May 10 2016

Pornography and Public Health

As Utah declares pornography a public health menace, Mailman School professors offer their take on the pluses and minuses of explicit material

On April 29, Utah passed an official resolution declaring pornography as a public health crisis. The resolution does not impose a ban or criminal punishment, but instead the resolution formalizes lawmakers’ official disapproval of pornography in Utah, a state with one of the highest rates of porn consumption in the United States.

The resolution’s sponsor, Utah Republican Senator Todd Weiler likened pornography to tobacco saying it is addictive and harmful and its consequences with devastating effects that include warped brain development, damaged self-esteem, and broken families that could eventually overwhelm the state’s services.

David Bell, associate professor of Population and Family Health and Pediatrics, said although pornography is not without negatives, he would not declare it a public health hazard.

“Overall, the role of pornography in culture is varied, but the role it plays in human sexuality is probably the same as since the dawn of art,” Bell said. Anything in excess, including pornography, can be problematic, he added.

As medical director of the Family Planning Program that includes the Young Men's Clinic, Bell occasionally speaks with his patients about their relationship to pornography. In his estimation, their fantasies can sometimes overrule reality.

“The person in front of them cannot live up to the fantasies in their head they get from pictures or videos,” Bell said. “Porn can affect young men negatively because they feel like they won’t be as ‘good’ at sex as the porn star.” These distortions happen, he says, when they don’t have adequate education to promote sex positivity—the idea that safe, consensual sex is healthy.

“Based on research I’ve been a part of, for many young adolescent males, their only way of knowing what to do during sex is by watching porn,” Bell said.

Men are more visual in their sexual gratification, which is why pornography—a $13 billion business in the United States—is so pervasive, he explained. And while women may be less visually stimulated when it comes to sexual gratification, that doesn’t mean they don’t watch porn too, he added.

Critics of the Utah resolution note that it eschews any evidence of the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education, pinning problems solely on pornography. The resolution is just the latest example of policies that ostensibly promote sexual health, while marginalizing populations that don’t support their conservative ideals, said clinical psychologist and author of The Myth of Sex Addiction David Ley, in an interview with KEUR Radio in Utah. These marginalized groups often include people living with HIV/AIDS and the LGBT community.

When Porn Is a Positive

New research from Eric Schrimshaw, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences, provides empirical evidence that flies in the face of the idea that pornography is inherently negative. In his study of men who have sex with men (MSM), Schrimshaw found that men who watched porn that featured actors using condoms were more likely to have safer sex themselves.

“By declaring pornography as a public health hazard, Utah ignores the potential benefits of pornography as a medium to promote condom use among performers and MSM viewers,” Schrimshaw said. “Our findings lend support to the argument for greater availability of sexually explicit media that contains anal sex in which condoms are clearly used by performers.”

In a heterosexual context, David Bell said that while pornography isn't his area of academic expertise, he views most explicit content as a symptom, not the cause, of a misogynistic culture. Even so, he explained, much of this explicit content is presented from a male perspective that privileges male agency and pleasure, providing a narrow and harmful understanding of what sex and sexuality looks like while objectifying and denigrating women. He said solutions should include broadening the definition of masculinity to be sex positive and pro-women.

“This requires a larger conversation than just pornography,” Bell said. “In light of Prince’s recent death, I think about how as a cultural icon, he expanded our thoughts on masculinity and sexuality.”

By Michelle Truong,
MPH candidate in Sociomedical Sciences