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.

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