Politics Aside, the RNC Was Onto Something When They Said Porn Is a Public Health Crisis

Experts agree—this isn't just a moral issue, it's a serious health concern that affects us all.
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Experts agree—this isn't just a moral issue, it's a serious health concern that affects us all.

A significant shift in the culture’s understanding of the pornographic flood that is swamping contemporary culture happened when the Republican Party marked it a “public health crisis” in its draft party platform at the Republican National Convention.

This is not the first time the GOP has labeled pornography a problem (it was part of the 2012 platform too), but it is the first time that it has framed it as a public health rather than a moral crisis. In doing so, validation comes to more than 40 years of social science and more recent neuroscience research that shows us how the use of pornography influences users’ attitudes and behaviors.

While the porn industry claims there is no research demonstrating negative effects, researchers’ findings—using a range of scientific methods—are converging: Consuming porn is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age. Other studies that explore the impact of men’s porn use on women concluded that the young women suffered diminished self-esteem, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction correlated with their partners’ porn use.

Liberal pundits have tended to be critical of the Republican proposal, even mocking the idea that pornography could be a problem, but reframing porn as a public health issue is actually progressive and necessary.

But a simple change in terminology won't solve this real health issue. To truly demonstrate a serious concern for tackling porn, would be to change the way we think about sex education in schools. Any serious public health approach to porn has to offer young people an alternative to the formulaic, degrading, and often violent porn that is now mainstream fare on the Internet. The lack of healthy sex education in homes and schools has made it easier for pornographers to hijack young people’s sexuality.

Even if we hope our kids refrain from ​risky sexual behavior, we owe it to them to teach about healthy sex instead of the false scripts they're being fed in the media and especially through porn—often as early as age 12. If we see the crisis of sexual violence for what it is, we owe it to the future generation to provide the space and skills to develop life-affirming sexuality that is rooted in gender equality, intimacy, and connection—healthy attitudes on sex to help guide them into their adult lives. If we don't, porn will continue to feed them junk sex that is based on misogyny and the commodification of the female body. Women in porn are disposable sex objects, while men treat sex as something they take from women. This is the actual sex education that most kids grow up with, and the effects are devastating.

There's also a great need to teach media literacy to help kids develop skills to see through media industries’ attempts to exploit their insecurities and fears for financial gain. 

Kids want to be cool. They want to fit in and be visible to their peers. The images in our hypersexed pop culture tell girls that looking sexually "hot" is the only way to be visible and popular—messages they're getting as young as 6 years old. At the same time, porn tells boys that their rite of passage into manhood is through sexual conquest and, increasingly, through sexual violence. We have an obligation to help young people identify and resist these sexist gender ideologies that replace relationships with hooking up, and consent with coercion.

Defining porn as a public health crisis is long overdue, and the next step is for politicians of all parties to find the courage to take on the billion-dollar industries—not only the pornography producers but the cable companies, hotels, and web sites involved in distribution. To advance a truly progressive policy, we need a movement of parents, educators, youth, child advocates, health professionals, and activists that reclaims the next generation's rights to a sexuality that is free of violence and degradation. Anything short of this represents an abdication by adults of our obligations to our kids.

Gail Dines is a sociology and women’s studies professor at Wheelock College in Boston and president of Culture Reframed, the first health promotion effort to recognize and address pornography as the public health crisis of the digital age. Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Culture Reframed board.

Photo Credit: NBC