This essay is almost certainly a complete waste of time. That reality is not lost on me. Shy of sparking a revolution against the cancer of porn, essays like this will almost certainly just be lost in the ether (though they may provoke a few jeers, as was the case with Matt Walsh and Ross Douthat). Those thoughts are why essays like this are rarely written. Still, this must be said, for my own sanity if no one else’s.
The ubiquity, popularity, and economic prowess of pornography makes arguing for its illegality seem pretty well useless. (Almost as useless as being an abolitionist in the 1800s!) And yet, the damage from porn is so real and the moral defense of porn so lacking that it should be a regular argument in the arsenal of any moral conservative. Arguing against the legality of porn should be a staple of conservative politics, no matter how foolish such a proposal may sound.
We must begin by insisting that good law can only be rooted in a coherent moral philosophy. (Christianity happens to offer a wonderful moral philosophy and tradition to draw on, for example.) It is often said that you “can’t legislate morality.” Well, insofar as moral choices are only truly moral when they are voluntary, that is true.
But how can any law be defended—against murder, theft, violence, etc.—if the society that sanctions that law does not ultimately believe the moral foundation of that law? Meaningful laws are not plucked out of thin air. They have a grounding, and that is a moral grounding. Laws, therefore, do not merely promote some vague concept of “freedom”; they also promote the social good.
I don’t know anyone who argues that porn is a wholly positive or moral activity. Perhaps it is amoral or perhaps our freedom to experience it outweighs the “yuck” factor associated with porn. I suppose you could argue that “live and let live” is some kind of moral philosophy and the allowance of any number of activities—adultery, pornography, gambling, etc.—falls within said philosophy. But I am unaware of any serious moral philosophy that can justify the participation in pornography as on par as, say, running an orphanage or sacrificing yourself for the good of your nation or family.
The Harmful Effects of Pornography
So if porn is not positively moral, why should we allow it, especially when it does so much damage to our hearts, minds, and souls? Shall we count the ways that porn is destructive?
- First and foremost, porn is dehumanizing to everyone involved. The “actors”, be they professional or amateur, are doing what even children know not to do: making private things public. While we hear lectures that our society should respect people for “who they are” and not what they look like - or what they are willing to expose - porn reduces men and women to their basest of selves.
- Porn is addictive. Precisely because we intuitively know that pornography is wrong, it elicits a thrill that is as powerful as a narcotic. That addiction destroys families, livelihoods, and finances.
- Porn actresses themselves are at risk. Hoping for 15 minutes of fame or something worse, it shouldn’t be surprising that an industry that sells flesh cares so little about it. Consider this article that asks a simple question: “Why Are So Many Porn Stars Turning Up Dead?”
- The prevalence of porn continues to normalize irresponsible sex and that is obviously leading to an epidemic of STDs.
- The line between what is acceptable and normal is getting blurrier by the day. The prevalence of “normal” porn has led to stranger and more deviant versions of porn. The cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and the horse is out of the barn. One day it’s harmless nudity. The next, porn is so normalized its used for revenge. The next, porn and technology combine to destroy reputations by creating fake porn, or digitally imposing someone’s face on someone else’s body. If we accept porn in principle, it becomes really hard to legislate more deviant forms later.
The Challenges to Banning Pornography
But of course, very, very powerful interests will want to see porn legal forever. Consider the economic equation: porn makes more money than the NBA, NFL, and MLB combined. Porn makes more money than all of Hollywood. Porn is a staple money maker for all sorts of ancillary businesses as well, like hotels. In fact, kudos to these hotel chains that have said they will not make money on porn.
Then there is the libertarian/libertine voice, the voice that values freedom so highly that it stopped believing that there can be limits to freedom of speech. I would argue that this is a new idea and that pornography was, in fact, illegal in our nation until recently. Why the change? Did human nature change? The basis of our law? No, some judges simply no longer declare porn “obscene”, so it has free reign.
I would argue that porn is obviously obscene and there is a legal bulwark to employ to declare it to be so once again. If 99% of pornography is not obscene, then what is? Are we to the point where all porn is okay unless, what, someone gets hurt or dies? What is the standard anymore, anyway? Do we have one?
I realize that making porn illegal would put us in bed with China or some other totalitarian state. We here in America reject that sort of thing. That’s what makes us special! But freedom divorced from virtue is not freedom. We have just become a nation of people enslaved to porn. Just imagine the good we could do with the billions of dollars and millions of ours we waste on porn! I’m quite certain we could, at least eradicate something like poverty if we so chose.
There is nothing wrong with our law reflecting the reality that obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment. And while outlawing porn would be extremely difficult to prosecute and would involve all kinds of difficult lines to draw (is this obscene, is that obscene?), at some point we need to declare porn to be obscene and unhealthy at best, dehumanizing and disgusting at worst. And we need our laws to reflect what we hope to actually be as a gathered people “under God, indivisible.”
I realize that shaming is out of fashion and calling something obscene is so Victorian. I realize there are gray areas in the name of art. But pornography by and large isn’t art, and we don’t have to pretend like it is. So, the next candidate who promises to make porn as illegal in Texas as gambling, even knowing that such a bill is destined to die before it ever gets out of committee, will get my vote. It’s about time.