This Utah Lawmaker's Anti-Porn Quest is Off the Rails

While funny, the antics of this Utah lawmaker are actually pretty serious.
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Publish date:
April 26, 2016
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porn, internet, porn addiction

We all know that the Internet is for porn, but one Utah lawmaker thinks that all that freely available porn is causing a "public health crisis," and he introduced a resolution in the Utah state legislature to back up his claim. As a resolution, it doesn't really carry any teeth, beyond making the entire state of Utah look kind of ridiculous, but as a social statement, it carries some pretty scary implications.

Anti-porn attitudes have been around for a very long time, coming from a variety of sources. There are anti-porn feminists, who deny sex workers their autonomy by hotly insisting that porn and other sex work is objectifying and that women cannot possibly be willing, let alone enthusiastic, participants. There are "concerned parents" who insist that porn is leading to all sorts of nefarious behavior in the youth. And there are religious concern trolls convinced that porn is leading to the downfall of modern society.

Todd Weiler (a Republican, natch), brought his resolution in January of this year, and it's been bubbling along in the public media consciousness as something kind of mildly amusing ever since. The resolution claims that porn creates a "sexually toxic environment" with particularly pernicious effects on youth, suggests that porn creates "biological addiction," and insists that tech has made "hardcore" porn much more widely available than it used to be. (Okay, that last is true.)

In response to these assertions, Weiler's resolution proclaims, the state should declare porn a public health hazard and invest resources in addressing this fictional problem. Here's where we start to get into trouble, because this is the moment where the situation crosses over from being funny to being more serious.

The resolution itself makes wild statements about porn, conflating illegal, suspect, and horrific material (child abuse, rape, trafficking) with good, clean, healthy fun. It reinforces harmful social attitudes about porn and people who work in the industry. That's... not actually that funny.

Porn is not a uniformly clean, nice, and shiny industry — we don't have to look that far to see some serious issues, like the accusations against James Deen, who continues to work despite multiple rape and sexual assault claims. But it's not uniformly bad, and we need to be looking to people within the industry to express what they want, and need, in terms of support and building a better, safer world for sex work. Stigmatizing sex work definitely does not create a better environment for things like addressing human trafficking, helping people escape exploitative situations, and enabling people to make active choices about their degree of participation in the industry.

Stigmatizing porn also reinforces sex negativity, which is just generally gross. People like sex, and this is great! Sex is fun! Some people like watching other people have sex, in print or video form (or listening to it in audio porn), and that's cool! Creating a healthy culture around this and supporting people who want to access ethical, fun, friendly porn is a good thing. Making porn out to be this scary, gross, shameful thing is repressive and hurts people, especially youth, who are naturally sexually curious and who, yes, watch porn to explore the world around them.

In a porn-positive culture, maybe youth could be accessing porn and talking about it more honestly, understanding that the world of porn isn't quite a 1:1 match with reality — like, for example, that porn stars are professionals who take precautions and make conscious choices when it comes to condom use, but that other folks should wrap it up. If kids feel like they have to hide their use of porn, and their appreciation of people having sex, that's going to cultivate unhealthy and potentially dangerous attitudes.

Demanding that a state dedicate resources, including public funding, to fighting a completely fictional epidemic, is dangerous. Porn is not a public health problem, but there are public health problems in Utah that will be losing out on funding if the state is busy making war on porn. Utah actually has a surprisingly good record on public health outcomes and services, including a lower rate of smokers, reduced incidence of diabetes, and an excellent housing first homelessness initiative that's being replicated across the country. We want the state to keep up this performance for the benefit of citizens, and also because models of public health tend to enact policies adopted elsewhere.

The last thing we need is people thinking that going after porn will somehow carry public health benefits. This is wasteful, wrong, and very socially loaded.

BUT, Weiler's single-handed quest to destroy porn as we know it hasn't stopped with this bizarre resolution and a series of appearances in which he's made grossly inaccurate statements about the myth of "porn addiction" and so forth. Now that the governor has signed off on his resolution, he's...

...wait for it...

...declaring porn to be a violation of First Amendment rights.

Here's how this works, in his mind: While he grudgingly admits that people have a right to produce porn, if their depraved lifestyles really insist upon it, he has a "First Amendment right not to view it," and apparently is convinced that the sheer availability of porn violates this right, which is, um, not how it works. If he doesn't want to view porn, he is more than welcome to not view it by choosing not to access it — he doesn't have to go to PornHub, to pick up a copy of Hustler, and so forth. He can choose not to look at porn just like I choose not to read white supremacist pamphlets.

There's nothing stopping him when it comes to not looking at porn. He's even comparing porn to McDonald's passing cigarettes out to children, which... no? If McDonald's were passing cigarettes out to children, I would absolutely have a problem with it, as would most state laws, but in strict point of fact, mandatory porn sites aren't popping up every time children open a laptop or turn on their smartphones.

And so far as I know, porn sites aren't chasing grown adults down the street, screaming "LOOK AT ME!"

His resolution, and rhetoric, is setting the stage for something more sinister: He wants to create controls on how people access the Internet by limiting the right to view porn. Not the right to not view it by choosing to activate filters (most image/video searches have safe search options, and people can install browser controls to further limit access to porn), but to force people to jump through hoops to view it by "opting in" to porn access.

This creates a dangerous precedent, because it presents the question: what else shall we be required to "opt in" to? Access to comprehensive sexual education, maybe? Resources on evidence-based medicine? Information about climate change and evolution?

Today, it may be porn, but tomorrow, it could be the world.

Photo: Libelul, Creative Commons (we feel obligated to note that this wholesome youth is gaming, not looking at porn)