Politics

This Red State Watches So Much Porn, Republicans Just Made it a “Public Health Crisis”

This morning Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law new legislation deeming consumption of pornography a “public health crisis.” The resolution, which was passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature last year, seeks to ameliorate the “sexually toxic environment” created by porn, which is very amusing considering that researchers at Harvard University found that Utah consumes the most pornography in the union.

Sponsored by Senator Todd Weiler, it declares that pornography “normalizes violence towards women and children” and “equates violence towards women and children with sex and pain with pleasure, which increases the demand for sex trafficking, prostitution, child sex abuse, and child pornography.” The text goes on to describe the “detrimental effects on pornography’s users,” stating that porn can “impact brain development and functioning, contribute to emotional and medical illnesses, shape deviant sexual arousal, and lead to difficulty in formulating or maintaining intimate relationships.” It also declares that porn “is potentially biologically addictive.”

That certainly makes it sound like we’re in dire straits, and, to be sure, porn can have some very serious negative consequences. The fact of the matter, however, is that the drive to limit pornography is driven more by evangelical puritanism than scientific evidence. The notion that porn should be treated as a public health crisis has essentially no backing in the scientific community; instead it originated from Gail Dines, a radical sociologist who has embarked on a worldwide anti-porn campaign and was instrumental in lobbying Utah legislatures to enact the current legislation.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post last month titled “Is porn Immoral? It doesn’t matter: It’s a public health crisis,” Dines wrote that “After 40 years of peer-reviewed research, scholars can say with confidence that porn is an industrial product that shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality—for the worse.”

The purported scientific consensus behind these ideas, however, is far from clear. Indeed David Hill, the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media, has said that “the conclusions we can draw from the science are very limited.” While Weiler has stated that he wants to regulate porn like tobacco and other drugs, and he and other advocated constantly compare the effects of porn to drug addiction, there is still debate among psychologists as to whether people can have an addiction to porn. The American Academy of Psychiatry has deemed evidence insufficient that sex and porn addiction be recognized as mental disorders, and an Academy study found that the neural effects of “excessive” porn use are not comparable to those of substance addicts.

Another one of the Utah legislators’ main talking points is that porn inhibits one’s ability to form “healthy” intimate relationships. Again, this is not supported by scientific evidence. Instead, several studies have shown that porn increases viewers’ arousal and increases their desire for sex with their partners. The belief that porn leads to aggressive and harmful sexual behavior is also misguided. A 2013 study found that the effects of porn-consumption on adolescent sexual behavior was minute to non-existent.

If porn were truly a categorical threat to public health, and truly encouraged violent and dangerous sexual behavior, it seems unlikely that the massive expansion of online porn access and viewership that anti-porn advocates are so concerned about would be accompanied by historic lows in rates of teen pregnancy, STD infections, domestic violence, and rape, all of which have been more or less continually falling across the United States and Europe. That doesn’t indicate that porn is a good thing – although there is no doubt that it can be a healthy outlet for sexuality – but it would certainly seem to suggest that the dystopian effects people like Weiler foresee are not based in reality.

The true basis for Utah’s anti-porn drive seems rather to be the same puritanical religious zealotry that led Ted Cruz to push for a ban on dildos because Americans do not have “the right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes.” One of the main forces behind the new Utah law was a Mormon anti-porn group called Fight the New Drug. FTND claims that it uses a “just-the-facts” approach to argue against porn, as opposed to a moral argument; the “facts” the group presents, however, are that porn “hates families,” “leaves you lonely,” “changes the brain,” and “rends the moral fabric of the individual.”

People like sex. It’s a biological and psychological fact that conservatives the world over refuse to accept out of an irrational and often hypocritical religious puritanism. Pornography can certainly have harmful effects, but claiming a scientific mandate to regulate porn when there is nothing like a clear consensus on the effects of pornography is nothing but a thinly-veiled justification for puritanical sexual repression, which does nobody any good. Imposing harsh and unnecessary restrictions on the porn industry will only encourage producers to take advantage of and abuse their female actresses to deliver a product that consumers have come to expect.

It is typical of religious conservatives that the Utah laws seek to stigmatize and blame innocent porn consumers rather than focus on the very real problem of abuse of women in the porn industry. To be sure, all possible steps should be taken to protect the women of the sex industry, prevent human trafficking, and criminalize child pornography. Shaming pornography users and creating a puritanical climate that represses legitimate and natural sexuality, however, accomplishes none of that.

 

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