Porn prohibition shows why democracy fails

The recent feminist revival has helped put the issue of pornography prohibition back on the political agenda. Anti-porn campaigns were a feature of feminism in previous decades, especially in the 1980’s, but they became marginalised, and eventually disappeared. A new generation of feminists made porn prohibition an active campaign theme again. Prohibition is not supported by all feminists, but on the other hand prohibitionism is not limited to a radical feminist minority. Like other forms of prohibitionism, the issue illustrates the limits of democracy. It is not about ‘free speech’, but rather a conflict of values – always problematic for democratic theory.

Porn is a polarised issue, but the polarisation is asymmetric. For comparison, take the abortion issue, with its opposing highly motivated campaigns. The initial position in most western countries, typically in the 1950’s, was general legal prohibition of abortion. In some countries, campaigns resulted in partial legalisation: the anti-abortion movement was a reaction to that, and to the legalisation campaign itself. The result was a relatively stable polarisation: in any western country you can find pro-abortion and anti-abortion campaigns.

Porn was also generally prohibited in western countries until the 1950’s, From the 1960’s onward, there were some campaigns to relax obscenity laws, themselves opposed by religious and secular conservatives. However, that has very little to do with the present state of affairs in western countries, which is historically unique.

The present massive porn industry, and the widespread availability of porn, are not the result of a pro-porn social movement campaigning for porn legalisation. They exist because technological changes allowed market forces to respond to an unsuspected latent demand. People who view porn are not ‘pro-porn campaigners’, they are simply a diffuse majority of the adult population. Feminist anti-porn campaigners, on the other hand, form a classic social movement, a small group of idealistic political activists. That is the asymmetry: the activists are on one side only.

The present porn prohibition campaign is probably best compared to the campaign for alcohol prohibition in the United States. The initial position was a general availability of alcohol, and pervasive consumption, and that is also the current status of porn. However, alcohol has been widely available and widely consumed for thousands of years: porn only reached that status in the last 10-15 years. Its present availability has no precedent in history.

Asymmetry also characterised the US prohibition movement, which sought to eliminate at least the commercial availability of alcohol. Although the prohibitionists were a minority, there was no effective counter-campaign: the result was prohibition on paper, combined with widespread evasion. That stalemate lasted 14 years, and was ended by public disillusion and frustration, rather than by a pro-alcohol movement.

With that historical comparison in mind, what are the chances of a successful porn prohibition movement in western countries? Perhaps prohibitionists such as Gail Dines, themselves believe that it is possible, but the only realistic conclusion is that it won’t happen. The decisive factors are not the presence of a pro-porn movement, but the status of porn in society, and the technologically determined nature of its production.

Up to the 1970’s or even 1980’s, it was perhaps possible to treat porn as something for a deviant minority, for ‘dirty old men’ and ‘bad boys’. Its distribution reflected its marginal social acceptability: in seedy shops, or sold (like drugs) by illicit dealers. Under those circumstances total prohibition might have been a realistic political goal, but they are gone forever. Changes in technology transformed porn production and distribution: video recording, video cassettes, digital cameras, digital video, digital image files, digital editing and image processing, and above all broadband internet.

Often introduced simply as like-for-like replacements for older technology, these technologies made porn pervasive. In western societies, those who don’t watch porn are now in the minority. However, technology alone did not make us watch porn: it made pervasive demand visible, while at the same time allowing pervasive supply. That has consequences for prohibition strategies. (Note that most feminist theory on porn was formulated before internet porn even existed).

Even assuming that the state could make all existing porn disappear, it would soon return in comparable volumes. Porn is far easier to make then whisky or beer, mainly because of the high quality of modern digital cameras, cheap editing software, and the diffusion of photography and video skills. The production standards of existing ‘professional’ porn are low anyway, so there is not a large gap to close. More importantly, digitalisation and the internet have brought distribution costs close to zero – which never applied to illegal alcohol sales.

Given the ease of production and distribution, porn prohibition would now require an extreme degree of state repression. Two comparisons will illustrate that. One possible prohibition strategy is for western countries to extend their existing child porn policies, to all forms of porn. Think of what now happens to people caught with child porn – and consider that most teenagers watch porn. Most of the population would be in jail before they left school, and much of the rest would work for the police. Another useful comparison is with Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, where an intrusive religious police has apparently prevented the emergence of domestic porn production. However, even there, all their repression cannot suppress its online distribution.

There is no prospect that any western democracy will introduce those options, or any others with a comparable degree of repression. Even if porn consumers remain diffuse and unorganised, and even without a significant pro-porn movement, a voluntary transition to such a repressive regime is unimaginable.

Where will that leave porn prohibition campaigners? Perhaps isolated, frustrated, and bitter. Some might turn to direct action, as some earlier feminists did. However, even at the height of US feminist anti-porn campaigns in the 1980’s, violence was limited to occasional attacks on sex shops: there were a few arson attacks in Germany as well. (Since porn is now distributed online, there is no comparable target available today). In the end, the anti-porn campaigns of second-wave feminism simply collapsed: it is quite possible that will happen again.

That is not the end of the matter, however. The porn prohibition issue illustrates three failures of the democratic ideal.

Democracy is supposed to rest on a community (the ‘demos’) with shared fundamental values. Its members engage in a political process, to produce a harmonious society based on compromise and tolerance. In the case of porn prohibition, there is no community of shared values: anti-porn feminists differ irreconcilably from men (and women) who watch porn. Their differences outweigh any sense of shared national identity, which is supposed to bind the ‘demos’ in modern democracies. A national community, which purports to unite radical feminists with pornographers, rapists and serial killers of women, is obviously a fiction.

Secondly, the political process offers no way to resolve the issue : all debate is pointless, because the positions are irreconcilable and contradictory. Feminist prohibitionists do not accept any contra-prohibition argument as valid, and usually regard their opponents as malevolent. That is why it is unnecessary to consider the nature of porn here, or the circumstances of its production, or its effects. The relevant facts for the state are that a prohibitionist movement exists, that it does not include the entire population, and that others do not want prohibition.

Thirdly, democracy obviously offers no possibility for prohibitionist feminists to implement their aspirations, and to shape society in accordance with their beliefs. In this specific case their aspiration is a porn-free society, and since they stand no chance of creating it through the democratic process, they can not have it. Feminism is a necessarily repressive ideology, because it seeks a primarily negative transformation of society: feminists want to abolish certain things. State repression is the inevitable policy instrument, and that brings feminists into conflict with non-feminists, as in the case of porn prohibition. Democracies are designed to prevent a minority from imposing unpopular repression on the majority.

So instead of talking endlessly about porn, it would be better to think about how feminists, and other minorities, can be given the chance to create a society in conformity with their ideals. That would mean abandoning some core doctrines of liberalism, democracy, and nationalism – an inherently difficult process for liberal-democratic nation-states. A first step would be to recognise feminists as a distinct category of person with distinct values, and not a subset of the national community. Only then can the state consider radical alternatives for the current stalemate.

An initial alternative strategy is territorial prohibition. This conflicts with the nationalist ideal of a uniform legal system (“one law for all”) – the reason why religious tribunals are controversial. Nevertheless that is what happened in the US after alcohol prohibition was repealed. This map shows where prohibition is still in force, full or partial, down to county level.

1000px-Alcohol_control_in_the_United_States.svg

Map: Wikipedia, public domain.

 
Territorial prohibition would be viable in countries where opposition to porn is concentrated in specific regions, usually on religious grounds. In the Netherlands, there is a history of local prohibitions on religious grounds, in orthodox-protestant areas. These are concentrated in a diagonal zone sometimes called the Dutch Bible Belt:

Sgpstemmen1

Bible Belt, SGP votes as proxy indicator: map from Wikipedia, under Creative Commons 3.0.

 
Where porn prohibitionists (Christian and feminist) are dispersed among the population, non-territorial institutional segregation is the best option. There are precedents for institutional segregation, usually by religion, in education and health care, although it is rare in other sectors.

Porn-free secondary schools are a possible first step: most schools already have rules concerning behaviour. Students at a porn-free school would have their internet access controlled, and would be subject to expulsion if they accessed porn. Additionally, the school could require a porn-free household: the parents must not access porn either. Although that may seem difficult, there are orthodox-protestant communities in the Netherlands which operate de facto porn bans of this type. It works by requiring families to use a limited number of Christian service providers, who block all porn (or at least do their best). Now obviously, teenagers will find ways to evade filters, especially with mobile devices: that is why a porn ban must be backed up by supervision and sanctions. Expulsions from these schools would be common, but at least that would leave a core of porn-free students.

With similar methods porn-free universities are also possible, but the degree of supervision would be greater. It would be logical to combine porn-free status with other forms of segregation, for instance by creating separate feminist universities.

With new legislation, porn-free employers would also be a possibility. They would make it a condition of employment that employees do not access porn: the employer, or more probably an outside agency, would supervise their internet access. Again this would probably require use of specific providers, combined with a ban on encryption, and random checks on computers and mobile devices. Under present legislation in most countries, such intrusive controls would not be contractually enforceable – that is why new laws would be required.

A porn-free employer would dismiss any employee who accessed porn. If an employer because porn-free, all employees who refused to become porn-free would also lose their job. Both of these options would contravene typical European labour laws, and again would require specific legislation. At the same time, the employer would be legally required to publicly disclose its porn-free status, enabling others to decline its products or services, if they wished.

It is unlikely that large numbers of businesses would choose to become porn-free employers, because of negative consumer reactions to their draconian policies. It would be legitimate for the state to require large employers, especially in the retail sector, to provide some porn-free facilities – a few supermarkets with porn-free staff in large cities, for instance. (That is not the same thing as banning the sale of porn, but obviously it is logical to combine the two).

With this type of institutional segregation, it would be possible for feminists to buy at least some goods and services, to go to a doctor, and to send their children to school, without interacting with people who view porn. It would not create a porn-free society, but it would provide a partial approximation of it. Of course feminist (and Christian) prohibitionists would prefer a fully porn-free society, but in the absence of a prohibitionist consensus or prohibitionist control of the state, that option would require secession.

Similar considerations apply to all prohibitionist movements. It is essentially for the prohibitionists to decide which route they want to follow, and for the state to facilitate that. Some prohibitions might be evil or absurd, and the state would be wrong to enforce them. However, there does not seem to be anything inherently wrong with wanting to live in a porn-free society, or an alcohol-free society. The issue becomes political because others do not share the same values, and the same derived aspirations.

One thought on “Porn prohibition shows why democracy fails

  1. Pingback: Pope Francis lies about legalization of drugs | Avant Garde

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