Commentary Law and Policy

Back to the 19th Century: Republicans’ New Anti-Porn Crusade

Martha Kempner

Following in the footsteps of past reformers, a South Carolina politician seems to believe imposing a $20 fee will take a bite out of the billion-dollar industry and a Utah lawmaker keeps repeating bogus claims about porn's harms.

Today, with an iPhone in our hands and Pornhub just a click away, it’s easy to laugh at the “Comstock Act,” an 1873 law that banned sending “obscene” materials through the mail, as a symbol of a more prudish time. Imagine living in an era when the only way to get pornography was through the mail, and the government tried to stop us.

But don’t be so quick to scoff. Hiding behind pseudoscience about addiction and tired “save the children” rhetoric, Republican lawmakers across the country are coming after our porn.

From Virginia to Utah, a number of resolutions and bills in statehouses nationwide label pornography a public health crisis and seek to limit access to it. If the Comstock Act—which ultimately banned sending contraception or even information about birth control through the mail—taught us anything, it should be to take such censorship very seriously.

Porn as Public Health Hazard? Here We Go Again

Last year, lawmakers in Utah declared pornography to be a public health crisis. As Rewire reported, the resolution had no direct implications for those who distribute or consume porn in the state, but came with some troubling “statements of fact.” It suggested that porn increases sex trafficking, the demand for prostitution, and risky behavior in teens. It also warned that viewing pornography is addictive and blames this behavior for “lessening desire in young men to want to marry.”

None of these “facts” are grounded in science. From a public health perspective, viewing pornography is a form of safe sex; no one will get pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from their computer screen. Scientific studies have suggested that porn does not affect the brain in the same way that alcohol or drugs do, and the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) recently released a statement saying that there is no evidence that porn addiction is a mental disorder.

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As for sex crimes, such as trafficking, rape, or prostitution, some evidence actually suggests that when pornography becomes more available, these crimes go down. One study looked at internet access in the United States and found that a 10 percent increase in online access in a state yields a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. While this is not enough to prove that access to the internet causes fewer rapes, it calls into question the easy assumption that pornography causes sexual violence.

Despite the false premises included in the Utah resolution, the national Republican Party adopted similar language this summer as part of its platform. Though less detailed, the language in the platform calls porn a public health crisis that is destroying many lives.

Upping the Ante Across the Nation

Mores states are taking up the cause. This legislative season, lawmakers in both Virginia and Tennessee have introduced resolutions almost identical to Utah’s. Virginia’s adds this nugget to the unsubstantiated claims flying around: “Use of pornography, by either partner, is linked to the increased likelihood that girls will engage in group sexual intercourse.” Tennessee state Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), who introduced this resolution, said in an interview: “My goodness, you can’t even look at Facebook anymore without seeing something.”

These resolutions are just words. They don’t do much. They don’t, for example, give the state (or the Republican Party) the authority to shut down the adult film industry or confiscate your copy of Hustler. But they are worrisome nonetheless. Make no mistake, these lawmakers are laying the groundwork for something more hands-on (pun completely intended).

Take Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross), who introduced last year’s resolution. He has two new bills on the subject in the works for this year. First up is SB 185, which gives residents the ability to sue the makers or distributors of pornography for real or perceived damage to a minor.

He explained: “This bill is not telling any purveyor of pornography that they can not [sic] distribute their product in Utah. We are not telling any consumer that you cannot consume a pornographic product in Utah. What we are saying is that if someone is damaged by your product, that they could take their best shot in court and have to meet every other evidentiary standard that already exists and have to show damages.”

Weiler dismissed concerns that this was a violation of free speech and instead likened it to efforts to keep tobacco from young people. To avoid liability, internet porn sites would have to prove they made a good faith effort to keep minors from accessing their site, and porn producers could get immunity from prosecution by including (more false) warnings that claim that viewing pornography can become compulsive. And Weiler clarified that search engines and internet providers were not the target, just porn sites themselves.

This new bill relies on many of the same “facts” as the 2016 resolution, and it is not too much of a stretch to see this as the foundation for some future action extending liability to internet providers or claiming the right to sue to adult “porn addicts.”

Weiler seems to have an obsession with porn that stems from personal experience. He told the New York Daily News that he wished he’d never seen it as a teenager. And he’s spent part of his career going after it. In 2013, he introduced a resolution warning parents about the supposed harm to teenagers’ brains caused by “gateway pornography” such as soft-core images and even sexualized advertising. And this year, in addition SB 185, he’s introducing another bill blocking porn websites on computers using public libraries’ wireless.

Yet, Weiler’s proposed legislation is not the most extreme anti-porn bill out there. That distinction most likely belongs to legislation proposed by South Carolina state Rep. Bill Chumley (R-Spartanburg), who introduced a bill prohibiting the sale of devices that can access the internet unless those devices come with an “active and operating” blocking capability that makes obscene material inaccessible.

This proposal builds on the idea that porn increases sex trafficking. In fact, the bill is called the “Human Trafficking Prevention Act” (HTPA), a name that doesn’t denote computer shopping at all. If passed, this bill will affect South Carolina residents more than any of the resolutions, but probably won’t put a dent in their porn consumption; the requirement for filtering software can be waived for a mere $20 paid by the merchant or the customer. Moreover, the bill specifies that a business or individual who violates the law—by say, selling a computer without any “net nannies” installed—has not committed a criminal act.

It’s not clear whether these bills will become law, but this isn’t the last time we’ll see bills similar to Chumley’s. Legislators across the country are drafting their own versions of the HTPA.

Now an Actual Fact: Porn is Popular  

On their face, these bills seem almost silly. U.S. consumers spend billions of dollars on porn each year, so no one can really believe that a $20 fee is going to do much to hamper that.

And history tells us that the Comstock Act didn’t work. Under the law, 5,500 decks of naughty playing cards, 194,000 images, and more than 60,000 rubber objects (probably condoms) were seized by Anthony Comstock, a zealot who had been appointed a special agent of the postmaster and launched a relentless “decency campaign.” By the time his 40-year crusade ended with his death, he had facilitated the convictions of more than 3,600 individuals and destroyed close to 160 tons of materials deemed inappropriate. There is also some evidence that at least 15 people hounded by Comstock committed suicide. But no matter how many items were confiscated or lives ruined, pornography (and birth control) persisted.

Todd Weiler, Bill Chumley, and other politicians know that an out-and-out attack on pornography won’t go well for them as their constituents clearly watch porn. South Carolina ranks 25th in number of PornHub searchers each year, but users in that state stay on the site for an average of 10 minutes and 44 seconds—longer than the nationwide average. Utah ranks lower for number of visits to the popular porn site at 38th, but older research said that Utahns were top among online porn subscribers. 

That’s why these lawmakers are hiding behind the smoke screen of public health and concern for children. But don’t let it fool you.

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