Group fighting porn — via MRIs

It aims to prove via MRIs that porn is physically harmful

Published: Wednesday, May 5 2004 6:43 a.m. MDT

Last winter, after crusading against the pornography industry for 40 years, John Harmer decided he was ready to wash his hands of the whole sorry thing. "It's a very unpleasant subject," he says. "And it's very difficult to get anyone to help you financially."

Then he learned about brain mapping. Now Harmer has new hope that the billion-dollar pornography industry can be crushed in the same way Big Tobacco was: by proving scientifically that porn is not only addictive but physically damaging as well.

And then, Harmer says, "we can go into the courtroom and hold them liable for physical harm. If we can hold them financially liable for the harm they are doing, then we have the real opportunity to push pornography into the gutter where it came from, and keep it there."

Harmer is chairman of the Lighted Candle Society, a group he started last year with former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese. The group, which has offices in Centerville and Washington, D.C., says that its vision is "to unite several million Americans who will each month spend $10 to 'light a candle' so that the light of truth may overpower and destroy the mists of darkness that are ever present with pornography."

Some of the money raised would pay for several months of research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the effect of visual pornography on the brain. Harmer estimates that access to an MRI machine will cost at least $3 million.

On May 12, the organization will hold a fund-raising dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Salt Lake City. The group will present an award to the Most Rev. George Neiderauer, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, for his work as chairman of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography. Featured speakers are Judith Reisman, president of the Institute for Media Education in Granite Bay, Calif., and local therapist Victor Cline.

Reisman, who has a doctorate in mass communications, is author of a scathing look at the Kinsey Reports and has written "The Psychopharmacology of Pictoral Pornography." It is Reisman's writings that persuaded Harmer to stay in the fight. "I'm really convinced that if there is such a thing as a silver bullet, Judith Reisman is the key."

The proposed brain research would take the Lighted Candle Society in a more ambitious direction. In its first year of operation, the group raised $50,000 for the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, money that was partially used to maintain a full-time office to help smaller anti-pornography groups around the state know how to proceed if they wanted, for example, to get salacious magazines off store shelves.

The goal now, though, Harmer says, is to prove once and for all a causal relationship between the viewing of pornography and eventual anti-social behavior. Legally, the defense has always been that this relationship cannot be proved, and the U.S. Supreme Court has concurred. But brain mapping could finally establish the link, he says.

There are already studies that demonstrate the addictive nature of television, Reisman says, as well as fMRI studies that show that watching violence affects the brain. "But the good guys haven't used MRIs yet for pornography specifically."

Reisman calls visual pornography an "erototoxin." It's not that pornography acts on the brain like a drug, she says. "It is a drug." We now know, she says, that viewing pornography triggers adrenaline, "experienced in the gut and genitalia," and triggers the production of testosterone, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. "It's a drug cocktail you're hit with. Pornography is a powerful, an enormously powerful, stimulant, which triggers such a rush and such a high. It's not a sexual stimulant. It's a fear-sex-shame-and-anger stimulant."

Visual pornography should not be defended as a First Amendment right, she says, because visual pornography reaches a different part of the brain than speech, "a brain that is visceral, nonspeech, right hemisphere."

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