Pornography: A public health crisis |

Pornography: A public health crisis

Mayling Simpson and Paul Hebert/For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Graphic advertising a Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation summit.
Courtesy Photo

Pornography has been openly sold in this country since the advent of Playboy magazine in the 1950s, spawning an ever-widening expansion of magazines, videos and now Internet sites that exploit the female body and sex for profit.

While almost no one discusses it, it is so prevalent it is causing a public health crisis. A growing body of research links pornography with a loss of thinking brain function and a growth in sex trafficking and slavery and as a major factor in divorce. But it is also one of the worst ways patriarchy is expressed in our society. It is a total disrespect for women.

To mobilize and energize the fight against pornography, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation organized the second annual Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Summit in Orlando, Florida, which we attended. We have supported the work of NCOSE for two years with financial contributions. We wanted to meet the people behind the movement and the latest science.

Leading researchers and activists reported the state of the knowledge on sex trafficking and the effects of pornography on adults and children. They explored the cultural and economic forces that fuel demand for pornography and, in turn, prostitution.

Sex addiction parallels heroin addiction

The first surprising bits of new knowledge were the parallels between sex addiction and heroin addiction. In both, the reward areas of the brain light up in the same places. In both, the hormone dopamine is over-produced, leading to deterioration of the brain.

Just as heroin has its gateway drug, prescription painkillers, sex addiction has its gateway drug — pornography.

Heroin addiction has moved from poorer communities into mainstream America. No one is immune to addiction — it could be anyone’s face. So it is with pornography and sex addiction. Most age groups and all income levels are affected. The reason we notice the heroin epidemic is because so many die from overdosing — 8,200 in 2013 alone. With sex or pornography addiction, death sometimes comes from suicide, but no agency is collecting data on that.

What we do know is that there are an estimated nine to 13 million sex addicts in the U.S. today — men, women and children — compared with 467,000 heroin addicts. Unlike heroin addicts, most sex addicts do not recognize they are addicts, similar to gambling addicts. They find out one day when their world comes crashing in by losing a job, being arrested or getting caught by their spouses.

Many claim they noticed they were becoming more unhappy and cynical, their relationships with loved ones were deteriorating and they were beginning to recognize their unhealthy compulsive behaviors. But a hallmark of all addicts is denial and justification right up to the end.

Pornography, sex addiction have consequences

Sex addiction is lethal to relationships. A recent study of causes of divorce found that 58 percent of all marriages ending in divorce in the U.S. had pornography use as a major cause. Couples and individuals spend thousands of dollars in therapy, but the total economic cost is unknown.

If that isn’t bad enough, pornography addiction is a major driver of the demand for prostitution and leads to abduction of children and women for sexual slavery. This is a worldwide problem, but statistics from the U.S. alone are enough to give one pause. Eighty percent of prostitutes are trafficked by pimps and brothels. Many are deceived and captured within the U.S., and many are brought in from other countries. There are an estimated one million prostitutes in the U.S.A., and tens of thousands of them are children. The FBI and CIA track the trade and publish numbers almost no one ever sees.

Physical and mental abuse well-documented

The physical and mental abuse of trafficked women and children is well-documented. Melissa Farley, of Prostitution Research & Education in San Francisco, presented on “Pornography as Filmed Prostitution.” She began her talk with a photo of an orca whale at Sea World — across the street from the venue of the Summit — biting the concrete wall of its small holding tank.

“As these whales are forced to perform for us, we decide that they are happy,” she said, “but in reality, they are enslaved, separated from their pods/families and in their misery and frustration, they chew at the concrete walls, wrecking their teeth.

Women and children trafficked for pornography are in a similar situation — they are forced to look happy and “consenting,” but they are, in fact, enslaved for profit and suffer greatly.

Anna Malika, porn actress survivor and now anti-porn activist, described how some of the porn industry operates. Adopted from India into a middle-class home, she became a confused teenager when her parents divorced. As a 17-year-old, she was befriended by a 40-year-old man who turned out to be a trafficker. Upon his death three years later, his sister presented Anna with a large box of pornographic photos of herself.

“I looked at them in disbelief,” she said. “I had no memory of these events. I must have been drugged.”

She learned he had other “girlfriends” who were also unknowingly photographed. Other porn actors and actresses report being threatened with death or deaths of their parents or children if they do not comply.

Mainstream pornography increasingly depicts violence against women, which research has shown fuels domestic violence and rape. Viewers eventually try to act out their fantasies. A national Department of Defense survey in 2010 reported nearly 20 percent of all women in the U.S. are raped at some time in their lives.

Some surveys suggest that 80-percent of men and 40-percent of women are struggling with use of Internet pornography and 60-percent of the clergy, as well. Children are affected too. The average age of first exposure to porn is 11, but children as young as 6 are asking their parents about pornography they saw on the smartphones of older children.

Internet pornography a growing problem

Internet porn is considered the crack cocaine of sex addiction. Dr. Donald Hilton, a neuroscientist at University of Texas, described how pornography hijacks the brain, causing frontal lobe dementia called hypofrontality.

Continued use of pornography literally erodes the prefrontal region of the brain, responsible for willpower. People with hypofrontality begin making poor life decisions around adultery, their jobs and careers, on how to spend their money and in many other areas.

Some even become extremely mentally ill, as in the case of the Elizabeth Smart abduction. Ed Smart, whose daughter, Elizabeth, was kidnapped 13 years ago and fortunately rescued after nine months of torture, described the kidnapper as a pornography addict who needed to act out his porn-induced fantasies. Ed Smart now directs prevention and rehabilitation of trafficked children rescued by the non-profit organization, Operation Underground Railroad.

Victoria Hearst, granddaughter of media legend William Randolph Hearst, is spearheading a campaign called “COSMO Harms Minors.” Cosmopolitan magazine, published by her family’s company, is porn marketed to teenage girls. She wants the magazine labeled “Adult Material” and put inside a plastic sleeve like other hardcore pornography.

Groups organizing for change

The names of the organizations at the conference reveal their passion for change, such as Exodus City, Fight the New Drug and Shared Hope International. Author Kristen Jenson gave away copies of her new book “Good Pictures Bad Pictures,” for children, an Amazon #1 best-selling book. The fact that we have a public health crisis on our hands was also revealed by the dozens of organizations with Websites for recovery services and home computer protection.

Shocking to all in attendance was Amnesty International’s recent call for decriminalization of prostitution, sex buyers, pimps and brothel keepers worldwide.

“The prostitutes are the victims,” says Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “They should not be prosecuted. But every other player in this global sexual slavery should be treated like the criminals that they are.”

Detective work by various organizations has linked porn producers, sex traffickers, gun runners, drug traffickers and money launderers as being in the same illegal cartels. When the Netherlands legalized prostitution, they witnessed an explosion of all these illegal activities, now being run out of legal brothels housed in multi-storied buildings.

Summit leaders emphasized Internet pornography has reached every home in America and has touched everyone in one way or another. Our own government acknowledges prostitution has reached every town in America — modern slavery right under our noses.

Pornography in all forms of media is illegal in the United States, and prostitution is legal in only three counties of Nevada. However, laws are not enforced. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is making a difference in voluntary compliance through its “Dirty Dozen” list, which names those organizations that are the biggest distributors of pornography.

One by one, they are changing. Due to being named, the Department of Defense finally recognized the connection between pornography and high rates of rape in the military and recently removed all pornography from the shelves of PX stores.

Our media environment of porn and violence has to stop. It is time we stop rolling our eyes and start opening them to this tragic reality. If you want to learn more, visit

Mayling Simpson and Paul Hebert had careers in public health and humanitarian work in developing countries and have been residents of Steamboat Springs since 1985.

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