OPINION
06/19/2018 05:45 am ET

Porn Has Been A Favorite Conservative Scapegoat For Over A Century

Rep. Diane Black is just the latest in a long line of U.S. politicians blame pornography for a variety of social ills. 
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
Rep. Diane Black is just the latest in a long line of U.S. politicians blame pornography for a variety of social ills. 

If Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) is right, pornography isn’t just obscene, it’s deadly. Late last month, Black said porn is a “root cause” of school shootings, and a “big part” of why young men are taking up arms and opening fire on their classmates and teachers. She doubled down on her bad take a week later.

It is easy to point and laugh and single out Black’s absurd accusations, but her comments aren’t isolated. Earlier this year, the Kansas Senate voted to condemn porn as a public health crisis, as state lawmakers blamed porn for amplifying problems from erectile dysfunction to sex trafficking.

The Florida House also voted to brand porn as a “public health risk” this year, claiming that porn contributes to “mental and physical illnesses, difficulty forming and maintaining intimate relationships, unhealthy brain development and cognitive function, and deviant, problematic or dangerous sexual behavior.”

In the past two years, five other states have declared porn a public health crisis.

Black, who’s seeking her state’s governorship, and her contemporaries are doing nothing novel by making porn the scapegoat for U.S. society’s most terrible problems. They’re merely following an American tradition. Pornography provokes polarization, and politicians leverage that polarization to advance their own pet causes ― they’ve been doing it for decades.

The most egregious anti-porn zealot in U.S. history was probably Anthony Comstock, a postal inspector who, shortly after the Civil War, persuaded Congress and the Grant administration to pass laws that prohibited the mailing of obscene material. For Comstock, pornography and lust were at the crux of society’s biggest issues. In his 1893 book “Traps for the Young,” Comstock mentions Satan in the first sentence of the chapter dedicated to smut (it was called “Death Traps by Mail”) and proclaims that lust, which is enabled by obscene material, is “the constant companion of all other crimes.”

Pornography provokes polarization, and politicians leverage that polarization to advance their own pet causes ― they’ve been doing it for decades.

Politicians liked his fire and brimstone message, and passed legislation that came to be known as Comstock laws, which banned the mailing of “obscene” materials such as contraceptives, sex toys and, of course, pornography. Rep. Clinton Merriam (R-N.Y.), who sponsored a 19th century anti-obscenity bill that Comstock pushed, said pornography “threatens to destroy the future of this Republic by making merchandise of the morals of our youth.”

As the Cold War smoldered in the 20th century, some lawmakers began to blame communism for unraveling the moral fabric of the nation. They also blamed pornography. One 1965 propaganda film titled “Perversion for Profit” said that pornography’s “moral decay weakens our resistance to the onslaught of the communist masters of deceit.” Similar to the drug hysterics of “Reefer Madness,” anti-porn flicks used melodrama to appeal to fearful and paranoid voters who worried that their country was falling apart.

The White House seized on this message and ran with it. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson set up the “President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography” to study the effects of porn on society.

The commission was created amid widespread confusion about America’s obscenity laws, as courts were considering the constitutionality of prohibiting people from privately owning obscene material. In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed the producer of “Perversion for Profit” to serve on the commission. For “law and order” politicians and for omniscient FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, crusading against smut helped rally an angry electoral base that resented the decadence of the 1960s.

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The commision concluded that porn was not a big social problem and that Americans should focus more on improving sex education than on legislating obscenity. Johnson’s commission funded more than 80 studies examining porn’s effects, but some viewed the whole exercise as political spectacle in service of his agenda: The commission advocated for more money to be spent on education, which was a plank in Johnson’s platform.  

By the time the commission released its conclusions in 1969, Johnson had been replaced by Nixon, who said he rejected the report’s “morally bankrupt conclusions and major recommendations.” Nixon was perhaps furious that he was unable to get the commission to back his “crusade against obscenity,” despite planting his own people in the group.

President Ronald Reagan in 1985 set up his own commission, which came to be named after Attorney General Edwin Meese, to study porn. The Meese Commission concluded that porn facilitated prostitution and was tied to organized crime, and recommended states change obscenity statutes from misdemeanors to felonies.

Like Nixon, Reagan was a “law and order” candidate who campaigned on “family values.” Following the Meese report, the number of people prosecuted by the federal government on obscenity charges increased from 10 in 1986 to 71 in 1987. In a speech that year, Reagan warned pornographers, “Your industry’s days are numbered.” Locking up pornographers sent a message to voters that the president and his allies were tough on crime and smut.

Locking up pornographers sent a message to voters that President Reagan and his allies were tough on crime.

Even before Reagan’s commission, Jesse Helms, the firebrand Republican senator from North Carolina, was making sensational accusations against the porn industry. In 1984 remarks, Helms said that increases in porn consumption led to “record levels of promiscuity, venereal disease, herpes, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), abortion, divorce, family breakdown, and related problems.” One wonders what Helms’s objection would be today: Over the past 20 years, as access to porn has increased exponentially, violent crime declined considerably.

Which brings us back to our modern-day Comstocks like Rep. Black. For Black and her ilk, scapegoating porn is a convenient way of distracting people from America’s deadly access to assault weapons, and from the money and endorsements she’s received from the National Rifle Association.

Politicians persist in using porn as a political prop, and even the until-recently pro-porn president has adopted the political tradition. Donald Trump — a man who has been on the cover of Playboy, allegedly had an affair with a porn star he tried to pay off and been accused of sexual harassment by at least 16 women — is lobbying for abstinence-only education and vowing to crack down on internet porn.

It’s not because he personally opposes pornography. It’s because the anger, fear and resentment that illicit sex spurs in constituents provide convenient political capital. Politically speaking, portraying porn as a cultural menace is a premise that’s as thin and well-worn as the pizza guy at the door.


Ross Benes is the author of  Turned On: A Mind-Blowing Investigation Into How Sex Has Shaped Our World. 

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