Did the Republican Party give up the war on pornography?

By Jonathon Van Maren

In the latest issue of Politico Magazine, Tim Allen has written a fascinating long-form analysis of the war against pornography, and his title gives it all away: “How the GOP Gave Up on Porn.” He begins by pointing out the obvious: The current president of the United States, despite the fact that the Republican Party platform contains strong anti-porn language, is no anti-porn zealot. Considering his affairs with porn stars, his starring in a soft-core porn film, his lurid conversation with Howard Stern, and the framed copy of Playboy hanging on his office wall, that is probably an understatement.

But the GOP was once an ardent foe of the porn industry, which emerged with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy in 1953 and rapidly exploded as other purveyors of vice realized that there was a lot of cash to be made in selling flesh. In the following decades, the Reagan Administration not only promised action on porn, they at least attempted to deliver, with Attorney General Edwin Meese cracking down on pornography, enforcing obscenity laws, and striking fear into the hearts of the smut-peddlers. Many radical feminists voiced their support, creating a bizarre coalition that included Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson: On the issue of porn’s objectifying and dehumanizing view of women, at least, these strange bedfellows could all get along. The attacks on the porn industry were doing so well that the 1992 GOP platform called for a “national crusade against pornography”—and who could disagree with that?

But 1992 was a turning point—in retrospect, it is when anti-porn activists began to lose the war. Patrick Trueman, who got his start as a social conservative activist with Joe Scheidler’s Pro-Life Action League and ended up heading the obscenity strike force for Reagan’s Department of Justice, boils the initial defeat down to two factors: Bill Clinton and the rise of the Internet. (I met Trueman in 2016 in his role as the president of the National Center to Comat Sexual Exploitation in Houston, Texas.) Between 1988 and 1993 as Chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Criminal Division at the DOJ, Trueman racked up 126 convictions on the FBI’s shortlist of the top 70 producers of “obscene material”—but then the tide began to turn. Tim Alberta explains how it began:

Nobody disputes that obscenity prosecutions dropped off dramatically during the Clinton years—as much as 70 percent, according to Reagan-era DOJ officials. And everyone agrees that the advent of the World Wide Web sparked pornography’s historic propagation…With [Ed] Meese and his anti-porn vice squad no longer running the DOJ, the industry itself grew more aggressive. “Nobody had gotten popped for a long time, so people were pushing and pushing and pushing. More gangbangs, more harder content, more teen-themed videos, and people felt pretty safe in doing just about anything they wanted to do,” Max Hardcore, a former erotic film star and producer, told the Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal in 2007, adding: “Clinton was good for the industry, good for the economy, and he didn’t get us involved in any quagmire wars.”

Sensitive to the perception of being soft on porn, the Clinton administration boasted of focusing its energy and resources on the narrower issue of child endangerment—foreshadowing the approach taken by the opposition today. But even that low-hanging political fruit proved difficult to pick. The Communications Decency Act of 1996, which criminalized the distribution of offensive material to minors, was dismantled by the Supreme Court a year later. In response, a bipartisan group of legislators worked with the Clinton White House to craft the Child Online Protection Act, which focused more specifically on restricting minors’ access to commercial material. But repeated court challenges led to a permanent injunction. The law never took effect.

By 2000, lawmakers settled on a lowest common denominator: mandating internet filters in public schools as a condition for federal funding. That law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, was upheld by the Supreme Court. It was evidence of success, however incrementally, for an anti-porn movement that felt the fight slipping away from them—and that couldn’t have known at the time how soon smartphones would render the legislation hopelessly antiquated.

It is interesting to note that even Clinton—hardly a prudish fellow—was willing to go after the porn industry, albeit in a far more subdued fashion than the moralists of the Reagan Administration. Even for a liberal Democrat (and the Clintons would morph and evolve with the culture over the coming decades), a move that would please both religious conservatives and radical feminists seemed like an obvious win. But technology had outstripped the government’s ability to crack down without a level of dedication Clinton simply did not possess—and so anti-porn activists threw their hope on the next guy heading into the Oval Office: A Bible-believing evangelical from Texas named George W. Bush. As Alberta explains:

Republicans hadn’t yet given up on the political value of an anti-porn crusade. George W. Bush promised repeatedly during the 2000 presidential campaign to cast a wider prosecutorial net for obscenity. In practice, this would mean targeting the producers of hardcore material—depicting, for example, rape, violence or bodily waste—that satisfied the complex Miller test. Bush appeared to mean business when he selected as his attorney general John Ashcroft, a favorite of religious conservatives and a longtime anti-porn crusader himself. In his first eight months on the job, Ashcroft met with activists, organized a symposium, evaluated the department’s operations and handpicked a new leader of the obscenity division. Combating pornography, Bush and Ashcroft told conservatives, would be a federal priority again.

That changed on September 11, 2001.

“9/11 stopped the Bush administration’s momentum,” says Richard Land, the longtime political head of the Southern Baptist Convention. “They were planning to re-Reaganize the Department of Justice on this issue, and then they got completely waylaid.”

Neil Malamuth, a University of California, Los Angeles, psychology professor and prominent scholar on porn, adds, “Bush was going to make pornography a major issue. But when 9/11 happened, his administration made a conscious decision that it wasn’t worth it. They knew they didn’t have the resources, and they knew they needed to rally the public around certain causes. Pornography wasn’t one of them.”

Terrorism was suddenly an all-eclipsing concern for Americans across the ideological spectrum. As evangelical Christians grasped what this meant for their porn campaign, their concern turned to frustration and eventually anger. Religious conservatives watched in horror as big porn hitched itself to the rise of big tech, giving obscenity a foothold in corporate America and solidifying the adult industry’s product as culturally tolerable. In December 2003, the magazine published by Christian organization Focus on the Family noted how, in 2000, “conservatives celebrated what they thought marked the end of hard-core’s unchecked reign.” Three years later, the article concluded, “those celebrations have given way to disappointment.”

Such criticism of Bush from the right faded, however, as his administration wore on. The simplest explanation is fatigue: Having lost so many battles during the Clinton years, only to then see the hope of the Ashcroft era vanish, much of the anti-porn movement ran out of gas. “We put the issue front and center in the ’90s. Congress was engaged, we were engaged and the technology industry was engaged fighting against us,” says [Donna Rice] Hughes, the internet safety advocate. “We had a bipartisan coalition behind us, but we were losing just about every battle in the courts. And it just demoralized so many people. I think that’s when the white flag came out.”

The War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom changed much for social conservatives. For starters, as Alberta points out, it essentially eliminated the last best chance for a widespread and potentially effective crackdown on the pornographers. It also sent the neo-cons skyrocketing to prominence in the conservative coalition, reducing the once-powerful social conservatives to a junior partner (something they have never entirely recovered from.) Additionally, the patriotic instincts of conservatives made it unlikely that they were going to complain about unfulfilled aspects of their domestic agenda during wartime—that seemed some how disloyal to flag and country. Islam also shot to the top of the list of evangelical concerns, launching a new strange wave of coalitions; this time combining Christian war-hawks and anti-theist polemicists like Christopher Hitchens.

And then, of course, there were the technological factors that were transforming the war against porn and eliminating previously useful tools and methods of attack:

Around this time, a pair of practical acknowledgments began reshaping the political discourse surrounding porn. The first was that Pandora’s box could never be closed—that with the internet oozing adult content from every portal, prevention and education made more sense than prosecution and enforcement. The second was that, to the extent prosecution and enforcement remained viable, the government’s overriding responsibility should be protecting children—from both viewing mature content and starring in it.

This is what animates much of today’s anti-porn movement. Hughes considered it a “huge victory” when, in 2016, both Trump and Hillary Clinton supported her organization’s Child’s Internet Safety Presidential Pledge, which called for tougher enforcement of existing laws “to prevent the sexual exploitation of children online.” But the developments since have been discouraging. When Hughes raised the issue to Sessions at a meeting last year, he knew nothing about the pledge. Vice President Mike Pence told Hughes in a separate conversation that he supported her efforts—but made clear that only Trump’s active support could truly move the needle. She is not holding her breath.

The truth is, despite federal laws on the books—as well as 25 state versions mandating filters in schools and libraries—efforts to shield children from explicit content have failed miserably. In part, this is because of its sheer prevalence: The Huffington Post reported last year that porn websites account for more monthly traffic than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. There has never been a reliable dollar figure placed on pornography as a whole; NBC News reported in 2015 that the industry is worth $97 billion, an estimate that experts I spoke with agreed was severely lowballing. Perhaps the most telling statistic: On planet Earth, only Google and Netflix are known to consume more bandwidth than MindGeek, the umbrella corporation that houses several of the biggest free porn aggregator websites.

Precise statistics related to adolescent pornography use are similarly elusive, in this case because kids worry about getting into trouble for answering honestly. In 2016, a Christian research organization called The Barna Group released the results of a comprehensive online survey based on interviews with nearly 2,800 participants. The findings were stark: Forty-nine percent of children ages 13 to 17 consume pornography at least once a month, with a further 30 percent saying they did so less often. Only 21 percent said they had never viewed pornography.

“It’s not like it’s been pushed to the side. It’s been pushed off the table.”

The numbers jumped considerably when moving to the next bracket, young adults ages 18 to 24. Among those respondents, 71 percent reported consuming pornography at least monthly, with just 9 percent saying they had never viewed it. These findings are consistent with the work done by academics; setting aside disagreements over morality and consequences, the consensus within the community of pornography experts is that young people are consuming explicit content in near-universal fashion. A study of the subject in 2009, undertaken by a researcher at the University of Montreal, had to be canceled. The reason: He could not find a control group of men in their 20s who had not viewed pornography.

The public’s shifting attitude toward adult content is due in no small part to mass consumption by nonadults. In the survey, when respondents 25 and older were asked about the morality of watching porn, 54 percent said it was “wrong.” Yet among respondents ages 13 to 24, just 32 percent said viewing porn is “wrong”—compared with 48 percent who said the same of overeating, and 56 percent who said the same of not recycling.

Younger people are not the sole driver of porn’s mainstreaming, however. At the beginning of the decade, Gallup began tracking the percentage of Americans who found porn “morally acceptable.” The number was 30 percent in 2011. By 2018, it had spiked to 43 percent. Age aside, the sharp uptick can be heavily attributed to softer perceptions of porn among single men, nonreligious people and Democrats. Yet a greater acceptance of porn is apparent across virtually every demographic, including women, married men and churchgoers; among Republicans, the “morally acceptable” figure has jumped 11 points in the past eight years.

Still, 43 percent approval leaves a majority of Americans disapproving. In political terms, 57 percent represents a winning issue. There is no question most Americans feel that there’s something wrong about porn; it’s barred at workplaces and unwelcome in polite company. In polls its acceptability registers lower than other hot-button culture issues like abortion, gay marriage and legal pot. So why won’t anyone in government go after it?

There are many answers to this question, of course, but one prominent answer stands out: Many of the politicians themselves are using pornography. Those who aren’t must be aware of how ubiquitous porn use is, and this makes attacking the porn industry a prickly subject. Many, it must be presumed, are afraid of being outed as hypocrites—and surely some are thinking of the days when Larry Flynt of Hustler offered rewards for information on adulterous Republicans to expose their two-facedness in the wake of revelations that Clinton had been using a young intern as an ashtray.

Lobbyists and special interest groups, at the end of the day, grow tired of hammering away on losing issues, and the uncomfortable fact is that they are also beholden to their donors, who want to see an occasional victory. The porn plague has grown to such proportions that it seems, to many people, to be almost useless to fight it. Thus, action on porn has been abandoned for the tried-and-true issues that reliably rally the base and generally get a decent political response. As Alberta describes it:

In the dimly lit bowels of a Washington hotel complex, hundreds of politically active Christians gathered in late September for the annual Values Voter Summit. This year’s exhibit hall offered advocacy for all seasons: expanded religious freedom, tighter abortion restrictions, counseling for relatives of ex-gays, paid family leave, single-gender college dormitories, refugee settlement programs, faith-based financial planning, the preservation of Social Security and much more.

One issue, however, was not represented: pornography. The closest thing to a mention of porn at the conference was in literature provided by the group Concerned Women for America, which combats “sexual exploitation.” When I asked the two young women working the exhibit about specific advocacy related to porn, they shifted uncomfortably in their seats and produced a synchronized shrug. At a neighboring booth, Frank Mitchell, a Christian activist and veteran attendee of the summit, gave me his theory of the case. “The fact is, times have changed and we have bigger issues to deal with. If we’re sitting around debating pornography, we’re wasting our time,” Mitchell says. He tells me the American Family Association was once the tip of the spear in combating obscenity; as fate would have it, he had just attended a lunch sponsored by that group. Did porn come up? “It didn’t come up. It never comes up,” Mitchell shook his head. “It’s not like it’s been pushed to the side. It’s been pushed off the table.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the Values Voter Summit, won’t go that far. “It’s still a very big issue, but it’s not necessarily a policy issue because the internet has made it so that it’s everywhere,” he says. “I mean, even before the internet, the government didn’t do a good job of policing it. So how do you get the genie back in the bottle?”

The ugly truth is that you can’t get the genie back in the bottle, and Christian communities, families, and marriages that have been threatened (if not destroyed) by the deluge of filth have been grappling to discover how they can respond to this new reality that we all must inhabit—a reality where the majority of people are porn users, if not porn addicts, and where sexual violence and degradation as provided by PornHub form a key part of sex education for most young people. The anti-porn movement, which I have been privileged to be a small part of, has been evolving to face this new reality:

This is the fundamental question facing an anti-porn movement that is attempting to rebrand itself. The adult industry’s most notable modern adversary is Fight the New Drug, a well-heeled organization that grabbed headlines a few years ago by plastering “Porn Kills Love” billboards all over San Francisco. Hoping to transcend the stereotypes attached to the old opposition—stuffy, Bible-thumping zealots—Fight the New Drug markets itself as stylish and tech-savvy. The crucial distinction is emphasis: Rather than attacking porn as a moral evil in and of itself, Fight the New Drug focuses on the practical harms to people, relationships and families. That said, the wheel isn’t being reinvented: The group calls itself “non-legislative and non-religious,” but it publishes updates on political activities and was seeded with millions of dollars from Mormon church officials, a fact it downplays.

Morality in Media, a faith-based organization that was central to anti-porn efforts beginning in the 1960s, was rechristened in 2015 as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Its president is none other than Trueman, the former DOJ “obscenity strike force” chief who says he is “trying to revitalize the movement against pornography” to fit the times. “We knew it couldn’t be and shouldn’t be just a religious conservative issue, because pornography affects the issue of sex trafficking, it affects child sexual abuse, it affects sexual violence against women, it affects the rape crisis on college campuses,” he says. “We needed to create a new movement, and we knew it needed to be broad-based in order to win.”

One might think the #MeToo era, with its fierce backlash against toxic masculinity, would give new energy to the enemies of an industry that traffics heavily in the filmed subjugation of women. Some conservatives have tried to capitalize on this point; earlier this year, Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “Let’s Ban Porn.” Feminists, however, are decidedly less vocal than they were in past decades, split internally over the question of whether filmed sex empowers women or exploits them. “Some have broken with the faith-based organizations, but we haven’t, even though we’re a different breed—progressive, lefty feminists,” says Gail Dines, a prominent anti-porn activist. “For us, this is still all about gender equality. You can’t pick and choose. You either believe that women and men have the right to the same political, social and cultural respect, or you don’t.”

Meanwhile, inside the other half of the anti-porn coalition, it seems for every new step taken toward combating obscenity, two steps are taken back. Evangelical leaders I spoke with cited instances of pastors shying away from the subject for fear of alienating their congregants. “It’s very pervasive even in the church,” Perkins says. “It’s not just men, it’s women, too. … Some pastors are afraid to hit the issue too hard.”

In this sense, it’s easy to understand why elected officials have backed off. If politics is downstream from culture, and culture has accepted porn, why wouldn’t politicians do the same? If pastors are afraid to alienate their constituents by condemning porn, what policymaker in his or her right mind would?

This particular point strikes right to the heart of the issue: If those who claim to be spiritual leaders are moral cowards on the greatest threat to Christian communities (and, frankly, to all communities) of our time, why should those who depend on the votes of porn addicts to get elected care so much? There are statistics that reveal an uglier side of this, as well: Some polls indicate that more than half of evangelical pastors admitted to looking at porn within the past month. Again, pornography has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to find those willing to fight it for fear of being outed as a hypocrite. That said, there is some hope on the horizon:

Todd Weiler went where no politician had gone before—an unwitting trailblazer in the latest chapter of the war on porn. In March 2016, the Utah state senator created national buzz when he introduced a resolution labeling pornography “a public health crisis.” It passed unanimously in the Legislature and was signed into law by the governor. The resolution is toothless; it simply states that porn causes “a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms,” and calls for “education, prevention, research and policy change at the community and societal level.” Still, the action in Utah seemed to snap the debate surrounding porn from its years-long slumber. Four other states—South Dakota, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas—passed similar resolutions in 2017. Florida and Kansas passed resolutions in 2018, and a host of other states have begun debating similar measures.

…[Weiler] says American culture is past the point of no return when it comes to porn, and explains that he sponsored the measure for one reason—to start a conversation about protecting minors. “People think I’m some kind of zealot,” he says, “but everything I’m doing is to protect children. I haven’t sponsored any legislation dealing with adults. I’m not trying to make pornography illegal. … People sell all kinds of things on the internet, but they don’t sell them to 15-year-olds because they would get in trouble—gun manufacturers, vaping companies, alcohol distributors. That’s not the case with porn websites.”

In this, at least, he has expert opinion on his side. The community of recognized authorities on pornography is small and secretive; most belong to a private listserv, “SEXNET,” hosted by Northwestern University. In conversations with a number of members, I heard diverging opinions about any number of issues—but a consensus of near-panic emerged when I asked about the science of adolescent porn use and its physiological ramifications. Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma who has written more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and two books about pornography, says the debates regarding addiction and violence are “ideologically loaded, with some scholars bound and determined to find negative effects, and others bound and determined to say there’s nothing to see here.” When it comes to kids and porn, however, Perry says sociologists are generally and increasingly in agreement that we are facing a multifaceted crisis. Academics are unable to perform experiments that expose minors to explicit content, for obvious reasons, so they are left with third-party research that is often unreliable. Without their own data, academics have largely “remained silent” on the issue of adolescent porn consumption, at least publicly, Perry says, even as it’s “tremendously concerning for people across the spectrum, even the most sexually progressive people in my field, that young people are exposed to things they aren’t ready for and don’t know how to process.”

A possibility, given the meteoric growth of porn in America and the government’s inability to contain it, is that human brains might be changed by processing obscenity at earlier ages. Malamuth, the UCLA professor and godfather of the porn research community, says he has taught a course on sexuality and women’s studies for decades. His tradition was to show a disturbing, explicit clip as part of a lecture on pornography—prefaced with a long warning about what the students were about to watch, and urging those with sensitivities to leave the room. “When I first started showing it, you would have very strong reactions—women crying, people hugging each other, deeply affected by it,” Malamuth says. “But in the later years, after my warnings and after showing the film, the students would give me these strange looks. ‘What the hell was the warning all about?’”

…That debate will continue, no doubt, but it will take place on the outskirts of modern culture—miles from the ideological mainstream and light years from the political arena. In this sense, desensitization isn’t just an explanation; it’s a national phenomenon. So much so that millions of elementary schoolers have instant access to unlimited amounts of pornography. So much so that lawmakers consider themselves powerless to do anything about it. So much so that news of the president of the United States having a past romance with a hardcore adult actress has met with a collective shrug. “Let’s face it,” says Weiler, the Utah state senator. “The fact that the president cheated on his wife with a porn star has been kind of a yawner.”

Education and prevention are now the key to this fight. Exposing the brutality of the porn industry and the effects of compulsive porn use are the only way to persuade people to take personal and community action—last week, I spoke several times on this issue in Michigan, and found that many people in the audience were stunned to hear what the porn industry has become over the past decade. Anti-porn activists may be lacking politically viable solutions (although I am personally enthusiastic about the United Kingdom’s recent legislation, as well as Iceland’s murmurings regarding a porn ban), but we have the information necessary to appeal to peoples’ self-interest.

It is hard work, but it must be done. Marriages, families, and society itself will depend on it.

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For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.

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