SALT LAKE CITY — Utah political leaders and anti-pornography activists said Tuesday that children’s minds are being corrupted in a world where graphic sexual images are a click away.
The remarks were made as a spirited defense of the state’s declaration that pornography is a public health crisis.
A parade of speakers including Gov. Gary Herbert spoke during a ceremonial signing of the declaration — calling pornography a plague, pandemic and scourge that warps children’s minds, threatens marriages and contributes to sexual violence.
The declaration in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah echoes an argument made by many conservative religious groups as porn becomes more accessible on smartphones and tablets.
“This isn’t just a religious moral issue,” said Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, who sponsored the declaration. “Some people want to make this about sex education; no boy or girl needs to see those images to learn how families are created.”
Critics say Utah is overstating the effects of pornography, which some say can be a healthy sexual outlet for adults.
The Free Speech Coalition, an adult entertainment trade group, called Utah’s declaration an “old-fashioned” morals bill that is driven by ignorance and bias. The coalition said in a statement that people who watch adult movies are more likely to have progressive views on sexuality and women’s rights — and that access to these movies correlates with a decline in sex crimes.
“The true public health crisis are socially conservative politicians like these who have fought adequate, science-based sexual health education for over 35 years,” the coalition said. “We should live in a society where sexuality is spoken about openly, and discussed in nuanced and educated ways, and not stigmatized.”
More than half of Utah’s 3 million residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among the conservative religions that in recent years have worked to shed light on what they consider the harms of pornography.
In Utah, the cultural aversion to scantily dressed women is evident. Magazines and 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.”
Dozens of people packed a fancy room at the state Capitol for the ceremony. Many were young people wearing T-shirts with the phrase, “Porn kills love.” The attendees stood and gave the governor a rousing standing ovation after he signed the resolution. The declaration doesn’t change any laws or include any funds.
Herbert emphasized the resolution doesn’t interfere with anybody’s rights. He said Utah wants to take the lead in fostering more research and discussions about the danger of pornography.
“We’re sounding a voice of warning,” said Herbert, a Republican.
Weiler said he won’t back down despite being mocked and scorned since he introduced his proposal in January. He called on politicians to implore internet providers, restaurants and libraries to add filters so people have to opt-in to view pornography. He said that’s good citizenship, not censorship.
Brian Willoughby, an assistant professor at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, said research suggests viewing pornography leads to more sexual aggression and decreased mental health. “Pornography is not harmless,” he said.
Jennifer Brown, a mother of five boys who says she’s researched the harms of pornography, called the industry an “empire of destruction” that causes misery and suffering.