The guests standing alongside Utah Governor Gary Herbert on April 19, 2016, were as puritanical as their topic of discussion was—in their minds, anyway—lascivious. Squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder behind a podium for a press conference, they had come to the Utah state capitol to talk about porn.
Among the speakers were Dr. Brian Willoughby, a Brigham Young University professor who studies young adult relationships, and claims that watching pornography lowers relationship well-being, instills detrimental beliefs about sexual intimacy, and damages children’s mental health; Dawn Hawkins, the executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), who calls on government leaders, medical professionals, and corporations to recognize her stance that porn is “wrecking countless lives”; and Clay Olsen, CEO of Fight The New Drug—the “new drug” in his organization’s name being porn—who proudly wore a tight t-shirt to the event that read PORN KILLS LOVE.
After the handful of moralists took turns saying their sobering pieces about porn’s supposed insidiousness, Herbert signed SCR 9, a concurrent resolution that declared pornography a “public health crisis” in Utah. As a non-binding motion, the resolution didn’t actually ban anything, but it typified the conservative approach to the issue in predominantly Mormon Utah, which has—at least in recent history—served as the cultural heart of the war on pornography. (Just over 15 years ago, this was the state whose legislature established the first-ever “porn czar,” whose job was to give legal assistance to government and citizens concerned about the adult entertainment industry).
Utah’s anti-porn sentiment has metastasized from socially conservative and Christian circles to governing bodies across the country, not solely on the state-level but also the federal. Back in July of 2016, unlikely advocate Donald Trump, who once appeared in a soft-core porn video and takes no apparent issue with the objectification of women, signed anti-porn nonprofit Enough is Enough’s pledge to aggressively fight the adult entertainment industry were he to become president. Two days later, the Republican Party released their 2016 Party Platform, which urged states to fight the “public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions.” Then, during the 2017 legislative session, 15 states introduced a total of 19 resolutions about porn—as a public health hazard in its mildest articulation, a crisis in its most alarmist—all of which feature nearly identical language and perspectives from some of country’s most prominent socially conservative organizations.
After Herbert signed the concurrent resolution, he shouted “okay, we’re on our way!” into the gathered crowd at the capitol. It was the beginning of the concerted governmental effort to threaten pornographers’ First Amendment rights, the likes of which the adult entertainment industry hasn’t seen since Reagan’s America.
According to the logic laid out in SCR 9, porn is to blame for nearly every carnal or cultural sin in America: If a young man doesn’t have a strong desire to get married, he probably watched porn as a teen. If your partner is unfaithful, search his history for PornHub. If two 17-year-olds want to “engage in risky sexual behavior,” surely it is because they watched porn, so the thinking goes.
The resolution’s boldest claim is also the most cynical: that pornography promotes sexual violence against women and children and “teaches girls they are to be used and teaches boys to be users.” While these statements are typical in debates surrounding pornography, multiple studies have shown that access to pornography may actually deter sexual violence. Nevertheless, the resolution calls for “education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level in order to address the pornography epidemic that is harming the people of our state and nation.”
Introduced in February 2016, Utah’s resolution came from a politician who has partially dedicated his platform to fighting the adult entertainment industry: Republican Senator Todd Weiler, a devout Mormon. In 2013, Weiler sponsored a resolution that recognized “the strong negative impact of soft-core or gateway pornography on brain development in children,” which passed in the Senate and House but was never signed by the governor. Just last year, he sponsored SB 185, a bill that makes porn producers and distributors liable for civil damages if a minor is physically or psychologically affected. The governor signed that one.
While Weiler’s message didn’t resonate with the legislature enough to pass out of the Senate in 2013, the one in SCR 9 has. In the past legislative session, 15 states introduced similar resolutions, which were received with varying success. Weiler declined to discuss his work on anti-porn legislation with Jezebel.
At the center of the fight is the aforementioned National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), a group that realized its fight to establish porn as a national crisis in May 2014, at their first national symposium, an event which kicked off with the press conference titled “Porn is Public Health Crisis.” (NCOSE did not respond to multiple and persistent requests for comment on this article.) In July 2015, they held the congressional symposium “Pornography: A Public Health Crisis” at the US Capitol. At that event they claimed to present evidence illustrating porn’s “direct links to increased demand for sex trafficking, child sexual exploitation and violence against women.”
Seven months later, in February 2016, NCOSE released a model resolution on this topic; popularized by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the organization of conservative state legislators and corporate lobbyists that’s infamous for writing and distributing drafts of legislation on topics such as Right-to-Work laws and climate change denial, model legislation is a tool used to persuade state governments to take up a cause with minimal legislative lift.
So began the introduction of anti-porn resolutions across the country. The majority were introduced but have, as of this writing, received no further action: HJR 166 in Alabama, HR 364 and HR 447 in Georgia, HR 113 in Hawaii, HF 1788 and SF 1605 in Minnesota, HCR 38 in Missouri, HCR 1002 in Oklahoma, H 3887 in South Carolina, HR 112 in Texas, and SCR 29 in West Virginia. Other resolutions, like Arkansas’s HR 1042, Kansas’s HR 6016 (SR 1723 died in the Senate), Oklahoma’s HCR 1006, and Virginia’s HJ 549, have had success in one chamber.
Other states have adopted or signed their versions of the resolution. South Dakota unanimously passed SCR 4 in January. Tennessee’s governor signed SJR 35 on April 24th. The most recent passed resolution is Louisiana’s HCR 100, which has slightly different language from the others: pornography is deemed a “hazard” instead of a crisis, and the victims are specified as “Louisiana children.”
The resolutions have much in common from state to state: Along with statistics from a January 2016 study conducted by the Christian research organization Barna Group and funded by Cru Minister Josh McDowell (who spoke at NCOSE’s 2016 summit), the resolution also cites claims from multiple anti-porn and internet safety studies and advocates. One so-called expert is Gail Dines, a prominent anti-pornography feminist who spoke at NCOSE’s 2015 symposium and has been fighting alongside them the entire time. Following in the footsteps of feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who railed against pornography during the sex wars in the 1970s and ’80s, Dines, too, has argued that porn objectifies women and promotes violence against them.
“As the research shows, porn is not merely a moral nuisance and subject for culture-war debates,” Dines wrote in The Washington Post in April 2016. “It’s a threat to our public health.”
Mike Stabile, the communications director at Free Speech Coalition, the nonprofit trade association of the adult entertainment industry, is familiar with the claims cited in the anti-porn resolutions. Socially conservative and Christian groups on the right have long held these beliefs, and pornography has long been a flash point among feminists—so why now? Stabile believes it’s no coincidence.
“We’re facing assaults on sexual education, on family planning, on LGBTQ rights, on sex worker rights, on all these issues that conservatives have argued are manifested—made worse, in their estimation—by talking about them,” he told me, adding that despite the former, he didn’t anticipate seeing governing bodies adopt the public health crisis platform.“[Free Speech Coalition] didn’t take [the messages of the conservative Christian groups] seriously, so we were sort of shocked after Utah’s resolution. I think some of the people behind the resolutions were even shocked.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, prominent conservative Christian organizations were instrumental in getting anti-porn views to the floor. After the GOP adopted the anti-porn amendment in their national party platform, South Dakota-based FHA Action—the political arm of the conservative Christian organization Family Heritage Alliance, which is “dedicated to protecting and promoting faith, family, and freedom,” applauded the initiative and voiced their intention to submit their own state resolution during the 2017 Legislative Session. Following through on their promise, FHA Action made it “a front and center priority,” and according to their website, their lobbyists introduced and promoted the resolution. In Kansas, lobbyists from Family Policy Alliance of Kansas (a public policy partner of Focus on the Family, another American Christian conservative organization) and American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri testified in support of Kansas’s house resolution.
What these organizations argue is detrimental, that kids shouldn’t discover what sex is through a PornHub video, is not wholly incorrect—it’s just targeted at the wrong group. While Weiler, FHA Action, and Fight the New Drug label porn as a crisis, there is a true crisis in the huge number of states without scientifically-accurate comprehensive sex education. Chitra Panjabi, the president and CEO of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), has been tracking porn resolutions since Utah’s in 2016, with an eye on the language surrounding education.
“In Utah, when the resolution was passed, advocates were talking about how porn is a public health hazard because young people are using it to form an education around sex,” she said. “If someone comes along [with porn] and says, ‘look at these people having sex,’ if you’ve had comprehensive sex education, you’ll be able to differentiate sex from porn and fantasy,” Panjabi said. “But if you consider porn to be education and also don’t understand things like consent, you can’t contextualize [what you’re watching].”
Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist at sexual biotechnology company Liberos who has extensively covered how the brain processes pornography, explains that if 14-year-old boy who lacks sexual education decides to tune into footage of, for example, anal sex without a condom, he’ll be lacking context and the ability to discern that porn is entertainment. If people watching adult entertainment have an educated understanding of sex, though, Prause submits, it can have actual benefits: “[Porn] lowers stress biomarkers, raises life satisfaction, increases verbal memory kills, improves marriage satisfaction, decreases cancer associated with male prostate because it encourages masturbation, and increases your libido.”
When she publishes research, she told me she receives criticism from a few main groups: Organizations like Fight the New Drug, online trolls, industries that her research threatens, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a website dedicated to addiction recovery and calls Senator Weiler a member. Prause recalled a radio interview in which Weiler referenced her research and claimed that she was “funded by pornography.”
The fight to impede any discussion about sex is not a new one—it’s how America has historically spoken about sexuality, Free Speech Coalition’s Stabile says. In the 1980s, when he was coming of age as a gay man, people worried that talking about homosexuality would encourage others to abandon their heterosexuality. Along this line, if you teach teenagers that abstinence is the only answer, they will never consider having sex before married, or so goes the narrative.
Though largely vacuous, the resolutions are not so easily defeated. They’re promoted with testimonies from confused teenagers and “survivors” who have seen or have a relationship with a type of entertainment they’ve been told is shameful, and their guilt-ridden confessions are difficult to counter without feeling callous.
“I grew up in an abusive home where I didn’t know what love was,” a porn “survivor” writes in the article “True Story: I Watch Porn To Feel Love, But It Just Makes Me Feel Lonelier” on Fight the New Drug’s website. “Speaking as a woman who has dealt with depression, suicidal inclination, self-harming tendencies and pornography, the latter is the one that’s left the most lasting mark on me. And that’s why I fight.” While many of the statistics in the resolutions are examples of pseudoscience—contrary to what the resolutions say, people don’t get addicted to porn like drugs or alcohol, and there is no causation between watching porn and rape—it’s difficult to look someone in the eye who calls herself a “survivor” and tell her she’s “survived” something harmless.
The resolutions are ostensibly altruistic: They’re motions that seek to “protect women and children” from denigrating and objectifying sexual content. But this is a hypocritical justification coming from Republican politicians whose stances on comprehensive sex ed and women’s rights show that this sentiment is disingenuous.
It’s not difficult to see how panic over a “crisis” could spread; the US is a country with a national commission dedicated to investigating the nonexistent problem of voter fraud. Meanwhile, states are passing voter suppression laws. There’s also another handful of bills that state legislators are concurrently fighting for in the name of protecting women and children: the anti-trans bathroom legislation being exhibit A. “As chief lawyer and law enforcement officer for the State of Texas, I ask that you provide the full text of Target’s safety policies regarding the protection of women and children from those who would use the cover of Target’s restroom policy for nefarious purposes,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in an open letter to Target after the corporation announced customers and employees could use the restrooms and fitting rooms to which their gender identity corresponds. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 15 transgender people have been the victims of lethal hate crimes in 2017. There is not a single reported incident of a trans person attacking anyone in an American public bathroom.
However, “NCOSE has adopted facades that make it seem neutral and progressive,” Stabile told me, adding, “you’d hope our courts would be able to see through that, but...”
Stabile calls the adult entertainment industry “the canary in the coal mine.” If someone takes a clip of BDSM play and makes the argument that women and children need to be shielded from similar videos, it’s optically tough to defend the material on its merits—especially in states that shield women and children from anything that could educate them about sexuality. Beyond their surface claims, these non-binding motions have broader implications related to free speech and censorship.
“As we saw with obscenity prosecutions under Reagan, it’s not always about successful convictions,” Stabile said, in reference to the 1988 Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1987. “It’s about lawsuits, which have a chilling effect on who’s producing what.” But though Stabile worries about lawsuits and obscenity prosecutions, his biggest concern is about the secondary and tertiary effects of these resolutions. He wonders how the resolutions could be used as the basis for other Internet bans and filters on pornography, which would inevitably censor LGBTQ, sexual health, and sex positive content.
In the 2017 legislative session, more than a dozen states introduced bills called the “Human Trafficking Prevention Act,” which would require manufacturers to install obscenity filters on all cell phones, tablets, computers, and devices with Internet browsing capabilities. Incidentally, this campaign is the pet project of disbarred attorney Mark Sevier, who has sued states for the right to marry his laptop and said that “Pat Truman and Dawn Hawkins [of NCOSE] are poster children of absolute incompetency when it comes to fighting pornography and sex trafficking in a meaningful and valid way” in a lawsuit against the state of Utah—a little bit of in-fighting in the anti-porn movement. All the while, Utah was busy passing a bill that allows consumers to sue pornographers for damage to minors.
“These resolutions are not that concerning when taken on their own,” Stabile told Jezebel. “But they’re never entirely on their own. Once you have a moral panic, you can do anything.”
Amanda Arnold is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers conservative legislation, labor, and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter.