Sex (mis) Education: Utah's Fear of Pornography (Part 2)

No place is more obsessed with sex than Utah. And no place is less knowledgeable.

by Susan Lacke

Photography by Adam Finkle

No one in the Utah Legislature seems to know. Despite passing a resolution in 2016 declaring pornography as “evil, degrading, addictive and harmful,” not one lawmaker responded to requests to define what, exactly, constitutes the pornography behind our public health crisis—only that we need to rail against it.

Leading the crusade is the Utah Coalition Against Pornography. “Ninety-three percent of boys and 61 percent of girls have seen pornography during adolescence,“ says Executive Director Vauna Davis. “Internet pornography has been widely accessible for 20 years now, and the evidence of harm has reached a tipping point where we can no longer ignore the social costs.”

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation deems pornography a “social toxin that destroys relationships, steals innocence, erodes compassion, breeds violence, and kills love.” It describes a “pornification of culture [that is] widespread and evident everywhere, from the grocery store checkout lane…to popular entertainment.”

The grocery store checkout lane? By that definition, could the cover of this magazine —which features the word SEX—be considered pornographic? It’s hard to fight a public health crisis when we’re not sure exactly what it is.

Besides, how would we fight it? Even Gov. Herbert admits the public health crisis declaration is symbolic: Herbert says it’s a step to let “our young people know that there’s a particularly psychological and physiological detriment that comes from addiction to pornography.” There is little legal recourse to actually limit access to sexual imagery—the Internet will always be available on phones or laptops. Victoria’s Secret catalogues will always be in the mail. Reality TV will always have hookups and breakups and one-night stands. Dirty pictures will always be on Twitter.

Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, who sponsored the declaration, emphatically declared “no boy or girl needs to see those images to learn how families are created.” But they’re seeing them anyway. What’s more, boys and girls are actually seeking out those very images, despite being told not to. What other choice does a curious kid have?

“Due to lack of proper sex education in homes and schools, many of the youth are turning to adult films and other means of media, which do not always depict healthy sexuality,” says Utah board-certified sex therapist Shannon Hickman. When parents and schools are not properly educating children and young adults about sex, it can lead youth to porn for answers. A 1999 study discovered that 49 percent of 10-15 year olds “learn a lot about sex” from television and movies, compared to mothers (38 percent) or fathers (31 percent). In developmental psychology, the media is considered a “Super Peer,” as adolescents often look to media for information in the same way they might look to a friend.

But the way the media portrays sex is not accurate. Television and movies usually don’t depict safe and consensual sex. Condoms are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Rough sex— especially where a woman is depicted as enjoying the experience—may legitimize violence against women in the viewer’s mind, reinforcing the cultural belief that women need to be dominated by men. There is usually no consequence for high-risk behavior. Because most pornography is aimed at male consumers, acts that place an emphasis on male pleasure over female pleasure can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women’s role in sex.

“These films are often lacking accurate depictions of what sex really looks like and how it happens,” says Hickman, who says youth need open and honest discussions with adults about the content they view to dispel stereotypes and myths. That doesn’t mean sitting down with a child to watch an X-rated video, but it does mean acknowledging sexual imagery when it’s there. “Scare tactics and fear-based education around pornography are not going to solve the larger problem in our society, which is a lack of sex education.”


If the Utah Legislature is looking for a sensational public health crisis to fight, perhaps it should acknowledge the skyrocketing rise of sexually transmitted infections in the state. Over the last five years, the incidence of gonorrhea in Utah has quadrupled, jumping from 301 in 2010 to more than 1,500 in 2015. Rates of chlamydia, the most common STD in Utah, have increased 49 percent in the past 10 years.

Perhaps more surprising is who is affected most—adolescents 15-24 make up 16 percent of the state’s population but account for 63 percent of reported chlamydia cases and 38 percent of gonorrhea cases. That doesn’t mean adults are exempt, of course: During the past 10 years, the number of gonorrhea cases in women aged 40-44 has risen 1,555 percent. “STDs remain a major public health challenge in the United States and in Utah,” says Tom Hudachko of Utah Department of Health. “Public health operates with limited resources to address this huge public health burden.”

Many Utahns, lacking education on sexually transmitted infections, assume they would “know” if they (or their partner) had an STI. However, the majority of men and women with a sexually transmitted infection are asymptomatic. This can lead to the unwitting transmission of disease as well as complications later in life from untreated symptoms: pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, cancers of the reproductive system and pregnancy loss.

Hudachko stresses the importance of STD/HIV education to prevent disease transmission: “Utah’s chlamydia screening rates among women 16-24 years of age is 30.81 percent, which is significantly below the national average. Only 24 percent of Utahns have ever been tested for HIV in their lifetime. STD screening is the most important clinical intervention, as it leads to treatment and
partner services.”

In an analysis of 48 sex-education programs, researcher Douglas Kirby found that 40 percent of participants exhibited protective behaviors against STI transmission, including delayed sexual initiation, a reduced number of partners and increased contraception use. Thirty percent reduced their frequency of sex as a result of participation in a comprehensive sex education program and 60 percent reduced unprotected sex. No abstinence-only program has yet been proven through rigorous evaluation to help youth delay sex for a significant period of time, decrease their number of sex partners or reduce STI rates among teens. 


(To be continued: Click HERE)

Listen to our podcast, Salt Lake Speak‘s with Kristen Hobson for additional information.

Susan Lacke
Susan Lacke
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