article

04.21.11

Obama's Porn Problem With Liberals

The president axed a team of Feds charged with fighting adult obscenity on the Web, and it’s not just the right that’s upset. McKay Coppins on the liberal case for cracking down on porn.

If you know where to search, it doesn’t take much Googling to find photos of women having sex with farm animals, videos that graphically depict simulated rape, or actresses made to look 13 years old performing sex acts on adult men.

It’s disturbing stuff, to be sure—and it may even be illegal.

But this week, news broke that the Obama administration had quietly shuttered the only Justice Department unit that exclusively fought adult obscenity (defined as criminally offensive material that has no “serious literary, political, artistic, or medical value”). Amid a flurry of criticism, administration officials defended the move, arguing that limited resources would be better spent prosecuting cases of child exploitation. Meanwhile, conservatives such as Sen. Orrin Hatch seized the opportunity to accuse the White House of being soft on hardcore porn.

At first, it all seemed like another formulaic episode in the culture war: the religious right crusading against smut peddlers in the name of “family values”; liberals rolling their eyes at puritanical Republicans and their censorship-happy agenda. But a closer look at the events reveals a kink in the common narrative—and a potential shift in culture-war battle lines.

Earlier this month, 42 senators signed a letter urging Attorney General Eric Holder to step up enforcement of federal obscenity laws. Among the cast of mostly Republican signers, one name stood out: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a staunch liberal from California, the de-facto porn capital of America. (Feinstein wasn’t available to comment for this story.)

She wasn’t alone: five other Senate Democrats, including Minnesota’s left-wing warrior, Amy Klobuchar, also signed the letter, and they were applauded by feminists, leftist lawyers, and liberal academics. Together, this increasingly vocal segment of progressives is making the case that hardcore porn flies in the face of cherished liberal causes—and that Democrats should be leading the charge to take down its distributors.

“To be anti-porn is a progressive principle.”

The Daily Beast reached out to several liberal anti-porn advocates and asked them to explain why defending adult obscenity is incompatible with liberal principles. Here, we summarize the left’s case against hardcore porn.

It’s Anti-Feminist

“To be anti-porn is a progressive principle,” says Dr. Gail Dines, author of the 2010 book Pornland. “The progressive position is that we’re opposed to anything that produces inequality, and porn absolutely feeds into sexual inequality—creates it, amplifies it, and justifies it.”

As a professor at Wheelock College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts, Dines is not lacking for feminist credentials. She has devoted the majority of her scholarly research to exposing sexism, and frequently lectures on how the media promote gender bias. She has no patience for the trendy argument that porn actually promotes female empowerment. On the contrary, she argues, the violent brand of smut that the Justice Department is ignoring poisons the public perception of gender relations.

“It legitimizes the idea that men have all the power over women,” she says. “In pornography, women don’t need good housing and fair pay; all they need is body-punishing sex. They’re not human beings.”

Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, says that by glorifying violent sexual fantasies, hardcore porn makers can encourage naturally violent men to act on their urges: “That combination of explicit sexual scenarios and a proclivity for violence against women is combustible.”

It Makes Sex Ed Irrelevant

Along the same lines, Dines says comprehensive sex education—long a rallying cry among liberals—is competing with hardcore porn sites to shape young boys’ attitudes toward sex.

“We know that at age 14, the vast majority of boys have looked at porn and probably masturbated to it,” says Dines. “Literally their first introduction to sex is sites like bangedbabbysitters.com. These aren’t adult men who can compare what they see to reality. They’re young and vulnerable.”

And while liberal sex ed advocates say condom-on-banana demonstrations can help prevent such tragedies as teenage pregnancy or adolescent STDs, Dines says the twisted messages that underlie violent porn can be just as dangerous as sexual naïveté.

“In hardcore porn, the more horrible and hateful you treat a woman, the better and bigger her orgasm,” Dines says. “How can a boy masturbate to women being abused, and then look at women in their lives and see them as regular people?”

It’s Racist

While racist depictions in mainstream media have dramatically declined over the years, Dines writes that contemporary pornography continues to “[get] away with a level of racism that is breathtaking in its contempt and loathing for people of color.” No stereotype is off-limits. Black women are depicted as mouthy ghetto-dwellers who need a dominant man to cure them of their “attitude.” Asian girls are subservient, obedient, and bred for male pleasure. Latinas are debased by their poverty, thus making them accessible to any man with a few bucks.

Given progressives’ historical role in the civil rights movement, Dines says, it’s absurd that the left would stand up for distributors of such racially offensive material.

It Can Actually Limit Free Speech

Traditionally, what’s drawn liberals to defend hardcore porn is a passion for the First Amendment. But John Kang, a law professor at St. Thomas University in Florida, argues that it’s precisely this commitment to civil liberties that should motivate liberals to crack down on distributors.

“It’s fashionable in the contemporary Supreme Court to justify protection of violent hardcore pornography as the ability of men to realize themselves through some artistic format,” Kang says. “But this is nothing but pure, pathological violence against women.”

He echoes Schwartz’s concern that such material can motivate abuse, assault and even rape: “If enough mentally unstable men watch this and want to recreate it, this actually represents a clear and present danger against women”—a constitutional exception to the First Amendment.

Or to put it another way, allowing the freedom of violent expression could suppress the freedom of innocent victims. As Kang wrote in a 2008 paper, this is a case where “the free speech of men silences the free speech of women.”

Of course, it’s unlikely that the White House will be moved to change its position by such a relatively small minority of liberals—especially as it gears up to fight another potential first amendment battle involving the FEC.

But porn opponents on the left, such as Dines, are characterized by their evangelism, and they’re hopeful that the lower the porn industry sinks, the more their message will resonate. In the end, she says, the progressive case against hardcore porn has little to do with the Judeo-Christian views of sexuality espoused by the right.

“Corporate-owned media is designed to legitimize economic inequality,” says Dines. “I would argue porn does the same thing when it comes to sex. You want sex to be fun and meaningful. You want your sexual autonomy to be your own, not some corporation’s.” Spoken like a true liberal.

McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.