Recently, a handful of state legislatures have passed resolutions declaring pornography a public health concern. Specifically, these declarations state:

“Pornography is a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” The state resolution further called for a united recognition for “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” [1]

The Virginia State House passed their resolution against porn with a whopping 82-8 majority. The South Dakota and Utah legislatures passed their resolutions unanimously, without opposition, by both the State House and Senate. Now other states are considering the passage of similar resolutions that officially recognize the harmful effects of porn in their states. All of this change in the U.S. comes hot on the heels of the recent unanimous vote in the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons to conduct a country-wide study in order to “examine the public health effects of online pornography”

The Response

The national response to these resolutions has been fascinating to watch. On one hand, many are relieved that someone has finally acknowledged a problem that they feel has received far too little attention compared to other kinds of public health issues. Many of these are individuals and families who have had first-hand experience with pornography having a negative impact in their lives or the lives of their loved ones. However, on the other hand, the same resolutions have been seen as a problem by individuals who express three basic concerns about them.

Concern #1 – “Porn is receiving too much attention.”

Some have expressed concern that pornography is receiving too much attention compared to other societal issues, accusing their legislatures of distracting attention from more important problems. As one person commented in a newspaper comment board, “I think it’s pretty silly to be talking about pornography or whatever. There’s more issues that are more important. Like terrorism, our borders, our economy…We shouldn’t be worried about pornography.” Another person added on the same board, “We’ve got bigger things that need to be looked at than, you know, something like that – What does porn have to do with a public health crisis?”

Our response—why does social concern have to be a zero sum game?

Thankfully, there is not a limit to the number of issues we can be concerned about in our society. Just because someone is concerned about protecting the environment doesn’t mean that he or she can’t also care about gender equality in the workplace, too. Raising a voice of concern about sex trafficking and exploitation doesn’t stop us from acknowledging concerns about the economy or the healthcare access in our communities. Fight the New Drug has never argued that pornography is the only problem in our society or even the biggest problem in our society—just that it is an under-recognized threat that is targeting young people at younger and younger ages.

Concern #2 – “This will lead to censorship.”

For others criticizing these state and national resolutions, another concern that is raised that the legislatures are exaggerating the problem of pornography, or are making it out to be something far worse than it really is. Additionally, others fret that these resolutions mark a dangerous step towards the infringement on personal rights and sexual freedom.

This is an interesting response given that none of the state or national resolutions that have been passed mention censorship or limiting adults’ access to pornography in any way. Most people expressing concerns about pornography are not calling for the adult censorship of pornography, rather they are calling for education and safeguarding young children and teens. Fight the New Drug has always been a strong advocate of choice. Educating people about the possible consequences of their choices isn’t censorship.

Concern #3 – “The science just isn’t there.”

The familiar refrain of “no good science” is also heard occasionally in this conversation as well. Typically those who make this claim are trying to argue that these state and national resolutions are just emerging out of moral or religious reservations about pornography, with no research backing for their claims. Rarely do these types of claims address specific studies, or the evidence that is pointed to in these legislative resolutions.

Recently, Dr. John D. Foubert, an endowed professor at Oklahoma State University and a leading expert on sexual violence, published a research review article outlining some of the public health harms of pornography. [2] Specifically, he highlights the research in three areas where porn is impacting collective social health—rewiring the brain, sexual dysfunction, and sexual violence. Let’s look at his findings in more detail.

Rewiring the Brain

Dr. Foubert points out that there is a growing body of evidence that porn is impacting brain development, particularly in young users. He notes that some of the most powerful studies of the brain and pornography come from investigating brain scans. He explains:

“In one experiment, the brains of men were scanned while they viewed porn. When neurologists looked at their brain scans, men’s brains reacted to women as if they were objects, not people. This is important because it is the process of dehumanizing a person that makes violence against them much more acceptable.”

Pointing to other studies, Dr. Fourbert further explains:

“Digging deeper into this brain phenomenon, a group of neurologists studied more brain scans of people who use pornography. They used an experimental design in order to demonstrate cause and effect. They found that people who use more pornography become less able to wait for gratification than people who use less pornography. Brain studies also now show that increased porn use leads to a slowing down of short-term memory.”

Crazy, right? The research is showing that pornography is rewriting the sexual script for the sexual behavior of many in the raising generation. With the high amounts of violence and aggression in internet pornography, the concepts of sex and violence are being fused into the developing brains of today’s young people.

Sexual Dysfunction

In his review of the research, Dr. Foubert also highlights how pornography is having a devastating impact on the sexual health of the Internet generation. In his article, he cites the research showing that the rates of erectile dysfunction among young men are increasing, and shows how there is good evidence that this is directly related to frequent use of pornography. Citing dozens of studies, Dr. Foubert points out:

“In the 1940’s, less than 1% of men under 30 experienced erectile dysfunction (ED). [3] In 1992, 7% of men under 30 experienced ED. [4] Several recent studies now show that 30% of young men experience ED. [5] In fact, in just the last 10 years, the rate of erectile dysfunction doubled in the U.S. military. [6] If a man’s use reaches the level of addiction, he is 60% more likely to have ED. And all of these men have erectile dysfunction when they are with a person – but not when they are alone with their porn.” [7]

Sexual Violence

Of particular concern in labeling pornography a public health concern is the research connecting pornography and sexual violence, which Dr. Foubert says is “conclusive.” He explains:

“There are over 100 studies showing that pornography use is both correlated with and is the cause (shown through experimental studies) of a wide range of violent behaviors. Over 50 studies show a strong connection between pornography and sexual violence. The results are the same in correlational, cross-sectional, experimental, and longitudinal studies: pornography use and acts of sexual aggression are directly connected.”

Again, pointing to a growing list of studies, Dr. Foubert explains that “pornography use increases the likelihood that a man will commit sexual violence against a woman, particularly if the man has other risk factors for committing sexual violence like being impulsive, and if his use of pornography is frequent.”

Dr. Foubert also reviews the studies that show that men who believe more strongly in impersonal, promiscuous sex, and are more hostile toward women are more likely to sexually assault a woman if they frequently use pornography. He points out that “frequent pornography use by itself is not a singular, direct cause for sexual assault.” And then he points out that it increases the risk of sexual violence for men who have other risk factors, such as hostile masculinity or a preference for impersonal sex. Dr. Foubert concludes, “If anyone has an agenda to end sexual violence—and I hope you do—you must tackle the issue of pornography if you want to have an impact.”

Conclusion

At the very least, critics of the state and national resolutions raising concern about porn need to acknowledge this evidence in their commentaries. To say that no evidence exists is simply untrue and misleading. The state of the evidence documenting the harms of porn justifies increased funding and research to more fully investigate the effects of porn. We acknowledge that pornography’s effects on different people in different situations is a complex phenomenon—and more research is needed.

But, efforts to shut down responsible evaluations of the harms of pornography and social conversations about these effects are concerning—especially when it comes to youth. With all that is at stake, why wouldn’t anyone want to investigate the harms of porn more fully?

Citations
[1] Concurrent resolution on the public health crisis, 9, S.C.R.Cong. (2016). Retrieved from https://le.utah.gov/~2016/bills/static/SCR009.html
[2] Foubert, John D. (2017). The public health harms of pornography: The brain, erectile dysfunction, and sexual violence. Dignity: A Journal of Sexual Exploitation and Violence. Vol. 2, Issue 3, Article 6. DOI:10.23860/dignity.2017.02.03.06. Available at http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol2/iss3/06.
[3] Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1948); Wilson, ibid.
[4] Edward O. Laumann, Anthony Paik, and Raymond C. Rosen, “Sexual Dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and Predictors,” Journal of the American Medical Association 281, no. 6 (1999): 537-544, doi:10.1001/jama.281.6.537.
[5] Lucia F. O’Sullivan, Lori A. Brotto, E. Sandra Byers, Jo Anne Majerovich, and Judith A. Wuest, “Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Functioning among Sexually Experienced Mid to Late Adolescents,” The Journal of Sexual Medicine 11 (2014): 630-641, doi: 10.1111/jsm.12419; Anaïs Mialon, A. Berchtold, Pierre-André Michaud, Gerhard Gmel, and Joan-Carles Suris, “Sexual Dysfunctions among Young Men: Prevalence and Associated Factors,” Journal of Adolescent Health 51, no. 1 (2012): 25-31, doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.01.008.
[6] Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, “Erectile Dysfunction among Male Active Component Service Members, U.S. Armed Forces,” Monthly Surveillance Monthly Report 21, no. 9 (2014): 13- 16.
[7] Valerie Voon, Thomas B. Mole, Paula Banca, Laura Porter, Laurel Morris, Simon Mitchell, Tatyana R. Lapa, Judy Karr, Neil A. Harrison, Marc N. Potenza, et al. “Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors.” PLoS ONE 9, no. 7 (2014), doi: 10.1371/journl.pone.0102419

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