In January 2017, Todd Weiler, a Republican senator from Utah, thought it might be a good idea to encourage citizens to sue pornographers or companies that host pornographic websites. Weiler’s argument is an extension of one he made just over a year ago - declaring that pornography is a “public health crisis.” Apparently, the senator believes that young children and teens have a high risk of developing an addiction to pornography. So, let's take a look at that. Is what he’s saying reasonable or even factually correct?
What is addiction anyway?
When people think of addiction, they generally think of a strong need for a substance or activity. However, there’s more to addiction than simply wanting to do something often or to excess. Addiction also involves increased tolerance to the thing in question. An alcoholic must drink more and stronger alcohol to get the same impact that a few beers might have given them years ago. Do porn addicts require more extreme pornographic materials in order to achieve arousal?
As this writer recalls, kids in the '70s and '80s first look at printed nudity was either a National Geographic magazine or Dad’s copies of Playboy or Penthouse. From there, curious kids might move on to other magazines or videos. But let's be honest: The materials kids and teens choose to look at probably has more to do with access than their specific wants. Inquisitive youngsters definitely have more access to pornographic content today. Just because it's much easier to find anything and everything doesn't necessarily point to increased tolerance. The Internet is something most people have access to, and it doesn’t have to be hidden under a mattress or floorboard to avoid suspicion. That's a much different situation than when people had to buy a magazine or rent a dirty video.
Can the addiction model really be applied to pornography?
Another facet of clinical addiction is that the subject has to continue with a substance or behavior despite knowing that it’s bad for them. If the need to look at pornography (and presumably, to masturbate to it) is so pervasive that it impacts a job, relationship, or ability to manage one’s life—that probably translates to an active addiction. This isn’t the same as watching Skinemax to cure insomnia even though you know your spouse wishes you wouldn’t; someone in your life being upset with a behavior doesn’t necessarily make it harmful.
Gail Dines is a sociology professor and author of a book asserting that porn has “hijacked our sexuality.” She claims that consumption of pornography - regardless of age - is “a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” Really. In her book, Dines references studies that suggest that men become less attracted to their partners when they look at pictures of other nude or scantily clad women. Personally, I’d like to know how one would even quantify such a thing. No man is going to open Hustler Magazine and immediately declare that he loves his wife less. Canadian scholars agree, given that when they tried to replicate these findings, they were unable to even come close.
So, what are the facts?
There are peer-reviewed studies claiming that porn has an impact on how we view gender, sexuality, relationships and even rape. Then again, so do most movies, books, video games, and things we see online and on TV. Every bit of media we consume has some impact on us. So why the special attention paid to pornographic content? Is it because 12% of the Internet is steeped in porn? Is it just more outdated hand-wringing from people who think Victorian-era repression is best?
It’s also important to remember that several studies, including a recent one at the University of Montreal, aren’t even able to discern the impact of pornography on young men. Why? Because they literally couldn’t assemble a control group of 20-something men who had never looked at pornography. They just didn’t exist. While this development doesn’t negate the possibility that porn addiction is a problem, it certainly disputes the idea that all, or even most people who consume pornography become addicted.
Still, there are self-reported polls in which one in three adult men say they are addicted to pornography. It’s unclear, though, whether they mean this in the medical sense of addiction, or in the “I can’t function without my coffee. I’m so addicted” way. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that pornography addiction is a common problem, and that addressing it requires a variation of interventions, therapy, medication, and/or 12-step-programs to successfully manage it. What happens next?
What counts as “harm?”
If someone wants to sue a pornographer for damages, one first has to prove that it caused harm. What kind of harm might this entail? Is it a pornographer's fault if someone gets fired for watching nudie vids at work? Some reports say that up to 70% of all porn traffic online occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. That would imply that an awful lot of jobs are being impacted by porn. Do we really think that’s because pornographers create work that’s so irresistible, so infectious that fans have no choice but to watch when they should be working? That’s as silly as suing Coca Cola because you suffered adverse effects from drinking 10 liters of Coke every day. Making desirable products is a pornographer’s job. So what sense would it make to sue them for being good at it?
If it can be said that watching or looking at naked pics or sex acts can ruin a relationship, is that really the fault of the nudity? Of course not. That’s why no one blames the toilet manufacturer when someone leaves the seat up.
So, what do we do about it?
I have to admit that I find wry humor in the fact that the Republicans are the ones trying to “help” porn addicts by marginalizing pornography. The “Party of Personal Responsibility,” (who thinks poor kids should earn school lunches by sweeping up after their wealthier peers “to build character”) suddenly thinks they need to step in to rescue grown adults from addictive pornography? Come on.
In fairness, Senator Weiler claims that his legislation wouldn’t prevent anyone from looking at porn. Of course it wouldn’t - that would be impossible to enforce. He does assert that it’s a good idea to scare porn purveyors into thinking they might get sued. Weiler’s endgame seems to be to frighten pornographers into choosing another line of work. Right. I’m sure ornithological photography would be just as lucrative. * eye-roll *
A move toward allowing addicts to sue the purveyors of whatever “made” them addicted is a horrible idea. Physical addictions are difficult enough to quantify. How a court would determine who is responsible for someone’s emotional or mental addiction is a minefield. We should also keep in mind that pornography is a multi-billion dollar business. As is the case with tobacco companies, a few payouts are unlikely to have much impact on what is already a very healthy bottom line. The ACLU has a lot on their plates these days as administrative changes lead to nervousness and confusion. Here’s hoping they take the time to appreciate the popularity and, as some would say - the necessity - of access to porn as part of healthy sexuality.