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Utah's Legislature Has Declared Porn a 'Public Health Crisis'

Utah's House approved a resolution that calls pornography "an epidemic that is harming the citizens of Utah and the nation" and vows to crack down on the "sexually toxic environment" that it perpetuates.

by Tess Owen
Mar 14 2016, 9:35pm

Utah State Senator Todd Weiler. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

The porn scare is on in Utah.

The state recently became the first in the United States to formally declare pornography a "public health crisis." After Utah's Senate unanimously passed a resolution last month vowing to crack down on pornography and the "sexually toxic environment" that it perpetuates, the state's House of Representatives approved it last week. With three members of the chamber absent, all of the other 72 members voted in support.

The resolution says that porn consumption invariably leads "to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms," and "recognizes the need for education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level in order to address the pornography epidemic that is harming the citizens of Utah and the nation."

A resolution doesn't enact any laws, however. It's a statement of intent.

"It's symbolic," State Senator Todd Weiler, who sponsored the legislation, told VICE News.

"Pornography is addictive and harmful, especially for adolescents," Weiler said. "Like illegal drugs, pornography will affect the brain chemistry of an adolescent."

The resolution affirms that porn consumption "can impact brain development and functioning, contribute to emotional and medical illnesses, shape deviant sexual arousal and lead to difficulty in forming or maintaining intimate relationships."

"When I was growing up, you would have to climb a mountain to see a Playboy magazine" Weiler remarked. "Now you go online, and one, two clicks, and you can view some of the most hardcore pornography that's out there."

The state senator said that studies back up the resolution's claim that links pornography to "lessening desire in young men to marry, dissatisfaction in marriage, and infidelity," which the text says demonstrates that smut "has a detrimental effect on the family unit."

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This isn't the first time Weiler has raised alarm over NSFW fare: he introduced a resolution against "gateway pornography" that was passed in 2013.

"Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition would be an example," he said.

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, almost 60 percent of Utah's residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and identify as Mormon.

On Saturday, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the second-highest authority in the church — delivered the keynote address at the Utah Coalition Against Pornography's 14th annual conference in Salt Lake City.

Holland said that we have to think of porn "like a public health crisis; like a war; like an infectious, fatal epidemic; like a moral plague on the body politic that is maiming the lives of our citizens."

He likened the threat of X-rated material to the avian flu, cholera, diphtheria, and polio, adding that, like any other epidemic, "it needs to be eradicated."

Weiler has a more measured approach.

"I'm not trying to ban it," he said. He's interested in curtailing its access, comparing its ready availability to how easy it once was to buy cigarettes. "When I was a kid, you could put a couple quarters in the vending machine and you could walk out with cigarettes. Today in Utah, you have to be 19 to buy cigarettes. We didn't ban tobacco, we just made it less accessible to children."

Holland's passionate rhetoric nevertheless speaks to the concerns of a growing number of Utahns. Almost 3,000 people attended the UCAP conference, compared to a small showing of just 200 people 15 years ago.

"All of us have people that we know who are addicted to pornography," attendee Alan Daimaru told KSL, a local news outlet. "Even if we don't know that there's an addict in our life, there is someone that we know who can benefit from events like this."

A study from 2009 suggested that Utah consumed more porn than any other state in the US, based pay-per-view pornography and subscriptions to adult websites. But the analysis might have simply indicated that people from Utah are more inclined to pay for porn. A 2014 study of regional consumption by the online porn giant PornHub, which is free, found that Utah ranked 40th in the US.

Weiler says he's been approached by a number of parents who were familiar with the 2009 study.

"We have twice as many paid pornography subscribers than California," he said, which he attributes to "the conservative and religious culture" in Utah

The state senator would like to see the government work with internet providers to allow customer access to pornography on an "opt-in basis" only. Apart from actual internet service providers, he thinks it would be good to start with businesses that offer wifi access are good places to start.

"I'm in touch with McDonalds of Utah," Weiler said. The fast-food chain is reportedly considering putting up firewalls at Utah branches to prevent their patrons from watching porn while eating their Big Macs.

"McDonald's advertises happy meals, market towards children, have a clown," Weiler said. "I feel confident that McDonald's will come on board. It's the right thing to do. We know that kids are using the free, unfiltered wifi to access porn."

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But not everyone thinks that framing porn as a public health crisis is the way to address concerns that kids are watching too much of it.

"The issue isn't porn," said Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, a website that claims to be "pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-knowing the difference."

The problem, she we went on, "is the total lack of an open, healthy, honest conversation about real world sex. In its absence, the porn industry becomes default sex education"

Utah is one of 31 states that don't require contraception information in their curriculum, which is described as "abstinence based." One of the goals of the state's health curriculum is for the student to be able to "describe how sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage contribute to overall wellness."

That objective runs counter to what many highly-cited studies have found — that there is a direct correlation between abstinence-only programs and sexually risky behavior, such as not using contraception. No study that has been published by a professional peer-reviewed medical journal has found abstinence programs to be effective.

A recent bill to integrate a comprehensive sex-education program into Utah schools didn't get very far in the State Senate. It proposed "opt-in" sex education, so parents could decide if they wanted their children to be exposed to that information or not.

"I probably would have voted for that bill," said Weiler.

But he doesn't think it would make much of a difference with regards to the alleged pornography public health crisis sweeping the state.

"For anyone to suggest that kids only look at porn because they don't know how to make love?" Weiler said. "That's silly."

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen