Controversy Over Morning After Pill Advertising

Joe Veix

The first ever advertisement for a morning-after pill aired on television in the UK, despite arguments against the ad from an anti-choice group.

Yesterday, the first advertisement for a morning-after pill aired on television in the UK. Somehow, this garnered
A spokeswoman for the ProLife Alliance said:

"We are absolutely outraged that without even waiting for the outcome of the Advertising Standards Code Review, Levonelle One Step will be promoted on evening TV, no doubt without even so much as a health warning, let alone an honest description of how the pill in question actually works."

The outrage doesn’t make any sense. During a prime time show in the UK, you can see many advertisements rife with sexual innuendo. Condom commercials are also ubiquitous. One can even see any number of gruesome murders enacted in most television shows.  It’s apparently acceptable to encourage sex, and to portray violent murders (pro-life, indeed!), but it’s somehow, according to the ProLife Alliance, immoral, controversial, and unacceptable for there to be advertisements involving responsible choices with regard to sex.  If television networks choose not to air commercials like these, it’s a dangerous double standard.

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And besides, looking at the Advertising Standards Authority’s codes, it’s clear that these commercials are perfectly legal and acceptable. The codes forbid advertising for prescription-only medicines, betting tips, all tobacco products, guns, pornography, and products that mask the effects of alcohol. So long as the morning after pill is legal and over the counter, the commercials are allowed.

Hopefully this misguided controversy won’t dissuade television companies from making progressive, practical decisions like this.

Culture & Conversation Sexual Health

Pornography Is Not a ‘Public Health Crisis,’ No Matter What Utah Lawmakers Think

Martha Kempner

The resolution introduced to declare pornography an epidemic is pretty toothless. But the resolution still carries harmful implications: It allows the moral musings of one misguided lawmaker, backed up by nothing more than pseudoscience, to be presented as fact in the legal code.

A Utah lawmaker would like us all to know just how dangerous pornography really is. State Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross) filed a concurrent resolution (SCR 9) at the end of January asking his colleagues to declare pornography a “public health crisis.” Weiler apparently believes that pornography is addictive and that exposure to X-rated material has led to sex trafficking, infidelity, and a whole generation of young men who don’t want to get married.

After detailing the hazards of pornography, SCR 9 requests that “the Legislature and the Governor recognize the need for education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level in order to address the pornography epidemic that is harming the people of our state and nation.”

The resolution unanimously cleared committee last Friday and is now headed to the senate floor. Even if it passes, though, the resolution itself is pretty toothless—it’s not a bill outlawing pornography in Utah or a law designed to limit access to some websites. It’s just another politician ranting against vice. But the resolution still carries harmful implications: It allows the moral musings of one misguided lawmaker, backed up by nothing more than pseudoscience, to be presented as fact in the legal code.

Anti-porn crusaders have been around for centuries. The most famous is Anthony Comstock, whose 1873 law banned sending “obscene” material through the U.S. Postal Service, which, in the world before the Internet, adult stores, and UPS, was pretty much the only way to get material of any kind. Of course, Comstock’s law, and the state-level legislation it inspired, included contraception in their definition of obscene materials, making it a criminal offense to distribute birth control or information about birth control through the mail or across state lines.

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Comstock began his crusade because he was personally offended by the prostitution and pornography he perceived to be on the streets of New York when he moved to the city after fighting in the Civil War. He was also offended by explicit ads for contraception and believed that access to birth control promoted lust and lewdness. This single man’s sense of what was and was not appropriate for other adults to see led to the effective banning of birth control for decades. Given our history, it would be shortsighted of us to just dismiss actions of lone lawmakers with agendas like Sen. Weiler.

And it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that Sen. Weiler has started his own anti-porn crusade. SCR 9, after all, is not his first resolution. In 2013, he authored one that warned parents of the dangers of “gateway pornography,” which he described as “sexualized images found in advertising and the media.” That resolution passed, though like SCR 9, it did not seem to have any real-life ramifications. 

Similar to Comstock, Weiler seems to have a personal objection to porn. The senator told the New York Daily News that he wished he’d never been exposed to pornography as he grew up in the 1970s. He compared pornography to cigarettes: a vice that was once considered acceptable but has been proven by science to be harmful and thus shunned by health experts, lawmakers, and much of the general public. And, he insisted that the problems with pornography, which are clearly detailed in his resolutions, are “scientific facts, just like global warming.”

But here’s the problem with his analogy and assertions—the science just isn’t there. The resolution asks Utah legislators to declare that porn is a public health epidemic and accept 18 other points of “fact” that have no grounding in existing research. To take on just a few of those points: Porn is not a public health crisis, nor is it an epidemic. In fact, viewing pornography alone is one of the few sexual behaviors that does not carry any risk of unintended pregnancy or disease transmission.

According to researchers, porn is not biologically addictive, exposure to it does not lead to lower self-esteem and increased sexual risk in teens, the availability of porn does not increase rape and sexual violence, and porn is not creating a generation of men who aren’t going to marry.

The basic myth of porn addiction goes like this—a young boy (and it’s always a boy in these stories, because people ignore that young women might enjoy porn as well) watches porn and likes it, so he watches more porn, and soon he can’t stop. Not just is he watching porn all the time, he has to watch kinkier and kinkier porn in order to get the same thrill he used to. It’s as if he were doing cocaine: He’s a porn addict. Depending on which brand of pseudoscience you subscribe to, either he can’t stop watching porn without experiencing withdrawal symptoms and starts acting out sexually and violently, or he can’t even get an erection in real life because it’s too boring compared to what he’s seen on screen.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in an email, “Saying that porn is bad … is a sad example of very poor thinking and worse, an attempt to manipulate through fear.”

Nicole Prause, a researcher at University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire in an email: “Scientists, including myself, have demonstrated that porn activates reward processes in the brain. This is like cocaine. It is also like viewing chocolate, cheese, and puppies playing.” But the parallels with drug addiction end there. Prause explained: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal. Missing any of these would mean sex films are not addicting.”

Ley said simply: “Porn isn’t addictive. It isn’t even harmful for the overwhelming majority of users. Fewer than one percent of porn users experience negative effects from their porn use. But ten percent of people are afraid of their porn use. The message here is that porn isn’t addictive—but fear might be.”

Science has found that porn also generally does not lead to lower self-esteem in adolescents or cause them to engage in risky sexual behavior, as Weiler’s resolution claims. In a recent article in Psychology Today, Ley pointed to a British review of more than 40,000 studies that found that although there were links between such adverse behaviors among young people and watching porn, there was no proof that one directly led to the other. He also noted that a longitudinal study in the Netherlands found that exposure to pornography explained a very small percentage of sexual behaviors, including risky sexual behaviors, among teens. As Ley argued in the article, blaming porn for the serious issues facing some of our young people takes the focus away from the real roots of these problems, such as poverty, mental health issues, and a lack of education (including sexuality education).

There is, in addition, a large body of research that suggests pornography does not broadly increase rape or sexual violence. Research in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Japan, and Hong Kong have compared periods of time when there were strict laws against pornography to later periods when those laws were relaxed. Each study found that as access to pornography goes up, rape and sexual violence goes down. Research in the United States that compares the time before the Internet made porn readily available, to more recent years when it is just a mouse-click away, also shows that as access to porn increased, rates of sexual assault decreased. Though these studies do not prove that access to porn directly causes rates of violence to decrease—there could certainly be a host of other factors at play—the fact that this correlation is consistently found suggests that access to porn does not cause violence to increase either.

My favorite statement of “fact” in Weiler’s resolution is the one that suggests that porn is creating a generation of men who are not interested in marriage. I can’t quite figure out the logic behind this one. Perhaps it’s a bastardization of the old “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free” trope. Something like, “Why buy a cow at all if you can watch one have sex on the Internet?” Maybe he thinks these men are so obsessed with watching porn that they don’t want to bring a wife into the house who might make them turn off the computer.

Or maybe he’s making it up, because there’s no proof that there even is such a generation of men. One poll last year found that two-thirds of adults under 30 felt that marriage was still relevant and led to a happier, healthier, and more secure life. Millennials are marrying later in life than those who came before them, but porn doesn’t seem to play a role in that decision. Instead, surveys have found that they are less religious, more accepting of alternative relationship structures such as living together, and feel it is important to have economic security before you marry.

The irony of Weiler suggesting that the science on pornography’s harms is just like the science on global warming is not lost on me. If anything, the two situations are opposite. Climate change has legitimate science that politicians often ignore, whereas the suggestion that porn is harmful is based on phony science that is being held up as true by at least one politician.

Pornography has been a relatively accepted outlet for sexual pleasure for millennia and it should remain that way in Utah and everywhere else. This is not to say it’s a perfect art form: A lot of pornography objectifies and demeans women; much of it is not appropriate for young people; and it is certainly not a realistic way for adolescents and teens to learn about sex. Still, it’s not an epidemic, it’s not inevitably harmful to the viewer, and it won’t be the downfall of our society.

What might be our downfall, however, is allowing politicians to impose their own morality and use pseudoscience and misinformation to scare us all into buying their beliefs or at least living by their rules. We’ve been there before under the Comstock laws, which made even educating women about contraception through the mail a federal offense. We should not allow ourselves to be guided back to that kind of ignorance and censorship.

Commentary Abortion

After #ShoutYourAbortion, Here Are Five Golden Rules of Talking About Abortion

Rebecca Wilkins

The International Planned Parenthood Federation has published a comprehensive guide providing advice on how to talk about abortion. From the guide, here are five golden rules of talking about abortion.

You know someone who has had an abortion. We all do. Friends, family members, colleagues, and even our much-loved celebritiespeople who have had an abortion are everywhere. In fact, one in three women in the UK and the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime, with similar rates seen across the globe. Yet, outside of often polarizing political debates, many of us avoid talking about abortion at all. We shy away from the topic because it is taboo, stigmatized, and shrouded in secrecy, which creates the illusion that abortion isn’t a common, everyday occurrence. When we do talk about it, we can find ourselves at a loss for how to tackle it respectfully, accurately, and without perpetuating stigma.

That’s why in 2015 it was a welcome change when #ShoutYourAbortion trended on Twitter and gained instant traction on social media. Started in the United States by pro-choice activists Amelia Bonow, Kimberly Morrison, and Lindy West, the hashtag turned into a global campaign, with people everywhere seizing the opportunity to break free of the usual rules telling them to keep quiet about their abortion.

But it’s not just on those who have had an abortion to tell their stories. Filmmakers, television producers, and members of the media also have a responsibility to honestly represent abortion as a normal part of people’s lives. Happily, 2015 was also a year in which we saw some of our favorite TV dramas introduce abortion storylines without the usual hysteria or dramatic change of heart that is usually written in. At the end of the year, Scandal’s season finale was hailed as being a refreshingly realistic depiction of an abortion, a rarity in mainstream television and film.

However, much more common is when media coverage on abortion, even when trying to be balanced and objective, uses language and images loaded with judgment, stigma, and misconceptions. In a recent issue of Newsweek examining the state of abortion in the United States, the cover featured a computer-enhanced image of a fetus, completely misrepresenting the reality of what a fetus looks like when an abortion is most likely to occur (before 12 weeks’ gestation).

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So the challenge lies not just with getting people to talk about abortion in normal, everyday conversation, but also in changing the way we talk about abortion to avoid perpetuating the stigma, misinformation, and misconceptions surrounding it. However, this is easier said than done. Communication around abortion can be difficult and complex, given the nuances and occasional controversy.

In other fields, significant attention has been paid to the language, images, and terminology used, which can lead to stigma, for example, with regard to issues such as mental health, LGBTQI rights, and HIV. However, the language and images we use when we discuss abortion are yet to receive such focused attention. We have internalized common terms and phrases that perpetuate the harmful stigmatization of people who have an abortion. From value-laden phrases like “Get rid of it” implying that abortion is a flippant action taken without thought or feeling, to inaccurate references to pregnant women as mothers regardless of whether or not they have or want to have children, to misnomers that deny the reality of most abortions, such as images of distraught-looking women, abortion stigma is commonplace in the media and in our everyday conversations.

But enough of what not to do. After identifying a real need for direction on how to communicate on abortion in a clear and non-stigmatizing way, the International Planned Parenthood Federation has published a comprehensive guide providing advice on how to talk about abortion. From the guide, here are five golden rules of talking about abortion:

  1. Be honest and accurate. Focus on the realities of abortion as a part of people’s lives; get your facts straight and counteract misinformation.
  2. Be non-judgmental. Individuals have the right to make decisions about their own bodies; no one abortion is more or less “justified” than another.
  3. Focus on the individual. Maintain a focus on the health and rights of the pregnant person in all messaging; she is the one most impacted by the decision whether or not to continue the pregnancy.
  4. Recognize diversity. No two abortions and no two women are the same; abortion occurs in all socioeconomic and cultural settings and is experienced by a wide range of people of different backgrounds and values.
  5. Avoid stigmatizing language and images. It is easy to unintentionally stigmatize abortion; think carefully about the language and images and refer to the communication guide for more advice.

You might think that this is all just irrelevant squabbling over semantics. But the more we tell women they are mothers before they have chosen if and when they want to be mothers, the more we perpetuate gender roles that are harmful to gender equality. The more we focus on the fetus, the less we think about the pregnant woman, her needs, and her human right to bodily autonomy. And the more we use judgmental language, the less likely women will be to turn to their friends and family to talk about their abortion, removing them from vital support networks.

In 2016, we need to continue to talk about abortion, shout our abortions, and engage in measured, fact-based dialogue with those we disagree with on the subject. However, it is equally important that we hold these conversations using rights-based, stigma-free language and imagery that represents the reality of abortion—a common, necessary, and responsible choice for millions of women.