(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.

Haley Halverson is director of communications at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. She is an advocate for human rights with a focus on those exploited in the sex trade.

Utah has passed a resolution declaring pornography a “public health crisis,” a step that shocked the public conscience. However, the movement to address the harms of pornography — and more important, the research on the subject — has been steadily growing and gaining momentum for years.

Unlike the 1960s, when protests about pornography were based primarily on moral grounds, science and research have now become central to the national dialogue on the effects of porn use — in fact, every sentence in the Utah resolution contains citations to peer-reviewed research.

This shift resulted in part due to the rapid escalation of harm after the advent of the Internet. Before the Internet, most pornography was only accessible if you walked to the “wrong side of town” and furtively ducked into a porn shop. Now, the only barrier between you and millions of free pornographic videos is the click of a mouse. As a result, rising generations have experienced an unprecedented onslaught of hard-core pornography, not only through intentional searches but also through accidental exposure from pop-ups and “recommended” videos online. These experiences have manifested in numerous neurological, physiological and sociological harms, which are being recognized by individuals of diverse political and philosophical backgrounds, and which call for a public health approach.

In the age of the iPhone and nearly universal Internet access, the sexual templates of adults and adolescents alike are being shaped by pornography. A 2015 nationally representative survey discovered that 27 percent of older millennials reported they first viewed pornography before puberty. This is an alarming trend since numerous studies show children are especially vulnerable to most compulsive use disorders.

Since 2011, there have been at least 24 studies that have revealed porn negatively impacts the brain — which may actually be physically altered by pornography. Further, an analysis of 22 studies from seven countries concluded that porn use is significantly associated with attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and to engaging in actual acts of sexual aggression in both males and females. For anyone who believes the myth that pornography use has contributed to the so-called national decline in rape, think again. In actuality, some research shows that police departments have been significantly undercounting reported rapes in order to create the illusion of reductions in crime. Far from reducing sexual violence, pornography use feeds a culture accepting of rape, as shown by links to porn users’ increased likelihood of using physical coercion to have sex, and of engaging in sexual harassment behaviors.

While the Utah resolution is non-binding, it serves as a statement of intent and as a framework for future policy decisions, such as potentially ensuring public libraries and schools have Internet filters. It is also an educational tool to raise local awareness about the harms of pornography so that individuals and families can become better equipped to take preventative measures. This is a significant step forward for state policies on pornography, though there is still much ground to cover. In the future, enforcement of existing obscenity laws (which outlaw the sale and distribution of hard-core pornography), as well as state funding for compulsive porn use recovery programs and further research into topics such as porn-induced erectile dysfunction and pornography’s link to increased demand for sex trafficking, would be markers of overwhelming success in the movement against pornography.

The public health approach to pornography is multi-disciplined — medical professionals, psychologists, law enforcement officials and more have begun to speak out about the ways pornography harms and how it is linked to other forms of sexual exploitation — and so it has the potential to create substantial change not only in governmental policies, but also in health-care professions, educational institutions and the culture at large. Because the movement to address the harms of pornography is multifaceted, policy advocacy efforts are creating change in both the private and public sector.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation works to change corporate and organizational policies that facilitate sexual exploitation (including pornography) through its annual Dirty Dozen List, which since 2013 has named 12 mainstream offenders. As a result, four major hotels in the last year stopped selling on-demand pornography worldwide, Google stopped linking ads to pornographic websites and the Defense Department stopped selling pornography on Army and Air Force bases. As mainstream institutions move to distance themselves from pornography, despite the lure of potential profits, a cultural shift has begun to take place.

As people become aware of the harms to public health and to society, pornography is poised to follow the trend of tobacco in public consciousness. In the 1950s, smoking was pervasive, and some doctors and “experts” even claimed that it was healthy. Now the same ilk of “experts” defend big-business pornographers, rather than recognizing the real-life harms experienced by their friends and neighbors. While public opinion about pornography is currently in flux, the volume of research and personal testimonies about its destructive forces continues to grow, and the movement to address the public health crisis of pornography has only just begun.

Other perspectives:

Mireille Miller-Young: Porn isn’t a public health hazard. It’s a scapegoat.

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