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Can't We All Just Leave Porn Alone?

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The religious right in America and their counterparts around the world are convinced that porn is destroying the innocence of countless children and corrupting the morals of even more adults, even though a study shows that some of the biggest porn users are those with "traditional values" that live in conservative religious states.

Humanists and non-religious Americans usually have a much more open mind towards pornography, seeing it as an optional healthy part of human sexuality, a sex-positive view that is also held by columnist and recent Humanist of the Year winner Dan Savage who notes that porn is normal and is enjoyed by both men and women. To many humanists, the purchase and consumption of porn by adults is not a question of morals but of personal autonomy and the freedom to do what they like with their own bodies in the privacy of their own homes.

Efforts to ban porn in America have been largely unsuccessful, although not for lack of trying. Evidence that their public outcry against it is still going strong is seen in their numerous "awareness campaigns." While the religious right's attempts to ban porn in America may be stalled for the moment, the fight to ban pornography recently made inroads across the pond.

The United Kingdom's conservative Prime Minister David Cameron launched an initiative to automatically block pornography from every computer and mobile device in the UK unless it is specifically requested. One concern people have is that since porn filters are far from perfect, websites about sexual health or about sexuality and gender identity could be banned, which would leave developing youth in the dark about safe sex practices, reproductive rights, and sexual orientation. And kids in many families are in no position to ask for, or receive opt-in privileges to explore these issues. Also, adults, by having to recognizably opt-in, may unwittingly advertise their interest in porn to businesses that keep track, which presents serious privacy issues that could impact people's lives. That's why civil rights and anti-censorship groups are rightly concerned about the implications for free speech these bans entail.

These recent government actions leave many people questioning: Why we are so afraid of porn? Why are mandatory anti-porn filters being proposed in places where opt-in pornography filters already exist?

We've been told by religious leaders and their allies in government to think of porn as inherently dirty, as a window into the darkest elements of humanity and a means to further pervert the already sinful human body. These shame-based religious views on pornography are part of a larger sex-negative view of the world that is in direct contrast to the humanist perspective which views sex as a natural and enjoyable part of life. Pornography can be a positive part of human sexuality by providing a release of sexual tension and a chance to explore desires in a private manner.

The debate within the humanist community on issues related to porn isn't whether or not it's appropriate to view sexually provocative images, but whether or not some such imagery objectifies people in a way that opens the door for abuse. If it does, let's have a conversation about what we can do about it short of censorship. There are also some humanists that view the porn industry negatively in light of a history of exploitation, while others take the view that working in the porn industry is like any other job that may contain risks and shouldn't be devalued or even discouraged. Despite these differences, there is broad agreement among humanists that traditionally religious views of sexuality are harmful and dated.

Rather than force a puritanical filter about anything sexual onto millions of adults, as the Christian group Family Research Council is attempting to do in U.S. college dorms, Prime Minister Cameron and his allies in the U.S. should inform the public about the widely available pornography filters that already exist to ensure that children aren't accessing content they aren't mature enough to appropriately handle. As kids are eventually going to be exposed to sexual content regardless of the protections that are in place, parents would be better off placing their energies into pre-empting and reinforcing the sexual education their children receive in school by talking with their kids about sex topics.

Government overreaches its education and safety roles when it attempts to be the arbiter of private questions like these. Banning pornography violates our First Amendment rights and simultaneously teaches that the human body is something to be ashamed of, which is the wrong message for a modern society like ours.