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Reason Foundation

Posturing Against Pornography

The government should stop trying to censor the Internet.

Steve Chapman
April 21, 2011

We all know that pornography is offensive and destructive, so we can guess that wherever X-rated fare gains popularity, social decay will follow. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn which state has the highest rate of online subscriptions to adult websites. Not New York or California, but Utah. Yes, Utah.

Some members of Congress are up in arms at the news that the Justice Department has dismantled a Bush-era Obscenity Prosecution Task Force to go after hard-core material on the Internet. No fewer than 42 senators, most of them Republicans, have written Attorney General Eric Holder to urge tougher enforcement of obscenity laws.

Their argument is that pornography causes sexual violence, molestation of children, sex trafficking, and other maladies. "This material harms individuals, families and communities and the problems are only getting worse," wrote the group, led by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of—you guessed it—Utah. You will wait in vain to hear of other senators joining together to say this is all nonsense, though that happens to be the case.

The past two decades have been to electronic erotica what Thanksgiving is to gluttony. Never in history have more people had easier access to sexually explicit material in such vast abundance and such low cost. More than one out of every three Americans with Internet access regularly visits porn sites.

By the logic of the puritans, we should be coping with an avalanche of collateral damage. But we're not.

Sexual violence? Rape has dropped by 86 percent in the United States since 1991. Harm to families? Divorce rates are down 25 percent during the same period.

As for sex trafficking, no one really knows how much goes on, or whether it's rising or falling. But when the Bush administration mounted a crackdown on the problem, The Washington Post reported in 2007, it found only "1,362 victims of human trafficking brought into the United States since 2000, nowhere near the 50,000 a year the government had estimated."

Numerous studies have failed to prove that viewing prurient pictures has any deleterious consequences to individuals. Just because the occasional rapist or child molester blames his crimes on skin flicks doesn't make it true.

Critics claim that pornography can take over some people's lives, but so can fantasy baseball. Porn addiction is not a recognized psychiatric disorder. And what if it were? Alcoholism is a form of addiction, but we don't ban wine.

Based on the evidence, it would be easier to make the case that adult entertainment is beneficial than that it's harmful. Harvard economist Benjamin Edelman even found that in places where porn subscriptions are most popular, you find more people "donating blood, engaging in volunteer activities or participating in community projects."

The absence of any visible damage caused by adult sites won't deter the crusading senators, whose true objection to sexual fare is not that it's harmful but that it's sexual. Moral disapproval, however, is no more grounds for prosecuting obscenity than it is for banning Charlie Sheen from TV.

What must particularly annoy Hatch and Co. is that most Americans see no need to censor websites that feature naked bodies. Nor is it easy to understand why the constitutional guarantee of free expression should exclude depictions of erotic activity.

The Supreme Court, it's true, has yet to abandon its position that obscenity has no First Amendment protection. But given the evolution of sexual standards in America, there's not a lot that clearly qualifies as obscene anymore, which makes prosecutions difficult. 

In any case, what business is it of Hatch or Holder what adults choose to view on their home computers? If we can tolerate racist literature, slasher videos, and the Westboro Baptist Church, we can put up with Jenna Jameson at her most indiscreet.

Besides, it's not like we have a choice. The nature of the Internet makes it next to impossible to keep out porn, short of draconian government controls. U.S.-based suppliers may be prosecuted, but there are plenty of other countries where smut peddlers can set up shop and stream live shower cams all night long.

The government could squander both money and personal freedom by trying to stamp out pornography. Or it could try the policy attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I have no objection to anyone's sex life as long as they don't practice it in the street and frighten the horses." That would work fine, even in Utah.

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