How do you get a governor to sign a resolution declaring pornography a "public health crisis" in your state?
Easy: Liken modern pornography to heroin, throw in a few lurid anecdotes and questionable studies, and argue that good parenting just isn't enough to thwart the masturbatory menace.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert did just that a few weeks ago, when he signed a resolution sponsored by Utah Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Salt Lake), declaring that pornography is so toxic that it increases demand for sexually explicit images of children, ruins our youth's self-esteem and is just as addictive as methamphetamine.
The problem is, much of the research it cites is just plain wrong.
Utah's resolution is hollow in that it doesn't ban pornography outright, but instead calls for more education and prevention to keep the hardcore stuff away from children. It alleges, among other things:
- WHEREAS, pornography is contributing to the hypersexualization of teens, and even prepubescent children, in our society
- WHEREAS, exposure to pornography often serves as childrens' and youths' sex education and shapes their sexual templates
- WHEREAS, pornography equates violence towards women and children with sex and pain with pleasure, which increases the demand for sex trafficking, prostitution, child sexual abuse images, and child pornography
- WHEREAS, pornography use is linked to lessening desire in young men to marry, dissatisfaction in marriage, and infidelity
Gov. Herbert "signed" the resolution on Tuesday as ceremonial gesture, but he'd already officially signed it on March. 29. Weiler said he understands that his resolution is polarizing, to say the least.
"Look, I'm not some cooky Mormon from Utah who's trying to impose his religion on the rest of the nation," Weiler told The Huffington Post. "I'm not trying to ban anything, for me this is about warning people and protecting children."
To his credit, Utah does love porn. Though it's known as a largely conservative state home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Harvard Business School market research report found as recently as 2009 that Utah was the highest per-capita purchaser of adult entertainment.
But the state's resolution misses the mark because its sources for "facts" are misguided. Weiler attributes his footnotes to a report by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), a known anti-porn group, which bases much of its own damning evidence on anecdotes and misguided conclusions.
For example, the NCSE report states matter-of-factly that pornography leads to adolescents viewing women as sex objects, supporting violence against women and having unprotected, dangerous sex. But the 2012 report that the NCSE document references is merely a review of the research out there, and clearly states that "[r]esearchers have had difficulty replicating these results, however, and as a result the aggregate literature has failed to indicate conclusive results."
One of the 2012 report’s co-authors, Dr. Eric Owens of West Chester University, told HuffPost that his paper shouldn’t have even been used as a primary source because it was a review of literature, not a study.
"I believe they did not represent our article accurately,” he said. “The vast majority of the literature discussed in our article did not indicate causality. That is, the research on adolescent use of Internet pornography does not indicate that use of pornography causes negative outcomes. At most, there are correlations, but it could be that individuals who are more prone to the negative behaviors listed in the Center's document are more likely to consume Internet pornography."
The NCSE backs up its claims that the porn industry is exploding, but when it needs facts to prove that pornography is a real public health issue, it uses anecdotes: "A young female college student said her abuser seemed to get more aroused the more she suffered. It seemed like he was reenacting a scene from pornography.”
Any number of experts -- at least, those without an agenda -- will tell you that there's no conclusive evidence that supports Utah's idea that porn is a "public health crisis."
“The conclusions we can draw from the science are very limited,” American Academy of Pediatrics doctor David Hill told The Atlantic. In fact, the Free Speech Coalition noted, the real issue hurting young people is a lack of accurate sex-ed in schools.
"No reputable, science-based public health organization has labeled pornography a public health crisis," the group said. "The true public health crisis is the lack of adequate, science-based sexual health education in United States, perpetuated by socially conservative politicians like these for over 35 years."
The NCSE report used for the Utah resolution also points to porn addiction as a sweeping epidemic that's comparable to drug addiction in both its societal harm and manipulation on young brains. The Atlantic noted that the line between porn and drug addiction is questionable:
While drug abuse is perennially among the leading drivers of morbidity and mortality, the American Academy of Psychiatry has repeatedly deemed evidence insufficient that sex and porn addiction be recognized as mental disorders. In 2015, researcher Nicole Prause and colleagues found that electrical patterns in the brains of people who reported “major problems” with “excessive” porn use were markedly different from the patterns of substance addicts.
In any case, Weiler says he doesn't want to ban adult entertainment outright. He said he'd like to change the industry the way policy has affected tobacco: Declare it harmful and addictive, regulate it heavily and restrict access to minors.
"When I was a kid you could buy cigarettes for a few quarters. When we as a nation found that tobacco was addictive and harmful, it got restricted from minors," Weiler told HuffPost. "We’re not trying to ban pornography just like we didn’t ban tobacco -- we’re trying to make it less accessible to children. We’re following the model that we did with tobacco years ago."
The difference in this case may be that while there is conclusive evidence that smoking tobacco gives you cancer, there's not much evidence that pornography is a health crisis producing sexually deviant children.