Republicans will try to bring back the ‘War on Porn’

State legislators are already scrambling to restrict adult entertainment.

A 2011 protest in San Francisco against plans to require adult sites to use a .xxx domain CREDIT: AP Photo
A 2011 protest in San Francisco against plans to require adult sites to use a .xxx domain CREDIT: AP Photo

Three years ago, the ‘War on Porn’ appeared lost. Anti-pornography academics were frustrated by the way the Internet had made pornography anonymous, affordable, and accessible. Legal experts noted that its prevalence had likely rendered any efforts to ban adult pornography unconstitutional. And much to the dismay of porn critics, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice did not make enforcement of adult obscenity laws a priority.

But now, with the Trump administration set to take power and Republicans in control of a record number of state governments, that could change. Mike Stabile, communications director for the Free Speech Coalition, the adult entertainment industry’s trade association, says he expects “major incursions on the free speech rights in general, and on sexual speech in particular.” And porn’s opponents see cause for optimism.

An anti-porn pledge

Donald Trump seems like an unlikely warrior against pornography. He has appeared in multiple Playboy soft core porn videos, and he posed with Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. in front of a framed copy of his 1990 Playboy cover interview.

Still, last summer he signed a pledge to aggressively enforce “federal obscenity laws, child pornography laws, sexual predation laws and the sex trafficking laws,” to appoint “an Attorney General who will make the prosecution of such laws a top priority in my administration,” and to seriously consider “appointing a Presidential Commission to examine the harmful public health impact of Internet pornography on youth, families and the American culture and the prevention of the sexual exploitation of children in the digital age.”

As his party nominated him for president, it adopted a platform that included the claim that “Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions.” His vice president, Mike Pence, authored a 2005 child pornography bill that would have also cracked down on other “obscenity” and told a 2005 “Capitol Hill Summit on Pornography” that he wanted to “to be creative within constitutional protections” to keep minors from seeing porn, including requiring that all adult content on the Internet be segregated on a “dot-porn” URL.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), the conservative anti-adult pornography organization formerly known as Morality in Media, has long lead the push for the U.S. Department of Justice to aggressively enforce federal anti-obscenity laws.

Will Trump follow through on those pledges?

Much of that will be up to his attorney general. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), his nominee for the position, has been critical of pornography in the past, working to keep adult materials off of military bases and pushing for tough obscenity law enforcement.

In the states

As groups like NCOSE continue to push for a federal obscenity crackdown, a number of others are focusing their efforts on the state levels. The Republican platform’s anti-pornography plank encourages states “to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being.” And some legislators are already heeding that call.

Virginia Del. Bob Marshall (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Virginia Del. Bob Marshall (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

In Virginia, Delegate Bob Marshall (R) made national news last week for filing a resolution that would declare pornography “a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” The text of his proposal calls for “education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level in order to address the pornography epidemic that is harming the people of the Commonwealth and the nation.”

Tennessee’s senate passed a pornography-is-a-public-health-hazard resolution last April by state Sen. Mae Beavers (R) — with mostly the same language as the Virginia legislation. “What’s going on is alarming, especially for our children and the future of our society, and we wanted to bring this resolution to call attention to it,” Beavers argued at a subcommittee meeting. The state house has not yet weighed in on the matter.

Utah Sen. Todd Weiler (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Utah Sen. Todd Weiler (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Utah is already ahead of Virginia on this front: Gov. Gary Hebert (R) signed a bill last year, authored by state Sen. Todd Weiler (R), declaring pornography a public health epidemic in the Beehive State. The legislative language was nearly identical to the Virginia and Tennessee resolutions. Now, Hebert is asking the legislature to give $50,000 in taxpayer funds to pay the Utah Coalition Against Pornography for a statewide anti-porn push in schools. He has defended the proposal as “an effective way to empower parents with practical methods to protect their families from the dangers of pornography.” And Weiler is promoting a new bill, this time giving citizens the right to sue pornography makers for emotional and psychological damage, telling reporters, “Right now porn is available without any warnings and labeling, without any protections online… This would just open the valve for a cause of action. Let these attorneys go after these cases.”

South Carolina Rep. Bill Chumley (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt
South Carolina Rep. Bill Chumley (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt

In South Carolina, two legislators want to go even further. Rep. Bill Chumley (R) and Rep. Mike Burns (R) filed a bill in December that would require all computers come with pre-installed porn filtering software. To get the filter removed, adults would have to pay $20 “digital access fee” to the state Attorney General’s office. “If an end user buys an apparatus, a computer, and they want access to that, they would have to pay to have that filter removed,” Chumley told a local news site.

‘A world we’ve never encountered’

Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College and founder of Culture Reframed, is perhaps the nation’s leading feminist opponent of pornography and a strong believer that opposing pornography is a progressive issue. In a phone interview, she said that she is not sure how optimistic to be about progress on this issue under a Trump presidency. “It’s wait and see. They also said they’re gonna bring jobs back and the economy is gonna improve. We’re talking about electioneering,” she observed. “We’re going into a world we’ve never encountered. There’s no road map.”

A strong advocate of approaching pornography as a public health issue, she is dubious of the legal strategy being pushed by some conservative pornography opponents. “If you’re gonna go after pornography through obscenity law, you’re probably gonna win very few cases and spend a lot of money without much bang for your buck.” Instead, she said advocates should focus on the harm pornography — which she says is mostly “hardcore, misogynist, and violent” — does to young people.

Gail Dines CREDIT: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Gail Dines CREDIT: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Susan Brownmiller, another anti-pornography feminist, said in an email that she’d “like to be optimistic,” that the tide is turning. “I agree that porn is a public health threat,” she wrote, “but legislators must make it clear that porn serves as an instruction manual on sexual aggression for confused young men, and therein lies its danger to women.”

Carolyn Bronstein and Whitney Strub take a very different view in their new book, Porno Chic and the Sex Wars. It examines the role pornography played in the 1970s in helping marginalized groups from transgender people to Evangelical Christians find acceptance.

“All these bills are talking about the negative effects of explicit sexuality, communication,” Bronstein, a professor and associate dean at DePaul University’s College of Communication, said in an interview. “None talk about the positive, and the positives are real, a really important social good. We should be mindful of that.”

While she believes there are legitimate criticisms of the prevalence of hate, misogyny, and racism in today’s pornography, the effort by legislators to attack it is nothing more than a “smokescreen.”

“Republican legislators will tend to bring up the issue of pornography at moments of instability, when we’re looking for something to blame for all our social ills. Pornography is such a convenient villain … [and it’s] so much easier to look at pornography and, blame pornography, than structural problems. It’s a lot harder to solve collapse of public education than to require porn blockers. But when you look behind the curtain, it’s not really going to accomplish anything. They don’t really work that well and $20 is not going to be a barrier to anyone who wants to remove the filter and look at pornography.”

“Republican legislators will tend to bring up the issue of pornography at moments of instability, when we’re looking for something to blame for all our social ills.”

Still, she says, “any time there’s renewed attention on the dangers of sexuality, certain types of sexual acts or representations… we all have to be on guard. They start with marginalized groups and behaviors and then move toward the mainstream. When there are new efforts to control sexual behavior and sexual expression, it’s a threat we have to take seriously.”

Her co-author, Strub, is a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences. He observed in an interview that he does not see the state legislation as being indicative of much of a real shift. “A lot of these efforts are ephemeral, based on obvious moral grandstanding. They’re not acting on the agenda, just passing resolutions. That’s very telling.”

He noted that while “anti-porn activists and institution have gotten more rhetorically sophisticated,” shifting from talking exclusively about morality to talking about public health, the language of the Utah, Tennessee, and Virginia resolutions use “pseudo-scientific claims as a smokescreen.” Their claims that porn causes “‘low self-esteem and body image disorders’ sounds scientific, but then it cuts to ‘lessening desire in young men to marry” and [in the Virginia bill] an increased likelihood that girls will engage in group intercourse.’ The old school morality, buried in this barrage of seeming social science that is not very well founded, [is] not supported by evidence.” Strub also opined that if these anti-porn conservatives “actually cared about science, they’d take climate change and gun violence seriously.”

Still, he says a Department of Justice under the control of Jeff Sessions could have “chilling effects on sexual speech in the US.”

“The people who are most vulnerable are those on the sexual margins. Mainstream heterosexual vanilla hard core porn is so entrenched… but queer, transgender, kink, and BDSM, I think there’ll be a lot of rightly-placed anxiety if we get someone like Sessions as AG. That’s certainly what [former Attorney General John Ashcroft] did: he went after the margins rather than the mainstream of the porn industry.”

The Free Speech Coalition’s Stabile warned that “attacks on adult industry will be used to as a precedent for restricting other types of online speech as well.” He noted a November statement by the group’s president that in the new reality, the industry “will do what we have always done, which is to fight against intolerance and shame and censorship and bigotry, and for freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of existence.”

Meanwhile, hopeful that change is coming, Dines says she will “keep fighting the porn industry and them taking over the sexuality of young people, continuing to peddle their misogyny and sexism.”