Pornography as a Public Health Issue

Jacqueline Gahagan advocates for a national sexual health promotion strategy.


Pornography is concerned with the development and the circulation of sexually explicit books, magazines, videos, art, and music aimed at creating sexual excitement. Public health is concerned with keeping people healthy and preventing illness, injury and premature death. With the growing use of internet-based pornography and the relative ease by which it can be accessed, the effects of “online violent and degrading sexually explicit material on children, women and men” have become an important public health issue. This issue is best addressed through the development and introduction of a national sexual health promotion strategy – a strategy that includes current and comprehensive sexual health education in our primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools.

Health promotion, in concert with public health, involves encouraging safe behaviours and improving health through healthy public policy, community-based interventions, active public participation, advocacy, and action on key determinants of health. I am confident that several of these strategies can be used to address concerns about the ready access to internet-based pornography. For example, health promotion initiatives that take a harm reduction approach to healthy sexuality include an emphasis on screening and testing for sexually transmitted infections, the use of condoms, a shared understanding of consensual sex, as well as the use of other safer sex interventions.

A review of existing sexual health education in Canadian schools, however, reveals that many Canadian youth do not receive the level of sexual health education they need to help them make informed decisions about sexual risk-taking. As a result, they may have a limited understanding of the risks associated with the use of web-based technologies such as cell phones for sexting, or for sharing ‘home made’ porn on the internet. This suggests the need for additional supports to appropriately address sexuality, sexual health, and sexual expression. Meanwhile, recent media coverage of parent organizations challenging school administrators about the inclusion of non-heteronormative perspectives in the curriculum suggests we still have a very long way to go.

An effective and evaluative, national sexual health promotion strategy will disseminate information on issues of healthy relationships, the prevention of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections such as syphilis, HIV and hepatitis, and the potential negative impacts of violent pornography on youth and young adults. It will also provide information about possible criminal sanctions for those who produce or circulate pornography without consent.

The violation of an individual’s right to their own bodily integrity is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong when youth are sexting without the consent of the individuals in the images, particularly where the individuals are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs and unable to consent. And, as is the case in other countries, the notion that we do not provide adequate information to our youth about internet safety and sexting is well known and contributes to poor sexual health outcomes.

We need to respond effectively to the changing landscape of easily accessible, violent imagery that often depicts women and girls as the victims. I applaud the efforts of our members of Parliament to address the issue of violent pornography as potentially an important public health issue by bringing this to the attention of the Standing Committee on Health. The point I want to underline, however, is that while the proliferation of sexually explicit and violent online materials is a concern for all societies, how this occurs and is dealt with varies quite widely. For example, some but not all responses reinforce dominant gender-based assumptions about sexual behaviours. This, in turn, results in the perpetuation of heteronormative narratives of males as perpetrators of sexual violence and females as victims in mainstream pornography.

The failure of our school system to adequately equip our youth with the tools they need to distinguish between what is morally, legally, or otherwise inappropriate in relation to sexual violence warrants greater consideration. Canadian youth need to have a clear understanding of the differences between consensual sex and sexual assault. With the new frontier of cybersex, online porn, sexting and the sharing of ‘home made’ porn, they also need to appreciate the potential repercussions of unwanted sexual advances, sexting, and posting of sexual images without consent. As well, our youth need to be aware of the role they can play as upstanders when they witness sexual assaults among their peer group.

We know from recent cases in the media, including the Rehtaeh Parsons case from Nova Scotia, that more needs to be done to prevent sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence. We live in a world where youth have ready access to violent online pornography but may not have the knowledge to distinguish between what is real, criminal or otherwise. A national sexual health promotion strategy could help to change that.


Jacqueline Gahagan is Professor of Health Promotion in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University. @jacquie_gahagan

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