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The Futility of the Conservative War on Pornography

As we head into a tumultuous US election season, it is worth remembering that political parties can get trapped in partisan frameworks that cater to the loudest sections of their base, but which prevent them from appealing to a wider range of voters. Ideological litmus tests not only narrow appeal, but they cause politicians to pander, to disregard evidence, and to reject compromise in favor of rhetorical stridency. Social conservatives’ endlessly sputtering crusade over pornography is unusual in that it brings them into alliance with many radical feminists on the Left. Nevertheless, of the two main parties, it is the moral majoritarians in the Republican Party who have most frequently attempted to generate political capital by inveighing against pornography. This movement’s foundational moment was President Reagan’s Meese commission established to investigate the potential harms caused by pornography. The Meese Report, however, badly over-reached—even those who worry about the effects of pornography acknowledge it made unsubstantiated claims about its effects. Recent US presidential election years have seen promises to strengthen anti-pornography laws included as part of the Republican national platform. Sixteen US states, mostly conservative leaning, have now declared pornography to be a public health crisis

This ideological obsession with pornography is bad for conservatives for several reasons. First, evidence linking pornography to negative outcomes is weak. Second, it’s an easy issue to lampoon because, notwithstanding conservatives’ expressed outrage about pornography, it is actually more popular in conservative enclaves. And third, producers of pornography involving consenting adults are protected by the First Amendment, so there’s little hope of satisfying constituents’ desire for its suppression. None of this means that those who dislike and disapprove of pornography should change their stance; in a free society, individuals or organizations must be free to express their views and make their case. But as a political issue, this is a loser.

First, it is now fairly well established that evidence of the “harm” produced by legal pornography is limited. The Utah state senator who introduced the resolution that identified pornography as a public health crisis did so in collaboration with the former head of the federal obscenity strikeforce who now heads a conservative pressure group called the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media). The text they produced elicited widespread criticism from experts for including numerous tendentious and unsupported statements. The senator now ruefully describes his participation in this initiative as “gullible” but that hasn’t prevented a number of other states from passing similar resolutions of their own.

Among scholars, pornography research remains controversial. Most attention has focused on whether pornography is associated with sexual aggression. Perhaps the closest thing to a compromise position in this area has been agreement that while pornography may have few effects on most viewers, sexual offenders may tend to consume more violent pornography and that pornography might combine with preexisting sexist hostility to cause problems. But even this has been difficult to prove. Although science strives to be objective, solid claims based on good data can be hard to sift from hyperbolic rhetoric when examining morally sensitive topics, and pornography is no exception.

In our most recent meta-analytic review of the literature, University of Texas San Antonio criminologist Richard Hartley and I examined 40 years of pornography research. We found that, overall, evidence does not provide a causal link between viewing pornography and sexual aggression. The better quality studies we examined actually found less evidence for effects than poorer quality studies. Increased availability of pornography at the societal level was associated with reduced criminal sexual violence. We did find very small correlations between viewing of violent pornography and sexual aggression, but it is unclear in which direction the causality runs—does violent pornography cause sexual aggression, or are sexually aggressive individuals more likely to watch violent pornography? Overall, the field would benefit from a commitment to higher quality studies.

Is pornography addictive? Advocates of censorship and suppression routinely claim that it is. Although pornography addiction remains a highly controversial hypothesis, a recent review noted that it is commonly accepted as an article of faith among religious communities. Anti-pornography campaigners often point to fMRI studies which they say indicate that pornography use resembles substance abuse. However, in fact, studies of excessive pornography use disagree about whether consumption of pornography resembles substance abuse neurologically. Brain imaging studies can be notoriously unreliable (an fMRI scan once detected “evidence” of brain activity in a dead salmon).

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater—some fMRI studies are certainly valuable if correctly conducted, but the potential for overstatement is high and people may have outsized confidence in the pretty pictures they produce, unaware of how easy they can be to manipulate. They tend to show people using different parts of their brain for different tasks, not evidence for longterm changes or harm. Pornography addiction is not recognized as a mental health disorder yet its existence is often taken for granted by campaigners. Of course, some people overuse pornography, as people may overdo many other activities—there have even been recent scholarly papers exploring fishing addiction and dance addiction. However, in most cases, the problem lies not in the thing being overdone, but in larger mental health difficulties suffered by the individual struggling to moderate their behavior.

Concerns about pornography expressed by Christian and other religious and social conservatives are no doubt sincere. Conservative political parties certainly believe that this is a wing of their coalition they need to keep happy. And yet, it has long been known that states with more religious conservatives tend to see greater consumption of pornography, with Utah often topping the list. Other analyses have suggested that more conservative Christian faiths, such as Evangelicals or Biblical literalists are associated with greater pornography interest than are more moderate faiths such as Catholicism or Lutheranism. These state-level analyses differ from surveys in which more conservative beliefs are associated with lower self-reported porn consumption.

This suggests that lots of people are simply lying about their pornography consumption. I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess that the majority of state representatives who have voted to declare pornography a “public health crisis” have consumed pornography themselves in their personal lives. Of course, we might generously recognize that people’s behavior seldom lives up to their moral and attitudinal ideals. But these data also make conservative politicians look like hypocritical moral scolds. As such, they can distract Republicans from tackling more critical issues on the conservative agenda and undermine the appearance of moral seriousness on other topics.

Finally, pornography enjoys considerable First Amendment protections. There are exceptions of course, and the vast majority of reasonable adults on both Right and Left agree that child pornography should remain criminalized and taboo given the obvious harms to minors involved. But mainstream pornography (featuring full frontal nudity and/or sex between consenting adults) is likely here to stay, unless the US were to see a massive legal restructuring of its approach to free speech. But this would require a level of authoritarianism that would restrict our ability to speak on a wide range of unrelated issues. Conservatives would do well to consider the cost of rolling back speech protections and how this new tool might be used against them by their political opponents.

So, if the fight is unwinnable, why die on this hill? There’s something to be said for the principled last stand. But if empirical evidence doesn’t support the claim that pornography is harmful, perhaps it’s time to concede defeat and focus on how to address more pressing moral and social problems? This doesn’t mean that religious conservatives aren’t still free to make moral arguments against the use and production of pornography. But dropping the criminalization of pornography from the US Republican national platform and dialing back the politicization of “public health” would be a shrewd public move.

In recent years, liberals have dropped the ball on free speech to a degree unforeseeable just a decade ago. Conservatives sometimes seem eager to pick it up, but the political Right has its own non-trivial issues with the restriction of speech. By relinquishing the forlorn obsession with pornography criminalization, conservative parties could seize the moral high ground on this key foundational value. Conservative parties face the struggle of maintaining their appeal to an older, more conservative base, while finding ways to reach out to younger, ethnically diverse, more socially liberal voters. Nevertheless, pearl clutching over porn can probably be safely jettisoned. Social and religious conservatives are unlikely to abandon conservative parties over this issue, so long as they stay true to other critical “litmus-test” issues such as restricting abortion and promoting patriotism. After all, conservative Republicans were happy to elect a president who is alleged to have had affairs with more than one pornographic model. By adopting a more sophisticated strategy, conservatives could seize the initiative on free speech at a time when it has been abandoned by much of the Left. But they’re not willing to do so yet.


Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide KingsHis new book How Madness Shaped History was released in April 2020You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111.

Photo by David Len on Unsplash.


  1. Porn is not harmful, neither is junk food, neither is crack cocaine, neither is social media, neither is anything…

    By war, you mean sensible regulation.

    Free porn fanatics either don’t have kids, are addicts, use porn as a weapon against people they hate, or are still in their teens.

  2. Free porn fanatics either don’t have kids, are addicts, use porn as a weapon against people they hate, or are still in their teens.

    OK, let’s say that that’s the case: how is this skin off your nose?

  3. The paternalistic excuse to protect from harm is one that neither liberals or conservatives can give up on, and practically cannot depart from. The Republican argument for harm in pornography is well documented (above), just like the Liberal fervor over incorrect pronoun use. However, I have to question the consistency of anyone who would scoff at a pronoun-reformer while simultaneously fussing about the ways in which adults to choose to make a living or find gratification behind closed doors. Lets live freely - I’m all for it - but someone truly invested in freedom for all might make the extra effort to stay out of other peoples personal lives. Seems only appropriate.

  4. The thing is that conservatives are for the traditional nuclear family. Pornography can and have destroy marriages. As for those who consume porn while speaking against it are actually mostly the ones lying to their wives.

    As for this: “We did find very small correlations between viewing of violent pornography and sexual aggression, but it is unclear in which direction the causality runs—does violent pornography cause sexual aggression, or are sexually aggressive individuals more likely to watch violent pornography?”

    That can be worrying considering how widespread violent pornography is. If the direction is that violent pornography causes sexual aggression, then this is harmful. And I’m pretty sure the aggressive behaviour is mostly to be directed towards women, heterosexually speaking…

    This article misses a gender analysis.

  5. I tend to agree that anti-pornography campaigners are rather myopic about the issue. Nevertheless, there are issues worthy of discussion when the lines become blurred. The oft-used “consenting adults” mantra is useful as a screen in many cases. But the availability of porn among young children is definitely an issue. Many small kids do not “consent” with the knowledge of adulthood when they engage with pornography out of curiosity. This can have long-term negative effects on them and their abilities to form healthy relationships. I will be the first to admit that I think “consenting adults” is a valid concept. But it is also a nebulous and rather arbitrary one. A person turning 18 is capable of being a “consenting adult” but can easily be manipulated by someone much older and more sophisticated. I don’t think the “porn question” can be easily resolved without significantly more discussion. And for what it’s worth, religious people of any stripe have as much of a right to influence public discourse as anyone else. So I am hesitant to throw their concerns to the wind, even if I don’t share them.

    And, as if it needed to be said… I blame Trump. Before Trump, consent was easily offered and accepted. There were no “grey areas” because the concept of “grey” hadn’t been invented yet. Truth was truth and facts were facts. But Trump has changed all of that. Now, Orange is the new “grey” and we only have shades of “cream-soda-colored” morality and a sickly “Sunkist” tint on everything. Porn used to be wholesome and interesting. There were articles in important and thoughtful magazines and you could just as easily masturbate as read a review of the latest Miles Davis album. Trump dismantled all of that. The golden age of porn is now nothing but a crass “dry-hump” from an orange madman… Blame trump 2020!

  6. But addiction isn’t freedom.

    Addicts are slaves, and so are the societies who suffer various addiction epidemics.

    Porn is highly addictive, maybe uniquely so because of the primary, primitive drive it taps into.

    There has to be a balance between freedom to create addiction and freedom to be free from addiction. At the moment, especially with porn, there is no balance. Porn is like having crack cocaine on tap.

    Maybe in a free society adult addiction isn’t anything anyone can do anything about, but surely we can do a lot more to protect children and young teens from addiction and misery? — postpone it for as long as possible, at least.

  7. The problem is it’s just not “consenting adults”. Technology & parental negligence have created conditions where children as young as 10 were passing around their smart phones displaying hard core porn to others in the playground in my son’s school. Do we have any research of long term effects of porn when they start this young? And violence is not the only consequence conveniently ignored in this piece. Unrealistic sexual expectations normalised & performance issues are also significant problems.
    Nice try with the hypocritical conservative angle by comparing porn regulation to the silencing by authoritarian radicals. The distinction between the two is free speech was never meant for the sake of free speech rather the point being the flourishing of mankind.

  8. Then I’d posit that the problem is parental negligence, not pornography itself. I agree that kids shouldn’t have access to porn (weird thing to find myself making explicit), but I don’t think it follows that the solution should center on the porn industry, nor on legislation.

    I heard a similar anecdote from a work colleague; he mentioned that his son was troubled by the incident so he came to talk to him about it. I think that having a trusted adult put things in context after the first encounter can mitigate a lot of the negative consequences of being exposed to (violent) porn early. That’s probably still not good enough as peer influence is ridiculously complex and there could be several indirect effects from other people’s parenting practices that you can’t protect your child from. Still, that can further be mitigated by coordinating with other parents and/or paying extra attention when you pick your kid’s school.

  9. What is it about porn that get peoples sails up in this way?

    You tell me: you seem pretty lathered up.

    Are you against restrictions on cigarettes?

    Yes. & second hand smoking in particular was outright scientific fraud.

  10. If a nation wanted to implement efforts to restrict porn consumption by children it can do so.

    No it can not.

    If it is willing to engage in the behaviors of control that allow it to have such effective control.

    No such effective control can be exercised.

    • Conservatism is risk management (not political positioning).
    • Regarding an experimental test of physical harm, try taking the drug away and see how they play out their fantasies.
    • Regarding long term analysis of psychological and social harm, check the marriage, happiness, and fertility rates. Has the normalisation of sexual objectification been ruled out as a source/mediating factor in their decimation?
    • Science doesn’t overreach in its conclusions regarding complex social systems. A good starting psychological hypothesis is always tradition, because societies that did not share this have died out through natural selection.
    • Speech involves language.
    • Civilisation should be working to eliminating dehumanisation not fabricating it.
    • No little girl grows up wanting to be a sex object. We should be thinking about the long term psychological consequences on the objectified.
  11. There’s a war on pornography?

  12. Untrue. That you are weak doesn’t make you unfree. You only lose your freedom if you are forced to watch porn you don’t want to watch. Habits aren’t additions. There’s no porn withdrawal, no ill health effects from not seeing porn.

    This is the authoritarianism that happens on the left and right. They believe that your life is wrong and they force their morality on all others.

  13. Especially in Canada.

    download (9)

  14. None of the evidence you point to is really scientific. It is social science, which as we know has great difficulty in reproducing results.

    More interestingly, I have never any social science studies that prove that the easy availability of pornography makes society any better.

    However, I have to say that I think pornography is a symptom not a disease. The real problem is the failure of the sexual revolution to make things any better, but in fact to make them much worse. The psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalyrmple shows the coarsening of society that has followed from the recent changes in attitude regarding sex.

    J.D. Unwin’s work is also of great interest in this regard, as he studied the course of many civilisations and concluded that there is a strong correlation between the increase in sexual permisiveness and the decline of a socety.

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