RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This past week, the state of Utah declared pornography to be a, quote, "public health hazard." The governor of the state, Gary Herbert, signed a bill which does not ban porn, but does call for greater efforts to prevent pornography exposure and addiction. Supporters hope the move will spur research, education and policy changes. And of course, this story raises a lot of questions about the public health effects of pornography. So to help us answer them, we've called up up Ian Kerner. He's a sex therapist who practices in New York and specializes in pornography issues. Dr. Kerner, welcome to the program.
IAN KERNER: Hi there - happy to be here.
MARTIN: What do you make of this bill in Utah? Is pornography - can it be a public health crisis?
KERNER: Well, you know, it's really interesting. I was reading in the Times the description of this measure, which claims that there's a pornography epidemic which includes the objectification and violence against women, the hypersexualization of teens and children, and the development of deviant sexual arousal in those who view it. In the last 200 years, I don't think the language around sex has changed very much, to be honest. I think we are still pathologizing sex. And this resolution, that is just yet another action in just the long history that this country in its discomfort around sexuality.
MARTIN: Although it sounds like Utah has a particular situation. There was this 2009 study that was done that showed that Utah had the highest number of online porn subscribers of any other state. Doesn't that raise some legitimate concerns?
KERNER: In my experience, less than 1 percent of the population - and this has been sort of statistically verified - less than 1 percent of the population really has a problematic relationship with porn. Maybe there's a higher percentage of problematic porn use in Utah. I'm not sure, to be honest.
MARTIN: We often hear the word addiction attached to pornography. When you say problems associated with porn, is addiction one of them? And what does that look like?
KERNER: Well, I think that addiction is absolutely the wrong word to be using in relation to problematic porn use. As a mental health professional, I'm really bound to work with DSM when I'm working with insurance companies, for example. The DSM is the "Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders." It's the clinical bible. There's been five major editions. In no edition has sex addiction - porn addiction - ever been included in the DSM five. And in fact, it was rejected because there was a lack of credible scientific evidence.
MARTIN: But you admit it - that there can be people for whom pornography becomes a problem. What does that look like?
KERNER: Problematic porn use is genuinely a function of some other kind of mental health issue like anxiety - depression. The other thing that I'm often looking at is erotic conflicts. Very often, people who claim to be porn addicts or sex addicts are also struggling with some sort of erotic conflict. For example, if I am working with somebody who comes in identifying as a straight heterosexual male, but he's a porn addict because he enjoys watching gay porn, then the thing that I'm interested in is exploring the erotic conflict that's underneath it.
MARTIN: We should point out the state of Utah is a very conservative state. There's a large Mormon population that could be fueling some of this. But, you know, the resolution also points to the fact that young people have more access to online pornography than ever before. Can you speak to that? I mean, you could understand how people could be concerned about teenagers, people who don't have a mature understanding of sex, getting exposed to pornography at a young age.
KERNER: Yeah, I completely agree. And so I am drawing a line between consenting adults and between children and teens. And I don't think anyone ever intended for porn to really be as accessible as it is to children and teens. And, you know, it's become a very pornified (ph) world. And I don't think we can really turn it off. So I think we have to help our kids learn how to live in it. I was kind of inspired. I read that there was a pilot program in Denmark where in schools, sex education included showing actual pornography to high school-age students and sort of deconstructing the porn and helping to talk about, is this - what are the differences between the sex we see in porn and the sex that we can have with our partners? And I think that that is really the kind of sex education that needs to be happening in this country. I don't think it's about banning porn. I don't think we could effectively ban porn or turn it off. So I think it's really about having the dialogue and the education and the communication, both at home and at school, to help kids who are really sort of grappling with what I'll call the sexpectations (ph) of porn.
MARTIN: Ian Kerner is a licensed psychotherapist in New York. Dr. Kerner, thanks so much.
KERNER: You're very welcome.
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