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This Politician Says Porn Is a "Public Health Crisis". Uh, Here's The Science

MIKE MCRAE
23 FEB 2019

If state house representative Michelle Udall gets her way, pornography could soon be considered a public health crisis in Arizona.

Passing her proposed bill probably won't mean much for the average citizen. Nonetheless – is our love of watching others have sexy times really a major problem?

 

Udall is under the impression that pornography poses a problem on a scale rivalling that of Big Tobacco.

"Like the tobacco industry, the pornography industry has created a public health crisis," Udall claimed before lawmakers in support of House Concurrent Resolution 2009.

"Pornography is used pervasively, even by minors."

That pervasive use, she claims, is leading to an epidemic of health conditions. We're talking "low self-esteem, eating disorders, and an increase in problematic sexual activity", not to mention mental illnesses and toxic sexual behaviours.  

Arizona wouldn't be on its own if Udall's legislation passes. Utah passed a similar bill in 2016. In fact, right now 11 US states officially hold similar positions. While many Republicans think this makes perfect sense, the measure isn't without its critics.

"I just don't think there's necessarily the science to back up those claims," says Democrat house representative, Kelli Butler.

Untangling the facts from the hype on the topic isn't easy.

It's clear the growth of digital media has opened the flood gates to accessing material that once faced greater restrictions. Figures from the pre-digital era are a little harder to find, but most seem to suggest a leap of roughly 150 to 200 percent since the 1970s.

 

To give some context, a survey conducted in 2014 found 46 percent of men and 16 percent of women in the US between the ages of 18 and 39 had intentionally viewed porn in any given week. (Well, admitted to it at least.)

Regardless of whether you think these statistics qualify as pervasive, engaging in sexual media still seems to be a common experience, if not increasingly popular past time.

As for Udall's claim on access by minors, a poll by Newsbeat several years ago suggests around half of 15 to 17-year-olds have accessed pornography on a smart phone or tablet.

Accepting that pornography consumption is indeed as widespread as Udall implies, are there risks we need to take seriously as a society?

There's no doubt that pornography suffers heavily from stigma. Mounting evidence suggests what many perceive as an addiction to pornography says more about their sense of guilt and shame than truly excessive viewing.

Udall explicitly makes references to specific health conditions in her proposal, from eating disorders to reduced self-esteem.

A study published last year on just under 3,000 males did find increased pornography use correlated with greater dissatisfaction of body image, if only slightly. There's also new research suggesting the viewing habits of the male in a heterosexual relationship could lead to eating disorders in his partner.

As for toxic sexual behaviour, Udall's claim also seems to hold water at first appearance. Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist Jennifer Johnson reported on the relationship between pornography and violence in 2015, claiming:

"While research is not able to show causality, something no social science research can do, pornography is strongly correlated with factors widely recognised as contributors to sexual violence including defining masculinity as embodied through violence, hostile attitudes towards women, and gender inequality."

 

Going on conclusions such as these, Udall would be right to claim there is at least the potential for pornography to cause harm, even if the argument over causality is relatively weak.

Being charitable, it might even be argued that problematic use of pornography should be an issue for state health officials to keep their eye on, just as they do for gambling or drinking.

Crisis is a strong word, though, one that implies urgency and prioritisation of resources. And while access to pornography seems to be through the roof, its potentially harmful effects don't seem to be keeping in line with that growth, making cries of emergency difficult to justify.

But let's assume we did fast-track scientifically valid measures that would practically counter potential social costs of pornography use. What might they look like?

We can rule out censorship from the start. While many US states have laws requiring filtering of web content in schools, constitutional respect for free speech has made it difficult for authorities to control access and production of pornographic material.

 

But censorship and abstinence doesn't have a good track record when it comes to controlling our sexual urges, suggesting they're likely to be just as impotent when it comes to curtailing our pornography habits.

Engaging in conversations about gender norms, sexuality, power, and consent as a part of the school curriculum is one measure known to have a positive impact in reducing both partner violence and improving sexual health.

Sadly, when it comes to sex education, Arizona currently ranks third worst in the nation. That leaves a lot of young adults in the state to discover sexual health and intimacy techniques through Pornhub's suggested content.

New bill proposals in the pipeline are a step in the right direction, making sex-ed 'opt-out' for students rather than 'opt-in', helping more adolescents awkwardly experience condoms being rolled onto fruit as an introduction to intercourse.

Education forms just part of the answer, though. If we're serious about addressing problems associated with the use of pornography, we might also want to take the prevalence of health and safety risks in its production seriously at the same time.

Udall isn't the first politician to ring alarm bells over US society's obsession with watching other adults pleasure one another, and given the emergence of new anti-porn groups in the US it's unlikely she'll be the last.  

Their comparisons between the historical obfuscation of Big Tobacco and fears of misinformation spread by Big Porn are misguided, though. Science already has a lot to say about how we can make society sexually safer.

If that's what politicians like Udall really wants, that is.

Mike McRae has been writing science news stories and developing educational resources for over a decade. He is the author of two books - Unwell: What makes a disease a disease? and Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas.

Opinions expressed in this article don't necessarily reflect the views of ScienceAlert editorial staff.