Back home, in Great Britain, there’s a discussion going on about whether or not to force internet providers to put filters on porn sites. Prime Minister David Cameron’s modest proposal was denounced by “conservative” commentators as injurious to liberty. The government cannot and should not legislate morality, they cried. I am confused as to why such people use the label conservative to describe themselves. The single purpose of conservatism is to protect what is good about the traditional order. The internet is a threat to the traditional order and so it is not our friend. The North Koreans understand that, even if we do not.
Government can legislate morality and it does. Aside from murder and theft, it also outlaws things that can be consensual – like incest and polygamy. Against this regulation of the sexual code, critics often argue that whatever the government prohibits instantly becomes fashionable. The fact that arrests for public drunkenness actually increased under Prohibition is often cited as evidence that state censorship of this kind never works. The argument is redundant on two counts. A) Morality takes its authority from something other than popular sentiment. B) There are plenty of instances in which something has been outlawed and the public hasn’t reacted with civil disobedience. Florida recently banned sex with animals. By this logic, are we to expect a sudden spike in assaults on chickens? Are Floridians really that bloody minded?
Internet pornography is an obvious example of how permitting one variety of perversion invariably leads to greater and more terrible crimes. The internet turned pedophilia from a private sin into an organized crime. It put people in touch with each other who would never have otherwise met, allowing them to pool resources and share victims. It gave predators access to kids through forums. It also used mainstream porn as a gateway drug. By introducing younger and younger models into erotica, it blurred the lines between childhood and adulthood. People who previously would never have had access to material by which to test their inclinations were now goaded into more and more depravity (“If you enjoyed that, you’ll love this…”). Its the expansiveness of the internet that makes it so ripe for regulating.
When I was a child, getting access to filth was bloody hard work. The best source was The Daily Sport, a silly old rag that featured saucy stories. America could have dropped a bomb on China, and The Sport would have run with the headline, “Six in a Barracks Sexy Sex Shock!” Beyond The Sport, there were one or two books in the school library that covered the sexual cycle in terms of the birds and the bees (with the occasional reference to the behavior of monkeys). I also recall a sex education video that featured a family playing Frisbee in the nude. I'll never play Frisbee again.
All of this contact with nudity was fleeting and furtive. The joy was less in the seeing than the getting. Nowadays, all a child has to do to access some muck is to log on to the family computer. Within seconds they can see videos of whips, goats, origami and tantric projection – the whole T&A. “O brave new world that has such people in’t!” It is madness to suggest that this environmental pollution should not be subject to regulation. We shall never expunge the natural curiosity of the young, but we can at least make sure that the messages they get about sex are healthy ones.
I would go one step further and suggest that it’s time to give back to local authorities the power to outlaw the sale of pornography altogether. Like heroin, porn has been proven to be addictive. Back in 2004, medical witnesses told the Senate Commerce Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee that there was no doubt that it can lead to physical dependence. Sexual activity releases hormones that provide a short term high. If that high is not associated with ordinary, socialized sexual activity, then it becomes internalized and unhealthy. Mary Anne Layden of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Therapy, called porn the “most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today. The internet is a perfect drug delivery system because you are anonymous, aroused and have role models for these behaviors.”
Given how potentially dangerous it can be, it’s astonishing how weakly pornography is regulated across the Western world. It is even more astonishing considering the West’s supposed commitment to human rights. The porn industry is an unpleasant sector that often mistreats its workers. Innocents are dragged off the street with an offer of "modelling work" and then intimidated into more. Inevitably, rates of venereal disease are high. To quote one official report, “In September 2009, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 2,396 cases of Chlamydia, 1,389 cases of gonorrhea, and five syphilis cases among porn performers. It was also reported that Chlamydia and gonorrhea prevalence in porn performers is ten times higher than that of Los Angeles County 20-24 year olds and five times higher than that of one of Los Angeles County’s highest risk populations.”
On an existential level, pornography objectifies human beings, reducing them to the status of commodities. There is no need to engage with them as real people because the sexual stimulus is entirely one sided. This encourages the viewer to regard the subject as less than human. Of course, all of us like to be objectified on some level – to be told that we are handsome or pretty. But for us to benefit, we have to have some degree of personal exchange with the spectator. Pornography lends distance and alienation.
That objectification has lethal consequences. Porn addiction is a common trait among serial killers. The murderer Ted Bundy detailed his experiences thus: “I would keep looking for more explicit, more graphic kinds of materials … until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far. You reach that jumping-off point where you begin to wonder if maybe actually doing it will give you that which is beyond just reading about it or looking at it.” This is not to suggest that pornography conditions the madman’s mind. But, as with latent pedophilia, it normalizes and feeds perverse desires. It reduces humanity to fresh meat. It becomes easy to disassociate sex from mutual pleasure, violence from pain.
The profusion of legalized porn reflects so many paradoxes about 21st century society. We are supposedly an epoch that respects the personhood of women, and yet we objectify them. Gays are trying to build stable families, and yet they are ghettoized by a culture that stresses fetish and permissiveness. We assiduously protect the virginity of children, but we take away their emotional innocence as soon as possible. Most bizarrely of all, we have a conservative movement that prioritizes the freedoms of business over the health of society as a whole. Give me a conservative presidential candidate who values the souls of the vulnerable over the bottom dollar and there you will find my vote.