A major debate over the public harm of pornography erupted over the weekend after US lawmakers published a letter to Attorney General William Barr, asking him to use existing obscenity laws to restrict pornography.
The letter noted that the explosion of Internet pornography has “coincided with an increase in violence towards women and an increase in the volume of human trafficking as well as child pornography.” The representatives noted that porn is “especially harmful to youth,” noting that children are being exposed to “obscene pornography at exponentially younger ages.”
Pornhub, one of the largest porn providers online, recently ran an advertisement which appealed to kids to use their site as soon as their parents leave the house. Kids aren’t just accidentally seeing nudity anymore, companies are marketing porn to them — violent hardcore sex scenes are shaping the nation.
With a red light district in everyone’s pocket, and heightened sensitivities which have arisen in response to the “Me Too” movement, lawmakers are right: it’s time for Americans to take our old obscenity laws seriously again for the welfare of people.
Public acceptance of pornography has increased as a new, high-tech billion dollar digital porn industry has exploded through the power of the internet. Yet according to a recent Gallup poll, 61 per cent of Americans still consider it immoral, and 64 per cent support making it illegal for kids — that’s compared to 50 per cent who say that abortion is immoral in the same poll. Such figures might help explain why political disputes over porn have been heating up in recent years.
Last year, Ross Douthat made the case for banning porn, arguing that the “the belief that it should not be restricted is a mistake,” charging that those who believe it cannot be censored at all are holding tenaciously to a superstition. He argued that “law and jurisprudence changed once and can change again,” and the sooner we can relegate porn to the darkest corners of the internet the better off we will be as a nation.
Some on the left have been quick to claim that conservatives who voted for Trump are hypocrites for proposing restrictions on porn. Yet as Matthew Schmitz smartly points out, if those on the left think Trump is the result of a pornified culture, perhaps they should think seriously about fighting the root cause: porn itself.
Yet there are signs that many on the left are sympathetic. The Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said earlier this Fall that as a parent he believes “rampant access to pornography is a real problem,” adding that “we need to empower families to be able to moderate what our kids see and when.” When left and right seem to be headed towards a common goal, people should start paying attention to deeper political alignments in the social undercurrent.
Such hopeful signs should not be misread. Defenders of porn abound, and have on their side both powerful corporate interests, claims to individual liberty, and addiction. Some defenders of porn believe it is not only harmless, but that porn promotes “sex positivity.” Fortunately, the evidence is stacked against them.
Porn is harmful by almost every measure — and not only harmful to individuals who consume it, but to whole communities as well — profoundly affecting work and family, bedrocks of a free society. According to some longitudinal studies, porn use by one of the spouses in a marriage doubles the chance of divorce, greatly reduces sexual frequency and satisfaction in a marriage, and diminishes the positive effects of religious faith in families. The average age for beginning a habit of internet porn consumption is now 11 years old — and the most popular videos they consume involve multiple men sexually penetrating a woman. Children who consume porn find it more difficult to form loving relationships with the opposite sex, and are far more likely to be depressed and lonely. Those who claim that porn is “sex positive,” or claim that it does no public harm are simply denying the facts.
Some of the most vocal opponents of porn restrictions, however, have been libertarians who don’t argue for sex-positivity so much as government-negativity. Opposed to the use of the government to regulate or ban anything, most libertarians have vigorously resisted the anti-porn movement. For libertarians — who have heavily reshaped the GOP in recent decades — there is apparently no argument about the public harm of porn that can overcome their absolute, almost religious commitment to limited government.
It’s for this reason that conservatives had a near nervous breakdown over the question of porn following the lawmaker’s letter to Attorney General Barr. The sharp divide appeared almost immediately between libertarian and traditional conservatives of various stripes, and signaled that the heat of the debate was not simply about the harm of pornography itself but also about the future of conservativism. There is a political question at the heart of the porn debate: is government an evil which must be restrained at all costs, or is it a political instrument which must be made to serve the welfare of real people?
Since the public harms of porn are real and indisputable, the issue nicely focuses a debate that conservatives need to have. Those who argue that we can ban porn, or at least seriously restrict it, have ideas on their side too. Age verification technologies can be pursued, and lawmakers can remove protections from the Communications Decency Act which gives immunity to internet service providers. As the Pope himself recently said, tech companies should cooperate with lawmakers to provide customers with internet service that’s safe for our kids.
Governments cannot do all things — there is much which is better left to families, municipalities, and churches. But families and small communities can’t match the power of a billion-dollar industry marketing porn to their kids. Governments can — and if they care about the rule of law and the welfare of their people, they must.
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