Why Porn is a Public Health Issue


A manhole cover with three X's: XXX

It was not that long ago that domestic violence (DV) was seen as a private family issue, rather than a public health problem of enormous magnitude that has myriad effects on the social, psychological, economic and, of course, collective health of society at large. Thanks in large part to the feminist movement, which worked to build public awareness about the multiple harms of DV, health professionals drawn from a number of areas of specialization now understand DV as an issue that requires both prevention and intervention.

We have now reached a similar tipping point with pornography.  As the evidence on the harms of pornography piles up, it has become clear that we can no longer sit back and allow the porn industry to hijack the sexual and emotional well-being of our cultureTwitter . Extensive scientific research reveals that exposure to porn threatens the social, emotional and physical health of individuals, families and communities. These impacts highlight the degree to which porn is a public health crisis that undermines women and children’s human rightsTwitter , rather than being a private matter. But just as the tobacco industry argued for decades that there was no proof of a connection between smoking and lung cancer, so too has the porn industry, with the help of a well-oiled public relations machine, denied the existence of empirical research on the impact of its products.

Using a wide range of methodologies, researchers from a number of disciplines have shown that viewing pornography is associated with damaging outcomes. In a study of U.S. college men, researchers found that 83 percent reported seeing mainstream pornography, and that those who did were more likely to say they would commit rape or sexual assault (if they knew they wouldn’t be caught) than men who hadn’t seen porn in the past 12 months. The same study found that porn consumers were less likely to intervene if they observed a sexual assault taking place. A recent meta-analysis of 22 studies between 1978 and 2014 from seven different countries concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age. A 2010 meta-analysis of several studies found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women.”


In one of the most respected and highly cited studies on the content of pornography, Bridges and her team found that the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers.



This is no surprise given the violent and degrading nature of mainstream online pornography. In one of the most respected and highly cited studies on the content of pornography, Bridges and her team found that the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-hand slapping, and gagging, occurred in over 88% of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression—calling the woman names such as “bitch” or “slut”—were found in 48% of the scenes. The researchers concluded that 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act if both physical and verbal aggression were combined.

As Carin Götblad, Police Commissioner of Stockholm County, said about preventing DV, “there are no simple overall solutions…. what is needed is long-term, differentiated and sustained cooperation throughout society: efforts with a clear public health perspective.” Culture Reframed (full disclosure: the author is the founder and President of the organization) is pioneering such a strategy to address porn as the public health crisis of the digital age. Tasked with building the public’s capacity to deal with online porn, our multi-disciplinary team of expert consultants is developing educational programs for parents, youth, and a range of professionals. These programs will create a robust set of health objectives that adhere to best practice in health promotion and violence prevention, and that align with the U.S. national health priorities and the U.S. national health policy, Healthy People 2020.

These objectives serve to guide the development of our curriculum, evaluation, implementation, and long-term strategic plans. As with DV, the problem of pornography requires a creative and collective effort by building coalitions and partnerships, which Dr. Nidal Karim, a behavioral scientist with the Centers for Disease Control calls “the cornerstone of success.” At Culture Reframed we recognize that organizing against a predatory misogynist industry demands that we work with multiple partners that include sex educators, parents, youth groups, health professionals, and anti-violence experts, to shift the culture from one that sees pornography consumption as a private issue to one that values and promotes a sexuality rooted in gender equality, dignity, autonomy, and consent.

Featured image: laurenAmsterdam, The Netherlands. 2007, used under CC BY 2.0