The Washington State legislature has now joined a very select group of governmental bodies asking that question. A Mormon bishop in Utah, a man who also happens to be a Republican state senator, passed legislation identifying porn as a public health crisis in April of this year. Citing arguments from anti-porn activists, Utah State Senator Todd Weiler won the support of a majority of his colleagues and a bill decrying the public dangers of porn passed and was signed by the Utah governor, who declared it "the full-fledged truth."

Utah's new anti-porn resolution, which has neither money nor consequences attached to it, blames porn for young men deciding not to get married, for teens engaging in premarital sex (as though teen need something to spark sexual interest?), for husbands cheating on their wives, and for unspecified "emotional and medical illnesses." The resolution only condemned pornography, it didn't ban it. Such a ban is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny. If implemented in reality as opposed to mere rhetoric, it might be surprisingly unpopular in Utah, a state with the historically highest consumption of porn.

A few months later, the Republican National Committee adopted a plank to the party's 2016 platform calling porn a public health crisis. (They also endorsed reparative gay therapy and a repeal of gay marriage.)

And now a Republican-led panel of Washington state legislators is pushing similar claims and holding similar hearings. According to Washington state Republicans, pornography…

  • Causes erectile dysfunction in young men
  • Acts on the brain "like" alcohol
  • "Shrinks" the judgment center of the brain
  • Fuels child abuse, rape and sex trafficking
  • Is a "gateway drug" to child pornography;
These claims are troubling to the average reader. Many people hold an intuitive distrust of pornography—even people who use porn themselves. In essence, this emerges from the psychological tendency to view ourselves as better at exercising self-control than other people: "I know I can control myself when I'm turned on but I don't think you can—so maybe you shouldn't have access to this highly stimulating material.” That's the core belief at root of most such arguments about porn. Although, given how many conservative politicians and anti-sex religious leaders end up in sexual scandals or behind bars for sexual offense, perhaps these legislators are in fact telling us something about their own web browser histories. They may actually believe that the only way for them to control their own sexual behaviors, is to have the temptation removed via external control.

Utah's resolution opens with a "Whereas" complaining about porn's wider availability. And that's true: pornography is far more accessible today than it's ever been in history. Historically, porn was reserved for wealthy, privileged men. The Internet has put porn in the hands (and laps) of sexual minorities, the poor, and women. It can't be a coincidence that almost every modern attempt by conservatives to restrict access to porn has ended up harming women and sexual minorities. Lesbian bookstores and porn featuring females in dominant roles have been two prominent targets by anti-porn activists.

Anti-porn activists in state legislatures and party platform committees are playing on people's fear of porn addiction. But recent research examining the question of porn addiction has found that most alleged porn addicts view less porn than many other people—they just feel worse about it. This guilt and shame emerges from an internal conflict between the religious and moral sexual values they grew up and their choice to watch pornography. By and large, most self-identified "porn addicts" are religious, usually heterosexual, and mostly married white men. Most never learned to accept their sexual desires, especially when those desires differ from the heteronormative, monogamous behaviors they were taught are the only acceptable form of sex.

Those who self-identify as porn addicts, or report problems controlling their porn use, overwhelmingly tend to have religious backgrounds. Religious therapists diagnose porn addiction more often than other therapists, and religiously-minded people view porn as a bigger social issue than gun violence or racism. The Church of Latter Day Saints has declared war on porn, the same way they previously declared war on gay marriage. Many Mormons, and other highly conservative churches see increased access to porn as attacks on the foundations of their faith. Several studies now demonstrate that religious people who watch more porn tend become less religious over time, and experience more crises of faith. Porn undermines many religious teachings about sex, and in so doing, may be weakening faith. Religion has typically taught that sexual arousal is suspect and sinful, and that there are sexual acts, from homosexuality to masturbation or infidelity, that are objectively "bad." Porn teaches a different lesson—that these acts are common, fun, and can be healthy. Given these facts, it's not hard to see why religious conservatives are fueling a moral panic over porn.
John was diagnosed as a porn addict by the religiously-based therapist his wife dragged him to see. When John came to see me instead, it turned out that he was bisexual, and that his wife and church rejected his desires for sex with other men. John had lost his job, caught looking at gay porn at work, the only place where he could watch in secret from his wife. Treatment to help John accept and understand his sexuality led to increased self-control and conscious decisions about his sexual behaviors.— Case example of a man treated by Dr. Ley.

In the early 1900s, alcohol was declared a public health crisis and anti-alcohol crusaders blamed crime, poverty, divorce and mental illness on wine and beer and whiskey and gin. But after Prohibition, all those problems were still there. In the 1800s, American doctors declared masturbation a public health crisis, on that caused crime and mental illness. They prescribed bland foods (that's where cornflakes and granola comes from) as well as circumcision and restraints or even surgeries. Self-pleasure prohibitionists were no more successful than their counterparts in movement to stamp out booze.

Today's attacks on porn use are actually covert attacks on masturbation, repackaging antiquated notions of masturbation as unhealthy or weakening to masculinity.

William is a 36 year-old man, whose wife sent him to therapy with me, describing him as a porn addict, because he masturbated to porn instead of having sex with her. When they tried to have sex, William often lost his erection, which they blamed on porn. The couple were on very different work schedules, and when she was ready for sex, he was exhausted and asleep. They were also both obese, and missionary-style sex was physically challenging. By helping the couple examine and address the ways these issues impacted their sex, they were able to resume a healthy sexual relationship. —Case example of a man treated by Dr. Ley.

Anti-porn activists in Utah, the Republican Party, and the Washington state legislature use frightening claims to try to turn people away from porn, saying that porn changes people's brains (though there's no causal evidence of this whatsoever ), or that "porn causes erectile dysfunction." (How do you scare a man? Threaten his dick.) No scientific evidence exists that porn has such an effect and there is lots of evidence that erectile dysfunction is actually quite common (in 40% of men under age 40). ED is better explained as a result of anxiety, inexperience, or simply a normal aspect of the range of sexual functioning.

Dennis is a 23 year-old young man who has been watching porn since he was 15. He'd never had a girlfriend before, and when he recently started dating, he was unable to get an erection with his girlfriend. He read online groups, and self-diagnosed his problem as porn addiction. In therapy, we explored his lack of sex education, and helped him understand the differences between fantasy sex in porn, and real sex with another person. When he reduced his anxiety during sex and about relationships, he was successful at achieving an erection.” —Case example of a man treated by Dr. Ley.

Mike Edwards, a Seattle police captain, testified before the Washington senate Law and Justice Committee that "90 to 95 percent of the offenders we arrest for illegal pornography, their first access point into it was legal pornography," said Edwards. I'm willing to bet the captain that 99% of people arrested for unsafe driving, started with legal driving. Should Washington consider a ban on the issuance of driver's licenses? Blaming criminal sexual behaviors on porn has been a favorite tactic since the 1950s. But it ignores real research, which shows that the overwhelming majority of people who watch child porn, or violent porn, aren't actually at risk for abusing children or engaging in rape. Instead, social and individual qualities are better predictors: narcissism, misogyny, isolation, poverty and substance abuse put men at increased risk of committing sex offenses. Blaming porn is a distraction from the real social ills that put women and children at risk.

For decades now, our society has failed to prioritize comprehensive sex education for adolescents, and continued to shame any sex that doesn't fit the "traditional" mold. Consequently people are often unprepared to understand their sexual needs and desires and have trouble negotiating and navigating healthy sexual relationships. Comprehensive sexual health education, more mental health care services, and efforts to combat misogyny, reduce isolation, and end sexual stigma will do more to help people than scare mongering campaigns targeting pornography. Porn is nothing more than a sexy scapegoat.