Conservatives want a war on porn. It’s puritanical sex values that need to go

The modern internet as we know it is governed by 26 words: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This line is from Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, and for the most part, it’s stood the test of time. In so many words, the clause lets U.S. websites and communications infrastructure serve as public spaces for hosting content instead of publishers.

Without Section 230, social media would not be able to exist, nor would the free internet. Right-wing Americans increasingly see this as an obstacle. In March, Gizmodo noticed the trend among conservatives, many of whom erroneously claimed the law made websites into neutral parties or gave social media networks a free pass from moderating content. But those discussions didn’t focus on adult content. Now, conservatives are considering porn censorship. And if they’re successful, it could drastically alter the internet we know and love.

This past week, Republican congresspeople called upon Attorney General William Barr to prioritize “the prosecution of obscene pornography” and target “the major producers and distributors of such material.” The letter tore the right-wing into two camps, split between libertarians who believe in minimizing the government’s handle on adult content and hardline conservatives who believe pornography is a corrupting and immoral presence in the world.

A surprisingly large number of conservatives sided with the latter. Far-right social media network Gab, for example, declared multiple times that “porn isn’t speech.”

But it’s Matthew Schmitz, senior editor for conservative religious publication First Things, who has a truly scary idea for marginalizing adult content. Citing a November article written by an executive for a conservative think tank, Schmitz argues that conservatives should force internet service providers to create a “default” internet with no porn, push adult sites into online zoning laws, and rewrite Section 230 altogether.

This would be damaging to so many different communities online. It would further marginalize sex workers, provide an unfair financial burden onto adult sites via domain changes, and dismantle free speech protections for online adult content. SESTA-FOSTA alone was an enormous blow to sex workers; doubling down on the law would be devastating. Illustrator Celine Loup regularly deals with sexual content in her work. She warned Schmitz’s tactic would create an “underclass of creators,” separating artists between the safe-for-work and not-safe-for-work side of the internet.

“Creators would have to compartmentalize if they can, and if they can’t they’ll have to pick a side and forever stick to it. And we know that once you’re marked a pornographer in this stupid dual model, that’s forever,” Loup said. “Once you give yourself the authority to build walls, you will inevitably build them in ways that hurt the most vulnerable.”

There are many running themes in conservatives’ arguments against adult content. Some claim porn inherently corrupts its viewers and turns them into sexual degenerates. Others argue children may be irrevocably damaged if they are exposed to sexual material. And many believe your average porn lover is a depraved, self-hating sinner who needs all the help they can get from your local Christian Republican. Censoring and marginalizing adult content, they believe, is just the right thing to do.

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Sex worker and activist Maya Morena helps run Red Light Reader, a New York City-based book club by and for sex workers. She said conservatives and anti-porn feminists feel threatened by sex workers, in part because sex “poses a threat to nationality, citizenship, and other people conservatives and conservative feminists want to exclude.” Because marginalized peoples’ community-rearing provides alternatives to the right-wing’s conception of “freedom” (a dog whistle for the nuclear family and heterosexual marriage), she explained, white supremacy institutes whorephobia and strict heteronormative sexual values to maintain control over American culture.

“White supremacy has always been obsessed with sex and maintaining purity. Many of our institutions were built from it,” Morena said. “The FBI became a federal agency by policing sex workers, and policing women who stepped outside the home, mostly working-class women. This was done through the Mann Act (white slave traffic act—where sex trafficking comes from) which Donald Trump expanded through SESTA-FOSTA.”

Sex Workers RIghts h3xtacy/Flickr (CC-BY)

Conservatives rely on various misconceptions about porn, sex, and adult content to paint themselves as a moral authority. For one, conservatives are quick to claim young Americans are irrevocably damaged by porn. This isn’t necessarily true. One 2018 study published by Plos One “did not find consistent evidence that pornography use was associated with negative changes in subjective well-being, symptoms of depression and anxiety, or self-esteem.” Meanwhile, a 2016 academic review published by The Journal of Sex Research found most studies on adolescent pornography usage “have a negativity bias” that correlates with “culturally based public concerns.” In fact, the review says, adolescent porn usage could theoretically be associated “with great sexual knowledge, sexual self-efficacy, or sexual self-esteem.”

“Not only does the assumption of vulnerable adolescents deny them agency and critical skills, it also seems at odds with recent studies that compared adolescents with adults and found associations between pornography use and gender-stereotypical beliefs as well as sexual risk behavior only among adults,” the review notes.

There’s a long history of using the nuclear family to justify oppression. Conservatives and whorephobic feminists concocted the claim that “young white girls” were being kidnapped and forced into human trafficking in places populated with communities of color, such as urban areas or near the border. This was done to “criminalize homosexuality, immigrants, and sex workers,” Morena said. In his iconic 1982 essay “Public Sex,” queer theorist Patrick Califia likewise writes that police would justify entrapping queer men by “claiming that families, children, and uninterested heterosexual men” are being exposed to queer orgies and “gangs of hostile faggots” in public.

Califia counters this by claiming sex is not “inherently toxic or traumatic to children.” It’s the adults who cause problems, reacting “with hostility or embarrassment to questions about sex” from sexually curious youth and withholding “information about birth control, abortion, and venereal disease” from the younger generation.

Pleas for family values hide the real reason conservatives want to moderate sexual content: sexual control over the most marginalized among us. In a 1980 essay on pornography and puritanical fearmongering, Califia argues obscenity laws are “selectively enforced” by police “to harass gays” and “close down any gar or lesbian bar with erotic art on its walls or that shows sexy movies.” Anti-porn movements, he concludes, aim to “create a sex-negative social climate that will facilitate the suppression of all forms of sexual dissent.” And it’s the police who get to decide what is or isn’t appropriate. Four decades later, Morena echoes Califia’s point: Deviation from heteronormativity is what makes oppression “justified” by our oppressors.

It’s not just that adult content can be an incredibly liberating avenue for self-understanding and experimentation. People who do sex work deserve spaces to meet clients and sell our wares. Access to adult material is a civil liberty, and for many, adults utilizing adult services pays the bills. To curtail access to sex workers, performers, and their porn is to censor sexual expression. And it doesn’t take an expert to tell you that banning adult media encourages sociocultural repression. But that seems to be the point: Western society is scared of realizing sex is more complicated than reproductive sex. And to challenge what it means to have sexual desire is to uncover something that could question society’s sexual values.

“The idea that someone you love, be it partner or child, could want something that horrifies you or disgusts you, is not something most people are ever ready to fully face with compassion,” Loup said. “And I don’t think most people are equipped with the understanding that, like, wanting a character in a book or a cartoon character to be your mom and call you son while you fuck her doesn’t mean you secretly want to fuck your actual mom in real life.”

Sex Work Adult Content Red Umbrella briethe/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

The truth is, sexuality is complicated and confusing. It’s OK to be confused by it. But porn doesn’t always look like porn. Califia’s introduction to smut began not with fisting zines but “images of capture, helplessness, and torture” in his childhood superhero comics. Humans are sexual creatures, and to repress our sexuality is to repress our free expression.

In other words: Don’t censor porn. Don’t shove adult creators and performers into a sectioned off corner of the internet. Porn is normal and healthy as long as everyone viewing it is getting the proper context they deserve. Instead of a war on porn, help sex workers achieve the labor rights they deserve and hold exploitative companies in the adult industry accountable when they steal sex workers’ content.

“Revenge porn and underaged exploitation can easily be uploaded to piracy tech companies because their business model [is] to allow anyone to anonymously upload content for free. This is because their business model thrives on stealing content from porn creators, and workers,” Morena said. “Why can’t the solution be to crack down on people who steal from us, who profit from the destruction of our industry, and our work, and to instead require that people pay us?”

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Ana Valens

Ana Valens

Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.