Back in 2009 Harvard Business School professor published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (link to PDF) on the economics of on-line pornography. Probably its most reported observation was that by multiple measures, the conservative and heavily religious state of Utah led the U.S. in the concentration of paying subscribers to pornographic websites. (See Table 2 about 3/4 of the way through the article.)
Last week, Utah’s legislature unanimously passed, and its governor signed, a resolution condemning pornography as a “public health crisis.” (The text text can be found here.) The resolution does not call for censorship, only for “education, prevention, research, and [unspecified] policy change at the community and societal level.”
Reasonable people can have differing opinions on the subject, but at the level, some of what the resolution says strikes me as probably true and other parts as questionable. To be more specific:
WHEREAS, the average age of exposure to pornography is now 11 to 12 years of age;
I don’t doubt that children can now encounter pornography as young as 11 or 12, but it’s mathematically implausible that the average age of exposure would be quite that young. Given that the distribution is necessarily bounded below by zero, the median is likely lower than the arithmetic mean, so for this assertion to be true, most of the population would have to be exposed by 10 or younger. I doubt that. Parents may be lax in monitoring kids’ Internet usage, but that lax?
WHEREAS, exposure to pornography often serves as childrens’ [sic] and youths’ sex education and shapes their sexual templates;
This may, alas, be true. Some kids likely do learn from porn because they’re not being otherwise educated on the subject, especially in states that emphasize “abstinence only” sex education (which incidentally tend to have higher rates of teen pregnancy). It’s unfortunate that the same Utah legislature just two months ago rejected a bill to improve sex education in the state. (The legislators also need some training in the use of apostrophes, but that’s a separate matter.)
WHEREAS, because pornography treats women as objects and commodities for the viewer’s use, it teaches girls they are to be used and teaches boys to be users;
And this is also at least partly true, at least judging by some of the things I see in my spam folder promoting porn websites, with women referred to by obscene terms or called “bitches.” We hear the same in some genres of music, in movies, and even from the mouths of some politicians. I mention that not to defend porn but to condemn other manifestations of misogyny.
But I don’t think it’s accurate to imply that this is a fair characterization of erotica in general. From what I’ve seen of it (and being a guy with an Internet connection, I admit I’ve seen some), it mainly depicts people mutually and enthusiastically enjoying sex. There’s no suggestion that either gender is being “used” more than the other.
WHEREAS, pornography normalizes violence and abuse of women and children;
WHEREAS, pornography treats women and children as objects and often depicts rape and abuse as if they are [sic] harmless;
WHEREAS, pornography equates violence towards women and children with sex and pain with pleasure, which increases the demand for sex trafficking, prostitution, child sexual abuse images, and child pornography;
Again, I can’t claim to be a porn expert, but this seems pretty misleading. Again, most of it I’ve come across depicts people (or sometimes a woman on her own) having a really good time, with no violence or pain and certainly no children. Child porn apparently exists, but I’ve never run across it, and given the severity of punishments it’s not surprising that people trafficking in such things would keep them hidden as much as they can.
Rather than rely only on my vague impressions, I checked a visit to a website that’s supposed to be one of the largest of its type (it’s called “Clips for Sale” if you want to look it up), and I took a look at what it promotes as the most popular categories, best-selling clips, and so on. It actually appears that women mistreating men is more popular than the reverse, and neither is as popular as plain old depictions of sex.
(In passing, I’ll add that whoever teaches the legislature a remedial apostrophe course might try to introduce the more advanced students to the subjunctive mood, so they would know to write, “as if they were harmless.”)
The resolution also suggests that “pornography is potentially biologically addictive,” but by the next clause the “potential” addiction is assumed to be certain and to lead to “increasing themes of risky sexual behaviors, extreme degradation, violence, and child sexual abuse images and child pornography.” People who know more about this than I do (and, I suspect, the average Utah legislator), question this. See, for example, this article as well as this one, both by Samantha Allen, who has a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Emory University, and which reference research that calls into question the existence of any such “potential addiction” (which doesn’t seem to be recognized by the scientific or medical communities).
As for the imagined consequences, it’s hard to reconcile the supposed public health crisis with such things as the decline in teen pregnancies and rates of sexual violence against women. I should make it clear that I don’t mean to suggest that those things are no longer problems — they clearly are. It’s also true that some things (such as STD infection rates) are getting worse. I’m simply noting that the data don’t appear to support the idea that increased availability of pornography is creating a major new public health “crisis.”
For more about the Utah resolution, see this editorial from The Utah Standard newspaper.
See also this article from February by Martha Kempner, a writer with a master’s in human sexuality from NYU. The article’s summary reads, “The resolution introduced to declare pornography an epidemic is pretty toothless. But the resolution still carries harmful implications: It allows the moral musings of one misguided lawmaker, backed up by nothing more than pseudoscience, to be presented as fact in the legal code.”
(Updated 2016 April 26 to fix some wording, including a place where I said the opposite of what I meant. Why I can’t catch such things before they go out I’ve no idea.)