Let’s treat porn as the public health hazard it is

Let’s treat porn as the public health hazard it is

Brain science is strengthening the case for a new approach.

The pornography industry defends its trade as a harmless personal choice, but increasingly it is seen as an addiction with consequences for public health and safety. Cordelia Anderson, a Minneapolis based educator who has worked extensively in the field of child sexual abuse and exploitation, is one of those making the case for treating porn as a public health issue. Here she responds to MercatorNet’s questions about this approach.

MercatorNet: In what way/s is pornography a public health issue?

Cordelia Anderson: Public health involves what is done collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy. It is strategic efforts to make the healthy choices the easy choices. When a social issue is a problem that affects people beyond what individuals can do to solve it, it requires policy and health leaders to attend to strategic solutions and not only expect individual ones. 

The brain studies that have come out more recently (www.yourbrainonporn.com) draw important attention to the potential impact of pornography on the brains of users. Given adolescent brains are under development until their mid 20s, this is of particular concern on children/youth. With the more recent recognition of PIED (porn-induced erectile dysfunction) additional realities about the potential of pornography on sexual functioning are challenging the porn industry’s and its defenders’ stance that it is harmless.

How do you define pornography? Does it include Fifty Shades of Grey and strippers?

The pornography industry defines itself quite clearly in the content they sell and profit from. Additionally, I think of pornography not as sexually explicit materials intended for sexual arousal – which are not the problem – but rather sexually exploitive materials intended for sexual arousal. These images and materials are often documentation of degradation, body punishing acts and violence portrayed as sex. As one survivor of sex trafficking, Vednita Carter, often states, pornography is prostitution on paper. The objectification and sale of women is out of line with gender equity.

Fifty Shades of Grey clearly demonstrated that women as well as men, have sexual interests and desires. It is unfortunate that so much of what is deemed sexy now has been shaped by the pornography industry. The men need to be portrayed as abusive and controlling (and billionaires) and the women/girls need to be sexually naïve and inexperienced –ready to take whatever is expected and required by the man - in order to be sexy. Fifty Shades also plays into the pornified narrative that in order to be sexy the sex needs to be painful (and the pain will then lead to great pleasure and love) and the man needs to be in total control.

What evidence is there that porn and violence/coercion are linked?

Child sexual abuse images, also known legally as child pornography, are recognized as documentation of a sex crime scene against a child. This type of porn shows a clear link and while child sexual abuse images are illegal, “youth” porn is perfectly legal on mainstream porn, as are references to many illegal coercive acts (e.g, rape, people in positions of authority like teachers or a therapist “having sex” with a “child”). 

The harm done to workers in the pornography industry in terms of not only STIs but other sex performance related injuries, shows harm. The Bridges et al study shows more documentation of acts of verbal and physical aggression per scene than sex. In fact the researchers could document sex acts in under 10% of the scenes of the top-selling videos they reviewed.

Have any governments "bought" the public health argument? What sorts of policies have they implemented?

In the United States, Utah passed a bill acknowledging pornography as a public health concern. This sets the stage for more study. In Canada a member of parliament is putting Motion 47 forward to their House of Commons to recognize pornography as a public health issue. This would set the stage for the health committee to review the research and make recommendations.

Is there any evidence that these have been effective?

It is too early to tell but one of the benefits of the public health argument is taking the debate out of the “morality” arena and more effectively recognizing its effects on individual and collective health.

Does it strike you as odd that, after nearly 50 years of second wave feminism, the objectification and exploitation of female persons in the media is a major cultural issue?

No. Significant social change generally meets major backlash. As gender equity advanced, so did technology and the ease of access to pornography that depicts inequity – women as sexual objects and commodities – as normative and an inherent right of expectation for males. This has proven problematic across genders. Various studies and individual men have acknowledged that the perception of women negatively changes with consumption of pornography. Many have been conditioned to sexual arousal to pixels instead of people. Additionally, girls and women are being told that to be sexy is to be pornified and that sex is learning to “take it” no matter how painful or degrading.

Why are girls objectifying themselves by sexting? Don’t they learn anything about this in sex-ed class?

Most sex education classes are not comprehensive enough to cover gender, equity, consent, informed decision making, sexual communication, influences of media, sexual rights and responsibilities, intimacy or sexual kindness and integrity. In a pornified culture, the message is clear that portraying oneself, if female, as a sexual object is the thing to do in order to show that you’re comfortable with your body and sexuality, or simply to be seen and acknowledged.

Further, advances in technology make spur of the moment decisions, impulsive acts, quite doable though very difficult to take back. Since many females value relationships and are raised to expect they need to please males, and want to be desired by males, they can be coerced into thinking that is what they need to do to have approval, relationships and love.

What aspects of the anti-smoking revolution could be effective in countering pornography?

Recognizing that the industry -- while powerful and profitable -- knew full well of its addictive, health negative consequences and needed to be held accountable. Such accountability goes well beyond individuals needing to take responsibility for their choices when there are so many media messages and social norms that encourage, and make very easy, unhealthy choices. The anti-smoking efforts knew education was important but didn’t threaten the company’s bottom line or change broad based social norms. Multiple levels of action were needed including a wide range of policies, broad based coalitions, research and education.

What unique challenges does porn pose compared with smoking?

Sex is more difficult than smoking for most people to talk about. Many who care about advancing sexual health and who work against sex-related oppression bought into the idea that porn was a sexual right, simply harmless sex. They worry about speaking up against pornography sounding like being sex negative or prudish. The porn industry likes to advance those perceptions in order to silence opposition.

Like with smoking, the industry and related media’s sold the product as sexy and harmless – a sexual aid. It took a lot of research to show the harm. Early research on pornography focused on links with sexually aggressive behaviours versus a much broader range of impact on men and women, adults and children. Technologies changed and advanced so quickly, that porn went from being limited with more difficult access, to being easy to access, independent of age. It has been difficult for parents, professionals and research to keep up with the range of impacts, given the advances in technology and the ease of access to pornography.

Positively speaking, what can and should be done?

Education is a piece of the answer in terms of understanding the range of potential harmful impacts of pornography. It is arguably negligent that we’ve allowed the pornography industry to be the primary sex educator of children, youth and the public. In many ways we need to take back our sexuality from the pornography industry that has profit in mind over the well-being of its male or female users. We need to have informed, respectful and meaningful discussions about what is sexually healthy and helpful versus harmful.

Policies are needed to recognize this not only as a public health concern and to take appropriate actions but also to engage technology as part of the solution. In the UK they introduced age verification and explored “opt in” instead of needing to “opt out” of pornography.  Such strategies have possibilities.


Cordelia Anderson is the founder and principal of Sensibilities Prevention Services, a training and consultation business based in Minneapolis. She is an advocate for primary prevention and social change in areas which include child sexual abuse/exploitation prevention, normalization of sexual harm, pornography, internet and other technology safety.