I’m fascinated by the debate that has been raging these past several days among conservatives around the issue of pornography. I’m happy to accept blame for helping to start this scuffle because I think it has been a clarifying moment for conservatism. As Jane Coaston outlined in her fair and insightful reporting at Vox, the dispute over porn regulation really springs from a more fundamental disagreement about the actual purpose of government.
Guys like Sohrab Ahmari have come down on the pro-regulation side, while the libertarians at Reason have settled, unsurprisingly, on the other. The dividing line even runs through The Daily Wire. My colleagues Michael Knowles and Josh Hammer join Ahmari, myself, and others in the view that government has a legitimate role in battling the porn epidemic, while Ben Shapiro and Jeremy Boreing say that it should not have a substantial role — and any role, if there is one, should not include an outright ban. I think everyone cited above has contributed thoughtfully to the discussion, and I’m not just saying that because two of them happen to sign my paychecks.
But through this whole back-and-forth, I haven’t seen anyone engage with what I consider to be my strongest argument. Putting aside, for a moment, the philosophical discussion about the nature of government and the state’s role in preserving the common good — an important conversation, but one that leads us far into the weeds and loses sight of the original subject in the process — I’d like to re-emphasize a very simple point I’ve made about the porn problem, specifically.
The defense of pornography, or at least of its remaining legal and mostly unregulated, seems to hinge on the fact that the content is produced and viewed by consenting adults. If viewers do not consent to viewing a sexual act, we all presumably agree that a crime has occurred. It would seem to strain the bounds of the most radical libertarianism to argue that a group of adults are within their rights to have an orgy on the subway, for example.
Porn is different, it’s argued, because you only view it if you seek it out. If viewers of porn were not consenting — if internet porn were of such a nature that millions of people were forced to encounter it against their will every year — then it would seem that the argument against prohibition or regulation begins to crumble. Well, I think it has already crumbled because indeed millions of people are exposed to it every year against their will and consent. Those defending the legality of porn seem to be ignoring this group of victims, and I think that is an insurmountable moral and logical flaw in their position.
Children are first exposed to porn at the age of 11, on average. As we speak right now, there are no doubt millions of minors, some as young as five or six years old, watching adults have sex on the internet. This is an indisputable fact. Does the fact not blow to smithereens the “consent” excuse offered by the other side? Our legal system rests on the assumption that minors cannot consent to engage in sexual acts. If an adult has sex with a child, the adult is guilty of rape no matter if the child verbally agreed or not. In our society, we understand that children lack the mental and emotional maturity to make an informed decision in this area. To deny that is to literally defend pedophilia.
Well, if children cannot consent to engage in a sexual act, does it not inevitably follow that they cannot consent to witness such an act? If they cannot consent as a second-party participant, neither can they consent as a third-party participant. Thus, every child who watches porn does so, by definition, without consent. Again: I don’t see how you can quibble with this argument without also quibbling with the logic for criminalizing pedophilic behavior. I’m not saying that the people on the opposite side of this issue are trying to legalize pedophilia. I’m saying that they fail to appreciate how our laws against pedophilia also provide a basis for pornography regulation.
This all means that every “consenting adult” who posts hardcore sex videos to the internet does so knowing that children can very easily access and view it. They are putting it, as it were, within reach of the child. If the child reaches for it, who do we blame? Is it the child’s fault or the fault of the person who put it there? I would argue that every child who has viewed internet pornography is a victim of abuse. And the abuser is the person who posted that content where a child, with no trouble at all, could find it.
Indeed, the internet porn industry makes hundreds of millions of dollars every year on children. Each hit to a site like Pornhub is monetized. If millions of children go on that site — which they do, because there’s nothing to stop them — then Pornhub profits to the tune of millions on the psychological and sexual abuse of children. If you don’t think the government has an interest in the common good, broadly speaking, will you admit that it at least has an interest in preventing people from making millions on providing pornography to 12-year-olds?
The obvious dodge here is to lay the onus entirely at the feet of parents. “It’s not the pornographer’s fault,” critics will respond. “It’s up to the parent to stop their kids from seeing this stuff.” I find this rejoinder to be profoundly lazy. It’s true that parents should be doing all they can to shield their children from the filth on the internet, but it’s also true that the internet is so ubiquitous that parents cannot, on their own, do a sufficient job in this regard. Even if the child has no phone and no internet access at home — or, more likely, regulated internet access at home — he can still go almost anywhere else and access the internet dozens of different ways. Short of moving into a cave in the desert, a parent can only provide partial cover. But partial cover, in the end, is only a little better than no cover at all.
Besides, this does nothing to relieve the responsibility of the person posting the content in the first place. Even if every child exposed to porn has ineffectual and inattentive parents (which is most emphatically not the case), that still doesn’t explain why anyone should have the right to post sex videos on a public forum where children can easily access them. It might be true that some children who are molested could have been saved that trauma had their parents been more vigilant, but that does absolutely nothing at all to excuse the man who did the molesting. The same holds true for pornographers.
The question is this: Do we have a natural human right to post hardcore sex videos online where children can see them? Anyone who says “yes” has an extremely confused and hopelessly ambiguous conception of human rights. The rational people who say “no,” however, must weigh whether a person’s privilege to post such content outweighs the right of a child to be free from sexual abuse and trauma.
This does not have to be a deeply philosophical debate about philosophies of governance and so on. This can be much simpler. You do not have a right to expose children to sexually explicit content. Children do have a right to certain basic legal protections. That fact alone, in my view, is enough to settle the argument.