If you ask some people, America is in the middle of a public-health crisis. No, not that one.

Legislators in 16 states have passed resolutions declaring that pornography, in its ubiquity, constitutes a public-health crisis. The wave of bills started five years ago, with Utah, which went a step further this spring by passing a law mandating that all cellphones and tablets sold in the state block access to pornography by default. (The measure will not go into effect unless five other states pass similar laws, but that’s very possible: Alabama is now considering a similar bill.)

Groups such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an anti-obscenity nonprofit that produced model legislation for the porn-blocking bill and the public-health-crisis bills, argue that pornography increases problematic sexual activity among teens, normalizes violence against women, contributes to sex trafficking, causes problems in intimate relationships, and is “potentially biologically addictive.”

NCOSE seems to have pushed Utah state Senator Todd Weiler to support the public-health-crisis legislation in 2016. “They told me, ‘If you can pass this, we can get this passed in 15 more states. We just need one legislator to stick his neck out,’” Weiler toldGoverning magazine in 2019. Arizona state Representative Michelle Udall told me that she introduced her state’s public-health-crisis bill in 2019 after hearing from constituents involved with the anti-porn group Fight the New Drug, and that NCOSE gave her a booklet with data and studies on porn. She read that the average age at which children are being exposed to pornography is 11, and she had an 11-year-old at the time. She wanted the resolution “to improve awareness of the issue, especially as we talk about children and their exposure,” she told me.

Content filters that block kids from accessing porn have broad support among public-health experts. But, these same experts say, porn is not a public-health crisis. Though the state-level measures don’t do much beyond “calling for” research and policy changes, they run the risk of stigmatizing adults who watch porn.

Several public-health experts told me they worry that the measures are creating more problems than they solve, by telling people that a small but regular part of their sex life is actually a “crisis.” This stigma will likely disproportionately affect people who already feel ashamed about the porn they watch, but leave relatively unruffled those who embrace porn—even in its most exploitative forms.

That sense of crisis can spur some people who disapprove of porn to commit violence. The man who killed eight people at several spas in Atlanta in March plotted further “similar acts” against “the porn industry,” police said. In April, a mansion owned by the executive of Pornhub, one of the most popular porn sites, burned down in an apparent act of arson.

Whether porn is actually harming the health of adults who watch it is frustratingly hard to determine. Most studies of porn raise questions of correlation and causation: Is someone depressed and lonely because they watch too much porn? Or are depressed, lonely people drawn to porn?

Public-health experts worry that teens, in particular, incorrectly see porn as an instruction guide for having sex. For that reason, researchers, policy makers, and porn stars alike support limiting kids’ access to porn. The best way to do that, and to contextualize whatever they do happen to see, is through a combination of content filters, comprehensive sex education, and conversations about how porn isn’t a realistic view of sex. “You need to instill in your child their own personal brain filters,” Emily Rothman, a health-sciences professor at Boston University, told me.

Porn can be bad for adults too. A small number of adults—roughly 11 percent of men and 3 percent of women—consider themselves somewhat addicted to porn, even though a number of scientists dispute whether “addiction” is an appropriate label for watching lots of porn. Believing that porn is morally “bad” is strongly correlated with feeling like you have an addiction to pornography, regardless of how much porn you actually watch. “The best predictor of self-perceived sexual-use problems, like pornography addiction, is high levels of religiosity,” says Bryant Paul, a media professor at Indiana University and a faculty affiliate of the Kinsey Institute, which studies human sexuality. “It’s a better predictor than actual amounts of use.”

Even setting addiction aside, porn might pose other problems. Some studies have found that watching porn reduces sexual satisfaction, especially for men who watch porn more than once a month. Watching porn is associated with increased aggression in some people, although not in the majority of porn users.

But other studies have found that watching porn can be part of a healthy sex life, especially for sexual minorities, women, and couples. In one study, Taylor Kohut, a psychologist at Western University, in Ontario, found that couples who watched porn together “reported more open sexual communication and greater closeness than those that did not.” Another of his studies found that most partnered people think porn has had “no negative effects” on their relationship, and many also thought that watching porn improved their sexual communication, sexual experimentation, and sexual comfort. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that couples that watch porn together, it can improve their sex lives,” says Paul, who wasn’t involved in those studies. If the United States is in a sex recession, pornography could help Americans get back in the black.

Porn might also be helpful for individuals whose sexuality has not always been widely accepted. For LGBTQ people living in conservative areas, watching pornography might be the only sexual experience they’re able to access. One study found that for women, watching porn “was associated with their own and their partner’s higher sexual desire and with higher odds of partnered sexual activity.” In a recent paper arguing that pornography does not qualify as a public-health crisis, Rothman and a colleague write, “For some, pornography use is associated with health-promoting behaviors, including increased intimacy, ‘safer’ sexual behaviors (e.g., solo masturbation), and feelings of acceptance.”

Anti-pornography groups dismiss all of these findings. They say that the porn-positive studies are outliers in a sea of research showing porn’s detrimental effects on relationships.

But here’s the thing: Kohut has observed that in relationships, what seems to matter is that partners have similar opinions about porn. If you both like porn, he suggests, watching it will probably be fine for your sex life. Some couples might even find that they can build intimacy by showing porn to each other, as a way to tell each other what you like. But if only one of you watches porn, and the other hates it, you might encounter relationship tensions like those of couples who fight over marble countertops or in-laws or baby names. The secret to a happy relationship that includes porn, in Kohut’s view, is to find someone who likes it the same amount as you do.

A recent Atlantic/Leger poll of 1,002 Americans largely supported this acceptance of porn. We presented participants with a list of questions about porn, and many of them yawned and said, “So what?” Most Americans have watched porn, according to the poll. But most spend less than 20 minutes a week watching it, and 79 percent of those who watch porn said they don’t feel addicted to it (17 percent of respondents who had watched porn in the past year said they had ever felt like they were addicted to pornography). Only 6 percent of people said they’d begun watching porn when they were younger than 12. Most said that watching porn had no effect on them or their relationships, and 79 percent of those with children said they didn’t struggle to control their children’s access to porn. And just like public-health experts, most respondents—53 percent—said they didn’t think porn was a public-health crisis. Only 25 percent said it was.

Porn makes for an easy target. But legislators focused on labeling it as a public-health crisis should consider what problems they are actually trying to solve. Many researchers and adult-entertainment workers support measures that would reduce kids’ access to porn, ensure that porn videos portray only consenting adults, and mandate fair wages for sex workers. Calling adults’ legal use of pornography a “public-health crisis” doesn’t do any of that.