Politics, Pornography, and Public Health
Pornography is most often a fictional performance for interested consumers or a fantasy that some find entertaining. And, judging from the internet, quite a lot of people enjoy those fictional performances.
According to the Tony award winning musical Avenue Q, the internet is for porn! Reality supports this claim. Data released by Pornhub — the world’s largest pornography website–indicates that over 5.5 billion hours of pornography were watched on their website alone in 2018. That’s over 4,000 petabytes of data. Survey data from 2014 showed that close to half of men and one in five women viewed pornography online every week. Those numbers haven’t gone down in recent years.
Given this popularity, it’s not surprising that conversations about pornography use have been elevated to the national level. At last count, 16 states have declared pornography a public health crisis, and within the past week, four GOP representatives signed an open letter to William Barr asking for the Attorney General’s office to work toward prosecuting producers of “obscene pornography.” In short, porn has, yet again, become political.
Of course, porn has always been political. For nearly five decades, the supposed evils of pornography have been a recurring theme in conservative political agendas. Study after study after study has clearly shown the opposition to pornography use is best predicted by whether or not someone identifies as religious and/or conservative. Going back to the days of Jerry Falwell Sr. and the Moral Majority in the 1970s and James Dobson‘s work with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, opposition to pornography has always been a blend of religion and politics. Now, in a time of extreme partisan polarization and a hard lurch toward Evangelicalism in the GOP, we see this blend of political and religious opposition to pornography rearing its head yet again. But now, the political position against pornography is supposedly supported by facts.
Each of the 16 state resolutions declaring pornography a public health crisis has claimed that pornography is a threat to children, families, and society. The same claims are also made by the letter signed by Representatives Meadows, Banks, Hartzler, and Babin. Yet, the science behind these claims is tenuous, at best. Research has linked pornography to lesser sexual satisfaction in some cases, though other research suggests that it is not pornography that is driving this link. Some studies have found that pornography is associated with more sexists attitudes, whereas others have found it is linked to more egalitarian attitudes. There is currently no scientific consensus regarding whether pornography use can become an addiction, and claims that pornography use always damages relationships similarly lack support. In short, the scientific community is thoroughly undecided as to whether or not pornography use is problematic. More to the point, there is — at this point — no scientific basis for the claim that pornography is a public health crisis.
Yet, the declarations of this crisis continue, leading to the obvious question: why?
The short answer is that pornography makes for good political theater. Let me explain: If politicians truly believed that online pornography is a public health crisis, then they would have already put their money where their mouths are. Public health crises demand action. Public health crises demand funding. For example, in 2018 alone, there was over $7,000,000,000 in federal spending on efforts to research and combat the opioid epidemic. If pornography truly is such a crisis, then the states declaring it as such should fund the science to test their claims. If pornography is the threat to wellbeing and the fabric of society that Representatives Meadows, Banks, Hartzler, and Babin claim that it is, then they should be lobbying their colleagues to support broad initiatives to study its effects.
As it stands, however, there has been no federal funding in the U.S. to study the effects of pornography, and there are no indications that this will change. Similarly, none of the states that have declared pornography a public health crisis have made any serious investment in studying the effects of pornography use. This apathy in backing research suggests that political pontification about pornography may have less to do with public health and more to do with performing political theater. Rather than supporting the science that could prove or disprove their claims, politicians have elected to morally grandstand and pander to their base’s widespread opposition to pornography. This may mean making hyperbolic claims that far exceed scientific reality, but such tactics are common on both sides of the political aisle for a wide range of issues. Why should pornography be any different?
There are good reasons to be concerned about the widespread use of pornography, particulary among children and teens. Pornography is rarely ever a realistic depiction of sex, but without proper education about pornography, it’s not always clear that children and teens realize this. The internet provides far more content than the stacks of dirty magazines and partially scrambled cable channels that previous generations encountered (which were themselves far greater than the technologies before them). Yet, calls to ban pornography, prosecute pornography producers, or declare pornography a threat to public health miss the mark and are unlikely to succeed.
For all of human history, every new media technology has been used for sexual purposes. No amount of political theater will change that, and no amount of legislation will rid the internet of pornography. But, if concerns about pornography’s effects are truly worth national political attention, then it’s time to move past vacuous declarations and toward a greater scientific understanding of its effects. Until public concern about pornography use translates into public funding for science in this area, we can — and I would argue should — treat the political theater about pornography as what it is: a fictional performance for interested consumers and a fantasy that some might find entertaining.