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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Should Pornography Be Declared A Public Health Threat?

A Republican-led panel of Washington state lawmakers sat for a work-session focused on on human trafficking and child endangerment.

If you thought the battle over pornography ended with The People vs. Larry Flynt, think again. Utah has taken the step of declaring pornography a public health threat much like tobacco. And now it’s on the agenda in Washington state.

“We’re amassing the scientific data that porn is harmful to individuals, relationships and society,” said Kristen Jenson of the group Protect Young Minds.

She was testifying before a Republican-led panel of Washington state lawmakers on the topic of “Pornography as a public health issue.”

Jenson told members of the Senate Law and Justice Committee that pornography leads to erectile dysfunction among young men, shrinks the judgment center of the brain and is addictive like alcohol. She said pornography also fuels human trafficking, child abuse and rape.

“We have to step up and acknowledge that pornography has become a very real public health threat,” Jenson said.

The lawmakers also heard from Seattle police captain Mike Edwards who described legal pornography as a gateway drug to child pornography.

“We’re talking 90 to 95-percent of the offenders that we arrest for the illegal pornography, their first access point into it was legal pornography,” he said.

Republican state Senator Mike Padden chairs the Law and Justice committee and put the pornography issue on the agenda for an interim work session that also focused on human trafficking and child endangerment. Padden said he’s not yet decided if he will introduce legislation next year to declare pornography a public health threat in Washington state.

“I didn’t have any grand plan to do that and haven’t decided,” Padden said.

The issue seems to be gaining traction around the country -- at least among Republicans.

Last April, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis. Utah-native Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her home in 2002, is also appearing in a new anti-porn campaign called “Fight the New Drug.”

In July, the Republican Party adopted a new platform that declares pornography a “public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions.”

And just last month, former Playboy model Pamela Anderson warned of pornography’s addictive nature and called it a “public hazard” in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Advocates cite numerous studies on the negative effects of pornography. However, Eric Schrimshaw, a public health professor at Columbia University was quoted by as saying, “There is currently very little research evidence to suggest that pornography is a ‘public health hazard.’”

University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz, who studies relationships and sexuality, warns of “hyperbole” around the issue of pornography and its effects on people.

“To me it’s just not a black and white issue,” she said. “It’s worth discussing, it’s worth assessing risk, but I’m an academic and I’d say let’s see what we know.”

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."