As survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting packed the gallery of Florida’s statehouse last month to see how their legislators would vote on potential gun control regulation, the legislators had something else on their minds altogether. After deciding against debating a ban on assault weapons, less than an hour later the House passed a bill addressing a different threat to the state’s youth: pornography.
The bill — a resolution declaring pornography a “public health risk” — describes the various dangers associated with exposure to sexually explicit material, particularly the hardcore videos available to most anyone with an internet connection. The key finding was that “There are correlations between pornography use and mental and physical illnesses; difficulty forming or maintaining intimate relationships; unhealthy brain development and cognitive function [and] deviant, problematic, or dangerous sexual behavior.”
The resolution notes that at least five other states have passed similar resolutions since the first, in Utah, in 2016. That same year, similar language was proposed at the Republican National Convention, ultimately making its way onto the final platform with little debate. “Pornography,” read the platform, “with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions.”
But there are questions about the reliability of the studies used in these types of declarations. As the Florida bill notes, “prevailing research is not representative of the general population and does not determine causation” — in other words, “difficulty forming or maintaining intimate relationships” might precede, rather than follow from, watching Stormy Daniels in “Operation Desert Stormy.” Some of the scholarship used been denounced by its own authors as unsatisfactory primary sources for the conclusions the legislators are drawing. Sociological studies also muddy the picture of a wave of depravity sweeping America as a result of pornography. Teen pregnancy is down, along with the number of reported sexual assaults, level of sexual activity among teens and the nationwide divorce rate.
A key factor that makes this discussion difficult is that while there is accepted research, there isn’t enough to draw definite conclusions about how viewing pornography affects young adults. Emily Rothman, a professor at Boston University who has studied the effects of pornography, told Yahoo News there is some basis of knowledge but still a long way to go.
“Back in the 1980s people used to have debates about whether pornography made people, specifically men, run out and commit acts of sexual violence,” said Rothman. “Those aren’t the same questions people are asking now. I think we have better information and it gives us more of a fuller picture because we’re not just asking about this one thing.”
The porn industry, unsurprisingly, questions the merits of the legislation.
“When you talk about a public health crisis you better have the Centers for Disease Control or state public health agencies or the American Medical Association saying that as well and nobody is,” said Mike Stabile, communications director for the Free Speech Coalition, the porn industry’s lobbying group. “This isn’t a health crisis, this is an ideological crisis. I think a lot of these bills try to lay the groundwork and build a straw man by which they can create other legislation that rests on that.”
In the months since Utah’s resolution called porn “evil, degrading, addictive and harmful,” states have seen a wide variety of anti-porn legislation proposed and passed. There are declarations of public health crises and attempts to build filters into electronic devices, which may run afoul of free-speech considerations, and a robust debate over the best way to educate young people about sex.
While the health crisis declarations are generally toothless, they have the potential to elevate a conversation about porn that could lead to further legislation. This happened in Utah, where Republican State Senator Todd Weiler, a co-sponsor of the 2016 resolution, has followed up with legislation giving minors the right to sue porn producers for emotional damage, putting filters on the wi-fi at public libraries and forcing Internet Service Providers to notify customers about porn filtering services.
Weiler said he has no intention to ban pornography but wants to give families the ability to opt out of explicit adult movies on their home internet.
Many of the resolutions are similar. Weiler said he’s been consulted by legislators from other states, and has backing from the anti-porn National Committee on Sexual Exploitation, which changed its name in 2015 from the less-zeitgeisty-sounding Morality in Media.
Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist who has studied the way porn affects the brain, explained that much of the research cited in the bills would not hold up to scrutiny.
“They’re church surveys,” said Prause about the studies cited in some of the legislation. “They’re interviews on websites, one in particular that was set up by a massage therapist who has no scientific training, not even a college degree. The sources they’re using are insane.”
Prause pointed out that one of the first studies referenced in the Florida legislation was conducted by the evangelical Josh McDowell Ministry, dedicated to “raising generations of purpose-driven Christians.” The bill also cherry-picked a negative finding from a Swedish study that actually was overwhelmingly positive.
“Almost all of the science is over a decade old,” wrote Prause in a follow-up email, “that’s how far they had to dig back.”
But the legislation does have some elements based on empirical science. Rothman walked Yahoo News through a 2017 South Dakota resolution to explain how it contains a few supported concerns along with others she considers specious. One she considers valid is the idea that porn shapes the view young adults have of sex and depicts some sexual violence and abuse as harmless. On the other hand, the idea that porn hurts marriages not only lacks scientific backing, but is contradicted by at least one recent study, according to Rothman.
She also expressed concerns about the phrase “deviant sexual behavior,” which historically has been used to disparage and oppress LGBT communities.
“There are definitely people who are in particular ideological camps on both sides of the issue that take things too far or maybe only focus on the results of certain studies that they happen to like,” said Rothman.
Another disputed issue is the idea of porn addiction, which is often cited by anti-porn groups as a serious issue, while researchers debate whether or not it even exists. Prause and her colleagues published a study in 2015 which found that porn doesn’t trigger the same parts as the brain as drug addiction, suggesting that while viewing pornography could possibly qualify as compulsive behavior it is not, in the biochemical sense, an addiction.
The problem with the declarations of public health crises is that they don’t do enough — or really anything, as some anti-porn advocates maintain. Gail Dines is the founder and CEO of Culture Reframed, a group that bills itself as addressing “hypersexualized pop culture and pervasive online pornography.” Having written and lectured extensively about the dangers of pornography, Dines said her group is focusing on education and is promulgating a program for concerned parents.
“To do a proper public health model,” said Dines, “you have to include a whole section based on healthy sexuality and sex education, otherwise it’s not public health. [These bills] are pretty toothless in that they’re missing out on the main issue, which is if you’re going to tell kids what not to do, you’ve got to show them what healthy sexuality looks like.”
Rothman, who works with a porn literacy program in the Boston area, agrees that lack of sexual education leads to a vacuum that can be filled by pornography.
“I’ve interviewed kids and seen kids in these porn literacy classes who absolutely said they wanted to learn about sex and so they went to pornography to do it,” said Rothman.
When asked about this type of program, Weiler said that while the Utah state legislature doesn’t write the state’s curriculum, this year it directed the Utah Board of Education to establish a program discussing consent and the “dangers of pornography.”
Another type of bill proliferating across state legislatures generally goes by the title Human Trafficking Prevention Act, although it has little to do with human trafficking. The legislation would require all electronic device manufacturers to include the capability of blocking “sexual content and/or patently offensive material.” Want to access offensive material? You have to go through a process that includes submitting a $20 fee and request in writing, confirming you’re age 18 or older and getting a warning from the state “about the potential danger of deactivating the digital blocking capability.” The fee would go to a state fund fighting human trafficking, thus the connection to human trafficking in the bill’s name.
A version of this bill was recently introduced in Rhode Island by Democratic State Senator Frank Ciccone. Ciccone told Yahoo News the bill is based on similar legislation proposed in New Jersey. He said in his version a consumer only had to pay the deactivation fee after turning on the filter in the first place. He said companies had reached out to help refine the bill and that it had support from some of his colleagues.
The bill has been criticized by First Amendment and open internet advocates. Who decides what’s “patently offensive”? Would these digital filters be able to distinguish between hardcore pornography and art that features nudity? Then there is the small question of whether or not it would up in courts.
“These bills that require people to pay to lift the filters are plainly unconstitutional,” said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “It’s not only a bill that would block access to a wide variety of First Amendment-protected information — including information on sexual and reproductive health — it’s unclear how accurate these filters would be and there’s every reason to believe wouldn’t be accurate.”
“It’s not tailored to be targeted at kids,” added Bhandari, “it’s imposing a burden on adults as well.”
One of the men pushing the bill is Chris Sevier, an activist who once tried to marry his computer in protest of same-sex marriage. According to a Daily Beast report, Sevier once sued Apple for selling him a computer without a pornography filter, saying it ruined his marriage. Weiler said Sevier has contacted him about proposing the legislation in Utah, but he hadn’t moved forward with it, as his office agrees with the ACLU’s assessment.
“I was approached by Mr. Sevier and he’s tried to piggyback on my efforts here in Utah and I’ve been hesitant to work with him,” said Weiler. “I showed it to my legislative drafting attorneys — I was very skeptical — and they said it was clearly unconstitutional so I never pursued it.”
Ciccone said he hadn’t heard from Sevier but had received offers from activist John Gunter to set up rallies in support of the bill in Providence. Gunter is listed, along with Sevier, as a member of the group backing versions of the Human Trafficking Prevention Act.
“Porn is very easy to demonize,” said Prause. “Sex workers have been marginalized, stigmatized forever and it’s nothing new. It’s very easy to beat up on porn, it’s not a real solution but you get to feel like you did something.”
Opponents of these bills recommend that legislators instead increase the funding and scope of sexual education that could help teenagers deal with the nearly limitless amount of adult content available online. While President Trump himself is entangled with accusations of an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, his administration is pushing abstinence-only education, which would be a step back from the type of porn literacy and sex ed classes suggested by experts.
Stabile said that the adult industry would like to work with legislators on sex education programs and refining filters but they’ve yet to be contacted.
“We don’t want people learning how to drive from The Fast and the Furious,” said Stabile. “It’s entertainment and it’s meant for adults. The people who work in this industry have families, they have kids, we have the same concerns that anybody else does in terms of preventing access and not having this be a default sex ed.”
Other countries are trying out plans that may or may not be viable under the U.S. constitution. In the United Kingdom, adult sites will require independent age verification, a new law that has raised fears about a data breach and questions about potential effectiveness. Iceland attempted to join a number of totalitarian regimes in banning porn entirely a few years ago, but efforts fell short. But even if the United States were to find a large-scale porn filtering program that didn’t violate the First Amendment, the belief is teenagers are going to find some way around it.
“I choose to go with the porn literacy route because no matter how much blocking or how much filtering you do, kids are going to see it anyway,” said Rothman, “so if that’s going to happen we might as well give them the tools to be prepared, to analyze it, to be critical to make up their own minds about what they’re seeing.”