Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

Pornography Is a Public-Health Problem

A visitor takes pictures of an adult film actress during the Eros Show in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, April 2, 2008. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)
The solution begins with evidence and education

Should we ban online pornography? This question has been greatly exercising the Right. Many libertarians say no, since to do so would be an affront to free speech. Many social conservatives say yes, since not to do so would be an affront to the common good. Both positions are compelling, which is why they are unhelpful as a starting point. A better place to begin is the apolitical medical research establishing the facts about porn beyond a reasonable doubt, to be followed by a dogged public-health campaign, and then targeted political action. 

Since the advent of the Internet, porn has enjoyed success on account of its “triple A” appeal — it’s affordable, accessible, and anonymous. Every year, the global porn industry makes billions of dollars from millions of (mostly male) consumers. It’s an odious business. One in which women are playthings, men are aggressors, teens are lusted after, and much else is shown that’s best not mentioned. The unfettered presence of online pornography is akin to that of secondhand smoke: The immorality of its harmful effect on society ought to be enough to make people reconsider, but it rarely does. It would be more effective, then, to target the consumer demand, by making porn use less appealing and less convenient. But how? 

Here it is useful to recall how the change in the public perception of smoking in the United States came about. In the 1870s through 1890s, the temperance movement sought to prohibit alcohol consumption on moral grounds. And when cigarettes arrived on the scene in the early 1900s, many religious leaders regarded them as a vice, a sort of gateway to drug and alcohol abuse. However, as we know, the effort to prohibit both alcohol and cigarette consumption in the early 20th century was unsuccessful. Nationwide prohibition lasted only from 1920 to 1933. As for cigarettes, by 1953, 47 percent of American adults (and half of all doctors) were lighting up. Smoking was cool. Paranoid puritans were not. 

Of course, it wasn’t only the moralists who were concerned about tobacco use. As early as the 1920s, epidemiologists had been researching an unprecedented rise in lung cancer. And by the 1950s, there was so much evidence that it amounted to a causal link. The U.S. Public Health Service alerted the public in 1957 that smoking causes cancer. And in 1964 an advisory committee of the surgeon general released a devastating report, which was well covered in the mainstream media. The tobacco lobbyists were on their back foot. The justification for regulation, higher tobacco taxes, and business boycotts was in place.

Just as, in the 1920s, some epidemiologists had a hunch about what might be behind the spike in lung cancer, in the past decade an increasing number of urologists have started to wonder whether the uptick in young men suffering from erectile dysfunction might have something to do with Internet porn. As we enter the 2020s, the body of research is substantial enough for us to assert a causal link. Indeed, there are currently over 40 studies showing the addictive nature of pornography and the way its viewers can escalate from comparatively mild to more-extreme material; 25 studies falsifying the claim that porn addicts just have a more active sex drive; 35 studies correlating porn use with sexual dysfunction and lower arousal (including seven that demonstrate causation); and more than 75 studies linking porn use to lower relationship satisfaction and poorer mental health. Porn literally makes men impotent. Imagine a secular, nonpartisan public-health campaign advertising that fact. 

The response from financially self-interested pro-porn activists, buoyed by some misguided civil libertarians, is that such studies merely show correlation, not causation. But as Gary Wilson, author of the book Your Brain on Porn (a summary of the most current scientific research) and founder of a website of the same name, explains: “The reality is that when it comes to psychological and (many) medical studies, very little research reveals causation directly. For example, all studies on the relationship between lung cancer and cigarette smoking are correlative — yet cause and effect are clear to everyone but the tobacco lobby.”

The story of smoking in the United States is one of David and Goliath, and the change in public perception has been more pronounced than many could have dreamed. Despite the tobacco lobby’s throwing out every PR expert, lawyer, payrolled doctor, and “study” it could to try to defend itself; despite its nonsensical claims to have made cigarettes “safer” with filters and “less tar”; despite the fact that, in 1967, the Federal Trade Commission noted that it was “impossible for Americans of almost any age to avoid cigarette advertising”; despite the fact that, though broadcasters were required to run an anti-smoking advertisement for every cigarette ad they aired, the ratio in reality was four pro-smoking ads to each anti-smoking one; despite the fact that, between 1940 and 2005, approximately $250 billion was spent on cigarette advertising in the United States — despite all of that, cigarette consumption among adults has declined by 70 percent since the surgeon general’s report came out in 1964. 

Big Tobacco lost because it was denying science, at a huge social cost. Big Porn is following the same path. It is busy commissioning its own sex research and promising “ethical porn.” But outside the Twittersphere and the conservative-media world, the resistance is being led by former consumers. Alexander Rhodes is a 30-year-old American who became addicted to pornography at the age of eleven. Having recovered from his addiction, he set up a website called NoFap — “secular, science-based, non-political, & sex positive” — for those seeking support in giving up porn. On Reddit, NoFap now has well over half a million members. 

Clearly, many young men are starting to be interested in how porn-assisted masturbation might be negatively affecting their sexual health. One positive discussion about NoFap, between podcast host Joe Rogan and comedian Duncan Trussell, has been watched 2.5 million times on YouTube. “I don’t mean to apply like a sin to it at all, I just mean like, personally, it feels a little dissipative when you’re doing it a lot,” Trussell said. Rogan agreed, acknowledging that many men turn to porn when they feel sexually frustrated. “I think there’s something to be said for figuring out how to deal with that kind of energy,” Trussell added, wondering whether there is an alternative to porn. Rogan then suggested exercise or a more meaningful relationship. 

This kind of commonsense resistance to porn — as opposed to religiously or ideologically motivated arguments — is much more threatening to the pro-porn lobbyists. Perhaps that is why both Rhodes, the NoFap founder, and Wilson, the secular author of Your Brain on Porn, claim they have become the target of harassment from those on the payroll of Big Porn. Rhodes is currently suing one prominent pro-porn activist for defamation. Staci Sprout, a licensed therapist involved in NoFap, has said that she fears “these attacks will lead to a complete deplatforming of NoFap.” Sprout claims that this continued harassment is a “well-orchestrated defamation campaign” and compares it to “alcohol manufacturers’ trying to shut down Alcoholics Anonymous.” She says that “this is about a multi-billion-dollar, multinational industry disparaging hundreds of thousands of people who are trying to live porn-free lives.” 

The porn debate ought not to be framed as conservative versus libertarian, a narrow political dispute incited by moralists, but rather as Big Porn versus science, a public-health crisis fueled by billion-dollar companies’ greedy and exploitative pursuits. Writing in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, researchers note that, “increasingly, research has demonstrated that the interventions that have the greatest impact on reducing tobacco use are those that alter the social contexts and incentives for using tobacco.” As a matter of policy, this means “interventions that impact virtually all smokers repeatedly, such as higher taxes on tobacco products, comprehensive advertising bans, graphic pack warnings, mass media campaigns, and smoke-free policies.” 

With porn, then, it would be wise to mirror the anti-tobacco movement and, rather than reach for quick political fixes, play the long game. First, educate the public about the science of porn. Then, work strategically, with broad political and nonpolitical coalitions, to make consumption of porn less convenient.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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