SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A state senator in Utah wants to declare pornography a public health crisis, echoing an argument being made around the U.S. by conservative religious groups as porn becomes more accessible on smartphones and tablets.
Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, a Mormon, contends children are being exposed at young ages to pornography, leading them to engage in riskier sexual behavior. He has said recent research from the United Kingdom found that people who compulsively view porn showed similar brain activity as seen in drug addicts.
Weiler's proposal wouldn't regulate or ban anything, but it has attracted attention, including being debated on talk show "The View." He said he's been "mocked internationally" but feels it's triggered an important conversation.
"It's not just a kooky thing that some, you know, politician from Mormon Utah came up with," Weiler said. "When I was a kid, people might sneak a Playboy magazine and look at it. Now, you've got all kinds of horrible, graphic images that are available to anyone with an Internet connection one or two clicks away."
Four Republicans and one Democrat on a Utah Senate health committee agreed with Weiler and endorsed the resolution Friday afternoon in Salt Lake City after an hour-long meeting where they heard from anti-pornography activists, a marriage therapist and residents who said they or loved ones struggled with pornography addictions.
"We are on fire with this problem," said Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal. "It is becoming a terrible scourge in our society today."
Defenders of pornography say critics are spouting hyperbole.
There seems to be a consensus that kids have more access to porn than in the past because many have smartphones. But there's not much research to show the effects.
More than half of Utah's 3 million residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among religions in recent years that have worked to shed light on what they consider the harms of pornography. Here, the cultural aversion to scantily dressed women is evident. Magazines or TV commercials featuring women wearing low-cut shirts or bikinis are considered by some to be soft pornography, and lingerie catalogs have been called "gateway porn."
Weiler said the Washington-based National Center on Sexual Exploitation wrote the resolution and asked him to run it. He said he hopes other states will follow and encourage the federal government to take steps to do something, such as requiring Internet providers to make pornography only accessible if subscribers opt-in.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert supports Weiler's resolution. This week he suggested it may be worth developing a 12-step program for porn addicts.
But John Stagliano, owner of a California-based porn video company called Evil Angel Productions, said pornography offers a healthy outlet for sexual desires. Stagliano suggests that without that option, people would try to satisfy their needs outside the home and sex crimes would increase.
Dr. Carl Shubs, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, California who specializes in issues of sexuality, said calling pornography a public health crisis is "way off on so many levels."
Shubs said anything can be addictive, but that many people find pornography enjoyable and use it in a healthy way. Some couples watch it to enhance their relationships, and some without partners view pornography it to fill a void, he said.
Children viewing pornography is a parenting issue, Shubs said. What people consider pornography varies.
"One person's pornography may be another person's eroticism," Shubs said. "One person's art may be another person's pornography."
Fighting porn has been a concern of conservative religious groups for decades. But there's been an uptick in concern over the past 10 years given the accessibility the Internet.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year expressed distress over what it considers the widespread problem of pornography in American culture. It reiterated that making or watching pornographic videos is a sin.
The Mormon church launched a website in 2013 devoted to helping its members overcome pornography addiction. Last year, the religion made a video to give children tips to avoid pornography.
In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics offered guidance that parents should keep phones out of children's bedrooms, in part to stop them looking at pornography.
Studying the effects of pornography on children is difficult because nobody wants to ask them to watch X-rated videos and then document the impacts, said Christian evangelist Josh McDowell. But that doesn't mean the harms aren't real, he said.
McDowell recently commissioned a study that found children are starting to watch porn sooner and now consider not recycling more immoral than watching pornography.
"It affects their relationships, how they look at women, how they look at sex," McDowell said. "Women become objectified."
Associated Press writer Hallie Golden contributed to this report.