Last year, Utah adopted a resolution declaring pornography a “public health crisis.” So did the Republican Party in last year's platform. Recently, similar resolutions have cleared legislative hurdles in four more state legislatures - Virginia, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Arkansas. “Porn as a public health crisis” has all the makings of a political movement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effort to label porn a “public health crisis” has fostered controversy. Look around the internet and you’ll find articles in favor of and opposed to treating porn as a public health issue. Beyond the usual (puzzling) disconnect between the “pro” and “con” camps over the growing scientific evidence regarding porn’s ill effects, the debate seems at least in part driven by the fact that “public health crisis” has no uniform definition. But, despite our well-established linguistic inclinations, we’re not going to wade into that morass here.
Instead, today we want to focus on the political side of the ledger. So far as we can tell, all of the state lawmakers who have thus far introduced measures on “porn as a public health crisis” have been Republicans. Republicans also hold the majority the lawmaking bodies in all five states that have taken up these measures. Some Democrats have voted in favor of the resolutions in the states where they’ve come to a vote, and have served as undercard sponsors of the measures. But, we are not aware of a single Democrat (or Independent) who has been the principal champion of a “porn as a public health crisis” measure to date.
That's unfortunate. As we’ve written in the past, pornography ignores political affiliation. Problematic porn use (call it addiction, compulsivity, hypersexuality, etc.) is widespread, and it lays waste to the lives of people across the political spectrum. The widely-reported effects of porn’s production, distribution, and consumption, such as human trafficking, sexual violence, and sexual disfunction, have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. These are deeply human issues that demand the attention and action of every citizen.
So, why are Republicans occupying the field when it comes to introducing measures addressing porn’s effects? One simple reason could be that Republicans dominate a large majority of state legislatures nationwide. The “porn as a public health crisis” measures that have passed so far are not “law” in the sense of dictating executive policy or action. They are statements of factual findings and broad principles, and rarely face significant opposition - the sort of measures that tend to sail through legislatures dominated by one party. Also, the base of the “anti-pornography” movement has historically lived on the political right. So, it might not be surprising if the impetus for the “porn as a public health crisis” initiative comes from conservative quarters.
Still, that doesn’t quite explain why a Democrat hasn’t yet stepped up to champion one of these measures, not even in a legislature where Democrats are in the majority. After all, fears about the effects of porn are no longer predominately the domain of right-leaning conservatives. The internet has transformed the landscape. What was once a relatively inaccessible, taboo product is now available for free, in unlimited quantities, twenty-four hours per day, on any screen, to anyone, anywhere. Porn demand, production and consumption have exploded and are evolving at a furious pace. With that explosion, the reasons for concern over porn’s effects continue to grow. There’s cause for alarm for everyone, no matter their politics, gender, faith, or sexual orientation.
We think the explanation for the political left's relative absence from the "porn as a public health crisis" movement (from which we're excluding the subject of "revenge porn", which is not porn so much as a form of assault and invasion of privacy) instead lies in some unfortunate and longstanding habits of American political culture. Though porn is a universal issue, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the text of the resolutions that have passed statehouses so far. Somewhere along the line, partisan buzzwords crept into these measures, all but ensuring that they would be perceived by a weary and cynical public as extensions of our polarized - and paralyzed - politics. Democrats, we suspect, have followed suit.
Here’s what we mean. The measures that have passed cover the gamut of concerns posed by modern porn, and employ the reassuringly secular terminology of “public health." That's all good. But, they also employ language distinctive of the conservative side of the “culture wars” that have dominated U.S. politics for generations. For example, the measures focus disproportionately on pornography’s effects on heterosexuals, and warn that porn leads to “deviant sexual arousal,” which many left-leaning readers will interpret as antagonism toward homosexuality and other sexual minorities. The measures place asymmetric emphases on how porn may affect one gender or the other, which, likewise, will be seen as patriarchal and an invasion of the privacy of our bedrooms. And, though they rightly decry that porn has become a de facto form of sex education, the measures risk being seen as hypocritical in failing to acknowledge how inadequate public health education may drive porn demand.
Please don’t get us wrong. We’re not necessarily endorsing these critiques. If Democrats were pushing “porn as a public health crisis” measures in statehouses using their own historical culture war vocabulary (often received as an affront to conservatives’ religious beliefs and commitment to family values), that, too, would be unhelpful. Our commentary here is on the tendency of political partisans of all stripes to shoot themselves in the foot when an issue evolves beyond its historical sphere of focus and requires broader political attention.
We do not doubt not that the authors of “porn as a public health crisis” measures choose their words carefully, nor do we question whether they hold their views genuinely and in good faith. They do. But it’s time for a little realpolitik. We live in a highly toxic political era. Once we occupy a political camp, the language we employ to express our views risks alienating the other half of the country. So it is with Republican-sponsored "porn as a public health crisis” measures. By salting their well-intended legislation with culture war tropes, legislators are playing directly into the inaccurate and demeaning (to all involved) perception that the only people paying attention to the negative effects of porn are religious conservatives in the throes of a full-fledged “moral panic.”
That’s not a good thing. If “porn as a public health crisis” and similar measures continue to be seen as a uniquely Republican venture, the issue will fall victim to political paralysis and we will all be the worse for wear. We encourage Democrats and Republicans and Independents to sponsor measures raising awareness about porn’s effects that use non-polarizing language that emphasizes universal themes everyone’s constituents can agree on.
The stakes are too high to be playing politics over porn any longer.
It’s been reported that religious people are more likely to experience distress about their porn use than non-religious people who use porn. Why? One common answer is that religion teaches that porn use is wrong and to be avoided, and so religious people feel distress over their transgression of those teachings. But is that answer sufficiently nuanced to account for the entire difference between religious and non-religious porn users? Let’s dig deeper.
(The normal caveat applies - this is a huge topic and our perspective is limited by our learning and experience. Polite, thoughtful comments are encouraged.)
Research has established that non-religious porn users also experience distress over their porn use. (For a comprehensive review of porn use statistics, see Barna Group’s “The Porn Phenomenon”, available here.) Let’s assume that this baseline group of porn users will experience distress over porn use for reasons that are completely independent of their religiosity. (This is just an assumption, of course. It’s possible that there’s no overlap between the reasons non-religious porn users in the baseline group feel distress and the reasons religious porn users in the baseline group feel distress. But, we doubt it.) Let’s also assume that religious and non-religious people use porn in basically the same ways and for the same reasons. (Barna's statistics largely bear this out.)
Given these assumptions, our focus is on the extra, religiously-observant porn users who reportedly feel distress compared to non-religious porn users, even though they’re all using porn the same way. Why is that extra distress happening?
To answer that question, we think it’s useful to identify three variables at play in people’s reaction to their own porn use: recognition of a behavioral norm (recognizing that certain porn use is wrong), awareness of transgression of a behavioral norm (knowing you’ve done wrong by certain porn use), and degree of distress about that transgression (how bad you feel about having done wrong by certain porn use). Further, we propose that the difference in feelings of distress between religious and non-religious porn users could have something to do with each of these variables.
The easy answer to why religious people feel more distress over their porn use relies heavily on the first of these variables. The argument goes, in short, that religions impose rules on their adherents that do not apply to non-believers. (Think, for example, of dietary restrictions that bar consumption of certain foods.) The reasoning is that since religion imposes norms relating to porn use that aren’t recognized universally, then the simple fact that religious people have more rules to break regarding porn than non-religious people leads to higher distress rates. That’s certainly a facile explanation. But is it sufficiently correct?
Maybe, but we doubt it. We think instead that other, more universal, norms come into play when religious people report distress over their porn use.
Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that religious doctrine added nothing to the body of universal norms that influence our perceptions of porn use. That is, imagine everybody in the world shared exactly the same views on when and why certain porn use is wrong. Which group - religious or non-religious - would you expect to be more aware that their own porn use transgressed a universal norm? We think it would be religious people. Why? Because, among other things, religious practice serves an educational function in society. People go to church and listen to lessons. Religious institutions engage in social commentary. Religious people, in other words, are more likely than non-religious people to be exposed to commentary and discussion about norms of behavior.
We think this is especially true when it comes to porn. In the public debates over porn use, religious organizations account for a sizable portion of the publicity of negative impacts of pornography, such as links between pornography and sexual violence, human trafficking, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. Whatever the religious motive of those institutions in disseminating this information, if you are religious you are more likely to be exposed to it. And to be exposed to information about how certain porn use transgresses universal, social norms is to be aware of having potentially transgressed those norms yourself when you use porn. So, some distress by porn users who are religious likely results from their heightened awareness of how certain porn use transgresses not just religious norms, but also universally accepted societal norms.
So, let’s ask a final question: which do you think a religious person is more likely to feel a higher degree of distress over - breaking a rule that only members of that religion share (“certain porn use offends our God”), or breaking a rule that is universal (“certain porn use harms you and others”)? We don’t have a clear answer to this one. But we do have a few observations. In our experience, the large religions provide not only a system of rules to follow, but also a promise of redemption. Everybody sins and the Divine forgives. People find comfort in this cycle of transgression and forgiveness - it’s what draws many to religion in the first place. Because of these beliefs, religious people have a basis for feeling less distressed than their non-religious peers about transgressing norms of behavior. After all, the certainty of Divine forgiveness takes some of the edge off of messing up.
However, transgressing a universal norm of behavior may result more than just spiritual consequences. Certain porn use can result in relationship difficulties and job loss, not to mention the previously-mentioned societal harms like violence and trafficking. It seems reasonable to surmise that a religious person might be inclined to feel greater distress over a behavior that has both spiritual and tangible impacts, as compared one that is constrained by religious doctrine alone.
Our two cents here is that religious people probably feel more distress about their porn use than non-religious people because they’re much more attuned than non-religious people to all of the potential harms of their porn use. Some of those perceived harms may be unique to their religious beliefs, and that may lead to additive distress. But we suspect that to a greater extent, religious people are simply more aware of information supporting the view that certain porn use is universally harmful, so that when they use porn, they are more likely to feel the full weight of its impact.