Lots of discussion about porn and the “Girls Gone Wild” phenomenon this week. Last Friday, Garance Franke-Ruta made the case in the Wall Street Journal for raising the minimum age for performers in porn from 18 to 21. She makes a good point about the huge changes that take place for most folks in those vital three years, and argues that — especially for the drunken spring breakers who lift their shirts and scribble on a model release form handed them by Girls Gone Wild, Inc. — raising the age to 21 would provide much-needed protection against enduring regret and exploitation.
Franke-Ruta’s modest proposal has been much discussed in the feminist blogosphere; I am late to the party again indeed. Amanda at Pandagon leads the charge of those who weigh the idea sympathetically, and then discard it as ultimately unworkable and paternalistic. Ultimately, I’m not big on the idea either. Allowing young women to get blown up in Iraq at 18, but not allowing them to lift their shirts for the camera until they’re 21, seems silly to me.
My objection to Franke-Ruta lies in this middle section of her WSJ piece:
Curtailing the demand side of such a “market” is difficult, requiring moralistic sermons and abridgements of speech. But the supply side is more vulnerable to change. It is time to raise the age of consent from 18 to 21–”consent,” in this case, referring not to sexual relations but to providing erotic content on film.
I’m a big, big proponent of fighting most social vices by reducing demand first. I’m a historian and a recovering alcoholic who knows damned well Prohibition was largely a failure and Alcoholics Anonymous has been, by and large, a phenomenal global success. Pot is illegal, and I didn’t have trouble finding it in my youth and my students seem to have very little trouble finding it today. Using the power of the state to reduce the supply of an addictive commodity often ends up raising its price and making it more dangerous for those who work to produce it. Reducing demand, the seemingly more difficult task, is ultimately the more successful strategy.
Smoking has been greatly reduced in this country. Yes, higher prices for cigarettes and greater restrictions on where one can smoke have played a part, but the real source in the drop in cigarette consumption has been the growing awareness of just how bad tobacco is for living creatures. The slow but clear success of the anti-smoking movement has proceeded primarily by reducing demand; the tobacco industry until very recently received colossal subsidies from the government in order to continue producing supply.
Why not the same for pornography? When we show school children cigarette ads from the 1920s that promised tobacco could help cure sore throats, they giggle. Who could ever have believed that cigarettes were not only harmless, but positively therapeutic? Today, we have legions of folks who insist that pornography provides a healthy release for those who have no other sexual outlet; occasionally, we have a dimwit claim that the availability of porn reduces rape (rather than making it more likely). Many feminists, troubled by mainstream porn’s narrow and male-centered depiction of women’s sexuality, long for an alternative pornography, perhaps one in which women as well as men are encouraged to ogle, lust, and masturbate from the resulting excitement.
But in the internet age, there is growing evidence that online porn addiction is bringing devastation and heartache. There is growing evidence that as with cigarettes, there are few “casual” users. As with any drug, casual use quickly turns habitual, and what is habitual often turns compulsive. Of course, some folks can use porn once every five weeks and not think about it again. They remind me of my great aunt, who famously smoked a cigarette once a year with great ceremony. The porn industry makes its money on those who are willing to run up credit card bills, stay up late at night on the computer, and often compromise their social and romantic obligations in order to hunt down the next exciting image of a stranger (usually young, poor, and female) unclothed.
Franke-Ruta has no taste for “moralistic sermons.” Neither did Phillip Morris (whoops, Altria), who spent years waving the flag of “personal choice” to defend their staggering profits from the toxic leaf. Now, I like me the occasional moralistic sermon. A good sermon — delivered either in secular or openly theistic tones — challenges people to think about themselves and their behavior in a radically new way. A good sermon doesn’t have to be modeled on a William Wigglesworth or a Jonathan Edwards. It can be modeled on a Dr. King, who had a clear and compelling way of delivering uncomfortable truths to an overly comfortable audience. Moralistic sermons, delivered by ordained ministers and backed up by public action, changed this nation’s views on race. Is it okay to use religious language to inspire people to turn away from Jim Crow, but not okay to use that same language to inspire them to stop buying the Girls Gone Wild DVD set? Is it okay to use “moralistic sermons” to change white hearts and minds until they see blacks as their full equals, but not okay to use those same sermons to challenge men to see young women as deserving of love and respect rather than objectification?
Sermons alone didn’t change America’s attitudes on race. Sermons, backed up by direct action (often including civil disobedience) did. We live in an era that sees the male sex drive as overpowering; we live in an era where we have so little faith in our brothers we daren’t ask them to stop masturbating to porn because we doubt, in our hearts, they have either the desire or the will to change their lives. (Italicized parenthetical aside: If I had a dollar for every woman I’ve heard say “I don’t like that he looks at porn, but I won’t tell him to stop. If I say I’m okay with it, then at least he’s not lying to me and doing it behind my back.” Talk about the false dichotomy built on low expectations: men will either use porn with your consent or without it, so you might as well give it so you won’t get deceived. God, how depressing.) A good sermon — which can be given on the blog, in the classroom, in a casual conversation at work as well as from a pulpit — inspires people to believe that they can do what they had not previously believed was possible. A good sermon, given by preachers and fathers and brothers and mothers and sisters and lovers, can work wonders. A good sermon, filled with anecdotal and research-derived evidence about the effects of porn on families, about the effects of the industry on those who are its “stars”, can really begin the process of changing hearts, changing minds, and more to the point, changing behavior and spending habits.
Most folks agree Voltaire never said “I despise what you have to say, and will defend to my death your right to say it.” Still, it’s a fine sentiment, and one with which I generally agree. (I still have a soft spot for the ol’ ACLU.) I have no interest in using the power of the state to stop porn, just as I am not (at least yet) ready to endorse the use of the state to mandate veganism. The way to put an industry out of business that profits from exploitation and degradation is through taking away their customers, one at a time. And we do that by changing their hearts. And we change their hearts by holding them accountable, by refusing to accept or enable, by lovingly challenging them. I’ve seen it work in my life, and in the lives of friends of mine. And that’s how I intend to keep fighting against pornography.