Should Porn Be A Public Health Issue?

Women's Health South Africa|June 2020

Should Porn Be A Public Health Issue?
It gets more viewers than the biggest box sets combined and the industry is doing all it can to appeal to women like you. But a growing volume of voices is putting porn under closer scrutiny, not on moral grounds, but for the sake of our collective well-being...
Sophie Wilkinson and Nikki Osman

Where consumers were traditionally stereotyped as teenage boys thumbing through mags behind a locked bedroom door, the porn industry has spread its consumerist tentacles far wider and shed much of its stigma in the meantime. Audio erotica is in the iTunes Store (see: Dipsea), porn is in your inbox via the newsletters of glossy women’s websites (“How to watch porn with your partner”) and – if recent data on the uptake among women is anything to go by – in your own browsing history. It’s also, according to the companies that make it, far more progressive than it was in the past. “Ethical” porn is that which is made legally and respects the rights of performers, and more mainstream sites, like PornHub, have adopted values in line with broader moral trends, like giving a nod to diversity by adding captions for deaf viewers and taking up socially aware causes, such as eradicating single-use plastic. They’re seemingly unlikely steps taken by an industry more often accused of inciting violence against women via violent videos, promoting pornographic “deepfakes” (where someone’s image is superimposed on to another’s using sophisticated software) and platforming revenge crimes. These days, porn is coming under scrutiny for reasons other than questionable ethics.

Some academics are objecting to porn on the grounds of public health, arguing that the implications for those who consume it – as well as the impact on those close to them – present a real threat to society’s collective well-being. It’s being called the crisis of our time, which is perhaps not so much of a stretch when you consider current viewing figures – users of PornHub consumed 629 880 years’ worth of content in 2018. “I speak at a lot of medical conferences with doctors and nurses and, I have to say, it’s rare I come across anyone working in these fields who understands the harm of porn,” says Dr Gail Dines, a professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies, who’s spent 20 years researching the porn industry. In her book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, she argues that porn – a billion-dollar largely unregulated industry – is a public health issue we can no longer afford to ignore. “Boys who begin watching it aged between nine and 13 tend never to stop,” she says. “It can undermine their healthy sexual, emotional and cognitive development.” Dines argues that the more porn men use, the more likely they are to have physical problems, such as erectile dysfunction, and behavioural issues, such as aggression towards women. As for female porn users, she cites problems maintaining intimate relationships and a tendency towards developing anxiety and depression. “At the very least, porn must be regulated. You can’t give out free cigarettes and alcohol to teenagers, but it’s deemed fine to grant access to porn, which has been proven to have a damaging impact on health,” Dines adds. Like there’s been in decades past with tobacco and alcohol, does society need a porn intervention?

FREE AND EASY

Among detractors, the things that make porn in 2020 such an attractive proposition – free, easy to access – are the same things that make it risky. “The big change was in 2006 when broadband became available and smartphones made it very easy for people to access porn,” says Mary Sharpe, chair of The Reward Foundation, a charity that aims to educate the public on the science behind sex and relationships in the UK. Fast forward to 2020 and you’re only ever a few clicks away from watching as much free porn as you want. PornHub is funded by ad revenue, so is free to access, and users are able to upload their own content without any active checks by site administrators. It’s this easily and anonymously accessed free internet porn – as opposed to the paid-for age-restricted kind found on the top shelves at certain shops or the subscription-based erotic stories you can stream on your phone – that Sharpe and others caution against on health grounds. She argues that the behavioural psychology techniques employed by tech companies (think: next video autoplay, sidebars of similar content, but with more intense stimulation and novelty) have helped turn porn into a compulsive habit for some. “Porn is now being studied as an emerging behavioural addiction alongside others already established as addictive disorders, like gaming and gambling,” adds Sharpe. “Researchers are specifically looking at the role of technology, which has made all of these habits easier.” While behavioural addictions are a relatively new area of study, Sharpe points to the addition of “compulsive sexual behaviour disorder” to the most recent edition of the International Classification Of Diseases (ICD-11) – the diagnostic bible of the World Health Organization – as proof of the direction of travel. The problem, she explains, is twofold: “On the one hand, it can become a quick fix for negative mood – something to do when you’re bored, stressed or lonely. This is leading to compulsive behaviour among some people, resulting in less interest in and less satisfaction from sex with a partner. For some users, too, by turning to porn as a coping mechanism, they’re not addressing possible underlying issues. It’s also true that social anxiety, depression and low self-confidence can arise from a porn habit without an underlying issue.” This was one finding of a 2019 review of the existing research into porn use as an addictive behaviour, which pointed to the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders alongside hypersexual behaviour.

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June 2020