Why Does Everyone Defend Pornography?

By | August 12, 2013

pornography-300x300Most people don’t have any problem with pornography.

I know. That’s a shock. But it’s true. In our society, if you want porn you can get it. And it’s not just easy to get, but most people accept pornography as something as American as apple pie. Of course, you don’t usually serve a helping of Playmate after Thanksgiving Dinner, but most Americans accept pornography uncritically as a necessary part of the American way of life, even if they are personally opposed to it.

What do I mean? Last week, Aaron Taylor took us down the rabbit hole of pornography. British style. Though not a grand tour of Playmates of the Month, but rather it was a defense of the British government’s attempts at banning hard-care “rape” porn. I followed up with some commentary pointing out that Mr. Taylor’s provocative thesis is that Americans are really more monarchists than the British on this issue. One of my better friends pointed out to me we have to have pornography because it is impossible to outlaw without damaging our right to free speech:

I don’t particularly want to protect pornography. I simply don’t see a very good way of restricting pornography (beyond what we’ve already done via age-restrictions and the like) that doesn’t trample on some very legitimate things, like the 1st Amendment. I think you could make an argument that pornography is obscene, and exclude it from the 1st Amendment protections for free speech based on that (with precedent), but any such case is unlikely to make it to SCOTUS and would be a hard sell there anyway.

This argument, of course, is not new to me. I spent three years in law school, so I know very well all about compelling reasons and restrictions of speech and the importance of protecting our rights. As Michael Bradley has pointed out around here in the past, it’s impossible as an American to get past rights talk. Sure enough, I will defend your right to offend me with your smut if it also protects my right to say whatever it is I want. But something about this position is more than unsettling. My friend who spouted this nonsense is a good Christian, a loving husband and a dedicated father. Although he was certainly uncomfortable with the idea of having to defend pornography, he really saw no other option. After all, how do you come up with a working definition of pornography that doesn’t perhaps lead to censorship of books or works of art? The law (or at least American law) seems to be unforgiving with nuances.

Of course, this position is simply monstrous. Take a step back and think about it. Pornography exploits human beings. Sure, no one is compelled into a photoshoot, but the freedom of engaging in smut does not somehow make it morally right. No one wants their daughter or their sister or their mother to be a porn star. And if you do, there is something wrong with you. Pornography is addictive especially for men. It has been shown to alter chemical pathways in the brain. And generally speaking it conforms to the law of diminishing returns. It requires more and more to get the same sexual pleasure out of it. For fathers and husbands, it is absolutely destructive to marriage because it places other women into the relationship of intimacy between a man and his wife. If you’d like to defend pornography, go ahead. But generally speaking, most people should reasonably conclude that we would be better off in a society without much pornography—or one where it was frowned upon—than in a society where it is tolerated and respected.

But the worst thing about pornography is the simple opportunity cost. Because I am engaged in a perception of beauty that includes a perversion of the human person, I have no room in my life or my heart for true beauty. Nudity in and of itself is not pornographic. If it were, we’d all have to shower with blinders on. But when pornography becomes pervasive, there is no room for true art that celebrates the form of the human person. And there certainly isn’t respect for the opposite—or same sex—in a non-sexually exploitive way.

Although I am a lawyer, I am not going to pretend to solve the problem of “protecting free speech” vs. “restricting pornography.” Nor am I interested in getting into a debate about whether or not actually restricting pornography—or at least making its sale and distribution unprofitable—is the best means to get rid of it. There is something to be said against “anti-prohibition” arguments from a practical standpoint: outlaw something and you’ll get it in a more hardcore and more destructive form. These are indeed complex problems, but we cannot even get to solving these problems because we place our own divided loyalties in the way. That is, most people feel that any attempt to outlaw pornography will necessarily lead to either a restriction on speech or a resurgence of a puritanical mentality that seeks to clean the outside of the cup without doing much about the filth inside.

That’s all well and good. So perhaps we should start with a simpler step: if you are against pornography, stop using the argument “free speech demands we protect it.” Firstly, it’s silly. Our right to free speech demands exactly what our society decides should be protected. It’s a relative right; for rights are not absolute things, free of determinism. We have always been willing to restrict these rights when we have seen it necessary. We cannot be slaves to our own rights. As Mr. Taylor rightly pointed out, we are in a Republic (or at least, in theory, we should be). The law is meant to be at our service, we are not to be slaves of the law. Second, realize that any choices we make are going to have tradeoffs. I’m not sure why people so easily accept the downsides of pornography (broken families, exploited women and a smutty society) instead of tradeoffs for its restrictions (which might include slightly over-eager censors). In this day and age of the internet, the only true restriction on free speech is personal timidity of saying what ought to be said. Despite all its surveillance, you’re just not that important and the government doesn’t really care what you say. We ought to be bold.

But more importantly, we need a change of attitudes and hearts. Men—especially dare I say Christian men and fathers—need to stop trying to balance what they “know is right” against what they think “a good American should do.” Hogwash! Part of being in a just society is dealing with tensions. And sometimes, part of that tension is rejecting the prevailing wisdom. More and more people are afraid to have an opinion that might not just be counter-cultural but that could even be considered plain stupid. I think most decent men are afraid of saying they think pornography is wrong. Maybe they think it is unpopular or maybe they even feel guilty because they know they come with unclean hearts to the debate. That’s all very well and good, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that something has to be said and a conversation has to be had.

Because if not, we’ll always be stuck with “more of the same”—and that is simply an intolerable situation.

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  • http://everydayasceticism.com Dylan Pahman

    I think this is a point that can’t be made enough. It’s a lesser evil perhaps but along the same vein as prostitution. People too often seem to miss that while some may grow accustomed to the life of a “porn star,” most do not aspire to it but find such compromise and humiliation to be better than whatever worse situation they prefer *less* (if it’s not a matter of human trafficking in the first place). That’s not much of a choice, even if one can *technically* still call it consensual. Not only does it only questionably qualify as “speech,” it also only dubiously can be said to be “free.”

  • http://Catholicnick.blogspot.com Nick

    One word: Conservatism. That’s the fundamental problem the entire nation is in, being slowly suffocated by the Conservative creed. The Conservative creed is nothing but a cloaked Liberalism, a lite Liberalism that lets the errors of Liberalism enter the family in gradual steps. Conservatism only opposes radical change, not change in general; as long as morality slowly erodes, that’s fine in the Conservative mind. Conservatism worships total separation of Church and State, but cloaks this by affirming the need for “personal religion” (i.e. religion done strictly in private). Conservatism is thus more dangerous than Liberalism, and it is Conservatism that defends free speech to the point of protecting porn. This “personally opposed to, but…” of so called “liberal Catholic politicians” is in fact the epitome of Conservative politicians. You can’t be Catholic and Conservative. It’s theologically and philosophically impossible.
    Let the cat out of the bag: let’s have all Catholics stand up and denounce Conservatism.

  • Mattias A. Caro

    Nick, thanks for the response. I share your critiques of conservatism to a degree, but I think you place the cart before the horse. My argument is that prior to making our political commitments, we have to make moral commitments, that necessarily impact our sentiments. Emotionally I must have a repugnance for something before I am willing to do something about it culturally, socially and politically. Conservatisms willingness today to defend a libertine freedom over the public good of the community is, I think, a symptom of the problem and not the problem itself.

  • phill

    This is stupid. Pornography doesn’t, by default, exploit humans. Removed from capitalist enterprise and a patriarchal society, you’d be hard-pressed to prove that it exploits anyone at all. (Capitalism itself exploits people far worse, but I don’t see you writing diatribes against it.) Furthermore, plenty of women love and make porn, often for free! Are they “exploiting” themselves? (They are not.) I’m not even saying porn is all good. It’s just a lot more complex than you present it. Obviously your argument is coming from a religious perspective, and you’re entitled to that, but the same amendment (and the fact that I have a brain of my own) protects us from having your religious views enforced upon us. If you don’t like porn, don’t watch it. Let the rest of us make the same decisions for ourselves. You can either support first amendment freedoms, or you can outlaw porn. You simply cannot have it both ways.

  • Mattias A. Caro

    Phill, we probably agree on the issue of the use of the “law” in terms of that being a suitable means to end what I perceive as a problem with pornography. So, cool it with the imposing religious views on everyone because I am not advancing that argument.

    As far as pornography being exploitive and destructive, there is a lot of information out there. Like here: http://pornharms.com

  • Virgil

    Er….can’t agree with the point on conservatism, which as I recall tends to favor limits on pornography. I get the point against a pure Burkean critique, but to ascribe to a Burkean view is to hold that God has a purpose for our lives…which would negate moral permissiveness.

    Anyhow…I think this is being over-thought. After all we’ve had Burkean Conservatism…and Liberalism since 1789. That didn’t stop the Victorian era from being far more morally strict than its preceeding Georgian era, and after the liberalization of the 1920’s we still had a far more conservative era following from 1929-65. Morals do not always tend towards permissiveness. Nope. What’s going on here was a sexual revolution premised upon birth control that changed our attitudes to sexuality….and as long as those attitudes remain nothing shall change except in the detail. Here are the relevant details: promiscuity is down from the 1980’s and so is abortion. “Adult” stores are also less frequent, as are “R” and “NC-17″ films. What instead exists is online pornography…a seemingly convenient corner of the world where sex can still be fun without many apparent consequences. On this basis it is defended.

    What is to be done? Well, up until the 1980’s we had an “opt-in” system rather than an “opt-out”. Basically people who wanted x rated materials had to pay to get them. Now you have to pay to keep them away from your computer. This can be reversed…and in fact my understanding is that Cameron’s government is trying it. If people are not exposed to pornography as minors the natural aversion to such materials will manifest itself soon enough. Children should be shielded. If adults wish to watch such materials they should be able to, but they should have to give a credit card or other proof of ID in order to do so.

    Further, I submit that pornography, even if speech is commercial speech, and therefore subject to reasonable regulation.

  • James

    Something that very few people have realized about the proliferation of pornography is how so much of it today that is found on the internet is stuff that people have made with their phones or cameras and distributed it online. No doubt there are countless ways in which people have been even illegally recorded by such image capturing devices and such images are now being displayed for free or for payment online to others. We live in a day and age in which one snap shot can be transmitted to the whole world and indeed can change peoples’ lives instantly as well. There are plenty of stories of young people, in particular, who have been subject to blackmail because there are photos/videos of them that are online and be used for such purposes. And honestly, there is no way to regulate the propagation or aggregation of such photos/videos online with the number of internet image-capturing devices and the manifold internet sites that exist for such viewing. The situation is really out of control and sadly most people just ignore the reality of how pervasive and damaging pornography is today.

  • http://Catholicnick.blogspot.com Nick

    Hello Mattias,

    Can I make a suggestion to you to pass onto your tech guy on the website? The comment section does not have a check-box to be notified of new comments via email, and that’s key to having good discussions. It should be a simple option to turn on.

    As for your response to me: I agree that prior to political commitments we must make moral commitments, but Conservatism is more than just a political commitment and in fact is a world-view. This is why even when Christians know that this or that is morally wrong, they still often have no problem with it being legalized since otherwise it would seen as ‘pushing their religious beliefs’ on others. The notion of defending ‘free speech’ at all costs is the very prior-commitment one embraces before selecting a ‘political’ view.

    Conservatism, by definition, changes with the times, just not ‘radically’. There is no ‘traditional conservatism’ because there never was a benchmark, and instead it always has a different reference point to the past. This is precisely why Conservatives are pro-contraception and pro-divorce, since enough time has gone by that the moral standards have sufficiently shifted to make them acceptable and not ‘radical change’. Even most Conservative Protestant denominations allow abortion under certain “exceptions.” And what most people don’t know is that the Supreme Court in 1992 made a pre-eminently Conservative argument for upholding Roe v Wade, stating that our society is so heavily dependent on contraception for the last 30 years (i.e. the latest traditional values) that it needs abortion as a Plan-B safety net for when Plan-A (contracepting the unwanted child) fails.

  • http://Catholicnick.blogspot.com Nick

    Virgil,

    I think you’re confusing philosophy/ideology with the different ‘cycles’ in history where moral laxity has gone from one extreme to the other. Not until Conservatism would a Christian ever dare to suggest porn was bad but must be kept legal so as to assure each person their rights. It was Conservatism that deified ‘rights’, coming from the same Liberal foundational principles. If immorality was ever widespread in the past, it was in spite of Christian values, with Christians intentionally turning a blind eye. In the Conservative situation, the Christian isn’t turning a blind eye, but rather are joining hands with the pornographer under the banner of free speech.

    I would have to strongly object to your ‘relevant details’ about promiscuity being down along with abortion, and the adult stores and R-movies being less common. The data and philosophy suggests just the opposite. More and more shows on the public networks are trending towards R-rating, less and less movies are PG, cohabitation is practically a given with less and less people getting married, and adult stores are merely going online where profits are being maximized and overhead diminished. The only reason why abortion might be down a few hundred thousand – and by down it would still be over 1 million per year in America – that’s more to do with the improvements on contraceptive use than improved morality.

  • Virgil

    Nick,

    Point one. Conservatism as you define it is not as those who have worked creating it define it. Properly speaking, conservatism existed in rallying around throne and altar in the UK but no American Conservatism existed until Russell Kirk and William F Buckley created it in the 1950s. This formulation has not changed in its positions since that time. It is strongly Catholic influenced to the point where some of the Rights more Libertarian figures like Ayn Rand viewed Conservatisms governing journal…..National Review, as a religious publication. Conservatism has never had an issue with common sense restrictions on pornography. Your definition of Conservatism is how the Liberals like to define it……thereby leaving them in the drivers seat of history. This ground should not be ceded.

    Point two. The right still must win elections and when pornography is popular some will try to accept it to win. Issues like this leads to natural tension between movement conservatives and Republican politicians. Conservatives still oppose the various Warren Court decisions that grafted pornography onto the first Amendment.
    Point three. I question your data. In 1988 51 percent of released movies were rated R. By 2006 that figure had declined to under 40 percent. Promiscuity and cohabitation are two different animals, and I believe the data will show declines in promiscuity since the 1980s. Certainly this is true with high schoolers. Also, the number of abortions has declined by 400k per year from 1.61 to 1.21 million.
    Point four. You miss my greater point with the data and you did not address my main argument on the merits…that a fundamental change took place due to the birth control pill regarding sexuality and that this has nothing to do with conservatism. Further, that since society has accepted the sexual revolution society has changed on the details but not in its underlying assumptions. In other words, the data I mentioned was to state that the moral condition is not improving even if some of the symptoms are not as horrible. They are replaced by other symptoms….one of which is pornography. The fact that the harm in pornography is less easily apparent than, say, promiscuity without protection is the reason that many who do not approve of it personally still do not take a stand. I hasten to add that I am not content with this state of affairs.

  • Virgil

    Update. The figures posted on abortion were from the pro abort guttmacher institute. However, if one believes the CDC abortions have fallen from 1.4 million in 1990 to 784k in 2011….a very significant decline. Also, this decline does not take into account the various restrictions placed on abortion at the state level in 2011.

  • http://alessandrareflections.wordpress.com/ Alessandra

    Why does everyone defend pornography?

    Because a large number of people are dysfunctional and warped regarding sexuality. As religion went into the ditch in the 20th century in terms of authority and the moral voice in society, the vacuum was taken up by the ideology of privileged, and largely parasitic, men regarding sexuality. Many men are socially conditioned to be exploitative and perverted regarding sex, even if they target women outside their families for the worse of the exploitation (and violence). The women’s movement liberated women from the yoke of very patriarchal constraints of oppression, and joined hands with the sexual revolution in the 60’s/70’s. As a result, a new ideology was taught to many women, to become increasingly like men in order to wield power in society and in private spheres. Therefore, women who were previously brought up to be non sexually perverted mothers and wifes, became more and more of sluts and adopted many of the parasitic attitudes and behaviors from perverted men, including consumption and normalization of porn.
    Social conservatives who took a stand were in the minority; feminists who criticized porn for exploiting women were mostly ignored. All in all, you have a multiplicity of lies operating in terms of the attitudes to support porn. According to dominant liberal ideology, as long as there is consent, there can be no harm (that anyone cares to acknowledge).
    Americans have now embarked on a warpath to declare themselves in every way normal regarding sexuality, no matter how deformed, perverted, or dysfunctional they are. People who are perverted in terms of sexuality don’t want to admit it and much less do they think about resolving their problems.
    In short, people defend porn because it’s just like when we had slavery. The slave-owner parasites had power, they silenced the little dissent there was. Slavery was legitimized every which way. Not that such systems cannot be changed.
    One reason why it’s always nice to see articles like this one.

  • 4True

    Excellent article on something we must deal with if we are to survive as a people.

  • Kim

    This is such a great article. Excellent points. Couldn’t agree more.