Pornography: a growing public health crisis

Lawmakers in South Dakota, Virginia and Tennessee have proposed resolutions this legislative session affirming the public harm of pornography. These resolutions do not create any penalties or regulations on pornography, but are the first legislative steps toward acknowledging the damaging effects of pornography on individuals and society.

The three states are capitalizing on Utah’s passage of a resolution last year recognizing that “pornography is a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.”

The bills, which share nearly identical language, list several harmful facets of pornography: the “hypersexualization” of adolescent and prepubescent children, normalization of violence in sexual relations, objectification of women leading to sex trafficking and prostitution, addiction, and impaired marital and family life.

Each bill recognizes the need for “education, prevention, research and policy change at the community and societal level” to address the pornography “epidemic.”

South Dakota’s resolution, SCR 4, passed both houses of the legislature on Jan 31. A similar bill in Virginia, HJ 549, passed the House of Delegates but did not receive a vote in the Senate. In Tennessee, SJR 35 has moved out of the Senate health committee and will be scheduled for a vote soon.

Haley Halverson, communications director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which drafted the template for current pornography resolutions, said that pornography has gained traction as a legislative concern because “we now have almost an entire generation that’s grown up with pornography in a way that no other generation has before.”

“As rising generations are struggling with this, and as more research is coming out, it’s becoming a larger problem in the view of the public,” Halverson told Our Sunday Visitor.

Generation in crisis

The Proven Men Porn Survey, conducted by Barna Group in 2014, found that 64 percent of U.S. men view pornography monthly, with that figure rising to 79 percent for men between the ages of 18-30. Also, 34 percent of women age 18-30 view pornography monthly.

In the same survey, 55 percent of men between 18-30 said they first encountered pornography before the age of 12, while 25 percent of women did.

One pornography website found that it had 64 million global visitors per day, and that nearly 92 billion videos had been viewed in the past year. It estimated that the U.S. accounted for 40 percent of its traffic.

The industry feeding these habits is correspondingly large. One research report found that revenues for internet pornography in the United States amounted to $3 billion in 2016. In 2006, the whole sex industry was estimated to be about $13 billion.

Habitual viewing has serious effects. Fight the New Drug, an anti-pornography nonprofit, has gathered research on increased aggression in regular viewers of pornography, dissatisfaction with romantic relationships and the addictive nature of pornography through dopamine dependency.   

Devastated intimacy

The American Psychiatric Association decided against including pornography addiction in its 2013 manual of mental disorders, DSM-5. But the experience of many health professionals and consumers of pornography has led them to conclude that addiction to pornography does exist.

“You can call addiction a compulsion, or a psychological term for a bad habit, but it’s a behavior that eventually takes over your life,” said Angela Fernandes, a psychotherapist in Seattle.

Father Scott Hastings, vicar for clergy in the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, and a member of its anti-pornography ministry, PATH, told OSV, “A good way to figure out if your behavior is habitual or addictive is how capable you are of maintaining boundaries.”

“It’s hard to deny that it’s wrecking marriages, and that people are enslaved to it like anything else they might be addicted to,” he said.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in a 2003 survey found that in 56 percent of divorce cases, one spouse had an obsessive interest in online pornography. A study published in 2016 found that divorce rates nearly doubled for men and nearly tripled for women who began watching pornography during their marriage.

“It’s a public health hazard because it’s destroying relationships, and that’s what our society, our culture, our communities are based on. When you disrupt the emotional connection between men and women, you’re wreaking havoc with something very powerful,” Fernandes told OSV.

Fernandes said that when someone consumes pornography, “He’s going to see women called horrible names, choked, slapped, beaten and raped. People are becoming excited by this, and this really destroys their opinion of what intimacy looks like.”

She added, “It’s carnage of emotional closeness, and intimacy, and what God designed sexuality for.”

Healing a culture

While many would like to eliminate the impact of pornography on public life, the means to achieve that goal are less clear.

Kirk Doran, an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV that “reducing consumption of something that’s very broadly consumed, and that some people are probably addicted to, is always complicated.” Because online pornography moves through an internet service provider (ISP) before reaching a consumer, “whatever regulations you do, it has to occur at the ISP level.”

Gerard V. Bradley, a professor of law at Notre Dame, has advocated for creating a right to sue in civil court over “unwilling” or “negligent” exposure to obscene materials, or making government grants contingent on institutions preventing any access to obscene material.

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James O’Day, executive director of Integrity Restored, a ministry to those who have been affected by pornography, said that families should educate themselves about the extent of pornography, protect their computers and smartphones through filtering and accountability software and talk to each other.

“The only way to bring light to pornography is to have a conversation,” he told OSV. “We need to be comfortable having that conversation with our spouses, with our kids.”

Father Hastings told OSV that he hoped that in the future talking about pornography and assisting people with this addiction “would be just as open as talking about Alcoholics Anonymous.” Many men and women, he explained, are suffering tremendous damage because they feel like they cannot talk about their struggles with pornography.

“The majority of men, and a rising number of women, are affected,” Father Hastings said. “Pornography is everywhere, and yet we pretend that it’s something we can’t talk about. It would be nice if we could get to the point where people could be honest and open about it.”

Nicholas W. Smith writes from New York.