Why Does Everyone Defend Pornography?

By Mattias A. Caro
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.

Mattias A. Caro is managing editor of Ethika Politika.