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Alabama could start taxing porn—and it’s the biggest buzzkill ever

abstract art of a pole dancer

Alabama wants to send the porn industry flying away on a sin wagon. And it’s all about money.

The South just fell again. And if lawmakers have their way, so will the sex drives deep down in the Heart of Dixie.

Taking direct aim at the libidos of countless Alabamians, a state House committee just approved a bill that would add a 40 percent excise tax to the sale, rental, or admission charges of any pornographic material or sexually oriented items—that’s in addition to any other already-existing levies. As local CBS affiliate WKRG reports, State Rep. Jack Williams, a Republican from Vestavia Hills, proposed the new tax as part of a package to close the state’s budget gap and keep essential services funded.

“Basically says that any entertainment product that’s adult in nature, that you have to be over 18 to purchase, would have an excise tax like cigarettes and tobacco do,” Williams explained. And at least nine other colleagues agreed, sending the bill out of the Ways and Means committee in a decisive 10-to-4 vote. Now that the likes of XTube, PornHub, and even those NSFW Tumblr blogs have made porn more popular and easily accessible than ever before, it’s a convenient target for some governments to tread on—such as Russia‘s recent ban of 11 major porn sites.

In most states, the heavy tax measures on smokes and alcoholic beverages are otherwise known as the “sin tax”—both as a form of government intervention for increased revenue and as negative reinforcement for behaviors that officials deem either deplorable or detrimental to the greater good. Sure, studies link cigarettes to cancer, non-smokers can’t stand the secondhand fumes, and people who drink irresponsibly sometimes endanger their lives or those of others.

But pornography, especially when created and used responsibly, is not life-threatening or detrimental to one’s well-being. But that doesn’t seem to be stopping Alabama from sending the porn and sex toy industry flying away on a sin wagon. Instead of finding another way to address their budget woes—like, say, a progressive tax that ensures the richest of the rich and lower earners actually pay their fair share—state lawmakers are punishing their citizens for exhibiting healthy sexual habits.

In a sense, this porno-phobic variation of the “sin tax” creates distinct financial castes—the so-called straightlaced folks who don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t watch porn, and those supposed “selfish hedonists” who light up, drink up, and get off. It’s a framework that’s very much in line with conservative religious values, especially those so publicly and proudly espoused in states such as Alabama—the former legal battleground over a Ten Commandments monument installed outside a public building. Yet religion and morality aren’t absolutes, and not everyone in the state shares the same set of personal beliefs regarding substance use and sexual agency.

In fact, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, as Alabama.com reported, the state’s “religiously unaffiliated” surpassed the percentage of white mainline Protestants, ranking third along the lines of faith beliefs and non-beliefs. Per the American Values Atlas, which included the full results of the study, 14 percent of Alabamians are religiously unaffiliated, only ranking behind white evangelical Protestants (36 percent) and black Protestants (18 percent).

None of this data should surprise anyone, as many humans—regardless of faith, age, or gender—have sexual proclivities, save for some who identify along the asexual spectrum.

Even so, who’s to say that those card-carrying, Bible-thumping, Southern Protestants aren’t enjoying porn behind closed doors, with the anonymity of the Internet to shroud them from public or religious scrutiny? As the Washington Times’ Meredith Somers reported last year, a study by the Barna Group noted that 64 percent of Christian men admitted to viewing pornography at least once a month, consuming it at roughly the same rate as non-Christian men. But of the Christian men polled, the majority of them watched porn several times each week.

None of this data should surprise anyone, as many humans—regardless of faith, age, or gender—have sexual proclivities, save for some who identify along the asexual spectrum. For those who enjoy pornography, it’s not a form of entertainment that need be viewed as inherently “sinful” or without any social good. Over at AlterNet, Liz Langley highlighted the results of a number of studies showing that pornography can indeed help elevate the audience’s awareness of their sexual needs, enhance their sex education, and improve their general quality of life.

And as Nico Lang and EJ Dickson noted last year at the Daily Dot, porn remains a convenient scapegoat for the downfall of society—everything from shortening attention spans, to rising divorce rates, and even the shooting at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I don’t think pornography is a replacement for the real thing, but research has shown that having a healthy masturbation schedule actually makes us better sex partners—and partners in general,” Lang noted, with Dickson later adding, “Porn doesn’t just give you the skills to learn how to better please your partner, either: It also can help give you skills for how to better please yourself. If you masturbate semi-regularly, chances are you know enough about yourself and your own body and what it likes to be able to ask for it in bed…”

Throwing it in the “sin tax” category is more than bad budget politics; it shames viewers for enjoying one of the most simple, yet beautifully complex pleasures of humanity. 

Yet it’s this kind of healthy, sustainable approach to viewing pornography and enjoying one’s sexuality that’s being discouraged by Alabama lawmakers, who have reduced it to nothing more than a form of “adult entertainment” that’s comparable to cigarettes and alcohol. Any company worth its salt can make a new, hip, addicting (and potentially toxic) tobacco product, or manufacture enough booze to keep nightclubs and bars socially lubricated. But sex and sexuality don’t quite work that way—even if porn flicks, toys, and other gear can enhance the experience of masturbating or engaging partners.

Porn, for some, may not be a necessity, but it’s definitely part of a balanced sexual diet for millions. Throwing it in the “sin tax” category is more than bad budget politics; it shames viewers for enjoying one of the most simple, yet beautifully complex pleasures of humanity. 

Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice. Follow Derrick on Twitter: @DerrickClifton.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.