Is pornography really a "public health crisis"?
Usually, when the words “governor” and “pornography” are in the same sentence, it’s because a scandal has just been uncovered. Recently, though, the governor of Utah made headlines for an entirely different reason: In April, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a measure that declared porn a “public health crisis.”
The bill, which was sponsored by Utah Republican Senator Todd Weiler, makes Utah the first state trying to shield its populace from the “epidemic.” Weiler aims to spur the government into working with internet providers to only allow pornography on an opt-in basis. In other words, if people want to access porn through their internet connection, they have to request it. “We’re not spending money, and we’re not banning anything,” Weiler said, according to the Tribune. “. . . [I]’m asking businesses and governmental agencies that cater to children to do the right thing.”
“We realize this is a bold assertion and there are some out there who will disagree with us,” Herbert said at a news conference, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “We’re here to say it is, in fact, the full-fledged truth.”
Utah’s bill claims that porn can “impact brain development and functioning, contribute to emotional and medical illnesses, shape deviant sexual arousal, and lead to difficulty in forming or maintaining intimate relationships, as well as problematic or harmful sexual behaviors and addiction.” While porn is certainly growing more popular by the year — Pornhub reported that people around the world watched almost 4.4 billion hours of porn last year, with over 40% of the traffic coming from the United States — does popularity make it a crisis? The conservative Christian group Family Research Council claims that pornography is “addictive” and is a “pathway to infidelity and divorce.” But is calling it a “public health crisis” to equate it with gun violence, heroin, or domestic violence?
Or, perhaps an even better question — is porn even a crisis at all?
“Pornography research has always been controversial and sometimes it’s just hard to distinguish the data from the moral advocacy,” Christopher Ferguson, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Stetson University in Florida, wrote HelloGiggles in an email. “But, ultimately, like with most media research, it’s been really hard to find clear evidence for causal links between pornography and negative outcomes. Some studies find effects, others don’t and there’s lots of debates about why things have remained so inconsistent for decades.”
Ultimately, there’s no link to explain Utah’s “extreme” resolution, he explained. In terms of calling it a public health crisis, “there’s really just no evidence for this,” Ferguson wrote. “Despite the explosion in the availability of porn beginning in the 1990s with the internet, rape and domestic assault rates have plummeted, as have teen pregnancy rates. There’s just no evidence that porn has had a detrimental impact on society as a whole.”
Motivated by fear?
So if there’s no data to back it up, why take such intense measures against porn? Opponents of the bill believe that the governor’s phrasing is simply an excuse to stigmatize healthy sexual appetite — especially considering PornHub research found that Utah only ranks 34th in traffic coming to the pornography website.
According to Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality, pornography is certainly not a threat to the public — and the governor’s titling of it as such is just a way to deflect outdated views on sexuality. “Labelling pornography a ‘public health crisis’ serves as a way to make one’s opposition to it seem more neutral,'” Hills told HelloGiggles. She continued:
Utah’s measure is more about fear than anything else, Hills surmised, citing how there is “no definitive data out there.” She continued:
Retired adult-film-star-turned-sex-educator Sinnamon Love also disagreed with the governor’s position. She was, in fact, surprised that he would spurn pornography, especially considering he vetoed legislation supporting abstinence-only sex education in 2012. “. . . Part of comprehensive sex education for high school students includes conversations of internet access to pornography, consent, sexting, and social media,” Love, who directed, produced, and ran a management company throughout her 18-year career in adult film, told HelloGiggles. “. . . Prohibition never works.”
The pros and cons of porn
People who consume porn have mixed feelings about it. For writer Meg Zulch, who uses the pronouns they/them, porn not only increased their sex drive, but also played a large role in helping them realize their sexual identity. “Porn helped me come to realize that I am super attracted to ladies, as I used to only watch lesbian porn for awhile,” Zulch explained. “Before coming out, porn allowed me to live through the actors and become comfortable with my queer identity.”
Another writer — who wishes to only go by Sam and also uses the pronouns they/them — agreed, adding that porn can be healthy for those who are unable to otherwise open up about their sexuality. “If anything, people who are otherwise afraid to be open about their desires (provided they’re legal and consensual) should have access to porn,” they told HelloGiggles. “For example, if you’re a closeted queer person living in an area of the country where there’s rampant discrimination around LGBTQ folks, porn can provide a release and give you the ability to safely explore your sexuality in your own home.”
Porn also helped Sam to understand their personal gender identity. “While I don’t love that porn tends to skew heavily towards a male audience — in part because people who aren’t men are often shamed for watching it — it did help me realize I’m not cisgender because I so strongly identified with the men in those videos,” they added.
Others are far less embracing of porn, like self-described recovering porn addict Ryan Lucchesi, who told HelloGiggles he can see the merit behind governor’s resolution.
“Personally, I know that at the height of my porn addiction, it definitely affected my views towards women in a negative way,” he said. “. . . In my experience, pornography seems to be structured in a way that dehumanizes women and elevates violence towards them.”
It’s been said that porn addiction can lead to erectile dysfunction due to desensitization during adolescence. Lucchesi, who told HelloGiggles that he used to watch porn two or three times every day, explained that the more desensitized you become, the more likely you are to succumb to darker material. He said:
Treating porn as a “public health crisis” is certainly one way to try and regulate sexual behavior. But writer Rachel Hills offered another suggestion. “A better option [than porn], perhaps might be ethically produced, pleasure-focused sex education videos,” she told us. “But something tells me the Utah governor might not be into that, either.”
What do you think about calling pornography a “public health crisis”? Tell us in the comments.