Movement conservatives have had an interesting year.
Aside from the more predictable battles with the political left, they’ve been engaged in a far more significant debate over their own political identity: Are conservatives really just classical liberals, whose focus should remain on maximizing individual autonomy? Or is their mission to use state power to pursue the common good?
One that might seek to ban pornography, for example?
That’s the latest flashpoint, and perhaps the most telling yet, in the struggle at the heart of the conservative movement.
The more I read about it, the more I tend to agree with the reformers — those conservatives who want a course correction away from greater atomization and toward greater community. These “common good” conservatives, as they are sometimes called, have been criticized for not having a specific policy agenda.
Restricting pornography would be a great place to start.
Last year, while the #MeToo movement was raging, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat drew the somewhat obvious connection between the availability of porn and the not-so-shocking prevalence of sexually depraved men. “If you want better men by any standard, there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle,” he wrote.
That correlation appears to have propelled into action at least the four Republican members of Congress who last week asked Attorney General William Barr to use existing obscenity laws to restrict pornography.
Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, and Texas Rep. Brian Babin wrote that “the explosion in pornography” coincides with increased violence against women, sex trafficking, and child pornography. The phenomenon, they argue, is especially harmful to youths exposed to hard-core pornography at ever-younger ages.
While some studies dispute any correlation between sexual crimes and porn (they say the opposite is true), there should be little doubt of the greater societal harm caused to our youth — young men especially — getting their sexual education not from parents or religious leaders, not even from public school curricula, but from repeatedly viewing graphic and often violent sexual acts online.
It creates a universal male personality, “at once entitled and resentful ... shaped by unprecedented possibilities for sexual gratification and frustrated that real women are less available and more complicated than the version on their screen,” Douthat wrote.
It assigns women the role of sexual object, setting unrealistic, unhealthy, and unfulfilling expectations for female behavior in a sexual encounter.
“This is not sex-positivity; it is hatred of women,” First Things editor Matthew Schmitz wrote in the Washington Post. He’s right. And as the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari points out, “given the billions of videos and images, there is simply no way to rule out that the average porn consumer doesn’t watch images of women who are trafficked, coerced or otherwise exploited.”
Then there’s the science that warns how frequently viewing porn, like any addiction, can cause damaging, long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain. In other words, porn can actually alter how your brain functions, your mood, and how you experience pleasure.
That isn’t a small concern. In fact, it’s so significant that 15 state legislatures have declared porn a public health crisis, like gun violence or vaping. As a means of comparison, less than half of American households possess a gun and only about 20% of high school students vape. But more than 90% of boys and 60% of girls are exposed to some form of online pornography before turning 18.
To be sure, there are good reasons to be skeptical about banning things. Then there’s the constitutional argument, as with guns, that freedom of expression — including sexual expression — is an enumerated right.
OK. But is porn really expression in the same way that political speech is? I’d venture that it’s not.
There’s a slippery-slope argument about the dangers of censorship to be addressed, since many libertarians and even some classical liberals fear that banning porn is somehow akin to the progressive left’s campus speech restrictions and safe spaces.
And much like arguments against restricting certain kinds of guns, the government’s ability to regulate porn already possessed or in circulation would be impossible. Even if the government could restrict sales of certain kinds of porn, a black market would emerge with its requisite dangers.
Those are reasonable concerns. But not every proposed ban is about efficacy. Sometimes they are aspirational, about orienting society toward something other than our own depravity.
And for that, banning porn would be a good place to start.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where this piece originally appeared. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.