Pornography consumption: The overlooked public health crisis

The FDA recently attempted to ban flavored vaping products after a series of deaths were blamed on their usage. Congress was also quick to act: two senators introduced The Ending New Nicotine Dependencies Act (ENND) shortly after the FDA actions.

Unfortunately, no such federal response has emerged regarding another public health emergency, which quietly takes its toll on America’s adolescents and adults every day — the public health crisis of pornography. 

Research demonstrates that pornography exposure among adolescents is nearly universal.

A 2016 University of Middlesex study in Great Britain found that 53 percent of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen explicit pornographic material online, nearly all of whom (94 percent) had seen it by the age of 14.

This content exposes youth to hardcore sex acts depicting a limitless supply of rough, violent, abusive, paraphilic, and potentially lethal behaviors. 

Especially alarming is pornography’s disruption of natural sexual development by the normalization of sexist attitudes, rape myths, sexual violence, and risky sexual behaviors.

Moreover, its widespread use among adolescents is creating social pressure on youth to engage in what they’ve seen, even inspiring them to act it out on younger children

Pornography use is linked to adverse changes in the brain. Brain scans of pornography users have demonstrated reductions in grey matter, harm in areas of the mind-controlling motivation and decision-making, impaired impulse control, as well as sexual desensitization.

Indeed, a growing crisis of sexual dysfunction now exists among younger millennial men whose learned sexual arousal is predicated on viewing pixels on a screen rather than actual human interaction. 

It’s little wonder that young people’s pornography use is linked to depressive symptoms and loneliness. 

Attempts by Congress to address Internet pornography in the 1990s, the Communication Decency Act and its successor, the Child Online Protection Act, were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

These legal setbacks, combined with the U.S. Department of Justice’s persistent failure to prosecute federal obscenity laws, have given pornographers a stranglehold on the Internet.  

Federal law has not kept pace with the rapid development of technologies, making it easier to access hardcore content. No longer does online pornography consumption require personal computers attached to telephone lines. Now, this content is available to everyone, including minors, on laptops, mobile phones, video game consoles, and other electronic devices. 

The pervasiveness of online “adult” pornography inflicts grave damage on our society, and Internet companies are complicit in allowing virtually unfettered access to pornography by minors.

The legal double standard of Internet porn consumption by minors is an especially tricky aspect of both state and federal law. People under the age of 18 cannot legally purchase pornographic material at any brick and mortar store in America. 

In any jurisdiction across the country, if a 14-year-old boy or girl purchased pornography, the clerk who sold it could be held criminally liable, and the business could be held civilly responsible. However, any child with a computer or cell phone has easy access to unlimited obscene material on the Internet.

While previous attempts by Congress to pass federal legislation addressing the distribution of Internet pornography failed, the past twenty years have taught us — and the courts — volumes about the Internet, its dangers, and how unfettered access to adult pornography has fostered a public health crisis.

This education demands that our elected leaders in Washington address this crisis by again passing legislation to protect children from Internet pornography and vigorously enforcing federal obscenity laws.

Thankfully some members of Congress have stepped up. Just last week, U.S. Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Brian Babin (R-Texas), Vickie Hartzler (R-Miss.), and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, calling on him to enforce federal obscenity laws. We applaud this leadership.  

It’s time for Congress to take the public health harms of pornography seriously and to do due diligence to protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens, young and old alike. 

Patrick A. Trueman is the president at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and Geoffrey Rogers, the CEO at the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking. 

Tags Mark Meadows William Barr

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