DOJ Drops Appeal of “Prostitution Pledge” Injunction

Jodi Jacobson

The Justice Department has dropped its appeal of an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the controversial "prostitution pledge" in US Global AIDS Policy.  Advocates hope this signals an intention to fundamentally change the restriction.

During a press briefing at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006, a young Bangladeshi woman invited by the organization for which I was then working told the story of losing access to the health clinic/drop-in centers she and other street-based sex workers frequently visited to get information and health services, learn new skills, escape violence and bring their children to use a toilet or to get a short respite from the streets. 

The reason?  Funding was cut by the umbrella organization supporting these drop-in centers for fear they might be seen as violating U.S. law against "promoting prostitution" because they served the basic needs of sex workers, among society’s most vulnerable groups.  As a result, more than 20 centers in some of the poorest urban areas of Bangladesh disappeared due to ideological restrictions against HIV prevention efforts supported by US politicians for political gain.

Today, the public health community may be one step closer to undoing this onerous policy.

This week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) dropped its appeal of a court injunction prohibiting enforcement of the "anti prostitution pledge" under U.S. Global AIDS Policy.  The injunction was sought in a 2005 lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Open Society
International (AOSI)
, the Open Society Institute, and Pathfinder
against the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention’s
Global AIDS Program. The court awarded the injunction in 2006. 

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The Bush Administration filed an appeal two weeks
before the original deadline and just a week before Bush left office.  At the same time, according to one source close to the case who spoke on background, "the Bush Administration issued a final HHS regulation implementing the pledge that was so draconian that it was no better than
where we started before the injunction."

The AOSI-Pathfinder lawsuit contested the constitutionality of the policy based on violations of freedom of speech, and the right to be free of compelled speech or of forced agreement with a government position.  The policy has been particularly troubling because the Bush Administration interpretation covered the use not only of U.S. government funds, but of private funds as well.  The injunction covered a large group of organizations, including the 300 members of the Global Health Council and all the members of InterAction, but did not release foreign non-governmental organizations working in countries affected by HIV from the pledge.  An injunction in a separate lawsuit filed by DKT International was not granted.

The pledge is one of three restrictions in global AIDS policy, along with requirements for funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and banning funding for syringe exchange, seen by many as the reason why US global AIDS programs have largely failed to stem the spread of HIV infections. 

In withdrawing the appeal "without prejudice," the Obama DOJ retains the right to resubmit an appeal by January 8th, 2010.  Many advocates are hopeful that the Administration will use the intervening time to closely review the negative implications of this policy for HIV prevention work in the field.

The pledge, originally passed as part of the US Global AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003 (otherwise known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR), placed into law a requirement that public health groups receiving U.S. funds pledge
their “opposition to prostitution"
in order to continue their
life-saving HIV prevention work.  The policy was supported by the Bush Administration and many conservative Republicans in Congress.  It was re-inserted into the law during PEPFAR reauthorization of 2008 as part of a "deal" brokered with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, evangelical fundamentalist groups and some anti-trafficking groups to ensure support among conservatives for higher levels of funding for global AIDS programs.

Under this policy, according to AOSI:

recipients of U.S. aid are restricted in how they use even their
private funds, impeding their ability to deliver effective prevention
services to those most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

In reviewing the global public health data on HIV prevention and marginalized communities, such as sex workers, Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health Researchers Nicole Franck Masenior and Chris Beyrer wrote that "the breadth of the requirement and its application to
privately funded activities…led to legal challenge of its

They continued:

Requirements for grantees were based on [an] explicit link between HIV
prevention and the eradication of prostitution. In order to receive
AIDS funds from the US, all grantees must have (1) a policy explicitly
opposing prostitution and sex trafficking and (2) certification of
compliance with the “Prohibition on the Promotion and Advocacy of the
Legalization or Practice of Prostitution or Sex Trafficking,” which
applies to all organization activities, including those with funding
from private grants. 

The policy has been widely criticized by the public health and human rights communities in the United States and abroad.  Non-governmental organizations in Brazil, renowned for their success in reducing HIV among sex workers, rejected US funding in protest against these restrictions.

The policy has been problematic from the start.  Guidance written by the Bush Administration intended to make the policy operational left vague the definition of what constitutes "promoting prostitution" and what specific activities would violate the law.  No direction was ever given on specifically how to monitor and enforce the law, except for the signing of a "pledge," and the use of health workers as informants on their most vulnerable clients. The vagueness of the law and the fear that violating it unknowingly would lead to loss of funding caused many groups to self-censor information and put a halt to otherwise successful HIV prevention activities.  "Groups have been concerned and confused," said one advocate, "and this contributes to self-censorship."

The policy also conflated all sex work with sex trafficking, which simultanesouly undermined public health efforts while allowing groups like Concerned Women for America to apply for and obtain federal funding to promote programs based on ideology rather than evidence. Moreover, it led to the creation of linkages in law that were not recognized by either public health or human rights practitioners.

In their review paper, Masenior and Beyrer wrote that:

One of our key findings was that
the merging of the terms “prostitution” and “sex trafficking” in the
Global AIDS Act is not accepted as standard language or practice by the
scientific literature on HIV/AIDS or by international agencies with HIV
prevention programs.
Trafficking in persons for any purpose is consistently seen as a
criminal and human rights offense, and the subset of human trafficking
related specifically to the sex industry is universally seen as among
the most grievous of trafficking-related crimes.
While the law calls for opposing sex trafficking, we could find no
entity that did not already oppose it. The same holds true for any form
of prostitution involving children or minors—this was universally
acknowledged as a crime and a human rights violation before the policy.
In addition, they continued:
Many organizations disagree with the Act’s equation of all forms of
prostitution with sex trafficking. The term prostitution itself is
controversial—most groups working with persons who sell or trade sex
for money use the terms “sex work” and “sex worker,” rather than
“prostitute,” which is widely held to be stigmatizing and pejorative.

The core debate is that for many stakeholders, the category “sex
workers” includes consenting adults who sell sex of their own volition,
who are not trafficking victims, and who have called for recognition of
their rights as workers, in settings that include Bangladesh, India,
Thailand, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.
A substantial body of peer-reviewed published studies suggests that the
empowerment, organization, and unionization of sex workers can be an
effective HIV prevention strategy and can reduce the other harms
associated with sex work, including violence, police harassment,
unwanted pregnancy, and the number of underage sex workers.
While sex work may be exploitative, and is illegal in many
jurisdictions, sex worker advocates and HIV prevention program leaders
generally concur that sex workers themselves need services, protection,
peer outreach, and support from health professionals to reduce their
risk of HIV infection.
While the language of the pledge does not mandate any specific changes
in programs or services for sex workers, it does place funding
restrictions on those programs with explicit policies calling for
decriminalization or legalization of sex work.

Advocates interviewed for this article (several on background) consistently expressed the hope that the Obama Administration would take the time before January 8th, 2010 to finish a review and revision of the policy now underway.

"We certainly hope that the Obama Administration will work to repeal the policy altogether," said one advocate.  "But we know they are reviewing it.  Right now, all options are on the table.  What we do not want is for the Administration to ‘split the baby’ and continue to enforce the policy in some way against one set of groups and more harshly against another."

Another advocate intimately involved in the process, also speaking on background, stated:

We’ve been assured there are  very senior
people reviewing this policy, but it is a complex process because there are so many agencies involved…USAID, CDC, HHS, and the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator, as well as the DOJ. 

And "we know their intention is to deal with the
policy questions beyond the litigation," said another expert on the issue.  "But trying to decide what to do
with foreign NGOs as opposed to US NGOS presents a trickier question because of court rulings that constitutional protections do not extend to foreign NGOs." 

Lawyers and advocates fighting to change the policy note that while the Administration has said it would release new guidance before the court deadline, it may not engage in formal negotiations with the public health community on what the new guidance should look like. 

"It’s already such a complicated process," said the advocate, "outside involvement might complicate internal decision-making, and slow things down.  But [the community] has put the Administration on notice that if they craft
their own solution and it is not acceptable, the litigation will continue.  They
can’t take our support for granted."

But "on the positive side, we are finally on the agenda.  Given the mess inherited by this Administration on so many issues, we can’t blame them for not getting to this more quickly."

Melissa Ditmore, a longtime researcher on sex work, advocate for the rights of sex workers, and co-producer of Taking the Pledge stated that:

Lack of clarity in the guidance has enabled organizations to discriminate
against sex workers or people they just did not want to work with. 
While the policy included a non-discrimination  clause, in fact lack of enforcement of this clause has meant that sex workers have indeed lost access to essential services.  Enforcement of good guidance will be just as important as thaving good guidance to being with.  On the other hand, certain organizations were targeted for harrassment if they were on the radar screen of conservative Congressman.  It has been destructive all around.

On the differential treatment of U.S. and foreign NGOs, she continued:

In a way, the solution is simple.  If the Administration issues guidance that uses evidence-based approaches
to addressing public health and human rights problems, it then makes sense to use the same standards for all organizations, regardless
of whether they are based in the US or abroad and regardless of whether
they participated in the Pathfinder-AOSI lawsuit. 

"At the end of the day," she continued, "we need to get it out of PEPFAR either before or by
2011.  Otherwise there will simply continue to be new lawsuits and what
is worse, a poor response to stopping the spread of HIV no matter the
billions being spent."

"This is not," she concludes, "the legacy Obama wants."


Culture & Conversation Media

From ‘Mouseburger’ to Media Icon: Bio Traces Rise of Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown

Eleanor J. Bader

Helen Gurley Brown was a publishing giant and pop-culture feminist theorist. But according to her latest biographer, she was a mass of insecurities even as she confidently told single people, especially women, to take charge of their sex lives.

Like all of us, Cosmopolitan magazine’s longtime editor Helen Gurley Brown lived with conflicting drives and desires. But Gurley Brown’s ideas and insecurities had a public platform, where she championed sex for singles while downplaying workplace sexual harassment and featured feminist voices while upholding the beauty ideals that made her own life difficult.

A workhorse who played hard, Gurley Brown, who died in 2012, is presented as an often contradictory heroine and an unexpected success story in journalist Gerri Hirshey’s new 500-page biography, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown.

Helen Gurley Brown’s life and example—almost a classic Horatio Alger “rags to riches” tale—affirms that the American idea of surmounting humble origins is sometimes possible, if improbable. But Gurley Brown’s story also illustrates both personal grit and endurance. Wily, willing to take risks, and sexually audacious, she might be a questionable role model for 21st century women, but her amazing story, as told by Hirshey, will nonetheless inspire and entertain.

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Born in 1922, Gurley Brown led Cosmopolitan for 32 years. She moved the magazine, which had been published continuously since 1886, from relative obscurity into the limelight. Known for its brash cover chatter and how-to articles on heterosexual man-pleasing, Cosmo is the world’s highest-selling women’s magazine, with 61 print editions. Its long history—alongside Helen Gurley Brown’s personal story—offers a fascinating window into the intersection between U.S. publishing and burgeoning 20th-century feminist ideologies.

Hirshey (whose earlier books include Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music and We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock) presents Gurley Brown as a mess of pushes and pulls: insecure, brilliant, bold, self-effacing, loyal, independent, jittery, and frugal to the point of deprivation. Indeed, Hirshey’s revealing and detailed biography describes the pioneering editor as someone hungry for experiences; a sophisticated New Yorker with deep roots in rural America; and a writer of guidebooks who had trouble taking advice. In short, Helen Gurley Brown was limited by a host of personal issues, but that did not stop her from trying to push societal boundaries and shatter sexual propriety.

A native of small-town Arkansas, Helen’s childhood was marred by tragedy. Her father died in an accident when she was 10; several years later, her older sister, Mary, contracted polio, which left her partially paralyzed. Helen’s mother, Cleo, was overwhelmed and often depressed. Nonetheless, she scrambled to keep the creditors at bay, and the family lived in numerous decrepit rentals during Helen’s childhood.

Poverty was not the only obstacle Helen faced. According to Hirshey, “By the time Mary and Helen were school age, Cleo had begun her steady warnings that pretty girls got the best in life.” While Cleo never used the word “plain” to describe her offspring, it was clear that she did not think them comely. Helen was devastated. What’s more, the fear of being unattractive dogged her for her entire life and she had multiple surgeries to correct “flaws.” She also starved herself and exercised compulsively—and would likely now be labeled as having an eating disorder—to keep her weight at an unwavering 105 pounds.

Her success, Hirshey writes, was the result of luck, tenacity, and sheer chutzpah.

It started in the 1940s, shortly after she finished high school and secured the first of a string of secretarial jobs. During her tenure as a typist and stenographer, Helen cozied up to her male bosses and slept with some of them.

“It was the first time she truly observed and understood that sex is power,” Hirshey writes. “Helen had come to realize that sex was a surprising and thrilling equalizer between the sheets.” Gurley Brown pooh-poohed the idea that people should wait until marriage to have sex and had no problem dating men who were cheating on their wives. The same went, Hirshey writes, for racists and overt anti-Semites. Since she was giving a large part of her earnings to her mother and her sister, it was the size of a man’s bank book, rather than his politics, that evidently curried her favor.

Nevertheless, being a mistress had a downside, and Helen’s diary reveals that she felt like a “little bird … expected to stay in her cage, always available yet always alone.”

Her fortunes turned shortly after her 26th birthday, when she became secretary to Don Belding, chairman of the board at prestigious ad agency Foote, Cone, and Belding. Belding paid Helen $75 a week and treated her like a long-lost daughter; she considered him a surrogate father.

Alice Belding, Don’s wife, took a particular interest in Helen and, after reading something she’d written, persuaded her husband to give Helen a chance as a copywriter. He did, making her one of the first women to break into the field.

Meanwhile, there were men. Lots of men. “Certainly, men love beautiful women,” Hirshey writes. But Helen realized that when “the lights went out, Miss Universe might just as well be the poor, sooty match girl if she couldn’t make him shout hallelujah.” She loved the power sex gave her, but was hurt during a group therapy session when another participant dubbed her a slut. “Spoken with venom, it had the effect of a gut-punch,” Hirshey writes.  Still, it proved clarifying for Helen, allowing her to formulate the idea at the heart of her 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl: There is nothing shameful about unmarried people having sex as long as it’s consensual.

Helen met David Brown, a high-profile movie executive, in 1958, when she was 36. David was 42, twice married and twice divorced, and had no interest in returning to the altar anytime soon.  This was fine with Helen. Nonetheless, as they spent more and more time together, they formed a strategic partnership. Yes, there was love, but Helen Gurley craved financial security, which David could provide. They wed in September 1959.

At that point, David suggested that Helen take a professional detour and write “a guidebook of sorts for single women.” Hirshey reports that he envisioned “something along the lines of ‘How to Have a Successful Affair’” and ticked off possible subjects, including how to snare a guy and dress for conquest. He also wanted the manual to include concrete sex tips. Helen loved the idea and the pair began to work on it, she as writer, he as editor.

Sex and the Single Girl told the truth as Helen saw it. Hirshey notes that the book was meant as a practicum, “and was never intended as an overtly feminist tract. Systemic change was not at all on her radar; she addressed herself to bettering the small, quotidian lives toiling within the status quo, of those, herself included, she would come to call ‘mouseburgers.’ Sexism was not even in her vocabulary.”

Her message was quite simple: Sex needed to be decoupled from marriage. As for gender roles, she was fine with women playing coy. In fact, she explicitly advised women to go out with men only if they could pay for everything, from dinner and drinks to “prezzies.”

There were of course, detractors, but Sex and the Single Girl sold millions of copies and made Helen Gurley Brown a household name. She appeared on countless TV talk shows and was the first woman featured in Playboy’s famous centerpiece interviews.

In the throes of her success, however, David was offered a job in New York and the couple decided to leave California, where they’d both lived for decades. David, Hirshey reports, knew that Helen needed to work, “that Helen unemployed would be Helen unhinged.” Together, they developed a prototype for a monthly women’s magazine that would popularize and expand upon the ideas in Sex and the Single Girl. They called it Femme and floated the idea to every publisher they knew. No one liked it.

Eventually, Hearst Corporation suggested “superimposing” the format on one of the corporation’s least successful publications, Cosmopolitan, with Helen Gurley Brown at the helm.

It worked, not only boosting sagging sales but catapulting “The Cosmo Girl” to prominence. Sexual freedom, Gurley Brown enthused, was in–but apparently only for heterosexuals, since the magazine rarely acknowledged the existence of same-sex relationships or bisexuality.

Nonetheless, the first few issues tackled then-risqué themes, as these titles suggest: “The Bugaboo of Male Impotence”; “I was a Nude Model (and This is What Happened)”; “Things I’ll Never Do with a Man Again”; “The Astonishingly Frank Diary of an Unfaithful Wife”; and “How to Make a Small Bosom Amount to Something.”

As the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s took hold, Cosmo flourished, albeit steering clear of covering racial unrest, the Vietnam War, or the counterculture and anti-militarism movements. Likewise, if Gurley Brown had any thoughts about the civil rights or peace movements, Hirshey neglects to mention them. She does note that for Helen, “readers of color scarcely registered.” It’s too bad this is not probed more deeply in Not Pretty Enough, and why the editor remained above the fray—was it fear, disinterest, or hostility?—remains unclear.

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s did capture Helen’s interest, though, and she considered herself a devout feminist, with a particular passion for promoting reproductive rights. She wrote numerous articles about the need to overhaul abortion policies pre-Roe v. Wade, openly declaring that “it’s a shame that girls have to go to Mexico or Europe to be operated on.” At Cosmo, she cheered the arrival of the birth control pill in 1960; hailed the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut that gave married heterosexuals access to birth control; and was exuberant when Eisenstadt v. Baird gave unmarried couples the same right to control their fertility in 1972.

Sexual harassment, on the other hand, was befuddling to her. Remembering her days as a secretary, she dubbed slaps on the ass and sexually suggestive comments to be harmless fun. “When a man finds you sexually attractive, he is paying you a compliment,” she wrote in a monthly Cosmo column. “When he doesn’t, that’s when you have to worry.”

Small wonder that Kate Millett picketed Cosmo for its “reactionary politics” or that Betty Friedan slammed it for its sexism and preponderance of inane articles on keeping men happy.

Despite disagreeing with these thinkers, Helen Gurley Brown marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in August 1970 and published articles written by prominent feminists as the 1970s unfolded.

Then, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Gurley Brown stepped in it. In early 1988, Cosmo ran an article that minimized the possibility of heterosexual transmission of HIV and made it sound as if straight women were immune from infection. Equally horrifying, the author, psychiatrist Dr. Robert E. Gould, was overtly racist. “Many men in Africa take their women in a brutal way,” he wrote, “so that some heterosexual activity regarded as normal by them would be close to rape by our standards.”

Oy. Readers were aghast, and Gurley Brown was roundly and deservedly criticized. Even Surgeon General C. Everett Koop weighed in, saying the article did “such a disservice” by suggesting that the risk of contracting the virus was low for heterosexual women. Hirshey reports that, inexplicably, the article was never retracted or corrected.

By this point, however, Helen was showing signs of dementia—she had periodical temper tantrums in public and was becoming less reliable and sharp—so Hearst Corporation brought in several new editors, albeit without firing Helen. She continued going into the office until shortly before her 2012 death. She had done paid work for 71 years.

Hirshey’s sources range from primary documents and in-person interviews with people who knew Gurley Brown, including Gloria Vanderbilt and Barbara Walters. Correspondence and recorded talks between her and friends such as Jacqueline Susann and Joan Rivers provide incisive, funny, and poignant anecdotes. These interviews give the book reportorial gravitas and intimacy. And although Hirshey had only a passing acquaintance with her subject—she had interviewed Gurley Brown decades earlier for an article about marriage proposals—she nonetheless manages to show Gurley Brown as a regular Jane who spoke openly about her nagging doubts.

Many readers will feel as if they can relate to Gurley Brown’s struggles and triumphs. Throughout the book, I felt sad for her, but also wished we’d met.

In fact, I closed the book wanting more; among other things, I wanted to better understand what it was like for her to move between near-poverty and the upper crust. Did she feel like an impostor? Did her lifelong conviction that she was not pretty enough or smart enough keep her from feeling connected to others? Did she ever feel truly secure?

Perhaps Gurley Brown’s self-doubts are what kept her from becoming arrogant or abusive to others; even those who hated Cosmopolitan or were frustrated by her racial and political blind spots admired her kindness. Similarly, these doubts did not prompt her to disguise her eccentricities—among them, pilfering from petty cash and always taking public transportation rather than cabs. Indeed, whatever Gurley Brown felt about her own appeal, Hirshey’s biography presents Helen Gurley Brown the woman as quirky, humble, and utterly fascinating.

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.


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