No, Pornography Isn’t a “Moral Threat” to Society.
Five years ago, the Republican Party released their revised party platform that markedly differed in a number of ways from their 2012 platform. One of the ways in which the platform differed was its increased fearmongering about pornography, labeling it a “public health crisis.” In addition to the usual “this time it’s different” diatribes and moral pearl-clutching, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) recently called for the Department of Justice to investigate the website OnlyFans.com (a content subscription site that is known for and is used most often for buying and selling adult content) for supposed “immoral” and “illegal” activity related to its services. And so begins yet another right-wing crusade against pornography and the desperation for government intervention into an outgrowth of the world’s oldest profession.
While pornography is hardly a modern invention, I will grant that perhaps there is something different this time around. Ever since the advent of the Internet, pornography has become largely democratized: the people who make up the porn industry have become more diverse while access to and use of porn has skyrocketed, especially after the world went into lockdown after COVID-19 began to spread across the world. Anyone with a webcam or camera can make porn while anyone with a decent Internet connection can find it. In articulating the libertarian view about pornography, I will not comment on the morality of pornography as I don’t think it is germane. Rather, I want to focus on the typical arguments against pornography, that it encourages/enables/normalizes violence, that it is responsible for the sexual dysfunctions in our society, and that it is inherently tied at the hip to human trafficking, before suggesting some solutions that will alleviate some of the problems that conservatives are really concerned about.
One common argument against pornography is that it has been supposedly linked to interpersonal violence and other social ills. The argument is that pornography depicting violent treatment of porn actors–usually women–leads some people–usually men–to replicate this violence in real life. With this argument, we would expect to see rape rates increase along with the accessibility and usage of porn. While pornography usage has skyrocketed (one report found that 77% of Americans view porn at least once a month), rape rates have actually decreased in the last 30 years. A meta-analysis from UTSA and Stetson University failed to find any strong link between nonviolent and violent porn and sexual violence over the past 50 years. Ironically, some researchers have found that increased porn consumption has been linked to decreased sexual violence. Some researchers have theorized that this link is due to individuals using porn and not rape as their “release.” Interestingly, in a 2006 study from Northwestern University, states with the least Internet access (and therefore, limited access to online porn) saw increases in reported rapes between 1980 and 2000, while states with the most Internet access saw decreases in reported rapes.
While some would point out that correlation does not equal causation, I think I can safely say that pornography is not responsible for increasing sexual violence because the evidence suggests otherwise. I’ll go a step further and point out that other issues that some conservatives worry about–sexual irresponsibility, abortion rates, STD transmission, teen sex, and divorce rates–have seen decreases as well. The CDC has documented a 41% decline in abortions and even steeper declines in syphilis (74%) and gonorrhea (57%) since 1991. Additionally, since 1991, teen sex has declined by 7%, teen condom use has increased by 16%, and the teen birth rate has fallen by 33%. Lastly, since 1990, the divorce rate has decreased by 23%. Given this volume of data, one might conclude that we’re actually doing much better when it comes to porn and sex, even though the former has proliferated by leaps and bounds in recent years. Elizabeth Nolan Brown from Reason even went as far as to argue that “today’s teens seem poised to take safe sex and sexual consent even more seriously than [previous generations] did.”
But what about porn’s effects on relationships? Conservatives and other anti-porn activists argue that the relationship between men and women can be damaged from porn use, that porn increases sexism and raises beauty standards to ridiculous highs. Elaborating on the first point, there have been some arguments (mainly from the fringes of the conservative movement and the alt-right) that have pointed to some studies that have found that a sizable majority of women have rape fantasies and that some women act out these fantasies through violent porn. It is then argued that this is proof of the “decline of Western masculinity” as well as showing that women have an inherent need to be dominated, which is not being fulfilled. I find this to be one of the most ridiculous arguments put forth from the right, as it blindly ignores more plausible reasons for this phenomenon, such as coping with trauma associated with actual incidents of rape and sexual assault and that increased sexual openness–particularly for women–has led to fantasizing about violent and coerced sex (the reasoning being that, “I’m free, I can fantasize about whatever I want.”).
Additionally, some have argued that porn objectifies and sexualizes women, and that it contributes to more sexist attitudes. A study from Queensland University of Technology could not find a link between consumption of porn and increased negative attitudes toward women (though later research indicated that this overlooked benevolent sexism). Another study from the University of Zagreb found that users of nonviolent porn were “neither more nor less sexually satisfied than nonusers” and “felt the same degree of intimacy in their current or recent relationships and shared the same range of sexual experiences,” though this differed for consumers of violent porn, who tended to masturbate more often, have more sexual partners, and felt slightly less relationship intimacy than their nonviolent compatriots (though I would circle back to my argument about violent porn users using porn as a substitute for sexual crimes). Lastly, I want to briefly comment on the blaming of porn for the reduced birth rate in the United States. I also find this argument ridiculous as there has been numerous scholarship that has pointed to greater work opportunities for women, higher educational attainment, accessible birth control, improved sex education, and lower child mortality that comes with industrialization as reasons for the declining birth rate. In other words, economic conditions better explains why people are postponing having children until much later in life.
The last point I want to address is the dicey issue of human and sex trafficking, which anti-porn activists argue is fueled by the demand for porn, making both industries closely interlinked. I find human trafficking to be fraught with issues, and in doing research for this article, it’s very maddening to see that the very definition of human trafficking differs markedly from organization to organization. What I found to be common was that some definitions tended to lump together so many different activities and classify it as “human trafficking” when clearly these things did not carry the same moral weight. For example, I do not think that an individual who gets paid to fly overseas to become employed in the porn industry is a victim of trafficking or exploitation (assuming they are of age and fully consent to the activity) and should not be classified in the same group of people that are actually victims of slavery and forced labor. Such an assumption otherwise would indicate that someone would not voluntarily enter the porn industry, that if given the choice, that individual would choose another profession. But here is where I think conservatives show their anti-market colors because this assumption flies in the face of asymmetric information theory, which posits that there is an imbalance of information that favors the seller and leaves the buyer vulnerable to exploitation. This existence of this imbalance has led some to argue that asymmetric information is a token market failure and that this imbalance can only and should be rectified through government fiat.
However, this argument is deeply flawed as it ignores the very basis for which our economy is successful in the first place: the division of labor. If we just assumed that everyone had perfect information when it comes to market transactions, there would be no need for any social cooperation, i.e., if we could be entirely self-sufficient, we would have no need for any market system whatsoever. But this is not the reality that we live in: we have to have individuals who specialize in specific tasks to make social cooperation possible. Ludwig von Mises argued that this is actually desirable for several reasons: that it is more productive and efficient for people to cooperate rather than be self-sufficient, that people can benefit from talents that they don’t possess, and that almost all production processes require some kind of teamwork.
The idea that the government, as deeply flawed as it already is, can somehow fix the information imbalances between buyers and sellers is a utopian one at best and a naive one at worst. We should learn to respect the choices that people make, even if they are made in undesirable circumstances, barring any uses of force, fraud, or aggression. Trying to limit the migration of sex workers will only exacerbate the problems of human trafficking as it will further drive black market smugglers underground and leave sex workers vulnerable to actual exploitation and coercion. Additionally, we need to recognize that the sex industry is full of people with diverse motivations: some are using it as a stepping stone to something larger, others are there to make a career, while others want to make some quick bucks and move on. One need only to look through the revenue statistics for content creators on OnlyFans to conclude that a lot of sex workers come from the working class, and that any government action against sex workers is likely to be harmful rather than helpful.
I would be remiss if I did not propose some solutions. This article is not meant to argue that there are risks to porn usage, especially if it becomes addictive. I have no problem with people who seek help for porn addiction, be it psychological or spiritual. As for actual policy solutions, we should start by loosening immigration laws so as to provide alternate means for potential sex workers to migrate without having to go through a smuggler or trafficker. We should also stress the importance of sex education, which would involve recognizing that we should not be treating sex with kiddie gloves as well as providing a suitable alternative for those who go to porn to learn about sex. I will leave open the possibility for those who want to provide moral education through churches and other groups that aims to reduce the demand for porn (as opposed to reducing the supply through legislative restrictions, which will have a trade-off through the increase in sex crimes). Lastly, we should not forget that the easiest solution lies at home with the parents and letting them determine what kind of moral and sexual education their kids should be receiving, providing guidance around a topic that some kids may find intriguing or frightening.