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Pretty much since Internet was invented, there’s been pornography on it. Today, it’s so widely available that the decades-old debate over porn's ills on society has largely faded from the public eye.

The courts long ago decided it's constitutional to consume it and unconstitutional to regulate it. Two laws Congress passed to regulate who can see porn were shot down by the Supreme Court. Most state legislatures have moved on to address Internet crimes against children, like child pornography, which is illegal.

But anti-porn advocates think they’ve found a new foothold to reopen the pornography debate. They’re hoping a high-profile resolution signed in Utah this week declaring porn "evil, degrading, addictive and harmful"  will unite communities in trying to stop it. It's part of a new messaging campaign to reframe the the debate away from porn's legality and toward its public health costs.

It's already shown some promise, as Utah demonstrates, and for reasons we'll get into. But given how widespread and, frankly, popular porn has become, it might be coming too late.

First, here's the case for making the case against porn: Maybe lawmakers can't keep porn off the Internet or severely restrict who can consume it, anti-porn advocates' thinking goes. But they can talk about its still-debated effects on a generation of people who grew up with it at their fingertips. Utah did just that, they say.

"This represents a turning of the tide against pornography," said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed the resolution Tuesday. In the absence of legislation to restrict porn, Herbert said, this resolution was a necessary step to let "our young people to know that there’s a particularly psychological and physiological detriment that comes from addiction to pornography." (More on that claim later.)

At a press conference on April 19, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert explains why he plans to sign a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis. (Youtube/Governor Herbert)

It’s not that advocates are giving up on fighting the legal battle; they think there's wiggle room in blocking some porn via federal obscenity laws. But shifting the debate away from 1st Amendment rights and toward porn's public health impacts could be a smart way to modernize their arguments.

In the 1970s and '80s when porn was mostly on paper, railing against its harms fell to religious leaders, who argued it was immoral, and a group of feminists, who argued it was discriminatory. Many of their legislative attempts to block porn were struck down by the courts in favor of free speech rights, and public opinion on porn's morality seems to have stabilized, according to Gallup.


Today's anti-porn advocates have largely dropped the free speech and morality debate in favor of talking about porn's ubiquity which gives them an opening to tie it to headlines of sex gone wrong.

Teen sexting. Tales of porn addiction. Campus sexual assaults. Divorce. Hypersexualized teens. Barely clothed pop stars. Sexual violence. All these problems can be tied back "young men [who] have been getting a regular diet of rampant pornography since their adolescence," Hawkins says.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation started prominently making that link two years ago, and so far it seems it's getting some traction. Utah is the first state to pass a resolution declaring it a public health crisis. Tennessee is considering as similar one. This fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decided to take a more proactive approach to combating pornography, calling it a "widespread problem."

Dani Bianculli, the director of the law center at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, helped draft Utah's resolution. She said community activists from 10 other states have already asked her for help to draft their own.

"We're very confident it's going to move beyond Utah," she said.

But anti-porn advocates' new messaging campaign is not without risk. For one, the science isn't settled yet on what regular porn use does to the brain and a person's sexual and romantic life -- especially when it comes to young people who view it in their formative years. (For a much more in depth look at that, read this September essay from the Economist.)

Debating porn's ills on society seems like a game of choose-your-own-study. There are studies that claim to show a link between pornography and a myriad of sexual, mental and emotional problems. And there are studies that claim to show porn watching actually helps people's relationships. In Denmark, some teachers actually use the topic of porn to teach students about the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex, the Economist reports.

Branding porn as a public health hazard, though, also doesn’t change advocates’ fundamental problem: They have little legal recourse to limit it. Suppose a majority of Utah residents heed their governors' advice. Those who were watching porn turn it off, and everyone starts having conversations with their children about its harmful effects. There's still no way Utah lawmakers and community leaders can keep people from accessing it on their phones or laptops.

"It's an empty gesture," said Lee Rowland, a free speech attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought against anti-porn legislation. 

That brings us to the third reason this new messaging campaign might fall short: Porn is everywhere. It's quite possible its place in our culture has reached a critical mass that may be impossible to turn back.

The porn trafficking website, Pornhub, said it had one of its biggest years ever in 2015. There were 87,849,731,608 pornographic videos viewed on its site, it said. That's the equivalent of 12 videos per person on the entire planet. It's like filling all the storage on all the iPhones sold in 2015. And that's just one site. What's more, the United States is Pornhub's No. 1 client, accounting for about 41 percent of the world's traffic. (Utah ranked 34th in the country -- commensurate with its population rank -- for its visits there in 2015, FWIW.)

Porn's proliferation is exactly why those who oppose it say now is the time for lawmakers and community leaders to find ways to keep people off it. Internet fantasy sex is seeping into our daily lives with terrible results, they argue.

They've already had some success in getting their point across in a new way. But given porn already seems to be a mainstay of American culture, it's fighting an uphill battle, to say the least.