The Dark Road of Censorship
There’s been a growing whisper out there about banning pornography. It has never gotten very far beyond the occasional scientifically challenged moment when a state declares porn to be a public health crisis. But a strange mix of radical feminists and cultural conservatives still nurse their dreams of one day shutting down the massive amount of porn that is freely or not so freely available on the internet and making people watch Pride and Prejudice to get their jollies.
For some reason, there was a cultural twitch on the subject this weekend. A group of Congresscritters sent a letter to AG Barr asking if he could take some time off of chasing down 4Chan conspiracy theories to ban porn. Political grifter Joe Walsh took up the call. And even serious pundits like Ross Douthat and David French have vocalized varying levels of support. Their justification ranges from the moral good the nation to the exploitation of women to the supposed connection between porn and violence, often based on dubious claims of massive harm from the likes of anti-sex work crusaders like Gail Dines and Melissa Farley (whose work is…a bit less than perfect).
Much of the justification cited for a porn ban is, in fact, hot garbage. There is very little evidence that porn creates violence against women, for example:
“Victimization rates for rape in the United States demonstrate an inverse relationship between pornography consumption and rape rates,” noted researchers Christopher J. Ferguson and Richard D. Hartley in a 2009 article for the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior reviewing studies on the effects of pornography. And “data from other nations have suggested similar relationships.” Overall, “the increasing availability of pornography appears to be associated with a decline in rape.”
People who commit rape appear to consume less porn than the general population. In the U.S., rape rates declined faster in states with early internet access. And research has suggested that online “erotic services” marketplaces like Craigslist are directly linked to a decline in female homicide rates. Studies “have also reported positive associations between pornography use and egalitarian attitudes,” according to 2015 research from the University of Western Ontario.
Other claims of harm — from growing hair on one’s hands to “desensitizing” men to real sex — seem to be equally dubious. We have also seen, in the time that porn has exploded over the internet, big declines in divorce rates and teen pregnancy rates (STD rates are stable). If porn is rending the fabric of our society, it’s doing a very subtle job of it.
The most obvious objection to a porn ban is on free speech grounds. The crusaders have a ready-made response to that: that obscenity isn’t speech, usually going for one of the Censorship Tropes that Ken White so ably compiled. But just because movies and video streams aren’t mentioned in the Constitution doesn’t mean they aren’t covered by it. The Court has upheld Free Expression as a general principle, not something nailed down to spoken words and newsletters. Movies are expression, internet tracts are expression, words typed into a social media network are expression. In addition, the 9th Amendment implies the existence of “unenumerated rights”, a principle I hold very closely. If you’re going to demonstrate that someone’s freedom to do anything needs to be curtailed, it is not we who must prove that our freedom is necessary; it is the government who must prove it should be taken away. And, as I noted above, the porn grabbers simply can not make the case that it must be.
There are other aspects of this as well. One of the few things the federal government does ban is the exploitation of children, which I absolutely support. The ability of the government to crack down on this is unfortunately limited, but it does the best it can. Do we really want to distract from that by forcing the government to stamp out porn involving consenting adults, much of which is now made by amateurs?
Some have wavered a bit on this, saying they only want to ban “extreme” acts. But, as we’ve seen in the UK, even such partial bans can easily mutate into ways of judging and controlling people’s sexuality. When the UK made a list of sex acts that should be banned from the internet, it included things like spanking, whipping, consensual abuse, caning and a host of other acts that might cause the Queen to clutch her purse. But as my good friend Jillian Keenan has persuasively argued, paraphilia is a sexual orientation. Banning such things is demonstrably no different that banning homosexual or bisexual expression. Once you’ve opened that door, you can expect every Mrs. Grundy in the world to tumble through demanding that any act that offends her sensibilities also be banished.
Now, there is actually a need for some government involvement in the porn industry. Allegations of abuse are rarely investigated. And porn companies are known to put content on streaming sites that they can profit off of without a penny going to the performer. But government tends to be more interested in half-baked destructive ideas like mandating condoms in porn films (which the stars themselves vehemently opposed) or blocking them from the banking industry.
Now I am extremely dubious that anything will ever emerge from the latest round of anti-porn hand-wringing. For one thing, the general public simply does not care. At least 40% say that watching porn is morally acceptable and many more, while not liking porn itself, oppose censorship. Opposition to proposed bans comes from the Right, from the Left and the Libertarian. But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
Almost two years ago I wrote about the SESTA/FOSTA law that Congress had passed, cracking Section 230 to go after supposed sex trafficking. In that piece, I not only pointed out the lies that supported FOSTA and the damage it had done, but the significance of it in the larger picture of internet freedom.
Our political class has long had a hatred for Section 230 of the CDA, which they see as protecting speech they don’t like. The last year has been filled with attacks on Facebook and other social media for allowing “fake news” to percolate (the effect of which is very unclear). The effects of this bill go even beyond the impact on sex workers, bad as that has been. It is the camel’s nose in the tent of undermining Section 230 and turning the internet into a “safe”, controlled, gated, milquetoast community. And what better way to get the camel’s nose in the tent than through “solving” a vastly exaggerated crisis?
We are now seeing the rest of the camel getting up on its legs and preparing to come into the tent. It’s not just the porn ban. It’s politicians who want Facebook regulated. It’s Josh Hawley, who wants regulation of video games and social media as well as government control of “bias” on Twitter. It’s a proposed crackdown on “fake news”. It’s attacks on billionaire-owned media. It’s everything. Just as was predicted, FOSTA has encouraged all the nanny state ninnies, thought police fascists, media “watchdog” morons and social media hysterics to come up with reasons why internet freedom must be curtailed to address their concerns.
Our goal should not be to figure out which parts of the camel are acceptable to let into the tent; it should be to shove the camel back out and close the flap. With a blowtorch if need be. The only answer — not just to the porn ban but to all of it — is “No”. No to every last stinking piece of it. No to porn bans. No to FOSTA. No to control of Facebook. No to censorship of Twitter. No to government crackdowns on “fake news”. No to laws on social media “addiction”. No no no no no. It’s time to tell the thought controllers — from the Left or the Right, from the porn-grabbers to the social media moderator wannabes — to go to hell.