Porn Isn't A Public Health Crisis, Toxic Masculinity Is
Ashley Batz for Bustle

2016 formally became known as the year of "porn as a public health crisis" when the GOP drafted the language into its official party platform, just days ahead of the Republican National Convention this past July. The amendment was proposed by North Carolina delegate Mary Frances Forrester, reading in part, "Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions." But the idea to legislate porn as a threat to public health wasn't hers. It first popped up in April of 2016, when Utah State Senator Todd Weiler (R) introduced a resolution seeking to classify porn as a "public health crisis." Both efforts cite porn's negative effects on children and the very real dangers of revenge porn. But what they and other anti-porn crusades neglect to address is who the perpetrators of hazards to the public associated with porn consumption are: men.

Last April, self-described "anti-porn feminist activist" Gail Dines wrote a piece for The Washington Post denouncing porn as a public health crisis, too. She focuses her condemnation on porn supporters' denial of the science, a willful ignorance of the facts that 40 years of study and research have given us. But it's not about denial; it's about to whom those facts pertain.

She succinctly recaps the science in two paragraphs:

Notice what most of these studies have in common? They're almost all about men's relationship to porn. Even the researchers that used female participants studied them based on their relationships to men. The studies hit all the toxic masculinity talking points: male aggression, male violence, male sexual predation, and men's misogynist attitudes, all contributing to victimization of women and children. Why, then, isn't the argument that men are the public health crisis? Or at the very least, toxic masculinity and the patriarchy that breeds it? Why is the burden falling on porn?

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That's like blaming alcohol consumption for rape instead of rapists. It's like blaming women's clothing choices for men's awful behavior. Saying that porn is a public health crisis continues to enable men's predation by shunting accountability onto the backs of already sexually oppressed populations, instead of holding men accountable for their dangerous behaviors.

How is it punishing sexually oppressed folks? None of the studies Dines cites look at the effects of consuming porn on women. None of them focused on queer populations. None of them focused on other identities who are either underrepresented or exploited in mainstream sex media, like disabled folks or fat folks or people of color or older people. This isn't willful neglect on Dines' part; the science actually isn't there. Women are a scientifically understudied population. Queers are a scientifically understudied population. The wealth of research about sexuality we do have is relentlessly focused on cisgender and/or heterosexual, able-bodied white men and those who are sexually associated with them.

It's true that porn isn't meant to be an instructional sex model for children, and studies have shown that children typically first access porn around age 14. But its detrimental effects on children are not a result of porn itself existing. They're rather an example of the actual public health crisis of poor sex education in schools. Porn is easily accessible. Comprehensive, inclusive, sex-positive, consent- and pleasure-based sex education is not. When we strip children of the tools to understand and develop a vocabulary for sex, and leave them only with non-contextualized porn to sort through their desire, it is, of course, damaging. That damage, in fact, follows everyone into adulthood.

That's why porn produced for the male gaze — which upholds all the tenets of patriarchal, toxic masculinity — exists. In fact, it's so common and popular that it's what constitutes "mainstream porn." But by definition, mainstream porn isn't the only porn to exist. There are alternatives. Plenty of ethical feminist porn-makers create content on their own terms and of their own agency.

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Once upon a time, we were alerted to the grotesqueries of factory farming. While it's true that, in response, many consumers became vegans, vegetarians, or meat reductionists, many others responded by becoming more mindful of where their food was coming from. They monitored their consumption and switched to buying locally sourced, sustainable, and humanely raised products. We didn't banish all livestock farming forever because factory farming is bad for the environment and bad for our bodies — we just switched to farmers who worked ethically. We can do the same in our porn consumption.

What about the benefits of porn made intentionally and ethically to represent sexually marginalized and oppressed identities? That made with the full consent and autonomy of its performers? Porn made specifically for audiences other than the cisgender, heterosexual white male gaze?

Since science doesn't seem particularly interested in the sex of non-male, non-straight populations, we only have personal accounts to go on. Luckily, the internet is full of personal essays from women about how seeing their bodies and their desires represented in porn helped them understand that they, too, were worthy of pleasure and entitled to take control of their own sexual satisfaction. In her memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, Lindy West basically chalks up her entire body-positive awakening to looking at erotic images of happy fat women until she internalized it as normal.

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And when you're watching porn in which the performers are driving the action (not directors looking to get the sexiest shot), it actually can be instructive. Nico Lang writes for Daily Dot:

As a queer woman, I literally learned how to have sex with trans and disabled bodies by watching porn made by and starring trans and disabled queer performers. Not just the mechanics of it, which is truthfully only a small (however useful) part, but also the language for how to navigate our sex in a comfortable, honest, and consent-based way.

We are a long way off from these concepts being taught in sex ed. We're also a long way off from having inclusive sex and gender configurations represented in sex ed. Where are these people and the partners who love them supposed to go? And furthermore, why would anyone want to take such a scarce resource away from them?

To erase the very real, however unproven, benefits that sexual representation brings to marginalized populations who struggle with shame and self-love, just because of toxic masculinity and its horrors, is cruel. And it only serves to strip them of even more humanity. There is one through line in both the negative effects of pornography and the negative effects outlawing pornography would cause, and that is serving solely the benefits, desire, and pleasure of men.