The misguided war on pornography and the return of right-wing puritanism


Some social conservatives are reviving a policy proposal straight out of the 1980s: banning pornography.

Right-of-center Twitter was ablaze this weekend debating the issue, largely instigated by Daily Wire blogger Matt Walsh and Republican lawmakers who called on the Department of Justice to take a tougher approach toward pornographers. One could easily dismiss this online banter as irrelevant, but it’s representative of a broader trend: A neo-Puritan zeal is infecting some members of the socially conservative right on a number of issues these days — from the panic over vaping to the freak-out over a drag queen story hour that sparked an intra-conservative debate over classical liberalism.

This is a great move and conservatives who act perplexed at the suggestion that government might have a role in restricting hardcore porn obviously do not understand their own ideology. This is, at the very least, an idea worth discussing.

— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog)
December 6, 2019

At some point conservatives decided that government should not be used to advance the common good. And at that point conservatism became limp, shallow, and ineffectual. It also divorced itself from its own intellectual history. And that in a nutshell is why the Left always wins.

— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog)
December 8, 2019

While there certainly are reasonable concerns over pornography and other vices, social conservatives should be careful what they wish for. Giving the government the power to impose blanket bans on things you don’t like will almost inevitably backfire when the other party takes power.

Meanwhile, there are many voluntary and light-touch regulatory approaches that could curb the pornography industry’s negative effects without sacrificing individual freedom or vastly expanding government.

Admittedly, the pornography industry has its issues. Some studios exploit amateur actresses, as famously depicted in the Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted. It’s worth discussing the effects pornography has on young men and how it may reinforce misogynistic attitudes toward women.

However, the idea that the federal government should establish some sort of bureaucracy deciding which websites people can and cannot access is ridiculous.

Even if we set aside the obvious First Amendment questions posed by a ban on pornography, how exactly would such a policy work logistically? Would the government really force internet service providers to block any sort of pornographic website? How would they go about doing so? The idea of a government so large that bureaucrats monitor and control the internet is dystopian, not conservative.

It seems odd that many of the same people who are upset that conservative PragerU videos are not available for streaming in every elementary school, church, and public library in the country now want big corporations and the government to embrace their roles as censors. Where exactly would this censorship stop? It’s certainly no stretch to imagine a future Democratic president deeming so-called hate speech from conservatives as also “obscene.”

The support for pornography prohibition is rooted in intellectual laziness.

Similar to previous proposals to ban alcohol and violent video games, a ban on pornography ignores the underlying social roots of the problem. Indeed, this desperate plea for the nanny state is a tacit admission by social conservatives that churches have failed to adequately address the pornography issue. Instead of ceding moral authority to the government, conservatives should instead embrace civil society’s role in building a better future. There are many ways to do so in the case of pornography.

Schools and churches can run educational programs about their negative effects, much like DARE does to reduce drug use. Families, meanwhile, can put consumer pressure on tech companies to offer stronger parental controls for their products. And internet service providers can lean into the freedom created by the repeal of net neutrality by offering bundled web plans with various levels of access to pornography. So, too, labor unions can organize pornography actresses for fairer wages and better treatment and call out abusers in an extension of the #MeToo movement.

Social conservatives need to realize that we can handle pornography and other social ills without turning America into a Christian version of Saudi Arabia. America flourishes through choice, not government force. We must never let lazy moralizing force us to surrender our freedom to the government. Once we do, there’s no getting it back.

Casey Given (@CaseyJGiven) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is the executive director of Young Voices.

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