Tribune Editorial: Utah porn warning bill is a cheap way out

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this April 19, 2016 photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert looks up during a ceremonial signing of a state resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

“Sex. In America an obsession. In other parts of the world a fact.”

— Marlene Dietrich

Fixing something that is broken can be bothersome and expensive. Rather than take the time or spend the money to fix a printer, a toilet or an elevator, the temptation can be strong to stick up an “Out of Order” sign and call it good.

That’s clearly the thinking behind Utah’s House Bill 243, a measure that would require a warning label on any printed or online pornographic material that is in or can be accessed in Utah. Which means anywhere in the known universe.

Because we cannot be bothered — or don’t know how — to provide our children with accurate, comprehensive sex education, the kind of enlightenment that would help future generations understand the difference between reality and fantasy, between fulfillment and victimization, between diversion and addiction, HB243 amounts to the state of Utah giving up and placing a “Bridge Out” sign on the information superhighway.

The proposed statute, which has passed the House and awaits a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would require that any such material carry the following disclaimer:

“Exposing minors to pornography is known to the state of Utah to cause negative impacts to brain development, emotional development, and the ability to maintain intimate relationships. Such exposure may lead to harmful and addictive sexual behavior, low self-esteem, and the improper objectification of and sexual violence towards others, among numerous other harms.”

Maybe. Though one could also issue a similar warning about exposure to the Utah legislative process.

Warning labels are ubiquitous in our culture, everything from Hot Coffee to Severe Tire Damage. By themselves they do little damage, though in the eyes of many they may fade into the background, and may serve no purpose other than giving a business or property owner the right to claim that we were warned.

The problem with this particular warning label is that there is no solid definition as to what we are being warned about. The state’s legal definition of pornography centers on the old verbiage about “contemporary community standards,” “purient interest” and “patently offensive.” Language that provides little guidance to either purveyor or customer as to what is legal and what is not.

If lawmakers are all determined to strike this symbolic blow for decency, they should at least take away the part of the bill that amounts to a hunting license.

Not content to task law enforcement agencies, which have more important things to do, with the enforcement of this requirement, the bill would give any individual the power to sue and collect damages from any website operator deemed to be in violation of the labeling requirement.

The last thing the Utah judiciary needs is to be misused by the self-appointed morality police, some of whom will be sincere, others in it for the money or to take revenge on the online sex worker who wouldn’t give out her home address.

Erica Jong, the American poet and novelist whose erotic fiction took the 1970s by storm, had a way of looking at pornography that would be of more use than the Legislature’s proposal.

Cleaned up a bit, it is that her reaction to the first 10 minutes of a pornographic film is to want to go home and have sex. And her reaction to the first 20 minutes of a pornographic film is to never want to have sex again as long as she lives.

Now that’s a warning.