Labeling porn 'public health hazard' may bring change

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WASHINGTON (BP) -- Labeling pornography a "public health hazard" may prove to be a game-changer.

That is the hope of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) and its allies in the attempt to prevent exposure and addiction to pornography and to help those impacted by its use.

The effort to reverse the spread of sexually explicit material and its effects received a boost March 29, when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a resolution saying pornography is establishing "a public health crisis." The first-of-its-kind resolution, which NCOSE helped craft and the state legislature approved unanimously, recognizes "the need for education, prevention, research, and policy change" to confront "the pornography epidemic." See related story.

Utah was "exactly right" to say pornography is creating a "public health crisis," a crisis that exists inside, as well as outside, the church, said Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore.

"The consequences of this cultural epidemic are grievous." -- Russell Moore
"It's an epidemic not just in American culture but in evangelical churches too," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"Porn lies to men and women about love, sex and what it means to be a person," he told Baptist Press in written comments. "The consequences of this cultural epidemic are grievous, and the church should be on the forefront of proclaiming the grace and freedom found in the Gospel."

Evangelicals commonly consider porn usage sinful, but the latest effort to address the widespread phenomenon is focused on its effect on public well-being.

"What we hope to accomplish is to change the conversation regarding pornography," said Dani Bianculli, executive director of NCOSE's Law Center. She called adoption of the resolution "a really big step in that direction."

The porn epidemic requires a cooperative effort, she told Baptist Press.

Porn has become "ubiquitous and caused so much harm that it's really beyond the individual or the individual family to tackle alone," Bianculli said. "So we really want to hold broader influences accountable.

"We can draw attention to this problem, and hopefully we can get multiple people involved."

With the barely one-page resolution, the NCOSE provides six pages of footnotes to support its assertions about the harmfulness of porn. Among the effects cited in the resolution are:

-- Normalization of violence against women and children;

-- Contributing to the hyper-sexualization of teenagers and even preteens;

-- Potential biological addiction that leads to the viewing of "more shocking material;"

-- Reduced desire for marriage in young males and increased dissatisfaction in marriage.

While some skeptics of such assertions criticized Utah's action, a Boston-based sociologist defended the measure, saying the science supports the resolution.

"After 40 years of peer-reviewed research, scholars can say with confidence that porn is an industrial product that shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality -- for the worse," said Gail Dines, professor of sociology at Wheelock College and author of "Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality," in an April 8 column for The Washington Post.

"By taking a health-focused view of porn and recognizing its radiating impact not only on consumers but also on society at large, Utah's resolution simply reflects the latest research."

Porn, Dines wrote, "is a threat to our public health."

A new survey shows smartphones and high-speed Internet have steered porn "into the cultural mainstream where it enjoys increasingly widespread acceptance," according to the Barna Group, which released the results of its polling April 6.

Among findings in the Barna survey:

-- 33 to 52 percent of Americans 13 and older view porn intentionally at least once a month.

-- 57 percent of 18 to 24 year olds use porn daily, weekly or monthly.

-- 47 percent of males 25 and older view porn intentionally, contrasted with 12 percent of females in that age range.

Passage of the non-binding resolution in Utah could help hold the representatives who voted for it accountable in the future, Bianculli said.

"Now they've signed on and say they do recognize this as a problem, so they should support legislation that would restrict it or maybe provide services for those who have been harmed by it," she told BP.

Though NCOSE has not drafted specific pieces of legislation in such an effort, Bianculli cited some possible proposals:

-- Effective Internet filters at libraries that receive state funds;

-- Curricula for schools to follow, as well as filters, for school-issued Internet devices;

-- Renewed enforcement of obscenity laws.

Five or six other states have contacted NCOSE to express in interest in adopting a resolution like the one approved by Utah, Bianculli said.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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