- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler finds pornography “vile” and “degrading,” but it’s more than that: As far as he’s concerned, it’s also bad for you.

The first-of-its-kind resolution, signed Tuesday by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, declares pornography a “public-health hazard.” It cites studies examining pornography’s effects on developing adolescent brains as well as adult relationships and society at large.

“I’m here to agree with many others who have called pornography a plague,” Mr. Weiler, a Republican, said at the signing ceremony at the state Capitol. “I’m not naive enough to believe that this is the only health crisis that we are facing, but we need to realize that this is one of many health crises that we are facing.”

For years, opponents of pornography fell into two categories — religious conservatives and feminists — but the rapid rise of the $7 billion industry and its growing Internet footprint is increasingly coming under fire as a threat to public health, much like tobacco, drugs and alcohol.

The adult entertainment industry has fought such a designation. The Free Speech Coalition issued a blistering statement Tuesday arguing that “no reputable, science-based public health organization has labeled pornography a public health crisis.”

“In fact, actual science shows that viewers of adult entertainment are more likely to hold progressive views on sexuality and women’s rights, to be more educated on sexual health, and access to adult entertainment correlates pretty clearly historically and geographically with declines in sex crimes,” said the coalition.

Others, such as sociologist Gail Dines, have cited studies pointing to a coarsening of attitudes on rape and sexual harassment among adult website regulars. Groups like Fight the New Drug have emerged to help “addicts,” particularly young men, overcome their reliance on porn.

“People generally know about the dangers of drugs and alcohol that can be found out there … but we also want our young people to know that there is a particular psychological and physiological detriment that comes from addiction to pornography, too,” the governor said.

The resolution, S.C.R. 9, has no force of law, but is rather intended to bring visibility to the effects of pornography on adolescents and even children. One widely reported estimate is that boys have their first exposure to pornography at age 11.

“We have fast-food restaurants, some of which cater to children, who are providing free and unfiltered Wi-Fi, as well as public libraries,” Mr. Weiler said. “If a library or a McDonald’s or anyone else was giving out cigarettes to our children, we would be picketing them, and yet our children are accessing pornography on their tablets at these sites and we seem to be OK with that. It’s not OK, and it’s time that we start acting.”

A second bill requires Internet technicians to report child pornography if they run across it as part of their job and that service providers are not liable for such reports.

“This is a fight I believe we can win. It’s certainly a fight we ought to have,” said Mr. Herbert. “The intent here is to raise understanding of addictive nature of pornography.”

The Utah bills received remarkably little pushback from pornography and First Amendment advocates. The ACLU of Utah did not take a position on Mr. Weiler’s resolution, and lobbyist Andrew McCullough, who represents clients involved in the adult entertainment industry, said he raised no objection because the nonbinding measure “does not materially affect my clients.”

As for the pornography addiction argument, Mr. McCullough is skeptical. “It’s junk science,” he said.

“I just don’t believe it. I could go on for 20 minutes on why I think it’s balderdash,” said Mr. McCullough, a former ACLU of Utah board member who also chairs the state Libertarian Party.

Mr. Weiler acknowledges that most of the studies involve social science research, not hard sciences, and there is a reason for that: the ethical dilemmas surrounding how to assemble a control group of adults, much less adolescents, who either have not been exposed to pornography or are willing to be exposed for long periods.

“That type of study never has been done and never will be,” Mr. Weiler said. “This is one of those areas where we’re probably going to have to rely on social sciences.”

Brian Willoughby, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said the governor’s signature is an important step toward starting a discussion on the role pornography is playing on the socialization of Utah’s youth.

“As a researcher who has dedicated a portion of my career to understanding and studying individual and couple development, I believe that we now have enough research to suggest that pornography is now in fact a significant health crisis in our society,” Mr. Willoughby said at the bill signing.

Fifteen states are considering similar resolutions this year, leading to questions as to whether government involvement is necessary. In terms of raising awareness, however, Mr. Weiler notes that his resolution has received a flood of national and international attention.

“I’ve talked to several crusaders on this issue who have been screaming for years and getting nowhere,” Mr. Weiler said. “All of a sudden, some obscure state senator comes in with a bill and it’s on the cover of Time magazine.”

The March 31 article cited industry figures showing 107 million adult Americans visit adult websites each month, nearly double the 58 million who did so 10 years ago.

Mr. Weiler has absorbed a fair amount of criticism, including being “mocked and scorned” by those who accuse him of trying to impose his morality on others. Others have defended porn as a healthy outlet for sexual behavior and alternative to cheating on one’s spouse or partner.

That Utah would emerge as a leader in the fight against pornography isn’t surprising, given the state’s reputation for social conservatism. At the same time, a 2009 Harvard Business School study found that Utah residents were the “highest per capita purchasers of online adult entertainment in the United States,” according to KSL-TV in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Weiler insists “it’s not just a Mormon thing,” pointing out that his House floor sponsor for the resolution, Republican state Rep. Curtis Oda, is Buddhist. It’s also not about undermining sex education: “No 11-year-old boy or girl needs to see those images to learn how families are created.”

“We need to do what [Prime Minister] David Cameron has done in England and encourage our Internet service providers to make our default settings porn-free and make people opt in to pornography,” Mr. Weiler said.

He even called on the adult entertainment industry to pitch in. “Help us protect children from your evil, degrading, addictive, harmful substances,” he said.

“If adults want to do that, that’s their choice,” Mr. Weiler said, “but we’re talking about the developing adolescent minds of our nation’s future.”

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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