Republicans are calling porn a 'public health crisis,' but is it really?

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Story highlights

  • Former Playboy bunny Pamela Anderson calls porn a "public hazard"
  • A draft of the GOP platform labels pornography a "public health crisis"
  • But what exactly qualifies as a "public health crisis"? Experts weigh in

(CNN)A debate over porn and public health continues to rage on.

Former Playboy model Pamela Anderson penned an op-ed with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday about the dangers of pornography, calling it a "public hazard."
    In July, the Republican Party called internet pornography a "public health crisis" under an amendment that was added to its platform draft at preliminary meetings in Cleveland. The party's national convention took place the week after.
    But what exactly qualifies as a "public health crisis," and does viewing porn fit that criteria?
    The World Health Organization vaguely defines a crisis as "a situation that is perceived as difficult" and a "time of danger."
    In a 2012 edition of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Crisis, Emergency, and Risk Communication manual (PDF), crises are described as "time-sensitive" and crisis communication tends to occur when "an unexpected and threatening event requires an immediate response."
    Still, there seems to be no definitive definition of what constitutes a public health crisis, said Emily Rothman, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. "But that doesn't mean it's fair game for anybody, anywhere, to just pick up that term and start using it at will to make a political point," Rothman said.
    "Republicans and anyone else who uses the word 'crisis' runs the risk of burning out the public on the idea. So then when there is an actual, acute, immediate, clear threat to the public's health and safety -- from an outbreak of a disease or from gun violence, for example -- people are going to blow you off instead of pay attention," she added. "It's really not cool for people who aren't trained or experienced in public health to start declaring what is or what is not a public health problem."
    In a written statement to CNN, the CDC said it "does not have an established position on pornography as a public health issue. Pornography can be connected to other public health issues like sexual violence and occupational HIV transmission."
    The National Center on Sexual Exploitation agrees with the Republican Party that pornography is a "public health crisis," said Dawn Hawkins, the center's senior vice president and executive director, in an email.
    "Thanks in part to the internet, it is now beyond an individual's or a family's capacity to adequately protect against, or overcome the harmful influences of, pornography," she said.
    The Republican Party is contemplating an anti-porn amendment, Hawkins said, because research shows that pornography use is linked to decreased gray matter in the brain, having more sexual partners and perpetuating rape myths.
    Hawkins added that some youth view pornography before they reach puberty, and it may be educating them about sex, which she said is disturbing because about 88% of porn videos depict physical aggression, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Violence Against Women.
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    "This reality requires a public health approach to raise awareness about the harms of pornography, provide resources to those struggling with it and to offer effective prevention strategies," she said.
    However, Rothman pointed out that even though the majority of mainstream pornography may appear to depict aggressive sexual acts, she would still refrain from calling it a crisis.
    "I think there are 'public health implications' of pornography," she said, "but just like anything else, it matters what type of pornography we are talking about, who is watching it, why they are watching it, what they do with that experience, and how it interacts with any pre-existing problems they have going on, such as a propensity for violence."
    Eric Schrimshaw, an associate professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health who has studied pornography, agreed. "There is currently very little research evidence to suggest that pornography is a 'public health hazard,'" Schrimshaw said.
    "Pornography may be correlated with more permissive sexual attitudes, but that does not necessarily mean that pornography caused those sexual attitudes. It could be just as possible that those individuals with pre-existing permissive sexual attitudes are just more likely to choose to view pornography," Schrimshaw said.
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    "Growing evidence also suggests that it is not pornography in general that may be correlated with potential negative outcomes. Rather, research has started to show that it is only viewing of specific types of pornography or specific behaviors within pornography," he said. "For example, in our research we found that men who watched more hours of pornography in general were no more or less likely to use condoms in real life. It was only men who viewed pornography that contained condom-less sex who were found to use condoms less. Men who watch pornography in which performers use condoms actually use condoms more frequently."
    This isn't the first time that pornography has been deemed a public health issue. Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed a resolution in April declaring pornography to be "a public health hazard" and called for additional research and education on the effects of pornography.