Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), foreground, during a ceremonial signing of a state resolution declaring pornography a public-health crisis on April 19 in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about pornography regulation. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Mireille Miller-Young is associate professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of “A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography.

Is pornography a public-health crisis? Of course not. While it is not surprising to see the Utah legislature unanimously declare it one — the anti-pornography movement has been quietly building momentum for a state-by-state takeover for some time — what remains shocking is the perceived legitimacy of anti-porn activists, despite the profound unreliability and inconsistency of their hyperbolic claims about porn’s harms to society.

How has a movement based on such shaky theoretical ground succeeded in a massive campaign to convince the public that sexually explicit media is responsible for an epidemic of sexualized violence against women and children; the rise of a zombie army of emotionally robbed and sexually desensitized men; and the explosion of an underworld of prostitutes trafficked directly from porn sets to street corners across the nation?

This is not real. This is what a sex panic looks like.

Full disclosure: Gail Dines and I have a beef. A leading feminist anti-pornography critic in the tradition of Andrea Dworkin, Dines and her efforts lobbying politicians in the United States and internationally to criminalize pornography are behind the Utah bill. She has written frequently on the notion that pornography is to blame for the apparent worsening of misogynistic violence against women in society, going so far as to link the devastating 2014 Elliot Rodgers massacre at my university to the “tsunami of woman hating ideology” that is porn. These claims are not just far-reaching, they are dangerous.

One of the studies cited by Dines is a content analysis of 304 hardcore porn scenes in which researchers found that 88 percent of the scenes contained some form of physical aggression while 49 percent contained verbal aggression. The perpetrators of the alleged assault behavior were mostly men and the recipients were overwhelmingly women.

Studies like these make researchers like myself cringe because they make problematic assumptions about what constitutes violence, agency and consensual pleasure in pornography. They often obscure proper methodologies for selecting an accurate sampling across the myriad porn sub-genres and modes of production and ignore the fact that porn sex — sex performed for entertainment, display and profit by professional actors — is about fantasy, boundary crossing and exploration of all that lies outside of the charmed circle of good old-fashioned vanilla, heterosexual sex.

Creating a space to examine sexual taboo and to take pleasure in sometimes radical sexual ideas is what pornography has historically been all about. Scholars of porn studies have illuminated porn’s role as at once a countercultural force against gendered norms and sexual respectability, and at the same time a reflection of our darker, social anxieties rooted in sexist, racist and classist bias and inequality. And this is precisely what makes it so political: Porn is not actually a thing. It’s an idea and an argument.

So why do some people want to make it illegal? Why do they go to such great lengths to claim its social harms when it is clear that many more people find expression, release, connection, identity and even sexual freedom within it? No other form of media and popular culture is as scrutinized as porn is under obscenity law.

Unlike the drugs and tobacco anti-porn activists compare the medium to, porn has never killed. (Anyone who now says “What about snuff films?!” is talking about murderers and rapists with cameras, not pornographers, since snuff porn is a myth.)

Nor has porn proven dangerous for the public, although activists such as Michael Weinstein, a lawyer and head of Aids Healthcare Foundation, are determined to convince the public otherwise. Weinstein’s California Condoms in Pornographic Films Initiative will appear on the November ballot, inviting California voters to choose whether to allow any citizen to sue porn companies when they do not see a condom or other barrier method used in a sex scene. The initiative may seem to support worker health and safety, but in reality it is an effort to drive pornography out of business and from the state, while creating even greater risks to worker safety and labor rights.

Back in Utah, state senator Tom Weiler is now planning to defy interstate commerce law, the First Amendment and principles of net neutrality by introducing legislation that will force Internet service providers to filter porn so consumers must opt-in to view it. Weiler’s proposal seeks to put teeth into his “porn as public health menace” declaration by advocating one of the broadest reaches into the private homes and computers of citizens, but to little effect.

Given how savvy youths are about accessing forbidden sexual culture and at navigating new media technologies, I doubt even the filter would keep them from online porn. The same goes for the men who are supposedly becoming dissatisfied in marriage, refusing to marry or unfaithful — they will just opt in. And for the supposed porn addicts, this bill doubles down on the shame factor.

Anti-porn logic never gets to the important questions about how sexual media dynamically reflects and shapes our lives and how we think about and use porn in complex ways. Instead of continuing to allow anti-porn activists to prescribe the discourse and policy about porn, proper sex and sexual danger, we might actually turn our attention to the deeper and more complicated problems of gendered sexual exploitation and violence, and our abysmal record on youth sex education in this country. Porn is a scapegoat, and scapegoats never make us more free or safe.

Other perspectives:

Matthew Schmitz: The case for banning pornography

Jillian C. York: Who defines pornography? These days, it’s Facebook.

Robert Jensen: How porn makes inequality sexually arousing

Alexander Rhodes: The conversation we’re not having about porn

Haley Halverson: The anti-porn movement is growing. The public is just catching up.