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 Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.

Commentary Law and Policy

Abortion Providers Are Not Sex Offenders—No Matter What the Alabama Legislature Implies


Alabama legislators have pushed forward a bill that will make reproductive care harder to access while perpetuating erroneous and harmful stereotypes about providers.

Alabama politics have become a laughingstock across the nation, often for good reason. But let me be clear: The realities of reproductive rights in Alabama—and the extreme anti-choice bills that enable the climate of injustice there—are no laughing matter.

Earlier this month, forced-birth activists in the Alabama legislature pushed three bills from committee to the house floor. HB 405, the “fetal heartbeat bill,” will mandate transvaginal ultrasounds for any woman seeking an abortion. Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur) thinks it is important for women to hear a heartbeat before making a decision about abortion, apparently and egregiously assuming that women choose to have an abortion lightly. HB 491, meanwhile, is a “Health Care Worker Conscience Bill” that would allow any health provider, from doctor to pharmacist, to opt out of providing birth control, abortion, or any reproductive freedom to women if the worker personally objects, even if it means that someone will not be performing the functions of their job. Written by Alabama attorney Eric Johnston, who also helped craft the state’s anti-same sex marriage laws, this bill is quite literally grounded in a work of fiction. Johnston said it himself: “Abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and sterilization. Those are all ‘Frankenstinian’ kinds of things. Like Dr. Frankenstein, he didn’t mind doing what he did, but there are those of us who do mind doing certain things.”

The anti-choice legislation is capped off, though, with HB 527, a bill stating that clinics providing abortion services cannot operate within 2,000 feet of a K-through-12 school. The state’s Christian Coalition, a lobbying group, drafted the legislation. According to member and former leader James Henderson, “We were advised by counsel that a good approach was to use the same standard of keeping sex offenders from public schools, which is 2,000 feet. … That is what the bill is based on.”

That’s right: Henderson likened abortion providers to sex offenders. In doing so, he pushed forward a bill that will make reproductive care harder to access in the state while perpetuating erroneous and harmful stereotypes about providers.

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Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle), who sponsored the bill, stated that he didn’t realize that the legislation would fundamentally mean that the only abortion clinic in Huntsville would be closed. But that was obviously the bill’s goal: The Alabama Women’s Center, which includes abortion care among the many services it offers to women and men who seek reproductive freedom, is the only clinic in the state that will be affected by such a rule, and anti-choice agitators will stop at nothing to close it.

You may or may not recall that the Huntsville clinic voluntarily closed down in late June 2014 in order to comply with the state “Women’s Health and Safety Act” that went in effect on July 1 of last year. Clinic administrator Dalton Johnson surrendered the license of the clinic rather than fall into a state of noncomplicance with targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP) that require Alabama clinics to meet the same building standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Johnson reopened the clinic on Sparkman Drive in Huntsville, the site of a former chiropractic clinic that, in fact, meets the building standards outlined in the Women’s Health and Safety Act. This clinic, now operating, is located across the street from Ed White Middle School, which officially closed in 2014 but will return next year as a magnet school.

Yes, the school in question is not even a school anymore. Yet that has not stopped Henderson, the Alabama Christian Coalition, and many lawmakers from using it as leverage to try to close the Huntsville clinic through outrageous, misleading legislation that showcases the climate of restricted access in the state.

Victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence already face so many obstacles, here and around the country, when it comes to seeking legal justice for crimes perpetrated against their bodies. But even if it is never prosecuted, a crime has still occurred when a person is raped. Abortion, however, is perfectly legal, even if it is restricted by mandatory waiting periods, parental consent laws, and time limits on when it can be performed. But forced-birth advocates are conflating sex offenders, who are criminals, and abortion providers, who are not, because they know they can get away with it: After all, the bill has already moved from committee to the house floor. It is very likely that it will become law, too, because Alabama politicians have a very long history of standing behind horrendous anti-abortion legislation that puts women’s lives at risk.

Many of these politicians, as well as those in the Alabama Supreme Court, work very closely with the state Christian Coalition and other anti-woman, anti-choice organizations. Operation Save America, for example, will hold its national convention in Montgomery beginning July 11. This group proudly supports Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, whom they identify as a “poet, warrior, statesman,” and will descend upon the state capitol because “Alabama has five remaining death camps (abortion mill) [sic] defiling your state. OSA believes that abortion will come to an end in America when the Church of Jesus Christ makes up her mind it will come to an end― and not one second sooner. We are asking you to join with us in helping to make your state abortion free.” Moore is opening the week-long rally, presenting a speech entitled “One Nation Under God.”

According to Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocate (ARRA) director Anathalee Sandlin, “When the anti-abortion fanatics descend on Montgomery in July, Roy Moore will be there to greet them, proving once again he is more concerned with promoting his own agenda than representing the people of Alabama. He continues to be a disgrace to the state Supreme Court and those who have cases before it.”

This is just a single example of how the unconstitutional and highly visible marriage of church and state in Alabama makes it impossible to work with legislators. To be honest, we reproductive rights activists have largely given up on state legislation and courts, working instead through the federal courts. There we have found success, such as the overturning of some TRAP regulations in Planned Parenthood v. Luther Strange. But while this strategy is sometimes effective, it denies and leaves vulnerable women who need access to abortion clinics in the meantime.

“These bills are an affront to women and limit their access to a constitutionally protected medical procedure,” Susan Watson, the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said in a statement last week. “Politicians need to stop meddling in medical affairs and putting a woman in harm’s way. Regardless of how we feel about abortion, we can all agree that a woman needs and deserves the highest quality medical care possible. And we can also all agree that Alabama’s pocketbook can’t afford any more unnecessary litigation.”

Beyond the bill’s harmful effects on women who need care and the state’s finances, it is also dangerous to equate abortion providers to sexual predators, a conflation that could arguably incite violence against the doctors. It is also indicative of the attitude toward abortion providers in the state. Judge Myron Thompson, in his decision on Planned Parenthood v. Luther Strange, noted as much: “Although the vast majority of those who oppose abortion do so in non-violent ways, this court cannot overlook the backdrop to this case: a history of severe violence against abortion providers in Alabama and surrounding regions. Abortion providers in this case were so frightened that they testified in open court only behind a black curtain.” And as so many of us clinic escorts, defenders, and advocates know, anti-choicers will enact violence, even murder, in the name of “life.”

Even when they do not go that far, they will clearly engage in linguistic acrobatics to stop abortion providers. If successful, this legislation will give forced-birth activists another way to target clinics when TRAP laws and other shenanigans will not suffice.

Abortion providers do not harm children. Indeed, by participating in a comprehensive approach to women’s—and men’s—sexual health, they are actually helping children, modeling what a truly comprehensive spectrum of sexual health may look like. They are not predators who menace and traumatize young women and men, preying on their insecurities and insisting on their silence. They are operating within the confines of the law. Their work is completely legitimate, even under continued legal attack.

It remains necessary, now more than ever.