No, Porn Is Not a Public Health Crisis

Emily Rothman, a public health and pornography expert, responds to the Republican Party's declaration.

Computer

Computer photo via istock.com/BrianAJackson

On Monday, an amendment to the developing Republican Party platform declared pornography “a public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions” and threatening the “safety and well-being” of children. The amendment was met with little party opposition, and much online hullabaloo.

But what truly qualifies as a public health crisis?

In the eyes of Emily Rothman—an associate professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health who has done substantial research on pornography, and even instructed a course focused on it—there’s a simple answer to that question: many things, but not porn.

“I think we should be pretty careful about what we call a crisis, and reserve that for things that are having an acute and direct impact on the population’s health,” Rothman says. “I would call gun violence a public health crisis. I would call obesity a public health crisis. I would call health disparities based on race a public health crisis. We have a lot of public health crises out there. This is not one of them.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that porn isn’t a problem. Rothman says it can negatively influence adolescents, and promote female degradation, violence, sexual aggression, and a culture of non-consent. Each of those elements is worthy of study and concern, Rothman says—but not the GOP’s sweeping proclamatory language.

“Pornography has some ill effects, and those are problematic and worrisome,” Rothman says. “But I think it’s a bit misleading to try to distract the public by focusing too much attention on pornography as a ‘crisis,’ when we have other things that are going on that are profoundly affecting people’s day-to-day health.”

Rothman also notes that pornography is a controversial issue in the research community, which is far from reaching consensus on the topic. Some studies condemn porn, to be sure, but others praise it. It can be damaging, but it can also help individuals learn about and accept their sexuality, or foster intimacy with a partner.

In short, Rothman says, porn doesn’t have to be reduced to straightforward value judgments. It doesn’t have to be good, and it doesn’t have to be a scourge against society.

“You don’t have to be pro-pornography or anti-pornography,” Rothman says. “I would encourage people to be wary of over-the-top rhetoric that has a sneaky way of inviting people to condemn others with non-normative lifestyles.”


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