The danger of obscenity laws

There is a new social conservative effort to start a war on pornography. Perhaps the ‘war’ never ended and the advocates of stricter laws against sexual content simply waited for the right opportunity to bring out their slings and arrows again.

The effort appears to be encouraged by a letter sent by Congressmen Jim Banks, Mark Meadows, and Brian Babin along with Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler advocating the Justice Department attempt to enforce obscenity laws. The target would be producers of the nebulously termed “hardcore pornography,” citing a desire to protect the children. However, based on the letter’s content, it appears the target is the pornography industry as a whole.

It’s caused a rather vigorous debate among conservative outlets with writers including The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh and The Dispatch’s David French trumpeting the letter in tweets and columns. Walsh, in particular, has taken the fight to heart suggesting those who believe it’s an issue for parents and parents alone do not understand the psychological damage done to kids should they see video or images of people engaged in sexual activity. He also suggests people do not consider whether consent was given when the sexual act happened.

Walsh’s attack on the issue is based on the adage of “it’s for the children!”.

“Parents cannot possibly shield their children from a porn epidemic that is so ubiquitous and accessible,” Walsh wrote at The Daily Wire in his piece promoting a crackdown on pornography. “Even if they restrict all internet access in their own homes, and refuse to allow their children to have phones with internet access (a wise move, to be sure), all it requires is one friend whose parents have not taken that step. And every kid will have at least one friend like that — probably many more than just one. This is a problem that parents cannot handle on their own. That’s why the state may have a role.”

Walsh’s concern for the society his children grow up is certainly understandable, and not because trashy movies and books like 50 Shades of Grey are available for people to own (apologies to those who see 50 Shades as good literature or views). He wants to protect his children and yet he is mistaken in believing the government is one of the best instruments to do so.

There are two major concerns.

The first is the fact the government is not some inanimate object full of robots who only focus on one single goal. Bureaucrats and workers tend to have their own agendas which they can enforce in a wanton and sometimes inconsistent manner. What one like Walsh may consider obscenity may not meet the standards of another. It is possible Walsh’s standards may not be high enough for some government workers given plenary power to punish those who do not meet them. One can certainly look at the Middle East for examples of people being punished for not adhering to the standards set by the government.

I recently attended an exhibit by the Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth featuring the work of the French Impressionist artist, Auguste Renoir. It was heavily focused on the nudes Renoir painted; however, Renoir’s nudes were far from sexual. They were either inspired by Classical artists, done to portray the everyday life of France in the late 1800s, or simply to show Renoir’s appreciation of the female body. Ironically, the most sensuality shown in the paintings is one of a fully clothed woman with one strap off her shoulder and a cat on her lap.

Would Walsh consider this exhibit pornography? If not, wouldn’t it be possible for some government agent to see these paintings as pornography in need of expungement? Would certain movies or books be considered pornography if they contained a sex scene or a scene where a woman (or man) is naked despite the unsexual nature of the event? Is the best method punishing the author, actor or actress, model, or publisher for their decision to be involved or produce the content? Or is it better to oppose these types of things without the arbitrary and heavy hand of government? After all, Walsh did admit there are those in the opposite party who would use the government to encourage things he finds immoral.

The other concern is the fact society changes. It is no longer considered ‘daring’ for a woman to wear a hemline above the ankle or expose her midriff. Camisoles are acceptable to wear as are hip-hugging yoga pants and shorts which stop mid-thigh. Men no longer have to wear suits, breeches, or waistcoats for everyday wear while jeans, shorts, and T-shirts are acceptable. Piercings for men and women are considered acceptable, unlike in previous years where they may have been frowned upon. Society has altered its stance on footwear going from sandals only to shoes with buckles to boots to tennis shoes and back. Acceptable hair length and facial hair have also changed. Smoking is no longer considered appropriate while it’s okay to sprinkle in a bit of profanity from time to time. It is no longer taboo for people to live with someone they’re in a relationship with regardless of their marital status with the state or the sex of their partner.

This is not saying those who seek to exploit children for sex or force women and men into sex do not deserve punishment. However, we must be cautious in attempting to use the power of the government to enforce certain moral standards outside of the notion of Natural Law aka life, liberty, or property.

The best method may simply be instilling certain morals in children, using the tools available to enforce these morals, and hope they keep them as adults. While also acknowledging things can and do change, so some lessons may not be adhered to as children get older.