As delegates land in Cleveland International Airport for the Republican convention next week, they can expect to hear the following announcement: “As our plane descends into Cleveland, passengers are reminded to set their watches back 15 years.”
Yes, the proposed Republican Party platform is seriously behind the times. It urges that the legalization of same-gender marriage be reversed; endorses the professionally-discredited “conversion therapy” (attempting to “cure” GLBT children); wants transgendered people barred from bathrooms that don’t match their birth gender; and of course demands that abortion be criminalized—or made so onerous that no actual person could get one.
And it declares that pornography is a Public Health Crisis, especially for children, which “is destroying the life of millions;” and it urges states to fight this “public menace,” pledging their “commitment to children’s safety and well-being.”
Them’s fightin’ words.
It’s words we didn’t hear forty years ago, and it’s not because Playboy was considered good for the soul back then. Preachers and civic leaders everywhere were talking about it: it was immoral, it was “smut,” and users were ostracized (and vendors were sometimes jailed). It was said the Bible condemned porn and the lust it encouraged, and that masturbation was sinful (a deliberate misreading of Genesis 38, in which Onan is struck down for refusing to participate in levirate marriage—not for masturbation).
These days critiques of pornography don’t mention masturbation much, don’t mention sin much, and rarely discuss morality. The anti-pornography narrative has changed.
It’s no longer about immorality; it’s about public welfare and public danger. The porn user is no longer seen as endangering just himself, but his family, his community, and millions of children across the country as well. Porn itself is dangerous, and porn users are supposedly converting this dangerous substance into public danger.
In this critique, porn use has been converted from a private activity to a public activity. As a result, the number of stakeholders who can legitimately oppose it has skyrocketed, and now include those who oppose human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, sex work, rape, the exploitation of women, and anything that “demeans women.”
Other new stakeholders include those promoting covenant marriage, those who treat “porn addiction,” and those who believe masturbating to porn creates sexual dysfunction or a lack of interest in real women.
These various parties now talk about pornography with great authority and passion, as if they suddenly know something about it (their bizarre statistics, extreme examples, and unproven associations show otherwise).
These new stakeholders all talk about internet porn as if it is a completely new creature about which we must develop entirely new concepts of human beings. Internet porn—with us less than twenty years–is seen as somehow responsible for social ills that have been with us for centuries, like rape and disrespect for women.
And yet according to the FBI, the rate of rape has gone down steadily since broadband internet brought porn into everyone’s home. And who wants to argue that respect and opportunities for women were higher in the 1950s, the 1930s, the 1890s, or any other decade in human history? Of course we want things to improve. That doesn’t mean things haven’t improved at all.
Internet porn does have a problematic impact—boys and young men, and therefore girls and young women, are learning about sex from it. But don’t blame porn for that.
American parents have completely abandoned the idea of effective school sex education, and they run screaming from any actual conversation with their kids about porn—its unrealistic bodies, its stylized version of sex without affection, its portrayal of sex games without the label “this is a sex game—don’t take it literally.”
If your neighbor gave his teen a car without teaching him how to drive, you wouldn’t blame the car if the kid had an accident. If we give our kids access to porn either personally (by giving them smartphones) or culturally (via a wide-open internet) and don’t give them instruction in this complex adult product, it’s unfair to blame them for their unsophisticated interpretation of what they see. It’s ludicrous and irresponsible to blame the porn—yet that’s what most grownups opposing porn do.
Sure, Republicans, keep trying to turn the clock back on regulating our private sexuality. Some of you are already trying to criminalize birth control, and your local zoning commissions keep attempting to eliminate adult entertainment—which judges keep reminding you is illegal. Keep shutting down performances of Vagina Monologues, as if that will stop people from acknowledging their vaginas. Keep insisting that discrimination is OK when directed at others’ sexual choices—cab drivers refusing to take people to abortion clinics, bakers refusing to bake wedding cakes for gays.
Americans are frightened by ISIS, paralyzed by climate change, disgusted with their government, crippled by second-rate public education, and increasingly overweight and overworked.
So good work, Republicans, coming together in these complex times to give Americans what they really need: restrictions on other people’s sexual expression.