Pornography

The War on Porn Continues

Three decades after the Reagan administration crackdown, the crusade against pornography is waged online and overseas.

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War on porn

Even before the Internet, Americans loved porn. In 1983, the three most popular nudie magazines—Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler—then ranked as the 14th, 17th, and 57th largest magazines in America, distributing a combined 9 million copies each month. The Playboy Channel, a pay-cable network devoted to the finer things in life, was in more than 700,000 homes. The Adult Film Association of America boasted that some 65 million X-rated movies-back when that's what they were called-were rented or purchased in 1984. All without a single connection to the World Wide Web.

But while millions of Americans appreciated pornography, their government didn't. The Reagan administration pursued a relentless crusade against exposed flesh throughout the 1980s. As Martin Morse Wooster chronicled in "Reagan's Smutstompers," an article in the April 1986 issue of reason, the effort was headed up by an odd alliance of socially conservative "veterans of right-wing trench warfare" and "radical feminists whose views are normally abhorred by the hard right." Reagan officials requested more than $5 million for a study they said would "scientifically identify and define 'pornography' and its variable effects on adults and juveniles."

The Reagan White House's anti-porn push was an outgrowth of a legal crackdown that began a decade prior. "Between September 1978 and March 1985," Wooster wrote, "the FBI launched 2,484 investigations into pornography, resulting in 118 convictions and $7.1 million in fines and confiscated property."

Three decades later, the crusade against pornography continues online and overseas. In the United Kingdom, Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron has long backed the creation of an opt-in system in which users must affirmatively choose to avoid government censorship. The program, first announced more than two years ago, went into full effect in January. The 20 million British households with Internet connections now must decide whether to opt out of a government-filtered Internet.

The optional content filter grew out of a government report on the "commercialization and sexualization" of children, and it was sold as a way of stopping kids from accessing pornographic content. But it blocks far more than explicit whoopee-making. An early version gated access to non-graphic "gay and lesbian" sites and to sex education materials. And the filter continues to restrict access to file sharing sites, regardless of what content is being shared, labeling them as "obscene content."