Anne Hastings, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, believes pornography is a public health crisis, and she is not alone. The 2016 Republican National Convention included in its platform the statement that pornography “has become a public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions.” After many years of providing counseling to people who struggle with sexual addiction, Hastings has concluded that the problem starts with porn and starts with kids.

“We have so many sexually addicted young people that never would have been in their lives if not for their early exposure to pornography,” Hastings said. 

Hastings and her colleague Cameron Reis of the Counseling Center for Sexual Health in Westlake Village have both been providing counseling to couples about intimacy and to people who suffer from sexual addictions, but have recently begun pursuing a new project together: counseling Ventura County’s youth about the consequences of porn.

“Getting them to talk and understand that what you see in porn is not what women want. … What seems really common in my experience is that couples have sex and never talk about it. So no one is being fulfilled and it leads to silent resentments, and there’s this distance that happens, because of that lack of communication.” — Cameron Reis of the Counseling Center for Sexual Health in Westlake Village

“Going in, even with the staff members, we wanted to talk about the consequences of using porn especially at a young age,” Reis said. “How it might change our perception of sex. How it affects our levels of intimacy with our partners. How it may be related to our shame around sex. How it may relate to the origins of shame around sex in our family.”

One of the most difficult hurdles in talking to people about sexuality and pornography is shame, according to Hastings and Reis. Public attitudes toward the subjects and the lack of public discourse lead people to be too embarrassed to talk about them.

“Getting the shame down enough to talk about it is a massive barrier with young people and this kind of addiction,” Hastings said. “While drugs and alcohol are discussed among teenagers that are using it, pornography isn’t, because of the level of shame. So nobody knows, nobody really has any idea how much there is going on. The ages 12 to 17 are the highest download ages [for pornography].”

With the expansion of the Internet over the last few decades and the advent of so many smart devices in our lives, pornography was never before as readily available as it is now. Kids these days are carrying the Internet, and whatever it has to offer, in their pockets every day. This easy access to adult material for young people is what makes this problem so pervasive, according to Hastings and Reis.

“One of the important things to keep in mind about the increase in use [of pornography] is that it’s anonymous, it’s accessible, and oftentimes it’s free,” Reis said. “You can access it at any time wherever you are with your phone.” 

Aside from addiction and easy access for minors, Hastings and Reis see other negative consequences to pornography that might be less obvious.

“Kids are downloading porn, and the consequences, the fallout like rape and assault on college campuses, have gone way up because the young men don’t realize, they think sex is what they see in porn,” Hastings said.

While there may not be a lot of data to support a connection between pornography and sexual assaults, Hastings believes that there is a definite link.

“There is a correlation, at least at the college level,” she said. “At the college level, they have been watching [porn] for so long that their perception of sex is very different than somebody who grew up without being exposed to pornography.”

An article titled “Pornography and Sexual Violence” published on VAWnet, the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, supports Hastings’ conclusion.  The authors, Robert Jensen and Debbie Okrina, argue that viewing pornography can alter one’s perception of acceptable sexual encounters and encourage violence against women:

“There are limits to what research can tell us about the complex interactions of mass media and human behavior. But from both laboratory research and the narratives of men and women, it is not controversial to argue that pornography can: (1) be an important factor in shaping a male-dominant view of sexuality; (2) be used to initiate victims and break down their resistance to unwanted sexual activity; (3) contribute to a user’s difficulty in separating sexual fantasy and reality; and (4) provide a training manual for abusers.”

But in an article published in Psychology Today, journalist Michael Castleman opposes that viewpoint. Castleman has spent several decades researching and writing about human sexuality and argues that rates of sexual assault have decreased since the advent of the Internet. He cites a Department of Justice survey showing that sexual assault rates have decreased 44 percent from 1995 to 2009. Although those rates are across the nation and not specific to college campuses, Castleman does go on to say that compulsive consumption of pornography to the point of damaging relationships or interfering with one’s life is problematic and should be dealt with through therapy. 

Noted sociologist and outspoken critic of the porn industry Gail Dines also weighed in on the subject in an article she wrote for The Washington Post in April 2016. Dines supported the Utah House of Representatives for being the first U.S. legislative body to declare pornography a public health crisis. She also cited a study that found that 88 percent of pornography displays violence against women. Dines echoed Hastings’ and Reis’s concerns about the negative impact pornography can have on a young person’s perception about sex.

“Pornography can cause lifelong problems if young people are not taught to distinguish between exploitative porn sex and healthy, safe sex,” Dines wrote. “As the research shows, porn is not merely a moral nuisance and subject for culture-war debates. It’s a threat to our public health.”

Castleman counters that the study showing 88 percent of porn to include violence against women is just one of many. In another article of his in Psychology Today, he points to five other studies that examined violence in pornography. Those studies showed results ranging from 2 percent to 36 percent of pornographic scenes containing violence. So it seems that even among academics there is some disagreement on this point. But all sides seem to agree that more education is necessary and that porn definitely has its downside.

“I’m not arguing that porn is utterly harmless,” Castleman wrote. “Some men consume it so compulsively that it interferes with their lives. They need therapy. Some women become distraught when they discover that the men in their lives enjoy porn. They might benefit from couple therapy. And to the extent that porn is a sex educator, it teaches lovemaking all wrong.”

Hastings and Reis have been advocating for better sex education by talking to local schools in Ventura County to educate staff and faculty on the need for more dialogue with young people regarding pornography. So far, most are open to the idea of more education on the issue and recognize the need to make it a priority. 

Sharon Manakas, coordinator of student health services at Moorpark College, said that she believes that they need to do more research and ask more questions of their students about pornography.

“Do I think porn’s a problem?  I think probably yes,” Manakas said. “We need to do more education on our part and collect more data on our population.”

James Koenig is the director of student support services for the Oxnard Union High School District. His district has been looking at ways to address safe use of the Internet among the students.

“The idea of the impact of pornography amongst youth, I think educators would agree that it is a growing concern and we’re trying to figure out ways to intervene in the world of education,” Koenig said. “One avenue that we are looking at is digital citizenship. Using social media and the Internet properly. And being aware of the possible dangers when on the Internet.”

Hastings and Reis would like to expand on what might be the typical sexual education course for young people. They plan on having group counseling sessions as well as individual appointments with young people about pornography and sexuality. They would like to encourage more open and earnest dialogue about sexuality in order to reduce the shame that often surrounds it.

“Shame makes you turn yourself off to awareness,” Hastings said. “When a person feels shame they don’t let themselves see what’s going on, they just find themselves doing it, then they’re not doing it. Because they can’t look at it. So one of the most powerful benefits of talking about it in a group of people is that you get that they’re doing it too, I don’t have to be ashamed about this. It allows the person to be able to see it, then make different choices.”

They would also like to work to dismiss the false perceptions about sex that young people might develop from watching porn and to discuss the harmful effects a lack of communication can have between partners.

“Getting them to talk and understand that what you see in porn is not what women want,” Reis said. “And in order to understand, they have to discuss and talk about it. And every person will be different so they are going to have to have an intimate conversation to increase the lines of communication in order to understand how to pleasure each other and have a healthy sexual relationship. What seems really common in my experience is that couples have sex and never talk about it. So no one is being fulfilled and it leads to silent resentments, and there’s this distance that happens, because of that lack of communication.

Hastings and Reis are currently working and speaking with education and community members about the dangers pornography presents for young people. But their concerns about porn don’t just apply to youths. Anyone could develop unhealthy habits regarding porn, and even among experts there is some disagreement about what level of exposure is appropriate.

“I personally believe that pornography is never useful because my focus is helping people find healthy sexuality,” Hastings said. “However, there are people in our profession that believe that it’s OK as long as there isn’t abuse going on in the pornography. Good, nice porn is OK.”

“It’s like alcohol,” Reis said, recommending moderation. “You can drink too much, you can drink seven glasses of wine in a night. That might be too much. But maybe a beer a night isn’t so bad.”