Sometimes the conservative’s puritanical thinking can unintentionally create slippery slopes. Banning pornography is merely a bandaid fix.
The conservative impulse to support the complete and total prohibition of pornography has strengthened over the past 5 years. Donald Trump’s initial ascension to the presidency wasn’t necessarily characterized by a warm embrace of social conservatism (rather a populist uprising of middle-class Americans who felt ignored by the coastal limousine liberal elite) but has still, nonetheless, energized a new conservative movement that desires to “right the wrongs” of the social and cultural failures of neo-conservatism.
For the most part, fine by me. The thinking conservative understands his position in the socio-political sphere: to conserve – that being the traditional elements of our culture, political processes, and overall way of life.
There is, however, what I believe to be a gray area in the modern conservative doctrine when it comes to the production, sale, and consumption of pornography. Conservatism is closely interwoven with the Christian faith, and with good reason. I am not necessarily one to disagree with National Review editor Rich Lowry’s defense of the American nation when he states that if colonial Americans didn’t go to sleep and wake up with a King James bible on their nightstand, the American nation state would have manifested quite differently.
But the merging of the Christian faith into the conservative mindset, in the context of political philosophy, occasionally comes with some extremely puritanical thinking that, in my opinion, can cloud the good judgment of our conservative friends and discourage prudent decision-making.
The argument in favor of banning pornography is grounded in some good points. Yes, pornography commodifies sex and sexuality, cultivates an environment of instant gratification, and in the most severe cases, leads young men into a mentally debilitating addiction where pornography is absolutely essential for sexual arousal.
I am also in general agreement that our society has become far too sexualized. Cardi B’s overall brand, Netflix’s borderline pedophilic “Cuties” movie, and the overall culture that comes with the Hip Hop genre, which regularly proves itself to be sexually degrading to women, are just a few instances within a vast reservoir of examples that prove this reality.
But cultural shifts of this scale are generally only able to occur when the would-be catalyst of radical cultural change is endorsed by a society’s cultural and social institutions. “Popular culture”, which in this context will refer to modern music or any other form of modern expression, such as movies or TV shows, has varied considerably depending on the time period. More specifically, popular culture can also be defined by which particular genres of music are popular among the masses. Certain genres of music can also have their own “subcultures” that have deeply influenced the art form. What distinguishes the popular culture of our time as it relates to the accelerated consumption of pornography is the unprecedented cultural endorsement and glorification of sexually explicit behavior, either directly or indirectly. For example, as stated previously, the Hip Hop musical genre brings its own subculture that seems to glorify the most superficial aspects of life. Almost every rap song comes with its own share of sexual content, such as bragging about how many women one was able to sleep with, or degrading women with sexually explicit insults such as “whore”, or calling them “hoes”. According to a survey done by Audiencenet and the Music Business Association in 2018, both Hip Hop and Pop music are the most popular musical genres among those aged 16-19, as well as those aged 20-24 in the United States.
Not only has sexually explicit content in the modern music industry been normalized, but it also seems to have its own cultural endorsement, with it occasionally being tied into political activism. Its ties to modern feminism, for example, is particularly striking. Such a phenomenon is perplexing, especially since most modern feminists complain about the societal sexualization and fetishization of women in modern culture, all the while praising and defending popular artists such as Cardi B or Nicki Minaj, even though their music is incredibly sexually charged and often depicts them (and other women) in very specific sexual situations. The cultural disconnect here, of course, is that what conservatives consider to be “too far” is very different compared to the new cultural standards of the modern left, particularly with modern feminists in this example.
This is why the traditional outrage from conservatives against this phenomenon never really works, because the political right rarely acknowledges that there are now actually two entirely different societal standards of prudishness. A conservative pointing out the obvious over-sexualization of Cardi B’s music will be lost on the feminist’s ears, because even though feminists claim to be fighting against such sexualization and objectification, their real cultural intentions are actually to destigmatize and abolish the traditional standards that govern what is “sexualization” or “objectification” in the first place. That is why Cardi B is praised for dancing half-naked at the Grammy Awards while men are simultaneously scolded by feminists for ogling her.
Combine this new cultural dynamic with the technological advantage of social media, and you now have the perfect formula for reaching as many people — particularly young people — as possible. By our standards, “popular culture” was far more prudish than it is now. It wasn’t nearly as sexualized, and it certainly wasn’t regularly endorsed by the mainstream media; and social media – well, that didn’t exist. With this revelation, we begin to see that a government ban on pornography isn’t just a bad political decision regarding free speech, but is also simply culturally ineffective. Simply banning pornography doesn’t account for the unprecedented cultural glorification of sexually-explicit behavior in general, which I would argue has greatly allowed for, as well as encouraged, the unhealthy over-consumption of pornography.
Want to fight in the culture wars? Start paying attention to this cultural phenomenon instead of advocating for grossly politically authoritarian band-aid fixes that don’t necessarily address the root of the problem, all the while precluding the First Amendment in the process.
To the conservatives who are currently lashing out in their outright support of a ban on pornography, I get it. The moral, social, and cultural order, as conceptualized by the modern American left, is almost anarchic in nature. What was once up is now suddenly down, and vice-versa.
But the overly puritanical thinking, as derived from some of the more religious elements of conservative thought, threatens to once again upset the balance. That is what I believe conservatism, as a mindset, is – an effort to maintain balance, so as to create the best conditions for preservation within a society. As Edmund Burke says, “Men are qualified for liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Without reasonable restraints on freedom and passion – and that includes sexual passion – societies become overwhelmed with degenerate and morally bankrupt behavior; the civil social order is disrupted, on this all conservatives agree.
However, it could also be said that going too far in the other direction can be just as dangerous. When we allow our prudish impulses, perhaps fueled by the puritanical residues of the Christian faith, to preclude our foundational right of free expression, our pragmatism is undermined and the conservative effort to “preserve the culture”, for as morally righteous as it may be, becomes tainted with dangerous politically authoritarian impulses fueled by prudish outrage.
As conservatives, we are often very protective of societal continuity. When it is disrupted, bad precedents are often set, which gives our weariness of the modern progressive’s zeal for the Earthly Paradise plenty of merit. We see this play out all the time in the battle against Big Tech censorship. When social media goliaths start purging conservatives on social media, we understand that to be not just an assault on the conservative’s right to speak freely, but also the liberal’s, and the leftist’s. As conservatives, we understand the magnitude and importance of societal precedent.
So why then, do some conservatives welcome with open arms the government-sponsored prohibition of pornography? The illegalization of one or more consenting legal adults partaking in filmed sexual activities entails a legal argument far too broad in scope and is therefore wholly antithetical to the First Amendment.
With that being said, the conservative argument against pornography has plenty of components that I agree with, the biggest being a porn industry that is grossly underregulated. There have been all too many complaints against porn media giants such as Pornhub over the harboring of non-consensual content, such as revenge pornography or child pornography. Pornhub may have limited its content to only include verified users, but that was only because The New York Times, as cited above, released a groundbreaking story that sparked public outrage against the website. Countless porn websites still allow the uploading of unverified content by their users, and allow the downloading of that material.
In addition, numerous porn actresses have come out over the years citing multiple instances of emotional and sexual abuse within the industry. I still maintain that the banning of pornography creates a constitutionally abhorrent precedent regarding freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t in dire need of a cleanup.
I admittedly don’t have all the answers as to how we should go about taking up such a task. Perhaps section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be narrowed in its scope to ensure porn media goliaths can’t hide behind the law to ignore the publishing of illegal content on their websites. Perhaps the government should raise the minimum age of participating in pornographic films from 18 to at least 21, so that young men and women have less of an opportunity to make life-altering decisions right out of high school.
There are probably many other policy possibilities that could be discussed, but for the sake of the length of this article, and of time, I will leave those to your furthered investigation. The flat-out illegalization of pornography, however, as is pushed often by the puritanical reasoning of Christian conservatives, threatens to force an imprudent political decision that would set an extremely detrimental precedent regarding our foundational right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment.