hold between the reactions aroused in a subject by a represented, artificial, or fantasy scene, and his behaviour in reality. Fantasy and reality, and their relations, are the basic categories of the question. We can only express surprise at the confidence that some investigators have shown in supposing that they can investigate this problem through experimental set-ups in which reality is necessarily replaced by fantasy. Such criticisms apply, of course, to the whole investigation, not to a particular kind of result; they are equally relevant to those whose results, derived from this kind of experiment, are supposed to deny correlations between pictorial stimuli and real-life violence, and those whose results tend in the opposite direction.

6.15 Besides observations of behaviour under experimental conditions, which particularly apply to questions of violence, the evidence considered in relation to sexual material is, as Mr Yaffe points out, basically of three kinds: retrospective personal history studies of exposure to the material, self-reports before and after experimental exposure, and physiological and biochemical measures of change in response to experimental exposure. The reliability of studies which depend on retrospective surveys or self-supporting is notoriously suspect and this is particularly true where they touch on highly personal and value-laden subjects such as sexual behaviour.

6.16 Survey studies have included several which have asked varying samples of people such as young male offenders, sexual offenders and various other groups in the population about their exposure to pornography and their sexual behaviour and other factors. Many of these were undertaken for the United States Commission on Obscenity and Pornography and their interpretation, quite apart from the difficulty of deriving any lessons from them, has given rise to some controversy. We do not propose to discuss these studies in detail; a summary, and a citation of the original work, appears in Mr Yaffe’s survey. We noted that the American Commission, in the light of all the studies undertaken for it, concluded that “empirical research has found no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behaviour among youth or adults”; we noted also that this conclusion was criticised in a number of quarters as having been based on a partial examination of the evidence in which ambiguities and certain contra-indications were ignored. Without ourselves entering into the controversy about the Commission’s methods, we make the comment that the effect of re-examining the original studies in the light of a hostile critique of the Commission’s conclusions, such as that put forward principally by Professor Victor Cline, is simply to make one adopt rather more caution in drawing inferences from the studies undertaken. It is still possible to say, as Mr Yaffe points out in his updated review, that there does not appear to be any strong evidence that exposure to sexually explicit material triggers off anti-social sexual behaviour. We would add only that this is consistent with what we learned from the clinical experience of those experienced medical witnesses we consulted.

6.17 Studies of the effects of violent material have concentrated on laboratory experiments, a method which has figured less in research into the anti-social effects of sexual material, though laboratory techniques have of course been used in studying sexual arousal generally. Studies using adults have concentrated on men but girls as well as boys have been studied in experiments using children. A considerable amount of work has been done in relation particularly to television violence, which was not of direct relevance to our review but it was the view of our witnesses that many of the results of this work could be applied equally to films. In the case of sexual material, we encountered disagreement about the exact weight of the evidence for different conclusions; with regard to violent material, we met flatly opposing views.

6.18 In his review of the literature, Brody concluded that “it can be stated quite simply that social research has not been able unambiguously to offer any firm assurance that the mass media in general, and films and television in particular, either exercise a socially harmful effect, or that they do not”. He went on:

“The most reasonable interpretation of the considerable quantity of research results so far available would suggest that some people – particularly young people – may be inclined both to actual aggressiveness (however this is manifested, and not necessarily in criminal behaviour) and to a preference for entertainment dealing with aggressive themes, for reasons which probably originate with the development of personality and character; but that watching violent action on the screen is unlikely in itself to impel ordinary viewers to behave in ways they would otherwise not have done. Research into the causes of crime has repeatedly indicated the enormous variety of possible contributing factors, all of which overlap in complex ways and are quite unpredictable for any one individual; in all these studies, incidentally, the mass media have warranted scarcely a mention. That potentially violent or anti-social persons may find their own sentiments and dispositions confirmed and perhaps reinforced by television and films is not a consideration to be ignored, but it is in the amplification of existing tendencies that the main influence is likely to lie, not in the moulding of social behaviour.”

Howitt and Cumberbatch had fewer doubts as a result of their comprehen- sive survey of research which, they suggested, had “shown effectively that the mass media – as far as it is possible to tell using social scientific methodologies – do not serve to amplify the level of violence in society”. Eysenck and Nias, on the other hand, though following a less thorough review of earlier studies, also showed few doubts but in the opposite sense; “the evidence is fairly unanimous that aggressive acts new to the subject’s repertoire of responses, as well as acts already well established, can be evoked by the viewing of violent scenes portrayed on film, TV or in the theatre”.

6.19 Such contradictions between investigators present a problem. We do not have the space to discuss in detail all the studies from which such different conclusions can be derived but it may be helpful to examine just one as an illustration of how conflicting views can arise, and of the limitations which, as we have already suggested, are inherent in these ways of investigating these questions. A common tool in studying imitative violence is the Bobo doll, an inflatable toy with a weighted base which resumes an upright position after being knocked over, and a number of studies have observed the reactions of children towards such a doll after they have seen an adult assaulting it. For example, in the earliest such study by Bandura and others in 1961, a number of children between 3 and 5 years were split into three groups, one of which was left in the presence of an adult model punching, kicking or striking with a mallet a Bobo doll, accompanied by aggressive cries of “Sock him … pow” etc. another was left in the presence of an adult who spent the time quietly assembling toys and the third group left to play by themselves, though in later experiments the children saw similar behaviour which had been filmed. When later given a chance to play with various toys, including a Bobo doll and a mallet, the group who had seen the adult assaulting the doll displayed similar aggressive tendencies to a much greater extent than the other groups. Eysenck and Nias simply record this result and the fact that similar studies have invariably found that children do tend to imitate an aggressive model when given the chance, and presumably notch it up among the “fairly unanimous” evidence to which they refer.

6.20 Both Brody and Howitt and Cumberbatch, on the hand, discuss the severe criticisms which have been made of such studies as the basis for applying notions of imitated violence to the real world outside the laboratory. Bobo dolls, it is pointed out, are designed to invite knocking about and to extrapolate to social behaviour the way in which a child plays with them is quite unwarranted. This objection relates to the point we have already made, that in studying this issue, the investigation of violence towards a fantasy or surrogate object such as a doll comes close to begging the question. Various other arguments about the many differences between the laboratory situation and real life have been put forward, which in Brody’s view seriously undermine any attempts to apply research results to the claim that films promote aggressive or violent behaviour by imitation. Howitt and Cumberbatch point out in addition that Bandura’s studies involve exposing children to fairly novel kinds of toys and that if the children have prior experience of Bobo dolls the amount of imitative violence is reduced. They also draw attention to the point that the children classified by their teachers as more aggressive might have been expected to attack the doll more readily than the others, if such behaviour was adequate as a predictor of real-life aggression; this was not so, and that fact, in their view, points away from the conclusion that the findings may be generalised to real life. Howitt and Cumberbatch, therefore, discount such experiments in considering a link between media violence and violence in society.

6.21 Eysenck and Nias do not so much dismiss these objections, as ignore them. They leave the unsuspecting reader ignorant that such substantial reservations have been widely voiced about the implications of these experimental studies, and this. in our view, diminishes the value of their work as a contribution to the scientific literature. Their book is indeed aimed more at the popular market, drawing partly on press reports to illustrate the alleged effects of media violence (including the now celebrated Clockwork Orange murder, but again omitting the information that the young murderer had not actually seen the film); but we thought it a pity that the lay reader should be presented so incautiously with only one side of the story. It seemed to us right to be sceptical about attempts to apply the lessons of these laboratory experiments to real life and we therefore preferred the more non-committal view taken, in particular, by Brody. We consider that the only objective verdict must be one of “not proven”.

© Crown Copyright 1979. This extract republished in the public interest.