Well, it’s not Zika and it won’t kill you, but pornography is being discussed—seriously—as a public health problem, even a “crisis.”
The path to this claim is a long one, with a slow burn over many years. It was kicked into higher gear in recent months with:(a) legislative action in one state;(b) a coverstory in TIME magazine (April 11 issue);(c) a Washington Post op-ed piece by anti-porn advocate Gail Dines; (d) a response to that in Atlantic Monthly; and (e) the publication of two books that discuss at length the effect of porn and the new sexual culture on teen girls—American Girls-Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Mary Jo Sales and Girls & Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein.
The legislative action took place in Utah. The Republican-led House of Representatives in that state became the first legislative body in the nation to pass a resolution declaring pornography “a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” Dines and her fellow anti-porn crusaders want to carry that fight to other states.
This is going to be fun to watch! (Pun intended.)
But is the allegation serious? Is there any solid science suggesting porn is a public health problem, let alone a crisis? Or is this just the latest sexual/cultural battle (a la sex education, abortion, LGTB rights) to emerge from our puritanical history, with social conservatives leading a mostly religious-based campaign to quash modernity, social progress, and personal freedoms of the fun kind.
Normally, I’d side pretty quickly with those dismissing the porn-public health connection. But the above referenced articles, and especially the excellent TIME magazine piece, give one pause.There’s something going on here that’s not so easy to dismiss.
I won’t repeat stats from TIME or the other pieces or books. You can read them or google all that. We all know how ubiquitous porn is. Gail Dines cites research indicating that porn sites get more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter combined. I believe it. And millions of us are still a little astounded at….well, shall we just say the variety of human sexual expression you can see on the internet after just a couple clicks.
The central contentions in the porn-is-a-public-health-crisis movement are these:
- Porn is disruptive to the “normal” sexual development of young teens (boys and girls) and feeds a pernicious and precocious hook-up/sexting/Tinder/Grindr culture.
- Porn can be addictive, not purely in a physiological sense like heroin, crack, or opioids but psychologically and perhaps partially physiologically (via pleasure-inducing brain chemicals that get released when watching it). Your brain on porn, so to speak.
- Porn leads men to sexually harass, exploit, assault or rape women.
- Porn is disruptive to marriage, mental health, and the establishment of healthy and stable sexual relationships as men (mostly) crave the intense sexual arousal it can generate, and then become unable to bond and perform sexually with women due to a sort of subtype of erectile dysfunction (ED).
- Workers in the ever-expanding porn industry (which draws on professionals and “amateurs”) are at risk of STDs, abuse, and trauma.
I haven’t reviewed the literature on any of these issues. But the aforementioned articles (TIME and Atlantic Monthly), citing selected studies and experts, concur that the research is mixed. That is, there are studies supporting and undermining each of the above contentions (which the notable exception of the last: porn industry workers are at higher risk of STDs).
The social/cultural debate over porn focuses primarily on studies linking it to misogynist and criminal behavior. And recent surveys on sexual predation on college campuses are certainly disturbing—with 1 in 4 women reporting unwanted and uninvited physical sexual contact, actual assault, or rape.
But there’s no conclusive proof porn is a major trigger of such behavior, and you could argue that it might prevent aggressive acts by being an outlet for hormone-driven sexual desire (of the teenage and early 20s urgency kind). Indeed, European studies strongly suggest as much.
It’s also worth noting in the context of the public health crisis thesis that as the hook-up/sexting/Tinder culture has spread, the incidence of teen pregnancy and STDs has actually declined. Hmmm. More careful useful of condoms? Yes. A wider variety of non-intercourse behavior, some of it learned from porn? Quite possibly.
Medical researchers are primarily interested in the addiction hypothesis, and rightly so. There’s undeniably something of interest going on there and we’re sure to see further research parsing how the human brain responds (perhaps uniquely) to porn. Is there a “neural model” of porn dependency different from other kinds of psychological or physiological dependencies? Possibly.
In the meantime, though, calling porn viewing (even a lot of it) an addiction is misleading. That plays into the hands of anti-porn advocates and isn’t based, yet, on conclusive research. It also risks stigmatizing millions of people—who are, of course, free to do with their time what they want.
That said, the genuine self-identified suffering of some men who view porn excessively (as in, hours every day) and get “hooked” on it—to the extent that it disrupts their relationships—deserves clinical attention. That attention needs to come from doctors, psychologists and support groups.I spoke with two pediatricians and both said they agreed it was an issue they should speak with their teen patients about. Couples also need also to face it forthrightly.
But excessive porn viewing does not, in my view, warrant the attention of an overly stretched and chronically underfunded public health system. Not yet, and probably never. Likewise, state actions such as those in Utah are unlikely to serve a useful public health (or any) purpose.
As quoted in TIME, clinical psychologist David J. Ley, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, makes this common-sense observation: “The overwhelming majority of porn users report no ill effects. A very, very small minority are reporting these concerns about ED.”
I would go further. While the widespread viewing of porn raises legitimate issues that merit further research and public discussion, we would be remiss if we did acknowledge and study it’s positive impact as well. Much internet porn is misogynist, but far from all. There’s lots of good well-filmed and sensitive porn out there that’s increasingly tailored tomainstream tastes. They may be acting, but the participants in some porn I’ve seen sure look pretty lovingly into each other (sorry, pun intended again).
I also think it’s beyond argument that the advent of internet porn over the past 15 years has opened our eyes and imaginations to alternative sexual practices, ones that were taboo just a decade or two ago. And some of those have now become mainstream, enriching the intimate lives of millions of people, including many an old fuddy-duddy married couple.
Historians and sociologists (the liberal ones anyway) have long observed that the U.S. has a history of sexual hang-ups. Anyone who has spent time in Europe knows citizens in many EU countries are much more blasé about sex. In contrast, we Americans have struggled with the whole subject, on many different levels, social and personal. That’s now changing slowly, for the better. Healthy sexuality (including homosexuality) is being increasingly embraced as an integral part of a meaningful and joyful life even into one’s senior years.
Porn is arguably a positive part of that change—albeit one that warrants continued scrutiny.
Steven Findlay is an independent journalist and editor who covers medicine and healthcare policy and technology.