Florida has become the latest state to declare pornography a “public health risk,” — but are such declarations good policy or moral grandstanding?
Passed by voice vote last month, the Florida resolution “acknowledges the need for educational prevention, research, and policy change to protect the citizens of this state [from pornography].”
To back up that conclusion, resolution supporters say pornography is increasingly exposed to children, objectifies women, and normalizes violent and abusive behavior toward them.
Supporters also say that porn can lead to “a compulsive disorder in which excessive amounts of pornography are consumed.”
But the question of whether or not pornography is a real public health crisis is contentious.
Some have argued that it’s merely a renewed moral war on obscenity rather than a de facto health issue.
But supporters of these resolutions, like those in Utah, say that pornography’s effects must be treated like a disease.
“We do need to see this like avian flu, or cholera, or diphtheria, or polio,” Elder Jeffrey Holland, an anti-pornography crusader and member of the Mormon church said in 2016. “It needs to be eradicated.”
How does this affect health policy?
While state pornography resolutions have made for big headlines, they don’t necessarily mean a lot for actual public health policy.
“It has very little legal meaning other than to raise attention to the fact that they are approaching it as a serious matter, but they haven’t authorized anything to be done about it, precisely,” James Hodge, JD, a professor of public health law and ethics at Arizona State University, told Healthline.
Declaring a “public health emergency” is a formal declaration that has legal and operational power in response to emergency events.
A public health “risk” or “crisis” is simply an acknowledgement of a problematic issue.
Nonetheless, the language of these resolutions has raised eyebrows from some sexual health experts.
“I think [porn] is an area where there has never been any consistent evidence of harms associated with use, although it depends on what you define as use,” said Dr. Dennis Fortenberry, a member of the American Sexual Health Association’s board of directors and a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.
“There’s not a consensus and there’s not a definitive body of work that could link pornography in a causal way to any of the things that were identified,” he told Healthline.
Fortenberry echoed the sentiment of other experts in the field who say coming to these conclusions essentially involves cherry-picking data.
Is porn an addiction?
Even pornography addiction, a term that comes up frequently in popular culture and is often referenced obliquely in these state resolutions, isn’t an issue that’s been conclusively settled.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), previous proposals to add hypersexual disorder, under which pornography addiction would be a subtype, to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) failed when reviewers determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to include those definitions.
Some researchers have tried to measure the brain’s response to pornography compared to addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol. Those experiments have also yielded inconsistent results.
Dr. Valerie Voon, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who has designed studies along these lines, has declined to classify porn consumption in the same language as drug and alcohol abuse.
“We need more studies to clearly state that it’s an addiction,” she told the APA.
Still, there are some apparently more concrete effects that can be attributed to pornography, although they may not be nearly as dubious as many of the accusations made by Florida and Utah.
In 2016, researchers concluded that millennials were having less sex than members of generation X. One reason, they said, was access to pornography.
But teasing out what that really means is still difficult.
Some proposed that unrealistic pornographic images have created unrealistic pressures and performance anxiety.
Others say that pornography consumption has become an expedient sexual practice at the same time that sex itself has become too distracting for career-focused young people.
Is less sex healthy or unhealthy?
So, is having less sex good or bad from a health perspective?
Perhaps the answer to that question is less important than the myriad of reasons, technologic and otherwise, for why it’s happening.
Similarly, opponents of pornography argue that it’s increasingly a source of sexual education for young children.
Sexual health advocates say that this is the symptom of inadequate public sexual health education — particularly among marginalized individuals, including members of the gay and trans community.
For now, Fortenberry said, studies on pornography and its potentially harmful outcomes on individuals remains muddy.
“There has been a uniform failure for any sort of consensus to emerge on what those harms might be and how they could be reduced by modifying access to pornography,” he said.
But even then, there’s still a case to be made for looking at pornography under the lens of a public health issue as well.
Hodge argued that pornography is “absolutely” a public health issue.
“When you are looking at public health repercussions, we examine those across a lot of different boundaries,” he said.
With a multitude of potentially negative repercussions, from mental health issues to domestic violence, Hodge said it’s not a stretch to include the porn industry as one with “direct negative influences on community health.”
“It would be the same as saying whether football is a public health concern. You bet it is. It totally is,” said Hodge. “When you’ve got kids and adolescents getting severely injured by a sport that they optionally play that could be made a heck of a lot safer, it’s a public health risk.”
“Just compare it to anything like that. It doesn’t make it unlawful. It doesn’t make it something you can’t do. But what it does say is recognize it for what it is: a severe risk,” he said.