When Ted Bundy claimed that pornography influenced his desire to murder, how did the media respond?

Seventeen hours before his execution on January 24, 1989, Ted Bundy granted a final interview to Dr. James Dobson, a psychologist and religious broadcaster. Bundy, an American serial killer, kidnapper, pedophile, rapist, sexual abuser, burglar, and necrophile, expressed in the interview that it was his exposure to pornography around 12 or 13 years of age that began his descent into perpetrating acts of sexual violence against women. Having spent more than a decade in prison, Bundy claimed to have grown remorseful and felt he owed it to society, and the 30+ women he murdered, to relate how his addiction to increasingly more violent pornography helped to pave a pathology for wanting to commit violence himself. A self-proclaimed expert on all sexually violent offenders, he claimed that of all the men he knew in prison, “without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography – deeply consumed by the addiction. The F.B.I.’s own study on serial homicide shows that the most common interest among serial killers is pornography. It’s true.”

The media’s response? Completely deny the possibility that the sexual violence in pornography could ever play any role in shaping sexually violent behavior. Though many mainstream commentators were angry at Bundy, a few in particular stand out.

“Does porn cause violence?” asked the L.A. Times, with contributing editor, pornographer Al Goldstein. “Clearly, no,” he answered, before casually and falsely stating that science didn’t support any possibility of a link between the two. The article then railed against Dobson, the interviewer, claiming that the interview was a “vile and cynical effort to inflame the censorship debate in America… the First Amendment and its guarantees of free expression remain in danger.” Additionally, he claimed that the interview implicitly concealed the messages that “If you read Playboy or Penthouse, you will turn into Ted Bundy.”

A number of outlets followed, claiming that Dobson was using Bundy in an attempt to further his own religious crusader agenda. Despite the fact that Bundy’s testimony supported a scientific model of the causative role of pornography in violence against women, the entire interview was discredited because of its mere association with a fundamentalist.

Furthermore, any claim that Bundy placed responsibility on pornography was a lie easily debunked by simply reading the interview. When Dobson pressed Bundy as to whether sexually violent pornography directly informed his choices, Bundy said, “I’m not blaming pornography. I’m not saying it caused me to go out and do certain things. I take full responsibility for all the things that I’ve done. That’s not the question here. The issue is how this kind of literature contributed and helped mold and shape the kinds of violent behavior.”

In much the same manner that “normal” men begin their pornography journey with softcore materials and end up molesting children, Bundy explained that in the beginning, pornography excited him, fueled his thinking process, he grew tolerant of the imagery that had excited him, and he sought out more violent and exploitative pornography in an endless cycle that culminated in his sexually assaulting a woman in just “a couple of years” after his first exposure. “I was dealing with very strong inhibitions against criminal and violent behavior,” he said to Dobson. “I was a normal person. I had good friends. I led a normal life, except for this one, small but very potent and destructive segment that I kept very secret and close to myself. Those of us who have been so influenced by violence in the media, particularly pornographic violence, are not some kind of inherent monsters. We are your sons and husbands. We grew up in regular families.”

Another repudiation of the interview came in the form of blaming someone else entirely: Louise Bundy, the murderer’s mother.

“As Bundy told it, he was a a good, normal fellow, an ‘All American boy’ properly raised by diligent parents, though one would have liked to hear more about his ‘diligent’ mother.” said J. Leo, columnist for the U.S. News & World Report. “While nothing of this mother-son relationship is known, a hatred of women virulent enough to claim 50 lives does not usually spring full-blown from the reading of obscene magazines.”

This piece was followed by a series of articles blaming Bundy’s mother, including an article by Vanity Fair called “The Roots of Evil,” which absolved pornography and held her responsibility for his crimes.

There are conflicting accounts on the nature of Bundy’s home life growing up, but there is no evidence that he was physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. He grew up believing his mother was his sister and his grandparents his parents (his mother had given birth to him outside of a marriage, leading his maternal grandparents to raise him as their own child to avoid social stigma). He may have been present to witness physical abuse perpetrated by his stepfather against his biological mother, but by his own accounts he “grew up in a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents… We, as children, were the focus of my parent’s lives. We regularly attended church. My parents did not smoke or gamble. There was no physical abuse or fighting in the home… I hope no one will try to take the easy way out of this and accuse my family of contributing to this. I know, and I’m trying to tell you as honestly as I know how, what happened.”

Historically, women have been blamed for men’s violence. When a man rapes a woman, the victim is frequently blamed for having provoked the man’s attention. When a husband beats his wife, the victim is often held responsible for inciting the violence in the household. And in the case of Ted Bundy, when a man with a seemingly “normal” upbringing commits serial rape, murder, and abuse, the burden of responsibility falls not on the man who admitted to the crimes, not on the pornography industry he was obsessed with and that monetizes sexualize violence against women, but on the mother of the murderer.

By any standard, it is fair to state that Ted Bundy was a monster. He was a horrific perpetrator of violence and an indignity to the lives of women and children everywhere. But the narrative he tells, just hours before his death, of an unknowing young man who stumbled upon some pornography and who became a sexually violent predator is entirely compatible with testimony from sex offenders, murderers, and of studies verifying links between pornography and undermined internal and social inhibitions, as well as pornography and acting out in sexually violent behaviors. What Bundy said in his final interview was, very likely, true. Religious fundamentalists probably didn’t tell him to blame pornography. His mother certainly didn’t shape him into a sexually violent predator. He did much of this by himself. And the many men he watched committing sexual violence against women in pornography helped him to clear a path.

As our culture becomes increasingly pornified, our films more rampant with sexual violence, our literature more littered with scenes of rape, it is imperative we take a critical look at how media shapes our understanding of the world and, frankly, other media. When a monster says that this upbringing was no more controversial than our own, what would it mean to take these words at face value, and deny the media’s authority in stating that we are nothing like him? Neuroscience, history, and the media we consume for entertainment suggests that we – namely, men – are capable of becoming exactly like him. All it takes is a little bit of pornography to get going. We’ve seen it before. We will see it again.

How many times do we have to keep witnessing this until we do something about it?