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Porn isn’t ruining Congress—Congress is ruining Congress

The U.S. Capitol Building - Washington DC

Are we hypocrites for being angry that some federal workers goof off on the job?

Do we really care that much if federal employees watch porn?

Congress certainly does, judging from several attempts at limiting the use of government equipment to consume pornography, including H.R. 5628, proposed by Republican Mark Meadows (N.C.) this month. The bill primarily reiterates existing policies regarding the use of government computers and other tech—a response to a recent case involving an outstandingly porn-obsessed EPA employee.

The porn situation was one among a laundry list of issues uncovered at the EPA by government watchdogs, but it was the one that the Republican right zeroed in on. While conservatives have long hated the EPA, this was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back; the government employee who spends two to six hours a day watching pornand getting paid for itwas a bridge too far.

Two different issues are coming up here: One has to do with government efficiency, and the other to do with moral panic. Arguably, employees of any agency or company should be focused on work-related tasks while at work, and one struggles to imagine how an EPA employee could accomplish weekly targets with only 10 hours to do so.

However, porn isn’t exactly the only path to government inefficiency: It just happens to be the one that most concerns the right.

Conservatives and government agencies have been battling porn for quite a while. Work computers are equipped with web filters, for example, which block access to an assortment of blacklisted websites, including those hosting porn. Such software is imperfect, much to the dismay of California’s Darrell Issa, who evidently was outraged at the thought that sites like “Bare So Horny” managed to slip in.

Hilariously, every single member of Congress actually receives a free monthly copy of Hustler, courtesy of Larry Flynt. The publisher has successfully batted down a number of challenges to the unwanted mailing, arguing that it’s an exercise of his right to free speech. In a classic example of a wry court decision, a D.C. District Court asked to address the issue noted: “Receiving Hustler once each month would not unduly burden a Member of Congress. Members are not forced to read the magazine or other of the mail they receive in volume. We cannot imagine that Congressional offices all lack wastebaskets.”

Porn in the halls of Congress, and elsewhere, is just a fact. But it may not necessarily interfere with efficiency.

Like other U.S. workers, federal employees work more than any other group of workers in the industrialized world. Notably, working long hours doesn’t actually increase productivity or efficiency:

The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. As Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become ‘less efficient and less effective.’ And the effects are cumulative. The bankers Michel studied started to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed that their creativity and judgment declined.

Federal employees have fallen into the common American trap of believing that worth can be measured in the number of hours spent at work—and that problem is compounded by expectations that all workers put in at least 40 hours each week. Despite evidence demonstrating that long hours don’t produce results, the culture of overwork persists in government jobs.

Would focusing on work alone increase productivity for government workers? Is that even a reasonable expectation? If workers have weekly targets and meet them, does the actual number of hours worked matter, given that they’re on salary and earn the same amount no matter way? These are important questions to be asking as we explore the environment and psyche of the American workplace—maybe it’s better, for example, to encourage people to just go home when they’re done for the day, so they can watch porn from the comfort of their couches.

This is because federal offices, like other workplaces in America, are filled with people who are doing things other than working. Workers are playing games, checking their email, and, apparently, watching porn—no matter how they’re amusing themselves, it isn’t by doing a bit of light filing or finishing off reports. Tellingly, workers who actually stay on task the least are those who are most content in their jobs. Some workplaces are even starting to welcome a less structured environment with more room for play.

So, does the exact method of blowing off steam matter? Whether it’s porn or anything else, people are finding ways to enrich their workplace experience—and as long as they’re not disturbing coworkers with their personal activities, it’s hard to see how their cubicle antics are anyone else’s business. (With the exception of porn involving children, victims of sex trafficking, and other exploited people.)

The right’s opposition to goofing off at work to watch porn is rooted partially in a dislike of what’s perceived as lazy, unproductive behavior—something conservatives cannot abide—but it’s also about hating pornography on principle. In a sex-negative world where conservative values heavily dominate the way society talks about sexuality, it’s not surprising to see pornography tarred with a particularly heavy brush.

Conservatives know that most Americans would be hypocritically irritated and upset at the thought of federal workers messing around at work instead of doing their jobs, but that many would be incensed to discover that federal workers were watching porn; it’s like a whole new level of offensiveness, in the eyes of those on the right. Many Americans, if pressed on the issue, would say that they find porn personally repugnant (the large size of the industry would say otherwise), and thus might well support bans on the use of federal equipment to view pornographic material on principle.

However, a ban of this nature isn’t necessarily particularly meaningful. “Pornography” is not clearly defined in the proposed bill, leaving considerable leeway when it comes to enforcement—speaking of which, there’s no real mechanism for enforcing the bill, either. Routinely painstakingly sifting through browser histories to find evidence of pornographic materials would be a massive waste of energy and resources for I.T. departments, so if your concern is inefficiency and lack of productivity at work, the porn bill feels rather counterintuitive.

Really, the bill does little more than sending a message: Conservatives don’t like porn (big surprise). It’s a fantastic appeal to their base in a midterm election year, but beyond that, Meadows’ move is largely just a political stunt. Concerns about efficiency and performance at government agencies could be much ameliorated by hiring an efficiency and workflow expert to identify areas for improvement.

Given how much Congress enjoys gridlock, to the point of letting the federal government shut down on the basis of ideological principles, Congresspeople seem like the least reliable authorities when it comes to efficiency.

Photo via Glyn Lowe Photography/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.