berger shevtsova garfinkle michta blankenhorn bayles
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.

Features Icon
Features
show comments
© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service