Inside the Movement to Declare Pornography a ‘Health Crisis’

Newly intensifying anti-porn campaigns are mixing conservative and liberal principles, science, and ideology.

In 2010, Arkansas psychologist Ana Bridges and colleagues scrutinized 304 scenes that they would deem in a scientific journal to be “popular pornographic videos.” The researchers were looking for aggression. It was not rare; 88 percent of the scenes contained what the experts deemed physical aggression, defined in the academic journal as “principally spanking, gagging, and slapping.” Nearly half contained verbal aggression, usually from men toward women, who “most often showed pleasure or responded neutrally to the aggression.”

To sociologist Gail Dines, a self-identifying radical feminist and “anti-porn advocate,” these findings added to a body of evidence that she deemed conclusive. Dines believes that non-coercive pornography cannot exist in a capitalist society, where sex-based media will always lead to an industry that becomes a violent manifestation of structural inequalities. In The Washington Post this weekend, Dines wrote a column that spread widely: “Is Porn Immoral? That Doesn’t Matter: It’s a Public-Health Crisis.”

The divisive proclamation was occasioned by a bill passed last month in Utah declaring pornography to be “a public-health crisis.” The bill, like the phrase, traces back to Dines, who has spoken and lectured on the evils of pornography around the world. In 2013, Dines traveled to Reykjavik, where she met with Iceland’s Ministers of health and welfare amid country’s campaign to ban pornography. The move would have put the liberal state–with an openly lesbian prime minister and a gender-pay gap that is the lowest in the world—in the company of Saudi Arabia and the countries where gender disparities are greatest. But it made sense to many as a matter of public health.

Dines honed this approach—framing pornography not as a subject of moral decree but as an urgent issue of tangible detriment to human bodies and minds—in high-level meetings in Poland and Canada. In 2015, she returned her focus to the U.S., relaunching an advocacy group based in Boston with the new mission to “eradicate porn’s harms because porn has quickly escalated into an overlooked public health crisis.”

That July, Dines made the same argument to legislators in the U.S. Capitol Building, at an anti-pornography summit. There she reached an unlikely confederate, a Republican state senator from Utah named Todd Weiler. A blonde, 48-year-old divorce attorney, Weiler returned to his home state to champion the bill. When the text of the bill made it to the Internet, Weiler recalls, it “went viral” and he was “immediately inundated with criticism.” This was, in part, over contentious claims being presented as simple fact, like “WHEREAS, pornography use is linked to lessening desire in young men to marry, dissatisfaction in marriage, and infidelity.”

Imbued with purpose, Weiler grew only more resolute in the face of feedback. Presenting the bill on the floor in February, he listed as a virtue the fact that “every sentence” was written by the group that hosted the summit, National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), another advocacy group whose mission is “exposing the public-health crisis of pornography.” He described the summit to his colleagues: “A number of Ph.Ds and neuroscientists and other people with lots of letters after their names presented papers on this issue.” The NCSE had told Weiler, he recalled to me, that if he could get the bill passed in Utah, another 15 states would follow suit. He sees this as the beginning of a national movement to take on porn as a health epidemic.

When I ask him why, Weiler reiterates that he is “not a scientist.” For facts and science, the senator directs me to a Utah-based group called Fight the New Drug. (The new drug is pornography.) The group’s “Facts” page offers much in the way of terse declarative aphorisms; such facts as “Porn hates families,” “Porn leaves you lonely,” and “Porn addiction escalates.” The group made national news in late 2015 when it plastered San Francisco with more than 100 billboards that said, “Porn kills love.”

The group denies a formal affiliation with the Mormon church, though as journalist Samantha Allen notes, its founders are all Mormon, and its facts rely on claims from Mormon author Donald Hilton’s He Restoreth My Soul: Understanding and Breaking the Chemical and Spiritual Chains of Pornography through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The group’s leader Clay Olsen has explicitly distanced his group from the larger sect. His group opts for a newer-age revelation, explaining on its website, “As young college students not too long ago, we came across the recent science of how porn affects the brain and we were shocked!”

Olson and company sell the ideological argument as a “just the facts” approach. Less transparent than an openly ideology-driven strategy, the just-the-facts approach is rather a just-some-of-the-facts approach. Fight the New Drugs’ marketing campaigns have built a hearty million-follower Facebook page, where a person can buy faux-faded t-shirts with aphorisms about choosing love instead of porn. Righteous idealism is sold to those countercultural enough to seek a cause, but not enough to challenge spurious dichotomies.

Todd Weiler particularly likes the group’s drug analogy—especially tobacco, but the harder stuff, too. “If you start with meth or heroin, everyone knows that’s addictive,” he told me. “A lot of people will get kind of lured into pornography, and they don’t know it may actually consume their life.”

Comparisons of drugs and porn have proven less clear-cut than suggested by the intuitive leap that all dopamine-based reward systems must be different degrees of the same thing. 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. Media-use patterns are clearly woven into innumerable aspects of health and wellbeing, but the leap from pornography to cocaine here appears to be (as in most cases) appropriation of oversimplified neurochemistry. Prause concluded that her findings did not support a neural model of “porn addiction.”

Prause found in another study that watching pornography did not seem to kill love, but rather increased people’s likelihood of being aroused by other media, and increased the desire for sex with their partners. The journalist Maria Konnikova recounted last year in Aeon that when Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky charted sexual aggression in the two decades after Denmark and Sweden legalized pornography, the crimes did not increase in step with pornography distribution, but actually declined. This suggested to him that pornography was an outlet for sexual expression less than a driver of problematic real-world behavior. In 2013, psychologist Gert Martin Hald studied the porn-consumption habits of 4,600 adolescents and young adults and found the impact on sexual behaviors to be minute; one of many factors contributing to behavior. Pornography is comprised of spectra of complex elements, each of which affects individuals in individual ways.

The question of how to raise kids in a world of ubiquitous pornography of the violent and misogynistic bent has long been on the radar of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It is of particular concern to pediatrician David Hill, who chairs the organization’s Council on Communications and Media. His group has been less than explicit about issuing guidelines on pornography versus non-pornography, seeing vital character-shaping cues from all types of media as germane to health. “We do recommend that parents keep screens out of kids bedrooms, to the extent they’re able to,” Hill told me. “We encourage parents to co-view TV and movies with kids, to give perspective. Movies and TV shows often do not show consequences for high-risk behaviors.” In many cases, high-risk behaviors of all sorts run together.

“That is not to suggest that you co-view pornography,” he said with a laugh. Obvious as that may seem, what we do know about the effects of viewing pornography on kids remains largely speculative. If access to pornography is categorically threatening to public health, he posits, why would it be that the U.S. is seeing historic lows in rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infectious diseases? Why, too, would rates of domestic violence and rape be continuing to fall?

“I think the conclusions we can draw from the science are very limited,” said Hill. Usually, public-health crises are based on outcomes rather than risk factors, however plausible. While Dines and others cite many correlations between pornography consumption and negative health outcomes, the causal relationship is rarely explicit. Making that leap is especially tenuous when studies rely on subjects recalling and reporting information about taboo behaviors and thoughts, a notoriously unreliable approach. Yet, Hill notes, no one is going to do a prospective trial where kids are given porn in a controlled environment to see how they are affected.

“Now, as a parent,” he pivoted, “I am concerned. My experience with parental controls has been disappointing at best.”

Weiler has the same sense. “A lot of people say this is a parental thing, but I’ve had mothers tell me that they block pornography in their homes, and their kids get tablets at school, take them to McDonald’s and log onto Wi-Fi, and they’re sitting in McDonald’s watching porn.”

McDonald’s is working to stem this issue of errant purveyance of porn to minors, Weiler said. “But the same is true with libraries. They put their hand over their heart and say it’s a first amendment issue. And it is! But we would be appalled if libraries and McDonald’s were handing out cigarettes to children.”

Weiler prefers to intervene upstream of the First Amendment. In the U.K. in 2013, David Cameron asked Internet service providers to create an opt-in option for pornography. Hence Weiler’s interest in a national movement. “If we can get 15 states to take this stand,” he said, “I think we can start putting pressure on Congress to do what England has done.”

England has not done this, though. Cameron did suggest it, but, in 2015, the EU ruled that “porn filters” were illegal. This is a protection of net neutrality, the idea that all states and Internet providers must “treat all traffic equally, without discrimination, restriction, or interference.” To suggest that government impose limitations on that flow of information could be considered at odds with conservative ideology. And, even if Internet service providers were asked to filter pornography, how would they decide the fundamental question, what is pornography?

“I don’t have those details,” said Weiler. “I need to do more research on that.” But, in defense of conservative ideology, he suggests we keep in mind, “You might have a first amendment right to view pornography, but what about my first amendment right not to see it? Sometimes, as you know, with popup ads and everything, it’s just there. I go on twitter and see pornography, even though I use it for politics.”

“Oh, really?” I asked. I haven’t had that experience.

“Oh yeah.”

“Like, people retweeting porn?”

“Yeah, there’s a lot of pornography on Twitter. … I’m constantly blocking it. I’m very active on twitter. I have thousands of followers, and I’m constantly blocking accounts that are tweeting out porn.”

I’ve not had that happen, but I’ve never gone out of my way to squelch the industry. I do know that even without porn, Twitter use is predicated on dopamine bursts. It is also a place where misogyny and hatred boil. Parallels could be drawn.

Gail Dines is less prolific on Twitter. Dines told me she was shocked to see her language in Weiler’s bill in Utah, but she sees it as a half measure. “Of course, this won’t work without comprehensive sex education,” she said. “You have to offer alternative images of healthy sexuality, based on connection and consent. Which doesn’t mean that you meet a guy and have sex with him for the rest of your life. We’re talking about creative, fun sexuality here. That you are the author of.”

Hill corroborated that comprehensive sexual education has been shown to protect against STIs and teen pregnancy. “If people really want to make a difference in the health endpoints that we care most about, then I would encourage them to ensure that every child and teenager has access to age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education.”

This approach is paradoxically shunned by Utah, which allows schools to provide only minimal instruction on sexually transmitted infections and contraceptives. In February, the same month that Weiler’s bill unanimously condemned pornography, Utah representative Brian King proposed a bill that would allow comprehensive sex education. Amid the rising levels of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the state, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported that the bill would “open the door for more robust conversations of human sexuality, with parents required to opt-in their children to those courses.”

“I defy any reasonable person to come up here and say those are not positive, important, good things for our kids to have taught to them,” King said at the time. But, people defied. Even when proposed as an opt-in measure, comprehensive sex education was defeated.

Utah remains one of the majority of states that today prioritize “abstinence only” or “abstinence first” approaches to sex education—which is false equivalence, in that these are approaches to sex education in name only. When states do not encourage and enable educators to talk practically and comprehensively about sex, kids and adults alike may not understand and contextualize all that happens in pornography, and may be more amenable to suggestion. Within a public-health framework, to work exclusively to restrict access to all pornography is less an attempt at treating illness than at relieving patients of consciousness.

Arguing whether the entire genre of pornography is categorically bad or good can be idle bickering, or it can lead to consideration of the many ways that we develop and maintain understandings of power and oppression, sex and love. Hill is intrigued by the idea of empathy training, and implementing it into school curricula. It remains legal to teach justice and effective communication, and to imbue compassion and respect. As public-health specialist Kathleen Johnson put it last month in a public-health journal, sex education is not about any single class or conversation, but necessarily “a synthesis of lifetime experiences and knowledge to form attitudes, beliefs, and values on identity, relationships, and intimacy.”