Why are conservatives going to bat for the predatory porn industry?

By Jonathon Van Maren

On December 6, Alexandra DeSanctis of the National Review broke the story that four members of Congress—Jim Banks of Indiana, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, and Brian Babin of Texas—sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr calling on the Department of Justice to begin enforcing America’s obscenity laws “as a means of reducing hardcore pornography that meets the legal tests for obscenity, especially pornography involving children.”

The letter notes that candidate Donald Trump promised to leverage obscenity laws against the porn industry back in 2016. (Several meetings with an array of top social conservatives were hosted in Cleveland, Ohio prior to the Republican Convention, and I was told by several thrilled delegates that virtually all of their demands, including on pornography, were met.) The letter lays out precisely why action on digital pornography is so desperately needed (the full letter can be found here):

The Internet and other evolving technologies are fueling the explosion of obscene pornography by making it more accessible and visceral. This explosion in pornography coincides with an increase in violence towards women and an increase in the volume of human trafficking as well as child pornography.

Congressman Jim Banks further explained the rationale behind the letter in a comment provided to National Review:

As online obscenity and pornography consumption have increased, so too has violence towards women. Overall volume of human trafficking has increased and is now the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. Child pornography is on the rise as one of the fastest-growing online businesses with an annual revenue over $3 billion. The United States has nearly 50% of all commercialized child pornography websites. Pornography is ubiquitous in our culture and our children are being exposed at younger ages. Nine in every ten boys under the age of 18 have seen porn. Children are struggling with pornography addiction.

This should not be particularly controversial. The number of states that have declared porn to be a public health crisis is up to fifteen, and the Republican Party has also recognized the porn issue in those terms. This is something social conservatives and many radical feminists agree on. But it was Obama’s Justice Department under Eric Holder that disbanded the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, and the Congressmen are asking that Barr resume making “the prosecution of obscene pornography a criminal justice priority.”

Predictably, the Internet promptly exploded. In the context of the Sohrab Ahmari versus David French debate on the role of the government in promoting the common good, the suggestion that the government might have a role in restricting access to pornography (a suggestion obviously triggering to libertarians, who are ideologically opposed to state interference of this sort) got a fair amount of backlash from some conservatives, as well. This, I thought, rather proved Sohrab Ahmari’s point that classical liberalism promotes liberty until it dies, as the sight of conservatives defending the right of consumers and producers to put gangbangs on the Internet where children can see them was jarring to say the least.

In fact, Ross Douthat floated the idea of government intervention in the porn plague earlier this year in the New York Times, and I thought his case was both eloquent and persuasive. But many conservatives seemed appalled by the idea, and promptly displayed their ignorance on the prevalence, accessibility, and poisonous nature of digital porn by claiming that this toxic sludge being pumped incessantly into our collective cultural drinking water could be easily monitored by parents (it should be monitored by parents, obviously, but in our world of ubiquitous technology and Internet access, it ain’t easy.) I thought Matt Walsh’s wry comment on the debate summed it up quite well: “We live in a society where the most extreme and depraved forms of pornography are readily accessible to children. If your primary concern when faced with this epidemic is to protect the rights of smut peddlers and masturbators, I’d suggest that your priorities need realignment.”

Contrary to what some of my detractors believe, I understand the libertarian and conservative arguments against restricting access to pornography. Having spent countless hours in high schools speaking to kids about porn and hearing their stories, I simply reject them. Yes, there’s a trade-off at play here. And yes, that trade-off is utterly worth it, because we’re exchanging the minds of the next generation for an entirely reasonable restriction on liberty (and one I happen to believe the Founders would fully endorse.) If conservatives who claim to be constitutional originalists want to make the case that the men who founded America believed that freedom of speech included the right to produce and distribute videos of men degrading, raping, and abusing women onscreen—and that this “liberty” would result in the deforming and poisoning of millions of young minds—they can make that case.

I suspect the very Founders they are citing in their defence would find their arguments absurd.

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