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sex and society
The Return of the Porn Wars

Debates over the widespread availability of pornography were a major feature of the American culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s, but—thanks to the final victory of liberalism in the sexual revolution, and, perhaps more importantly, the final victory of the Internet in the third industrial revolution—the anti-porn forces have now mostly been sidelined.

Or have they? In First Things, Bishop Paul Loverde argues that critics of pornography may be gaining cultural and political clout:

Something is afoot. “Porn and the Threat to Virility” recently hit the stands not in the form of a religious tractate, but on the cover of Time. Just days prior to that, in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis decried the “flood of pornography” and its pernicious spread which deform sexuality. If you missed both Time and Pope Francis, then perhaps you heard the news last week from Utah. The state declared pornography a “public health crisis.”

I hope that we have reached a turning point in the public debate on pornography.

Is he right? Utah is a holdout in the sexual revolution in many different ways, and the Beehive State’s decision to formally condemn porn certainly doesn’t herald a nationwide crackdown. At the same time, it is striking that a strong majority of Americans still believe porn is morally unacceptable, even as taboos against many other consensual sexual behaviors have fallen by the wayside.

State and local governments probably do have somewhat more authority to prosecute pornographers under obscenity statutes than they are currently exercising (indeed, the Republican platform in 2012 called for stepping up obscenity prosecutions), but it’s hard to imagine the Justice Department devoting large amounts of resources to that kind of crusade, which would in any case be all but impossible to conduct effectively in the age of the Internet. If the anti-porn forces do make progress, it would be in the form of reversing—or at least slowing—the cultural normalization of porn, and perhaps winning symbolic anti-porn measures like the Utah resolution in other states.

One promising sign for the anti-pornography movement, which is now composed mostly of social conservatives: We are seeing the resurgence of a kind of feminist moralism about sex, epitomized by push for ‘yes means yes’ rules on college campuses. In the 1980s, feminist moralists like Catharine MacKinnon made a strong (if temporary) alliance with religious conservatives, successfully lobbying for a number of local anti-pornography statutes, and leading the Reagan administration to produce a widely-publicized report on the corrosive impact of pornography. If feminists and social conservatives allied again, they could create a formidable coalition—although it may be that the two culture war camps now hate each other too much for that kind of cooperation to be possible.

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  • ljgude

    In the Victorian city of NY where my forebears roamed the streets almost every cigar store was a front for prostitution, every barber shop place you could place a bet on the day’s number and get a shave. The trick the Victorians were so good at was to carry on as normal but name it something else. It is a clear sign that things are going to blazes when a country full of overpaid postmodern college professors can’t come close to the standards of hypocrisy enjoyed in Victorian times by ordinary people.

    • Jim__L

      The assumption that everybody was some kind of hypocrite in Victorian times simply screams “urban legend” to me. “Every” cigar shop a front for prostitution? How gullible do you have to be, to buy that line?

      Victorian norms just weren’t that hard to live up to the vast majority of the time, especially for people who were properly raised with those sorts of expectations. It’s possible to keep yourself out of trouble if you just keep yourself out of environments that aren’t prone to trouble. Even today it’s not that bad.

      Look, Victorians tried eliminate Lust from the human psyche. It didn’t work; it’s not going to, just like today’s efforts to do away with Wrath or Envy aren’t going anywhere. But to pretend there aren’t ways of avoiding the excesses of human desire, or ways to instead bring yourself around to those virtues that had been twisted to make the Deadly Sins, is the moral equivalent of gouging out your own eyes.

      • ljgude

        I was mostly kidding to get at the present day hypocrisy but It may well be an urban legend although I read it is some sort of serious social history years ago but, yes, it always struck me as an exaggeration at best. My grandfather however did have his bet on the numbers along with his shave every morning. But I don’t agree that the Victorians didn’t practice hypocrisy in a way different than we do today. I’m old enough to remember them and the very dramatic discrepancy between what they practiced and what they preached. Their style was very different and keeping up appearances and the notion of respectability were far more important than they are today. But I completely agree with you that we are not going to eliminate sexual desire – lust – call it what you will, from the human psyche. It was Montaigne who said that the fading of sexual desire in old age was like being released from the jaws of a savage beast and I emphatically agree that the kind of straight repression of the sexual instinct being demanded then and now is like asking one to gouge one’s eyes out. To do ourselves a great violence.

  • Fat_Man

    Is this the next thing after the bathroom wars?

  • CaliforniaStark

    A recent article in the Washington Post on the evils of pornography was entitled: Is Porn Immoral? That Doesn’t Matter: It’s A Public Health Crisis. THE SCIENCE IS NOW BEYOND DISPUTE.” (capitalization added)

    Taking their cue from the global warming debate, the opponents of porn now assert it is an absolute certainty that it is a public health risk, and the science is not subject to question. Perhaps they will soon advocate that RICO lawsuits should be filed against anyone skeptical of this belief. Assume proponents of other “scientific” theories will soon be making similar absolutist claims — perhaps the First Amendment will need to be amended to contain a “science beyond dispute” exception.

    • ljgude

      Indeed the Science that one liberated us from The Inquisition has become the tool of The Inquisition. At the end of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels write: “Workers of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains!” What they didn’t understand about the nature of ‘the masses’, as they thought of us, is that they have an insatiable need to put the chains back on again.

  • gozur88

    An article in Time? So, what, about ten people read it?

  • http://endofpatience.blog.com/ EndOfPatience

    Considering that ‘yes means yes’ until a feminist decides that it really meant ‘no’ so she’s reversing her consent and now she was raped, “moralism” isn’t the term I would have used.

    • Jim__L

      One of the nice things about falling in love and forging a trusting relationship is finding out all the different ways there are to say “yes”.

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