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If You Really Wanted to Ban Porn, Here's What It Would Take

Prohibition never works, and internet smut is no exception.

Yui Mok/ZUMA Press/NewscomYui Mok/ZUMA Press/NewscomImagine, for a moment, what it would take to successfully ban pornography in the United States.

To start with, you would need to stop the production of porn by business enterprises, forcing, at minimum, every person who has ever attended the Adult Video News Awards in a professional capacity to immediately find a new line of work.

Next, you would need to find a way to stop a slew of high profile, incredibly lucrative websites from posting, hosting, or otherwise distributing explicit material.

After you cracked down on the pros, you would need to go after amateurs by finding some way to stop tens of millions of iPhone-wielding Americans from making home movies—many of which would resemble professional products in quality—and distributing them anonymously online, or even just amongst trusted circles of friends.

To be at all effective, you would also need to enforce criminal penalties against former professionals who continued to produce porn for the black market. And you'd need to penalize thrill-seeking amateurs as well, which would mean going after, and perhaps locking up, a wide array of sympathetic and otherwise law-abiding individuals from all walks of life whose only crime was to record and distribute consensual sexual activity. You'd also need to punish illicit viewers, whose numbers could easily reach into the tens of millions.

This project would be difficult, unpopular, and there would be no guarantee that it would work at all. Many of the most popular domestic hubs for porn would probably move to protected locations overseas. But it is at least plausible that if you devoted sufficient public resources and effort on the part of law-enforcement, you might—might—be able to reduce, if not eliminate, porn consumption.

Yet even if such a ban worked (in the narrow sense of reducing the porn viewership), you would, inevitably, also leave a thriving black market—on private websites, in hush-hush DVD-distribution networks, in windowless basement studios, and countless other forums designed to avoid the attention of the porn police.

As porn moved underground, the production would almost certainly become less safe for performers working in illegal operations; those performers would also be at risk of legal punishment. The product itself, meanwhile, would likely skew more towards fringe and perhaps even dangerous tastes, as conventional viewers with conventional tastes existed the market. Without any legal distinctions, it's not too hard to imagine a greater interest in, or least acceptance of, child pornography amongst the more risk-seeking porn consumers who remained.

Making and watching porn would become a criminal act, and so its production and viewing would become far more associated with existing criminality, in some cases of the violent sort. Porn might be viewed less often than it is now, but it would still be popular, and its price would rise as a result of the costs of prohibition. Black market porn would create a flush new revenue stream for individuals and organizations comfortable working outside of the law, helping to fund all sorts of other illicit activities, not all of which would be consensual.

Law enforcement, if it took prohibition seriously, would end up spending a considerable share of its available time and resources cracking down on illegal porn makers and consumers, many of whom, in the age of ubiquitous high-quality camera phones, would be the same people. For prohibition to be effective, authorities would need new powers to surveil and arrest, as well as new oversight over popular technologies, and countless other new ways to intrude on the private lives of citizens.

Porn prohibition, in other words, would look a lot like other types of prohibition, especially bans on alcohol and drugs. And when you call for banning pornography, as Ross Douthat does in his latest column, bluntly titled "Let's Ban Porn," that sort of prohibition environment is what you are calling for: the creation of a massive, potentially dangerous black market that fuels other types of criminality.

I almost always admire Douthat's columns even when I disagree with them. His strength is that he often stages actual arguments, with multiple sides, rather than simply making assertions. At his best, he is not only aware of his antagonists' best arguments, but generous in conceding that, even if their arguments aren't strong enough to fully sway him, they may have a point or two worth taking seriously.

But even granting his baked-in assumption that the government is somehow responsible for promoting a certain sort of sexual culture via a regime of criminal punishment, the problem with his argument for banning pornography is that he barely acknowledges the many real, pragmatic counterarguments to making such a ban a reality.

Instead, Douthat chooses as his antagonist the general cultural acceptance of internet pornography as a given, while only briefly acknowledging that porn prohibition wouldn't prevent people from viewing porn:

While you can find anything somewhere on the internet, making hard-core porn something to be quested after in dark corners would dramatically reduce its pedagogical role, its cultural normalcy, its power over libidos everywhere.

That we cannot imagine such censorship is part of our larger inability to imagine any escape from the online world's immersive power, even as we harbor growing doubts about its influence upon our psyches.

It's an argument against cultural defeatism in the social conservative war against online smut. Which means that it totally fails to seriously grapple with the practical arguments against porn prohibition.

Douthat frames his argument as a way to prevent porn from stunting the sexual development of teenagers. He starts by referring to a New York Times Magazine feature abot a program teaching "porn literacy" to young people. His concern is that porn now exerts an undue influence on their sexual expectations and behaviors.

This is true, of course, in the sense that mass culture always has some influence on how we view the world. But Douthat's core worry is effectively the same fear that drove socially conservative criticisms of video games, action movies, and Dungeons & Dragons—that teenagers will be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and will reenact what they see on screen in real life.

We could probably use more detailed research on how porn affects sexual habits, yet the evidence so far suggests that watching porn has only a minor effect on teen sexual behaviors, mostly in the form of a small increase in willingness to try new sexual practices. At the same time, as porn has become more widely available, teens are having less sex, partly out of concerns about personal safety. The teen pregnancy rate has also hit a 40-year-low. The advent of easy-to-access pornography, in other words, has coincided with a teen sexuality that is overall more cautious and more risk averse.

And if the developing minds of teenagers were the real issue, one might think that the response would be to ban the distribution of porn to minors. But this is already illegal. Which means that what Douthat is really advocating is banning porn for adults, in hopes that such a ban will somehow prevent teens from exposure to sexual imagery. Such a blanket ban would in all likelihood work even less well than, say, the prohibition on pot, which unlike internet pornography requires physical distribution networks.

A porn ban, then, is a prohibition that might not work on its own terms, and would in any case leave us with a world in which porn is darker and more dangerous for everyone involved. The real barrier to banning pornography, the objection that matters, is not cultural defeatism or lack of public will. It is that attempting to ban porn would at best be a foolish, expensive, and futile project, and at worst a path to a new and radically expanded police state devoted to punishing people for engaging in acts of consensual self-expression. A federal war on porn would be just as winnable as the federal wars on drugs and alcohol—in other words, not winnable at all.

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  • Alan Vanneman||

    Douthat is always wanting to talk about porn, for some reason, how it's corrupting this and that. I think he just liked talking about porn. In a very serious way, of course.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Like me and National Geographic!

  • wuracituj||

    I'm making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

    This is what I do... www.onlinecareer10.com

  • Hugh Akston||

    Let's not forget the further corruption of various law enforcement agencies as illicit porn cartels brought cops onto the payroll to get them to look the other way or violently take down the competition.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    "look the other way" -- good one, Hugh!

  • timbo||

    As much as I advocate uninhibited porn and plenty of access to it, we do live in a morally bankrupt society.

  • Hugh Akston||

    How do you figure?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • some guy||

    How so? Violent crime rates are lower than any time in at least 50 years. Theft rates are lower than at any time since the 60's. Fraud rates may be up but that's probably just because the internet makes fraud easier to mass-produce. I think our society is more moral than ever before.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I think our society is more moral than ever before.

    I agree and it's sickening. There was a time when a trench coat-wearing man could stand in Times Square and flash people without fear of recrimination.

  • some guy||

    recrimination

    So your flashes, themselves, count as accusations of misbehavior?

  • silver.||

    There was a time when a trench coat-wearing man could stand in Times Square and flash people without fear of recrimination.

    Ah, that brings back memories.

  • timbo||

    I'm talking about our genera discourse. We(not me) worship politicians that are clearly corrupt. Sex is ingrained into everything from pharmaceutical commercials to diaper commercials, everyone is always arguing over what ever they are told to argue about.

    The populous is too stupid to grasp that $20 trillion in debt is something to be talking about all of the time. Instead, we are worried about what imbecile famous people are doing and how they are groping each other.

    Its just embarrassing to be an American when you look around yourself in public. When in the company of entrepreneurial people capable of a rational thought, the discourse about the future is incredibly bright. Those groups are hard to find.

  • some guy||

    The reason we focus on all that pointless crap is because we've got nothing better to worry about. Our lives are great. I'll agree that a lot of people are stupid to be ignoring the debt, but I don't think that's a moral failing. That type of stupidity has been around for centuries.

  • Hugh Akston||

    It's also worth noting that talking about the debt is pointless because people have no control over how the government spends money.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Right no control at all... They can vote for a Democrat who loves to raise the public debt or they can vote for a Republican who loves to raise the public debt. Sure, sometimes there is a third-party candidate on the ballot, but they can't choose that because that would mean "throwing away their vote" or it might help whichever of the two major candidates they perceive as being ever so slightly (just a teeny tiny bit) worse than the other major party candidate.

    They also can't consider the option of refusing to vote at all until the parties cough up some candidates who are serious about their responsibility with other people's money. Remember the 1960s anti-draft slogan, "What if they had a war, and nobody came?" What do you think would happen if voter turnout didn't just sit around 50% but actually kept dropping further and further down until only actual party apparatchiks showed up at the polls? It might lead to such a crisis in democracy that the major parties would at least consider putting forward responsible, clear-thinking adults instead of the pants-shitting, whining, economically-illiterate, corrupt weasels that pass for politicians.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    And I keep hearing about how all the young men are beta cucks uninterested in sex.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I hear that too, and I question who I hear it FROM. I mean, are these young men really uninterested in sex, or are they just uninterested in sex with THE PERSON CALLING THEM BETA CUCKS?

    It's kind of like the guy that can't get some girl to give him the time of day who decides that the girl is frigid or hopelessly repressed. Sorry to inform you there, Dr. Freud, but maybe it's just YOU she doesn't want. If a different person comes along, she very well might discover her libido.

  • vek||

    Well, young people in general are having less sex... So all the boys could be beta male cucks (lots of them clearly are), and all the girls could be frigid judgemental bitches!

    I think the truth is that many men are less masculine, which is what society is demanding of them... Women even say out loud it's what they want... But they don't really want that. As always women prefer strong, confident men, including up to the point of telling women "No." when they get out of line. I've never been the type to pretend I agree with BS women say, or to act like an ultra PC puss bag. Women act incensed... But they actually love it, because it shows you're not weak and have confidence. Guys who display these traits 10x harder than me do 10x better with chicks than I do. It's biology.

    But I don't think any of that effects the amount of sex much overall. It would sort women more towards the smaller number of strong men that remain, but women are having less sex too. That probably has to do with social awkwardness, possibly related to having less in person contact and more electronic contact. Maybe I should start macking on 21 year olds or something if all the young lads are such losers... I'm only 32, and they can go to the bar at 21! LOL

  • Huh18?||

    Yep. What he said.

  • Jickerson||

    We live in a society where the government conducts unconstitutional mass surveillance on the populace, fights an unconstitutional war on drugs, has 7+ unjustifiable interventions overseas, routinely oppresses whistleblowers, steals from people routinely via asset forfeiture, and so on. The majority of people only care about a small number of those, and even then only in the narrowest sense.

    Oh, we're better than people in the past by some metrics? Not a very high bar, if you ask me. We live in a morally bankrupt society because our society is totally un-libertarian. I don't know if that's his reason, but that would be mine.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    To start with, you would need to stop the production of porn by business enterprises, forcing, at minimum, every person who has ever attended the Adult Video News Awards in a professional capacity to immediately find a new line of work.

    No you wouldn't. You would attack the problem like the government attacks so many other problems. You start a regulatory agency with broad, ill-defined powers.

    The commission could be like, oh, I dunno, the FEC commision with say, five members. Those five members would have the power to identify (via vote) any activity or medium that can be defined (by the agency) as pornography.

    Once identified, the website or offending video can then be shut down. All videos and internet pornography are carried by the ISPs, so the ISPs become your enforcement-- or 'action' arm of the agency. LIke, Facebook. Facebook receives requests by not only the US government, but various foreign government demanding takedowns of content those government find "contemptible", and facebook responds favorably to such requests almost 100% of the time.

    This is easier than you think.

    Will it "eliminate" porn? Of course not, but it'll scurry underground and really, what's more satisfying than that if you're on the 5 member panel?

    We libertarians like to think that because the government fails to stop or fully eradicate a particular behavior, that the policy was a failure. It's not. The growth and spread of government power is the point.

  • some guy||

    Wouldn't all of this just be unconstitutional? I thought porn was covered under the 1A, so really any attempt to ban it would be shot down in Circuit court, shot down in Appeals and wouldn't even be heard by SCOTUS.

  • Hugh Akston||

    That's just defeatism talking. If we all work together we can change the First Amendment so it doesn't protect speech that is icky, scary, or wrong. Then Douthat's vision of a safer, saner, more erotic America will blossom.

  • Liberty Lover||

    Do I get to decide what is icky, scary or wrong? I would like that job, especially if the Federal government paid well to do that job. You would like me deciding too, as I don't find very much icky scary and wrong. Better me than the bitter old lady from your local church!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Sure, but the constitution was written by dead white men, so.

  • vek||

    Well, it may be 1A, but that doesn't mean they can't regulate it right??? They just regulate things a little bit, common sense stuff of course, like they do to all the other amendments!

    Require condoms, ban anal, then a few years later blur out the naughtiest bits like in Japan, raise the age to legally participate to 25 so young girls aren't taken advantage of, etc. Death of a thousand cuts. Then it'll all just be made in Europe. Ban accessing known foreign websites that don't follow OUR regulations via ISPs...

    Nobody will try to do this, but they could make it hell if they wanted to.

  • Thomas O.||

    They'll find some way to link it to the Commerce Clause. I wouldn't put it past 'em.

  • vek||

    That's what they used for 95% of their other unconstitutional expansions of government, and porn IS business, so sounds about right... :/

  • ShenErn||

    Spare me the Prohibition hyperbole and false parallels.

    Well written Diane. And look at this other wacko democracy recognizing and attempting to address this scourge: http://www.wired.co.uk/article.....cation-law

    Let's follow them closely to learn how we can do it even better.

    "Ban" may not be the right word, but control. Are we allowed to see "anything" on the internet? Aren't some things blocked? I think that's the point, it is possible to filter and block via ISP. The retail outlets may resurge but that's always complicated with zoning and local laws - and they certainly can make it against the law to visit underage.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "Ban" may not be the right word, but control.

    And controlling is all you need to create a new industrial complex.

  • DaveSs||

    Takedowns won't accomplish anything. The site owners will just move to hosting in other countries.

    Ok, so now you say "ISPs will be required to block access to those sites in other countries"

    Except that won't work either because using a VPN with endpoints outside the US means your ISP cannot see what goes on inside the tunnel and thus cannot block it.

    Ok, so now you say we forbid domestic VPN providers from permitting US customers from accessing porn via foreign endpoints.

    Except that won't work either because customers can find foreign VPN providers.

    We haven't even went underground and all the commission will have accomplished is moving everything overseas. Access will remain essentially unchanged, albeit with just one extra step.

    ThePirateBay has been 'taken down' multiple times, yet its still here.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Such men would exist without industrial-scale porn, but porn selects for them, as it selects for a romantic landscape like our own: ever-more-liberated and ever-less-erotic, trending Japan-ward in its gulf between the sexes, with marriage and children and sex itself in shared decline.

    Panicking about evolving sexual mores, the erosion of marriage, and insufficient baby-makin' never ever goes out of style.

  • some guy||

    Forget the meek. Mormons are going to inherit the Earth.

  • John Galtt||

    I think I'd rather ban the federal government.

  • vek||

    THIS ONE

  • The Knuckle||

    "Challenge accepted, hold my beer"
    -US Government

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    This.

  • TheHeathen||

    You will have to pry the Japanese-Tentacle-Midget-Bestiality porn from my cold, dead hands!

  • some guy||

    I envision a no-knock SWAT raid on TheHeathen's house, justified by fear of what "tools" he might keep in his dungeon.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It's not your hands they're going to pry it from.

  • jelabarre||

    Never liked the whole tentacle thing. OTOH, some Miku/Luka or Mio/Ritsu dōjinshi (no Futanari, thank you) is entirely different.

  • Calidissident||

    How much do you want to bet Douthat has a massive porn collection stashed away on his laptop?

    Who wants to take a guess as to what his favorite category is?

  • fafalone||

    Hmm, I'll take a guess at that one. It's of the highly illegal kind and his whole argument was made out of frustration that his preferred type of porn is subject to insanely strict bans, so everyone else's should be too.

  • ||

    Cranio-rectal porn.

  • Rich||

    Imagine, for a moment, what it take to successfully ban pornography in the United States.

    Redefine pornography as a kind of murder?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    In March 2016, the U.K. government published its second National Strategy to End Volence Against Women and Girls. This is an extremely important lever for U.K. campaigners against pornography and its harms, as it recognizes that young people in particular have unprecedented access to online content and that some of that content may of course be harmful. A current government inquiry into sexual harassment in schools and a new cross-party campaign to tackle misogynist abuse online have all highlighted the ways in which pornography contributes to and legitimizes negative attitudes with very real impacts on the lives of women and girls.

    You guys make fun of the UK ban, but it's so woke, it's blinding me!

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    You'll have to pry my porn from my cold, dead, well-lubricated hand!

    Well actually it will probably just slip out due to all the lube. But you'll have to touch it then, and clean up the mess! Ha!

  • Verbum Vincet||

    I've come full circle on the porn. First the Sears catalog bra section, then the odd Playboy lifted from someone's dad. From there, it was but a short hop to videos. When the Internet came out, I couldn't freaking believe all the free porn - new and kinkier stuff every day, and lesbians doing anything and everything a man could desire! Eventually, it started feeling cheap and got really boring. Once you've jacked off to latex watersports dominatrix bitches, what else is there? Now I'm once again turned on by hot chicks in various states of dress. It's important to leave something to the imagination!

  • Inigo Montoya||

    At first I thought the "Ban Porn" article mentioned was a parody meant to underscore the futility of the War on Drugs. But it seems the guy is serious.

    I simply truly do not understand the thinking that goes, "I really don't like something, and would never participate myself, so I must do what's necessary to prevent other adults from doing that."

    I will make an analogy to food. I love lots of types of food. I will even eat organ meats, bitter-tasting salad greens, raw lemon, you name it. But when I sometimes catch one of those cooking/travel shows where they show street food in China or wherever and you have people buying and eating fried scorpion on a stick, or baked termites, or something? DISGUSTING.

    I would not even consider trying such "delicacies." I could be ravenous with hunger and coming off a multi-day fast and you would not convince me to swallow a scorpion or a tarantula. Gag me with a spoon, as Valley girls used to say. But why in the hell would I want to ban others from eating that stuff? If munching on arachnids is your thing, who am I to stop you?

    You don't like to see recordings of other people having sex? Then don't f-ing look that up and sit there and watch it. It's not like anyone is forcing anyone to watch porn.

  • vek||

    I had the same thought at first... Amazing anyone would even think of this in 2018. Mind boggling.

  • Ama-Gi Anarchist||

    The authoritarian impulses of the Regressive Left have reached Full Retard. I just love how they usually howl about Fundie authoritarians, but seem to love their own. So yea, go ahead, try and ban porn and see what happens. I mean, why not go ahead and empower the government to spy on us even more than they do know. These stupid fuckers will literally create groundwork for concentration camps and never once think about the consequences of their actions.

  • vek||

    What a nut job! Never gonna happen anytime in the near future, but insane he would even have the balls to say such a thing in 2018.

  • Naje||

    I hate to say this (not really) but because of online porn we have video streaming, high def images, gaming virtual reality, and countless other advances in technology. The online porn folks were the ones that took emerging tech and ran with it to make it work.
    So next time you're video chatting with someone, keep in mind that porn perfected it.

  • M.L.||

    Almost nobody seriously proposes "banning porn." At least not in my lifetime as a millennial.

    However, porn in real life is stringently regulated by zoning ordinances in every square inch of the country. The regulation is extremely simple: you don't belong over here, you belong over there. You don't belong across the street from the elementary school or the park playground or the toy store. You belong in these designated areas that are nonetheless perfectly accessible to those verifiably of-age patrons who wish to visit.

    For all the liberty problems that zoning laws can create, this regulation is rather appropriate in my opinion.

    if anything is to be done about online porn, the solution would be the very same: porn would be relegated to designated zones, i.e. particular domain extensions such as ".xxx" so that it is easier for schools, parents and others to specify access rights -- just as your local community can decide not have porn shops open up across from the school. Access could further be subject to age verification just as it is at the porn shop.

  • Jickerson||

    For all the liberty problems that zoning laws can create, this regulation is rather appropriate in my opinion.

    Why? Because you're offended by the idea of children possibly seeing such things? Why should I care what you're offended by?

    if anything is to be done about online porn, the solution would be the very same: porn would be relegated to designated zones, i.e. particular domain extensions such as ".xxx" so that it is easier for schools, parents and others to specify access rights -- just as your local community can decide not have porn shops open up across from the school.

    That's utterly absurd. How would forcing websites that contain particular content to make it easier to determine that they contain said content not be a violation of the first amendment? If you don't say what we want you to say, you're going to be punished!

    Also, why just porn? Why so arbitrary? Why not force websites advocating Christianity to have a special TLD?

  • Jickerson||

    Access could further be subject to age verification just as it is at the porn shop.

    So you also want to force websites to perform age verification to try to stop people below some arbitrary age from accessing the website. Again, how would this not be a violation of the first amendment? Even if the courts say it isn't, they are simply wrong. Also, any actual age verification scheme would be terrible for anonymity.

    And again, why just porn? Your bias is evident. You want big daddy government to "protect" certain people from content you don't think they should see.

  • Huh18?||

    But think of the bandwidth we could save!

    Seriously? Does some idiot think this could work?

  • Dread Pirate Roberts||

    Sure, let's ban porn. But first, kindly define what constitutes "pornography" and which specific acts are to be prohibited on film.

  • jelabarre||

    Sure, let's ban porn. But first, kindly define what constitutes "pornography"

    Perhaps passing legislation and voting on spending bills should be defined as porn?

  • T. Lord||

    I wish people would stop existing the market!

  • RPGuy16||

    I certainly don't think we should ban porn, but I do think that it is too easily accessible online. It would be great if someone could come up with a method of age verification that maintains a reasonable level of privacy.

  • Ricport||

    I love how self-professed conservatives like Douthat rail against Bloomberg nannying over soft drinks, yet turn around and promote government nanying over what consenting, law-abiding adults do. Talibangelicals (and ersatz ones) like Douthat are why I left the GOP.

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