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Ross Douthat: ‘When They Take the Porn, You Can Curse My Name’

Ross Douthat: ‘When They Take the Porn, You Can Curse My Name’
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“Healthy regimes strike a balance between prohibition and permission,” claims conservative columnist Ross Douthat in the latest Fifth Column podcast. Libertarians, God love us, tend to have a different point of view.

The New York Times writer was on the program to discuss his new book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, which is more an exercise in analysis and debate-framing than moralistic finger-wagging. The trad-con nonetheless heard an inevitable earful from co-hosts Kmele Foster, Michael Moynihan, and Matt Welch about his trailblazing role in social conservatives’ recent reanimation of the War on Porn, and where that all fits with the post-Trump ideological realignment on the right.

You can listen to the whole thing conversation here:

And below is an edited transcript from the more porny part of the conversation:

Douthat: I…think the smarter populists have a reasonable point, that right now, the people saying we should be content with 3 percent growth and not try for 4 percent or something are often the centrists. The sort of, respectable, somewhere between Barack Obama and the Simpson-Bowles Commission, or maybe the presidency of Joe Biden. There is that quality of let’s just sustain our slow growth rate to a lot of…centrist and elite discourse right now.

And the[n there are the] populists, who are sort of casting about and saying, “Well, why can’t we have an industrial policy? Why can’t we rebuild manufacturing?” All of these things. Some of their ideas may be bad, but they do at least have ambitions for a 3 percent or 4 percent growth society.

Welch: Is it that, though? I mean, it’s been Manifesto Season in your—or on their/your—part of the right for like the last 18 months. How many goddamn manifestos are we going to read in The American Conservative?

Douthat: You don’t have to read them….

Welch: I want to know what they’re coming for.

Douthat: It’s OK.

Welch: Well, they’re coming for porn, which you started….

Douthat: When they take the porn, you can curse my name….

Moynihan: Talk about that a little bit. Because I mean in the book, you talk about how the worst fears of the Andrea Dworkins and Catharine MacKinnons and James Dobsons, on both sides of the aisle, turned out to be wrong….That this was going to increase sexual violence, et cetera, et cetera.

That didn’t turn out to be true, but then you did write a column in 2018, where the headline said that you wanted to ban—

Douthat: “Let’s ban porn.”…

Moynihan: Make the case to a roomful of skeptics, and in one case a porn addict, who I will not name—I will not name Matt Welch; I won’t. Why would I do that? Why would I do that to you?

Make the case, and give us the précis of why you think banning porn is the right idea.

Foster: While Matt stares daggers at you.

Douthat: There is sort of a Catholic argument, and a decadence argument, and I think the Catholic argument you probably know pretty well—

Foster: “The wages of sin is death.”

Douthat: You are inherently dehumanizing, blah, blah, blah.

The decadence argument, which is compatible with the Catholic argument but somewhat separate, is that porn in the internet age has become essentially a substitute for forms of human gratification that lead to actual happiness in relationships, and kids and family and flourishing and all these things. And that porn basically has a numbing effect on the male libido; that you keep seeking out more and more outré forms to satisfy yourself. You don’t become some sort of psycho rapist, as people worried in the ’80s. Instead, you end up with erectile dysfunction, basically, and can’t relate to women in the real world….

I think there’s a fair amount of not entirely dispositive but pretty indicative medical and social science research to suggest that that’s the case. And that’s bad! It’s bad for the future. It’s bad for men. It’s bad for women. It’s bad for everybody. So why not get rid of it?

Welch: Because prohibition also is bad, right? Like, it’s hard to imagine a thing that is either popularly done, or consumed; or a behavior that is done by tens of millions—not just by 200,000, like tens of millions—where an attempt to ban it has worked out, that hasn’t created terrible black markets, that hasn’t led to a lot more danger and violence and death, and also contributed to the architecture of entire policing apparatuses that have made the world less free.

Douthat: So yeah, I mean, that’s a sweeping statement. I think that I’m more sympathetic to the idea that healthy regimes strike a balance between prohibition and permission. So in a healthy society, you maybe have gambling in Vegas and Atlantic City, and you don’t have a casino at every corner, right? In a healthy society, you don’t ban alcohol entirely, but you can have blue laws and age restrictions and all of these things.

I think a porn ban would end up functioning in roughly the same way….You don’t have to empower the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to hunt down pornographers in their lairs, to have a world where it’s a lot harder to find pornography on the internet….

The world of Pornhub and so on is a world that in its own way encourages all kinds of sexual exploitation and human trafficking and pedophilia and so on.

Moynihan: Does Pornhub, you think—let me just take the last one you said. Pedophilia?

Douthat: …There was a piece recently that basically said, you know, Pornhub does not obviously promote or condone pedophilia, it just happens that obviously lots and lots of people are attracted to women, young women, in the zone between maturity and non-maturity, and that Pornhub ends up as a zone where you get a lot of cases that seem to look a lot like the human trafficking of minors.

But it’s very hard to tell, and Pornhub doesn’t do a lot about it. So it’s more that it’s creating a space with minimal policing for a lot of bad things to happen.

Moynihan: Yeah, I don’t know of any of those cases in the U.S. at the moment. I mean, I remember very famously the case of Traci Lords, who had faked an I.D. and the rest of it, and they pulled a bunch of films that she made when she was, I think 15. [Editor’s note: 16.]….

Douthat: But this is the thing about the internet: You don’t have the discrete population of porn stars that sort of define the pornography world of the 1990s. Not that I, as a good Catholic, had any awareness of any such world….

Moynihan: You were just writing a book.

Douthat: I had friends, right?…

This is the argument, of course, that people say: “Well, you can’t ban it, because it’s so democratized and widely distributed.”

Foster: It’s hard. Three of the top 10 websites in the world are pornography websites.

Douthat: Right. But those websites… I mean, there’s like one company in the U.S. that manages a bunch of those. There’s a sort of Matt Stoller–style anti-monopoly argument, right, for breaking up—

Foster: And as soon as we knock that down, we’d get a bunch more….

Moynihan: But just be clear about this. The headline of your piece, and it seems to be explicit: We need to ban it. That’s still your desire, right? To just ban pornography, and make the production of it illegal?

Douthat: Yeah. I think that a low and a sort of moderately enforced ban would have the same effect as milder forms—

Moynihan: What do you mean by “moderately enforced”?

Douthat: I mean what I said. That you would not break into people’s homes to arrest them for making amateur pornography videos. That you would go after large-scale producers. I mean, I think this balance exists in other areas. I think it would have been possible to sort of maintain a world where you had marijuana prohibition. I think marijuana should be banned, and I think that ban should not be enforced in the way the War on Drugs was enforced for many years. I think this is—

Welch: How is that going to happen, though? “I want a lighter banning. A gentle banning.”

Douthat: Well, I mean, this is how we handled gambling in the U.S. before the age of the first Indian reservation casinos, and then casinos everywhere. You weren’t running massive FBI operations to eliminate the local bookie. You had a few places where it was legal, and I’m—

Moynihan: But the local bookie could be arrested.

Douthat: Yeah, he could be. He could be.

Moynihan:  And he could go to jail.

Douthat: He could be arrested, yeah….

So basically a pornographer has to assess a set of risks. And he knows that in most cases, if he’s making amateur pornography, he’s not going to get in trouble, and if he scales up his operation, he is.

Foster: I could certainly imagine a universe where you knock off the really big players in the porn industry. I also imagine the scope-creep that inevitably happens with regimes like this, where once they knock off the big guys, they start to go after the medium-sized guys, and then they start to go after smaller guys.

But even worse than that, if we think Pornhub is a problem, I don’t know that the proliferation of a bunch of copycat websites is actually going to be a good thing.  It strikes me that you can at least go after Pornhub, and sort of strangle them a bit, to invoke a metaphor….And they would probably try to get their act together. Those other folks might not.

And to invoke one more piece of evidence from The New York Times, there’s been a lot of really good and totally fucking terrifying reporting about child pornography and its proliferation online, its explosion online, and the fact that it is completely illegal, and we have no capacity to stop it whatsoever. So I think the difficulty of this is actually an impossible task, and in criminalizing it even a little bit we run the risk of driving it underground, making it much worse, and then necessarily having some risk of scope-creep, that makes an ever wider percentage of the population subject to punitive actions from the state, which always makes me nervous.

Douthat: I read those same articles, and I came away convinced that, one, nobody was putting any law enforcement energy towards this; and two, major internet providers, on whose messaging services these things were happening, were facing no pressure whatsoever from public authorities to do anything about it. So I don’t think it’s the case that those horrifying stories reflect the failure of law enforcement. They reflect an absence of law enforcement will and pressure on companies.

Now, I agree that if you extend that forward, as with anything—if you’re trying to catch terrorists online, right?—there’s always the danger of mission creep and so on.

And, look: You know, if you write an op-ed column, you need a catchy headline! I don’t expect porn to be banned in a comprehensive way in my lifetime, but I would much rather have the problem of worrying about that the civil liberties of the amateur pornographer might be infringed, than to live in a world where teenagers get their sex education from pornography that is not even remotely like the pornography that hypothetical friends of mine, certainly not myself, might have gotten their sex education from….

Welch: I initially brought this up to say that Sohrab Ahmari isn’t talking about 3 percent growth, and that all of the manifestos he’s signing his name to is “pornography” this, it’s “trade” that, it’s everything, it’s immigration. That’s the problem with you damn trad-cons….It seems like that…what’s getting people up in the morning to do their chest pushups is the social stuff.

Douthat: Yes.

Welch: And it’s stuff that’s infringing on my zone of freedom.

Douthat: Every day, in new ways. That’s right.

Welch: Every day, in new ways.

Douthat: Sohrab wakes up and says, “What kind of library story am I going to prevent Matt Welch from attending today?”

Welch: It strikes me as a strange thing.

In some way, nodding to what you were saying before, there is an acknowledgement that the world is not the world that we lived in in 2015, and you and they are acting on this, and trying to create new programs and new ideas, and like, “Let’s shape the alignment in an interesting way.” And I have respect for the game of doing that.

Douthat: Manifestos, man. They pay the bills. I’ve got kids. They’ve got to eat.

Welch: But this is not going to be popular! As soon as you start giving the sense of, like, “Hey, you’re getting into my grill”—

Douthat: So, pornography is actually not that popular. I mean, you can dispute the polls—

Moynihan: In polls. It’s not that popular. Hmmm. Let me close this tab.

Douthat: First of all, women, even now in our enlightened age, are not generally big fans of pornography.

Moynihan: Is it one in three women consume pornography once a week, I just saw the other day?

Foster: I think people lie.

Moynihan: Yeah, and people also lie. This is the one thing I’d lie about. The masturbation Bradley effect.

Douthat: I think it runs the other way. Certainly, in the circles that we all run in, sort of political journalism, to be against porn, let alone against masturbation, is to be a hopeless loser and a square, right? I don’t see there is all this social pressure to be anti-pornography that would manifest itself in opinion polls….

I do actually think that not banning porn, but restricting porn, would be more popular than, say, rolling back same-sex marriage. I think that one of the things that the trad-cons are arguing is that there are things that social conservatives could be in favor of that would be more helpful than re-fighting some lost battles on other issues.

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Matt Welch

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