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Despite growing cultural acceptance of pornography, experts say seeing it as a public health problem allows for a better discussion and stronger opposition than arguing from religious or moral standpoints.

When Robert Jensen talks to his college classes about pornography, his female students say they're not bothered by it — mostly because they don't see any way to avoid it.

"The vast majority of men they may date are using porn, so to resist that is to essentially put yourself in opposition to the entire culture that you are a part of," says Jensen, a professor in the school of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's hard for people to do, (so they say) 'Porn is not that big of a deal.'"

Public opposition against pornography has declined in the past 40 years. In 1975, 53 percent of women and 34 percent of men believed there should be laws against the distribution of pornography, according to a recent study. By 2012 it had fallen to 43 percent of women and 23 percent of men.

However, after accounting for differences between men and women in things like education, religion and political views, researchers at the University of Maryland found that men's opposition fell 13 percent (from 37 to 24), and women's fell just 8 percent (from 50 to 42) — over the last 40 years.

"What's interesting about that, with porn becoming so ubiquitous, is you might think (that because) men and women are exposed to the same culture that they would be increasingly similar in the way they see things," said study co-author Philip N. Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. "That fact that the lines are spreading apart … is a clue that all is not well in acceptance-of-pornography land."

Cohen and lead author Lucia Lykke, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, argue that this gender gap exists because men are increasingly “groomed” into becoming pornography consumers, while women struggle to reconcile their feelings about the ever present, but increasingly offensive, form of entertainment. Women's feelings are also often complicated by competing feminist ideologies that both support and oppose pornography.

To address the increasing acceptance of pornography and its impact on women, a growing number of scholars and activists are framing their opposition as a public health concern, noting that talking about porn's impacts on relationships, families and communities is a more effective approach than opposing it on religious or moral grounds.

"The reason (women) are conflicted is they don't have a competing narrative available to them that allows them to develop a healthy sexuality" without pornography, says Jennifer A. Johnson, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies gender, sexuality and networks. "We've just left them vulnerable to the predatory practices of the pornography industry."

A changing culture

Public opinion of pornography has evolved over the past four decades amid an increase in permissive attitudes surrounding sexuality, gender and free speech; a huge increase in free, online pornography; and increasingly violent and phallocentric-themed pornography, according to the study.

This combination has created the appearance of cultural “pornographication,” which makes it seem like everyone is OK with pornography, says Lykke. But data show there are still a quarter of men and more than a third of women who think porn should always be illegal.

"Just because the Internet says (porn) is normal or desirable doesn’t mean that individual people do or should feel that way," Lykke said.

But the ease of access to the magnitude of pornography available online makes it difficult to avoid, especially for men, to whom it is primarily marketed, says Johnson.

And when men view salacious images paired with sexual pleasure those images become difficult to want to question, says Jensen.

"People won't question (porn) until the use of that material is so evidently intervening in (their) ability to have meaningful relationships … that even (they) have to recognize that the continued use of it is self-destructive," he says.

As pornography becomes a larger part of men’s sexual experiences — one study found that 87 percent of college-aged men reported using pornography — the conflict for women only increases, much of it based on concerns about the violence in today's mainstream porn, according to the study.

Research has found that physical or verbal violence is present in a large majority of popular pornographic movies. And nearly all violence is directed at women, thus “providing a cultural context for grooming of viewers into believing that the women of pornography enjoy sexual degradation and violence,” according to the study.

“We need a movement that demands space free from pornography and recognizes the pornography industry as propaganda for violence against women,” said Meagan Tyler, vice chancellor’s research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who researches social construction of gender and sexuality. “We need a consumers' revolt.”

But the porn industry contends that its content is actually more woman-centered than ever before, both in consumption and production, because of the increasing number of female producers, and the ability for women to become famous by uploading their own videos, or webcamming, rather than relying on a production studio, said Diane Duke, CEO of the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association for the adult entertainment industry.

"Women are the fastest growing market in our industry," Duke said. "'Fifty Shades of Grey' made (porn) a very public conversation. Women always have been interested, (and now it's) easier for women to access sexual content … and find what they want."

A feminist critique

Yet for women who are not interested, speaking out against pornography can be difficult, because they run the risk of "appearing hostile to men," or being "branded as feminists," according to the study, which in today's postfeminist age is often a label many try to avoid.

While feminism has never been defined by a single ideal, the last several decades have seen a dramatic shift in how feminists think about sexuality and pornography.

Roughly broken down into three historical "waves," the first feminists focused on citizenship and getting the vote, while the second wave focused on legal equality. The third (and sometimes fourth) wave or post-feminism movement has been an intrafeminist critique where issues of gender, sexuality and identity are more fluid concepts, not rigid roles, explained Jennifer Baumgardner, an author, activist and executive director and publisher of The Feminist Press at CUNY.

That means many of today's feminists (who may or may not use that label) see pornography as a positive development — a chance for women to be liberated from the sexual repression and male-dominated society of the past.

"Porn becomes an outlet for exploration," Baumgardner says. "I don't think it's in any way uniformly positive or fun, but at least it's an outlet, it's an expression. I think we need to be having more conversations about sexuality as an affirmative thing, and less about pornography and how we need to control sexuality."

While struggles surrounding sexual identity and roles are real, particularly for college-aged women, trying to understand one's sexuality through the lens of pornography is skewed, contends Johnson, because it erroneously leads women to believe that pornography equals sexuality.

“Pornography is commerce," Johnson emphasizes, "Sexuality is behavior."

Given this rise of a pro-porn feminist movement, it's more important than ever to clearly define the feminist critique of pornography, says Jensen.

"The feminist critique is that porn is not just sex on film," he says. "It's sex in the context of male domination and female subordination. Porn sexualizes male power and eroticizes male domination. I think that was clearly true when Andrea (Dworkin) in the ’70s, ’80s made that critique and it's even more true today. And I think (critiquing) that in the public health framework can be productive."

Reframing the discussion

For the past two decades, Gail Dines has dedicated herself to researching the harms of pornography. But not until she began framing the issue as a public health problem did the interest in her findings begin to skyrocket. In the past two years, she's visited with government officials in Iceland, the U.K., Canada and Sweden, spoken with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Defense, and next month she's heading to a conference on pornography and public health in Norway.

"Everyone is overwhelmed," says Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston and a leading anti-porn activist. "In the vacuum of a discussion about healthy sexuality, pornographers have come in and become the sex educators of the Western world."

Research has shown that youth who see today's violent pornography are more likely to have sex at younger ages, engage in risky sexual behavior and exhibit sexually aggressive behavior, while men are less likely to intervene when witnessing college sexual assault, more likely to accept violence against women, and often struggle in relationships.

To counter that, Dines and a handful of specialists from across the academic, professional and medical spectrum will soon officially launch their international nonprofit, "Culture Reframed," to provide education and "address pornography as the public health crisis of the digital age."

Such education should be open, honest and respectful discussions of women and their bodies, as well as the understanding that pornography is not a natural expression of boy's and men's sexuality either, Johnson said.

"I'd also encourage schools to start thinking about including pornography in their sexual health and family health discussions," Johnson said. "Because it is a matter of public health — it negatively impacts families and communities."

Parents should be leading out in these discussions, which is why a large part of Culture Reframed focuses on teaching moms and dads individually how to talk to kids about pornography. A professionals' program will offer insight for those who work with children, with the goal to "build resilience in kids," Dines says.

Duke, with the Free Speech Coalition, agrees that parents need to be talking to their children about sex, to break through the country's puritanical silence on the topic, and she credits pornography with helping to bring that discussion to the forefront. In her mind, opposing porn from a public health perspective is missing the point.

"Everyone likes to blame (porn) for the world's ills," she said. "If you have a relationship where porn is getting in the way, then I think it's a little deeper. Porn is just a tool and there (must be) something lacking in the relationship. It's important to take that aside and look at what the real issue is. There are people who compulsively shop, do you want to close down all the malls? No. (You look at) why that person is compulsively shopping."

While Lykke and Cohen's study doesn't offer any sweeping solutions to the diverging opinions on pornography, the study itself may serve as an ice breaker for an uncomfortable topic.

"Because (porn) is so out in the open now … it can be a conversation," said Cohen. "Even if you don't think it's a good thing, you should be able to talk about it without (that conversation) being a bad thing."

sisraelsen@deseretnews.com