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

Imagine, for a moment, what it 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.