Utah declares pornography a 'public health crisis.' Will other states follow?

Utah's resolution could prompt other states to consider similar public-health measures against pornography. 

Rick Bowmer/AP
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (l.) claps during a ceremonial signing of a state resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis Tuesday in Salt Lake City.

Utah became the first state in America to formally identify pornography as a “public health crisis,” a move that could indicate momentum toward a shift on the subject, experts say.

Such moves have their critics. Some medical practitioners, as well as activists for the First Amendment and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues see the hand of religious conservatism. But for researchers who say pornography harms children, men, women and their relationships, the news represents a breakthrough.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed the resolution Tuesday after the Utah Senate and House of Representatives unanimously passed it. 

The most promising the thing about the Utah resolution is that “they’re redefining pornography not as a moral issue, but as a harms-based issue,” says Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston, and founder and president of Culture Reframed.

Groups on both sides of the pornography debate question the other side's scientific data. But Dr. Dines is one of those who claims that the bulk of 40 years of peer-reviewed research says it’s damaging.

“Given what’s happening with pornography, given that it’s now the major form of sex ed, given that hardcore pornography is now mainstream porn, then there has to be a public-health approach," she says. "The beauty of a public-health approach is that it causes a paradigm shift.” 

Feminists have been working for decades to raise public awareness of what they deem to be pornography’s contribution to sexual violence against women. In addition, pediatricians, psychologists, and parents are decrying the negative effects, especially on young children.

The Utah resolution took the form of a long list of problems associated with pornography: the abuse of women, sex trafficking, family breakdown, and the average first-exposure age for young boys being 11.

“The harms of pornography are becoming clear in light of overwhelming scientific and social research – research which demonstrates that resolutions like the one in Utah are vital for the sexual health of future generations,” wrote Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), in a statement following the resolution.

Yet some others in the medical community say blaming pornography distracts from the many other variables that influence sexual behavior.

“People use the term addiction in a manipulative way, to invoke fear,” David Ley, a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, N.M., and the author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction,” told the Monitor earlier this year. “I’m not a fan of adolescents seeing porn…. But if you tell a teenager to be afraid of something and not do it, we are creating a situation where that teen is going to be compelled to be interested in it.”

Dines says other states are already considering Utah-like resolutions. Though she declines to name them, she suggests that they're not just religiously conservative red states. She notes that liberal-leaning Norway and Iceland are pushing regulations on pornography as a matter of public health. 

In her statement, Ms. Dawkins of NCOSE likened pornography to smoking in the 1950s. 

“As the harms become apparent, both the general public and elected officials will demand that a multi-disciplinary public health approach be implemented across the country to address it,” she wrote.

Robert Jensen, an author on the subject and a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is more circumspect.

The long-fought public-health battle against smoking had overwhelming evidence of harm and was against one industry, he says. Taking on the thinking underlying pornography requires challenging a fundamental sense of male entitlement that pervades society – a much tougher fight.

“It’s not clear that there’s some magic bullet law that will solve this,” he says.

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