Porn and Guns

Few subjects illustrate the stark philosophical divides in American culture like porn and guns. Obstensively, these are two of the nations most popular products. We create and consume them in numbers that almost defy belief. By at least one study, roughly 10% of internet use involves pornography. In 2012, Americans tried to purchase over 17 million guns according to reported background checks (this does not include illegal purchases or those exempt from background checks). Together, porn and guns are a significant part of our economy. They are also a great way to examine how polarizing our culture wars have been on creating effective policy and social structures.

Porn and guns have both been accused of being a public health crisis. Made more accessible by modern technology, critics of both fear a fundamental breakdown in our social fabric that threatens to destroy the nation. Our views on the subjects could not be more bifurcated.

For conservative critics, porn is a threat to our families, our marriages, our religion, and our souls. It is immoral, exploitative, and corrodes social norms and values. Few liberals defend porn with any vigor. Instead, it is viewed as an issue of free speech (1st Amendment), an escapist form of sexual fantasy, and as a human expression (be it sexual or artistic).

Likewise, liberal critics of guns view them as a tool of mass destruction that is literally killing our children, law enforcement officers, and the general public in ways both discriminate and indiscriminate. Unlike with porn, conservative defenders of guns are passionate and vocal in their opposition. You can’t circumvent the 2nd Amendment like that! Government overreach! Guns don’t kill people– people kill people! It is mental illness, not guns.

Last week, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times about renewing the conservative Christian crusade to ban pornography. His case was based on the notion that in the moment of the #metoo revolution a natural alliance could be made between liberal feminists and conservative Christians around ending the exploitative, morally bankrupt, and the sexually damaging porn industry. The ubiquitous nature of porn is blamed for everything from Donald Trump’s “Playboy Presidency,” to the grotesque male behavior in “Cat Person” and Aziz Ansari’s “ethnography of the degree to which millennial sex is a joyless mimetic spamming of half-remembered porn tropes,” to Harvey Weinstein and the apex-sex predators.

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Ross Douthat is here to save you from porn. Just as soon as those pesky feminists realize that their natural allies in politics are the religious crusaders who want them to stop using birth control, give up access to reproductive healthcare, ban all abortions, and cede all personal accountability for sexual behavior on the grounds that porn either makes them too horny or too impotent to behave in healthy, loving, and consensual ways!

This is nothing new for conservative Christian moral crusaders. They have been lamenting the sexual revolution for several generations now, alternatively blaming it for unleashing the godlessness of our times by making people unaccountable for their moral behaviors, discouraging loving relationships, and undermining monogamy and then using it to excuse their own personal failings (it has only been a few years since the conservative Christian movement rallied around Josh Duggar and excused his crimes and immorality on the grounds that “porn did this to him”).

Freedom of speech– one of conservative talk radio’s favorite subjects when it comes to mocking college students and liberals for their authoritarian streak– is rarely mentioned in this debate. Neo-Nazis want to march on a college campus to support white supremacy, mock the lynching of black people, and rally around statues for Confederate traitors to the United States? Minorities and liberals need to get over their delicate sensibilities (snowflakes!). Sex videos on the internet? My stars and garters, won’t someone think of the children?

When it comes to depictions of people having sex used for private purposes and fantasies, created legally by consenting adults many conservatives can find a way to imagine altering our understanding of a fundamental constitutional amendment (the 1st) and provide heavy-handed government oversight. The 2nd Amendment is strictly hands off.

This is, of course, absurd.It is important to note that pornography is not unregulated or restricted. Like all forms of speech, we have found there are reasonable limits to that “freedom.” Porn, while nebulous in definition (I know it when I see it), has limits. Obscenity laws keep our public spaces free from images, videos, and sounds of hardcore pornography. Local communities regulate where porn can be sold or viewed. Don’t believe me? Look at some images of New York City in the 1970s and today. Thankfully, we don’t just let people produce and disseminate whatever sex stuff tickles their fancy. Ask Jared Fogel. This is right and proper. As a society, we have an open and running discourse about what makes for a healthy sex life and sex culture. We discuss and propose laws to govern the porn industry (see California’s Prop 60 attempt in 2016). What does and does not count as viable sex and porn continue to be debated and legislated. So too it must be with guns.

To be fair to Ross Douthat, he has noticed the hypocrisy in the conservative desire to ban porn but leave guns unfettered by regulation. In fact, he ties the rejection of “erotic limits” to our culture of unlimited gun ownership and link’s it to the dark side of individualism. In the aftermath of Las Vegas, Douthat imagined a small move to ban bump stocks, pointing out how effective our ban on fully automatic weapons has been in preventing mass killings with those weapons. Common sense would lead one to think there ARE things that could be done to limit or mitigate the worst side-effects of our 2nd Amendment. This sort of thinking is increasingly rare in American society.
For too many on the right, guns cannot even be described as a problem. It is about personal accountability (the gun user is the problem, not the gun), mental health (the phony policy de jure), or quite gallingly a lack of guns.
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Brilliant plan. Let’s place veterans who can’t find work (many of whom suffer from ailments and mental disorders we already do not want to pay to treat) and have no training in law enforcement, education, or public safety in the schools with guns. There is no foreseeable way to predict this ending poorly. Plans to arm teachers are similarly idiotic.
If we can have serious discussions about the limits or outright banning of pornography, we can do it with guns. For one, guns pose an exponentially greater threat to public health. This is not debatable. They are tools designed to kill. Porn, for all of its seediness and exploitative tendencies, is not a death contraption. The threat as outlined by various anti-porn advocates is both nebulous and wide-ranging. Porn might be described as making young men more aggressive and less concerned with love, as Douthat argues above. They argue that porn is to blame for making men less interested in actual sex with their wife. Or it causes infidelity and sex addiction, as in the Duggar case (and many others). Guns are only an issue when people are mentally ill or misuse them with malintent that could never be stopped. But when it comes to male sexual misbehavior, it is porn that is to blame.

How can I trust you with a gun when I can’t trust you with PornHub?

This is not complicated. There are and should be limits on porn. We can talk about changing them– and do. You cannot credibly ban it. The logistics are too impossible. Policing and enforcing any ban would be similarly impossible, from both an economic and civil liberties perspective. Any efforts to curb access to objectionable speech, like porn, must be coupled with a renewed cultural discussion on healthy sex, an understanding of what porn actually depicts versus what sex and relationships are like in reality, and what we accept as moral and just in our society. Likewise, there are and should be limits on gun ownership. If people keep getting killed in mass by the same sort of weapons it makes sense to talk about all the contributing factors– including and especially the weapon used to do it.

Our Constitution is a living document. Our laws are fluid, open to being altered and reevaluated as times change. We can, should, and must talk about how threats to our public safety and culture can be dealt with. Refusing to do so is accepting that the terrible things happening in our world cannot be stopped and will continue unabated. What point is there to crusading for the sanctity of life and marriage while allowing the wanton slaughter of our children?

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