Arizona's New Public Health Crisis Is All About Porn, Not Public Health

Is porn really "biologically addictive"?

Arizona’s State Legislature has a message for its constituents: Porn is bad. It’s so bad, several legislators argue in a new resolution that they’re actually calling it a public health crisis and are looking to give that assessment some legal standing.

Last week, Concurrent Resolution 2009, titled “Denouncing Pornography as a Public Health Crisis,” passed through the Arizona House Committee on Health and Human Services, and it will soon face a vote in the House.

The actual text of the resolution, which is based on text from model legislation written by the conservative non-profit National Center on Sexual Exploitation, uses 11 claims to support the idea that porn is a public health crisis.

These claims include several references to medical consequences that the bill’s supporters argue can arise from looking at porn. One of the more scientific-sounding claims is that “recent research indicates pornography is potentially biologically addictive and requires shocking material for the addiction to be satisfied.”

This argument has already drawn criticism from other politicians, including democrat Kelli Butler, who told AzCentral the claims were a bit outlandish: “I just don’t think there’s necessarily the science to back up those claims.”

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A proposed resolution in Arizona aims to make porn a public health crisis. 

Butler has a point. As it stands, porn addiction isn’t actually listed as an addiction in medical guidance materials. For example, the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s guidance document that outlines psychological disorders, lists gambling as a “non-substance related disorder” and, controversially, mentions internet gaming but doesn’t include a pornography addiction among the list of scientifically accepted mental health diagnoses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the other hand, doesn’t have a stance on the issue. In response to the resolution proposed in Arizona, the CDC told CNN that the agency “does not have an established position on pornography as a public health issue.”

The psychological community’s stance on porn is even more of a mixed bag.

Is Porn Good or Bad?

A 2017 study in the Journal of Urology noted that men who preferred masturbating to porn over having sex tended to also report less orgasmic function and other performance issues. A 2019 meta-analysis of 184 articles related to porn’s physiological effects also highlighted a link to erectile dysfunction but noted there are several additional studies showing that porn use has no effect on ED. That same meta-analysis also noted that porn was linked to psychosexual dissatisfaction in men and women — or the idea that their IRL sex lives paled in comparison to their online fantasies.

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There's conflicting research on whether porn is biologically addictive. 

Adding to the confusion, for women, there’s evidence of a positive side to porn use. For example, a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Sex Research that surveyed 617 heterosexual couples found that porn use was associated with higher sexual function for women — but lower sexual function for men. A 2011 study published in Personal Relationships noted a similar pattern, though that study noted women often viewed porn with a partner, whereas men used porn primarily to masturbate.

Overall, the evidence suggests there’s still a fair amount of back and forth, which is partially the reason PornHub just awarded University of Kansas Psychology Professor Omri Gillath, Ph.D., and his colleagues a $25,000 grant to research porn and how it impacts close relationships.

Is Porn Use an Addiction?

As PornHub funds research to determine the social consequences of porn, there’s even more debate about whether it’s actually an addictive habit. The American Society of Addiction Medicine notes that addiction is a “chronic disease of brain reward” that leads to “pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

There are studies that do argue porn viewing can have effects on brain anatomy. For example, a 2016 paper in NeuroImage found there was heightened activity in the ventral striatum in people who self-reported addictions to internet porn. But even now, those studies don’t seem to have been convincing enough to prompt any widespread change to the diagnostic materials — like the DSM-5.

At the same time, guidelines are slightly changing to allow for different types of behavioral compulsions or “behavioral addictions” to be allowed into diagnostic guidelines. For instance, when the World Health Organization added internet gaming disorder (IGD) to the 11th International Classification of Diseases in July, there were several concurrent studies noting there were differences in brain activity in those who met the criteria for IGD. But still, the move to include IGD in the ICD-11 was criticized as “definitely premature” by some psychologists.

It’s also worth noting that the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the non-profit group that wrote the text used by Arizona state legislators, has a history of sensational and spurious claims about where young people are accessing inappropriate content. The group sued the library periodical database EBSCO in 2018 for allowing children to access pornographic material — such as articles about sex published in Men’s Health. Needless to say, the group is not composed of public health experts.

Next Steps for Arizona

While individual lawmakers may argue the ill effects of porn, all the available evidence is far from concluding that porn is replete with negative outcomes across the board, and a lack of scientific consensus reflects this fact. As far as the research goes, lawmakers will have a hard time labeling porn a public health crisis. But scientific consensus — not to mention scientific evidence — doesn’t seem to be a big factor in whether this resolution goes through. Nearly 11 states have already passed their own versions of Arizona’s resolution that condemns pornography as a public health crisis.

This resolution is far from a done deal, though. It will need to go through another round of voting, and if it passes, it won’t actually put any laws into effect. But it will make a statement about the medical status of pornography, arguably before the medical community reaches its own conclusion.

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