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What’s behind the Republican Party’s renewed crusade against pornography?

The party's platform calls porn a "public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions." Why?

Shortly before nominating Donald Trump, the Republican Party platform declared pornography a "public health crisis" that is "destroying the lives of millions." What's going on here?
Shortly before nominating Donald Trump, the Republican Party platform declared pornography a "public health crisis" that is "destroying the lives of millions." What's going on here?
Peter Kramer/Getty Images

The Republican Party’s 2016 platform is silent on gun violence. It dismisses climate change. And it has nothing to say about obesity.

But it does identify at least one clear danger to the health and safety of Americans: pornography.

In a section titled "Ensuring Safe Neighborhoods: Criminal Justice and Prison Reform," the platform states:

Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being.

When news of porn’s renewed presence in the Republican Party platform surfaced, the internet lit up with mockery, particularly over the prediction that porn amounts to a "crisis" that is "destroying the lives of millions." This entire fear of pornography seemed dated and anachronistic. (There was also the delightful irony that the party’s own nominee had once graced the cover of Playboy and even once sought to purchase the magazine.)

But mocking aside, there’s a real question here: Why, exactly, is the GOP now sounding the alarm over porn as a "public menace?" Where did this come from? To learn more, I called Emily Rothman, an associate professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health and a leading expert in the field.

Conservative worries about pornography have risen and fallen over time

Over the past four decades, Rothman notes, worries about pornography among social conservatives have gone up and down over time — and we now appear to be reaching another high-water mark.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan made investigating the impact of pornography a top priority. Reagan commissioned an attorney general report — it eventually ran to 35 chapters and 1,960 pages — that found porn promotes a "desensitized attitude toward the sexual abuse of women."

reagan

"We and the vast majority of Americans are repulsed by pornography," the GOP’s 1984 platform stated. "We will vigorously enforce constitutional laws to control obscene materials which degrade everyone, particularly women, and depict the exploitation of children."

But this concern fizzled out by the 1990s and 2000s — even as porn consumption in the United States kept rising. Between 1996 and 2008, for instance, the GOP platform barely mentioned pornography at all, except to call for enforcement of existing laws, particularly around child porn.

When the issue resurfaced during the 2012 presidential campaign, it looked like a weird aberration. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was widely mocked for saying that "America is suffering a pandemic of harm from pornography" and that the government should ban hardcore porn. ThinkProgress predicted that this was the last gasp of a dead-ender, and that Santorum’s failed campaign marked the end of the war on pornography.

But Santorum’s crusade actually marked a revitalization of social conservative worries around pornography — not their end. Earlier this year, the Atlantic chronicled the "intensifying anti-porn campaigns" around the country aimed at "exposing the public-health crisis of pornography." In April, anti-porn crusaders got their biggest victory yet when Utah became the first state to declare porn a "public health crisis" that is "evil, degrading, addictive, and harmful."

"[Utah’s decision] represents a turning of the tide against pornography," said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, one of the leading groups sounding the alarm over porn, according to the Washington Post.

So what’s driving renewed interest in the dangers of pornography?

So why has the anti-porn movement made a comeback of late? Rothman offered two possible answers. The first is that a handful of recent studies have reignited fierce public debate over whether and how porn influences sexuality.

Some academics, including prominent feminist activist Gail Dines, have pointed to a slew of new research published since 2010 about pornography. Some of those papers suggest that heavy porn use may make men look more favorably toward violence and sexual aggression toward women, decrease their likelihood of intervening during a rape, and hurt self-esteem in relationships. (Gines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College, detailed her findings in the Washington Post.)

These studies remain heavily debated and are hardly the last word on the topic. But they’ve given new ammunition and firepower to social conservative groups who had already feared pornography’s impact, Rothman says.

"It’s becoming an increasingly hot debate as to whether porn creates public health harms. Some scholars are now working with social conservatives to advance that cause," she said.

Rothman doesn’t necessarily agree that this recent academic research justifies calling pornography a "public health crisis." Other reports, for instance, have concluded that there’s no actual link between porn and sexual violence. Still, the increased visibility of the debate — and the new research — might explain why social conservatives are building momentum for this cause, according to Rothman.

"And let’s give some credit to Republicans here: These are genuine concerns," she says.

Is the GOP’s new porn plank tied to broader fears about American sexuality?

Rothman also raises a second possible reason for the growing anti-porn crusades: There’s a growing sense among many conservatives that something has gone haywire with Americans’ sexuality.

Consider: The Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage nationally — something that a big majority of Republicans still oppose (the platform calls for appointing justices who would reverse the Supreme Court’s decision). Debates about transgender people and bathroom use are constantly in the news, something that seems to make a great number of social conservatives uneasy.

On one level, these things don’t have anything to with porn. But Rothman suspects that many conservatives may see them as part of a broader case about the rise of "deviant" sexuality in the United States.

This year’s GOP platform seems to bear this out. In addition to raising fears about pornography, the document remains staunchly opposed to many LGBTQ rights. It also supports North Carolina’s controversial law banning transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. And it implicitly endorses the highly controversial practice of "conversion therapy" for gay kids. (Donald Trump essentially "ceded the party’s social agenda to evangelical Christians," Politico reports.)

Staging a dramatic fight over porn as a "public menace," Rothman says, may be just one symptom of a broader push by conservatives to reassert the importance of a moral code in sexuality.

"Republicans may be calling pornography into question for some valid reasons, but in doing so they are also raising the topic of sex and sexuality more generally, which could lead to promoting the idea that there’s only one correct way to be sexual," Rothman says.

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