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The Politics of Porn

Robert R. Reilly

Robert Reilly explains how pornography, rather than being the sign of freedom some claim it is, threatens both our freedom and our civilization.

In many major American cities, the tawdry sections of town that once house pornographic cinemas, and strip joints have given way to shiny new office buildings and Starbucks coffee houses. Does this sign of urban renewal also signify moral renewal? Has America finally grown bored with a surfeit of pornography? Unfortunately not. Pornography has simply relocated from inner city slums to a far worse location — the home, which it now infiltrates via the latest technology.

U.S. News and World Report (Feb. 10, 1997) revealed just how deeply mired this country is in explicit depictions of sexual depravity; it is a sign of the times that the cover article on pornography was carried in the “Business and Technology” section. The story states that hardcore pornography is now an $8 billion industry. A more recent Time magazine article (Sept. 7, 1998), “Porn Goes Mainstream,” also in the “Business” section, estimates $10 billion in revenues. In either case, hardcore porn out-grosses all of Hollywood's domestic box office receipts and rakes in more cash than the rock and country music businesses combined. In 1996, 665 million hard core videos were rented — over two for every man, woman, and child in America. Explicit sex has become part of the bottom line for video stores, long-distance carriers like AT&T, cable companies like Time Warner and Tele-Communications, Inc., and hotel chains like Marriott, Hyatt, and Holiday Inn. In addition, there are an estimated 100,000 pornographic World Wide Web sites on the Internet, offering millions of hardcore pornographic images, some of them “interactive.” Pornography is now mainstream. How did this happen?

One answer has been given by Milos Forman, director of The People vs. Larry Flynt, the movie about the Hustler magazine publisher. In defense of his film's subject matter, Forman said that, while we may not like pornography, its existence is essential to our freedom. He drew upon his personal experiences under Nazi and Communist regimes to illustrate the importance of the First Amendment. If we allow the suppression of one form of speech deemed undesirable by some, Forman holds, then we cannot prevent the suppression of any form of speech. Deny one choice, and you deny them all. It is all or nothing. Democracy must yield to pornocracy — because, it seems, democracy is about the unfettered freedom to choose whatever one wants.

Today, such a view hardly appears extreme. After all, the Supreme Court opined in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey ruling that, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Applying this liberating philosophy to pornography, New Jersey Federal Judge Alfred Wolin recently found in favor of two pedophiles who challenged a law banning pornography in the state's Avenel correctional facility for repeat sex offenders. And the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned as unconstitutional an Arizona county's ban on depictions of frontal nudity in the jail cells of county prisons.

If the philosophy behind the Casey decision is correct, Forman's position is the right one. If we can make it all up as we go along, then there are no moral standards to distinguish between pornography and other forms of speech, only personal taste. The broad embrace of this view has opened the floodgates to hardcore pornography. The problem with this inundation is that it threatens the very democracy that allows it.

The reason is that the key to democracy is not free choice. As we know from the Weimar Republic, people can freely choose anything, even Hitler. The key, as our Founding Fathers knew, is virtue. Only a virtuous person is capable of rational consent because only a virtuous person's reason is unclouded by the habitual rationalizations of vice. Vice inevitably infects the faculty of judgment. No matter how democratic their institutions, morally enervated people cannot be free. And people who are enslaved to their passions inevitably become slaves to tyrants. Thus, our Founders predicated the success of democracy in America upon the virtue of the American people.

In light of this, it is positively Orwellian to suggest, as Forman does, that America is free because it produces hardcore pornography. The authors of the First Amendment would claim the opposite — that acceptance of pornography tends to destroy our capacity for freedom in both a personal and a political way, and therefore should be proscribed.

The Founders forbade pornography not only because it subverts virtue, but because it attacks the political foundations of society. Though largely consumed in private, pornography becomes a political problem when it is widespread because it undermines chastity. Chastity is not only a moral virtue; it is also indispensable to political order. Chastity is integral to the functioning of the irreducible core of a polity. Aristotle begins The Politics not with a single individual, but with a description of a man and a woman together in the family, without which the rest of society cannot exist. A healthy family is posited upon the proper and exclusive sexual relationship between a husband and wife. The family alone is capable of providing the necessary stability for the profound relationship which sexual union both symbolizes and cements and for the welfare of the children that issue from it. Violations of chastity undermine not only the family, but society as a whole. That is why chastity may be spoken of as the first political principle.

Nothing so undermines the marital sexual bond as does pornography. As Fr. James Schall has written in CRISIS (Sense & Nonsense, March 1995), “Whenever we seek pleasure without it being grounded in what is right in the action in which it exists, we isolate the pleasure, the act, from reality.” Pornography isolates the physical act of sex, and its pleasure, from reality by making it an object of observation. Pornography reduces the marital act to a glandular event; it is impossible to “see” it as an act of love, except as a loving participant. Sex, as John Wayne once put it, is not a spectator sport.

Making sex a spectacle sensationalizes it and severs it from its proper unitive and procreative context. Pornography makes the part into the whole and the means into the end. By doing so, it lies about what it leaves exposed: The very nature of the genitals is denied. They are sterile. Pornography censors conception, because the possibility of conception naturally orders sex to a purpose within the family. (If sex is seen as generative, depictions of it are almost never pornographic. This is why the fertility figures of African tribal art, with their vastly exaggerated pudenda and breasts, are neither in intent nor effect obscene.) The violation of the fundamental human relationship between husband and wife wreaks havoc on the whole social and political order. If chastity is indispensable to political order, then the politics of pornography is clearly chaos, and the tyranny to which chaos leads.

The ancients understood this clearly. Euripides and the Classical Greeks, from whom our Founders learned, knew that Eros is not a plaything. In The Bacchae, Euripides showed exactly how unsafe sex is when disconnected from the moral order. When Dionysus visits Thebes, he entices King Penthius to view secretly the women dancing naked on the mountainside in Dionysian revelries. Because Penthius succumbs to his desire to see “their wild obscenities,” the political order is toppled, and the queen mother, Agave, one of the bacchants, ends up with the severed head of her son Penthius in her lap — an eerie premonition of abortion.

The lesson is clear: Once Eros is released from the bonds of family, Dionysian passions can possess the soul. Giving in to them is a form of madness because erotic desire is not directed toward any end that can satisfy it. It is insatiable. The sheer quantity of pornography easily illustrates this point. Why is there so much of it? Since pornography is only about one thing, its expressive possibilities are limited — often to the purely documentary. Then would not a classic collection of a thousand pornographic films suffice? Apparently not, for there are tens of thousands of pornographic films. Each week, 150 are produced in the U.S. alone — nearly 8,000 per year. In addition, there are millions of pornographic images on the Internet and countless monthly pornographic magazines. Yet, no matter how much there is, it is never enough. “Never enough” is an appetitive disorder and a recipe for political disaster. Because it promises something it cannot deliver, pornography eventually produces a sense of betrayal. The futility inherent in pornography generates fury that leads to violence and despair that leads to self-destruction.

Pornography has been deliberately used as a social and political dissolvent during periods of revolutionary change. To prepare for the French Revolution, the radical Jacobins flooded Paris with pornography. Who would know the politics of pornography better than that greatest of pornographers, the Marquis de Sade? De Sade desired to indulge his sexual passions without moral restraint and saw clearly what that ultimately meant. In The Philosophy of the Boudoir, de Sade wrote that the murder of King Louis XVI was insufficient to bring about the desired revolutionary freedom. The morality of the social and political order had survived the King's beheading. How could it finally be destroyed? In the first known use of the phrase, de Sade wrote that the murder of the King must be followed by the “murder of God.” Only when the morality represented by Divine Kingship was abolished could man express himself in the fullness of pornographic existence. This would include, after regicide and deicide, homicide. De Sade perceived and approvingly depicted in his works the inexorable logic of pornography: sex outside of the moral order ultimately leads to murder and death. The Marquis would not be surprised by the FBI study on homicide that found that pornography is the most common interest among serial killers. As one convicted murderer and child molester told the Meese Commission: “(Pornography's) effect on me was devastating. I lost all sense of decency and respect for human life.”

Today, people are unlikely to learn these lessons from Euripides because he is not included in the current curricula. But the same message has subliminally resurfaced in modern horror movies. Their invariable, if often unintentional, teaching is: If you fornicate, you die. This is crudely expressed in such popular slasher movies as Friday the 13th, in which teenage premarital sex precipitates the arrival of the monster, who dispatches the fornicators with stakes through their hearts or axes to their heads. However, a more sophisticated treatment of this theme is offered by Aliens 3, the third in a popular quartet of monster movies.

In this sci-fi horror film, the hardest core male criminals are sequestered on an uninhabitable planet, where they are left to fend for themselves. Given the need to establish political order, the prisoners choose the vow of chastity as their founding principle. As a result, they are able to live in semi-monastic contentment. However, a female pilot, Ripley, is sent to them. She violates the vow by having intercourse with the prisoners' doctor. For this, of course, the doctor must die at the monster's hands. Ripley tries to fight the creature, but fails. The iron law of horror movies is that only a virgin can defeat a monster. In fact, we discover that the monster's spawn was actually implanted in Ripley during space travel. The symbolism is perfect: The real monster is Eros, unbound by the moral order, residing in our very selves when we capitulate to it. Needless to say, Ripley's betrayal of the colony's founding principle brings havoc upon them all. She is able to redeem herself only in an ultimate act of self-sacrifice, by throwing herself into a cauldron of molten metal as the monster bursts out of her chest. She takes the plunge with arms outstretched in cruciform shape. Once again, Eros unbound leads to self-destruction — albeit, in this case, with a hint of the salvific.

The only thing that can tame Eros and direct it to an end that can satisfy the sexual passion is love, which leads Eros away from death and, quite literally, toward new life. When a specific person is the object of love, no substitute will do. Love demands exclusivity, and receives it in marriage. The desire for oneness in marital union is also a thirst for fecundity. The wild and complete abandon of the marital act is a joyful affirmation of the possibility of more — in children.

Pornography is fraudulent because it depicts “love” without love. Since the other person is not loved, pornography requires depersonalization and anonymity. With pornographic sex, substitution is not only acceptable, it is essential. As theologian Josef Pieper said, pornography removes the fig leaf from the genitals and places it over the human face. Pornography strips its participants of more than their clothes; it strips them of their humanity.

The central act of civilization is the recognition of another person as a human being. Pornography suspends — if not ends — that act of recognition because it dehumanizes both its object and its subject. Solzhenitsyn once asked, “If we are to be deprived of the concepts of good and evil, what will be left? Nothing but the manipulation of one another. We will decline to the status of animals.” Solzhenitsyn's quote highlights the political problems of pornography. How does one govern animals? Do they have free speech?

The alternative to the massive presence of pornography is not, as Mr. Forman might suggest, the loss of freedom, but its maintenance. Censorship of pornography is a sign of a morally healthy society that can distinguish between obscenity and free speech. From the time of our Founders until not too long ago, America was a place that not only forbade hardcore pornography but, through its laws and social mores, actively encouraged lives of virtue. These formative influences made it clear that sex belongs within the context of the family. This teaching was not the result of prudery, but of a political and moral prudence that comprehended the basis of a free society.

Lack of censorship is a sign of a society that no longer cares about these distinctions or has lost its ability to make them. That is why the legal presence of pornography harms even those who do not use it. On almost any newsstand (or its cable TV equivalent), one can see Playboy and Good Housekeeping side by side. What does any sensible person learn from seeing this odd juxtaposition? Certainly the way of life espoused by Playboy is inimical to good housekeeping. Yet there they are together, take your pick. In other words, the person learns, if only by osmosis, that it is a matter of public indifference as to whether one properly uses or abuses sex. More accurately, legal commerce in pornography teaches that no such distinction exists. Once this teaching has been learned, where does one draw the line? If sex is only a form of play or recreation, what could be wrong with a little sodomy, pederasty, or even incest? We have already traveled so far down this road that the only public defense mounted against pornography today begins with the protection of children. All the proceeding arguments have already been lost.

In such a case, trying to restore censorship in the short term is politically difficult and probably ineffective. It did not work for Augustus Caesar, who brought back the office of censor yet failed to halt the steady decline of Roman society. What must come first is far more important: the recovery of the sensibility underlying the prohibition against the desecration of sex. That it must be recovered is not simply the agenda of the religious right, but a profoundly political concern for the future of freedom. That freedom is already imperiled by the effects of pornography. Sex is so important that its misuse has become the principal means for dismantling our culture and political order. We have blinded ourselves to the connection between widespread pornography and the dissolution of the American family (those with children now represent only 25 percent of the population), rampant sexual crime (up 236 percent in public schools since 1994), the extraordinary rise in illegitimate births (now one out of three), abortion (one and a half million per year), and the brutal coarsening of our culture. Yet pornography has so corrupted our society that no one dares mention it as a principal cause of our debasement. Livy spoke of this kind of paralysis when he bemoaned the decline of ancient Rome: “We reached those last days when we could endure neither our vices nor their remedies.” Will we lament with Euripides's Agave? “Dionysus has undone us. Too late I see it.”


Reilly, Robert. “The Politics of Porn.” Crisis 16, no. 11 (December 1998): 34-37.

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.


Robert R. Reilly is the chairman of the Committee for Western Civilization.

Copyright © 1998 Crisis



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved