For Todd Weiler, it started with a noisy constituent. The state senator in Utah, a Republican, was getting frequent calls from a local dentist who wanted to know what he was going to do about pornography. “I’m a lawyer," Weiler recalls telling her. "I understand the First Amendment, so I was telling her a lot of, ‘We can’t do that, we can’t do that.'"
Still, Weiler was able to get a resolution passed in 2016 declaring pornography a public health crisis. Since Utah’s first-in-the-nation resolution, the idea has picked up considerable steam: 15 other states have passed identical or near-identical resolutions.
Weiler says he changed his tune when the National Center on Sexual Exploitation approached him with the idea. “They told me," he recalls, "‘If you can pass this, we can get this passed in 15 more states. We just need one legislator to stick his neck out.'”
Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia have all passed their public health resolutions in the past two years.
Most of the passed resolutions were adopted by model legislation written by the center, which didn't respond to multiple requests for an interview. Formerly known as Morality in Media, the anti-pornography group argues that porn is linked to upticks in problems such as sex trafficking, violence against women, child abuse and addiction. Its model legislation states that pornography is contributing to violence against women and children, the hypersexualization of teenagers and is “potentially biologically addictive,” among other things.
Research on Porn's Impact Spotty
There are not many studies on pornography's impact, though. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t have a formal stance on it, and watching it isn’t considered addictive behavior by the American Psychiatric Association.
The link these state resolutions make between pornography and sex trafficking is also largely unfounded. A 2011 paper in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology called for a better evidence-based approach to both topics. 'While no one would claim that sex trafficking is fictional, many of the claims made about it are wholly unsubstantiated,” the paper finds, including the link to pornography.
But there is some research that shows negative mental health impacts of viewing a significant amount of pornography over time.
“The public likes to think of pornography as a form of sex and morality," says Jennifer Johnson, associate professor and chair of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, "and those things are highly political. But porn is neither one of those. It’s a form of commerce, it’s a big business just like Walmart or the tobacco industry." Johnson has studied the impact of pornography and human behavior and has found that the high use of pornography is tied to greater sexual insecurity and dissatisfaction.
Johnson adds that the common pop culture trope of middle school boys sneaking a peek at a Playboy or Hustler magazine isn't accurate anymore. The current generation's first interaction with scintillating images are of hardcore sex acts watched online. She says she largely agrees with the resolutions because of the findings of her research. “Is this good for our kid's sexual health?" she asks. "They are seeing adult sexual behaviors that they can’t even begin to understand."
“The more you use porn, you grow to prefer porn over real-life sex," she continues. "It is not a benign form of media, it has an impact. When you reconceptualize it as a consumer product, questions emerge. Like how are they marketing the product? Is it healthy? Does the product produce positive outcomes?”
If lawmakers are interested in tackling the mental health impacts that viewing porn can have on young people, Johnson says legislation targeting the conversations pediatricians have with children and families is a good starting place. “Help pediatricians and parents talk to their kids about porn and porn use in the home," Johnson says. "Questions like, ‘Do you see your parents using porn? Do you see it in your home?’ I wouldn’t start with going after porn in a restrictive way, that’s a losing battle politically.”
Back in Utah, Weiler is working on other approaches that target the pornography industry. In the past two years, he’s sponsored bills that allow families to sue distributors for negative outcomes porn may have on their children and that require Internet companies to alert households to the filtering options available to them. Both were signed by the governor. “Just like we do with alcohol and tobacco," he says, "we need good faith age limits."