Conservatives Attacking Pornography Carry on History of Politicized Moral PanicsRoundup
tags: First Amendment, pornography, moral panics, JD Vance, obscenity, Anthony Comstock
Kelsy Burke is an award-winning sociologist, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio is making news with a recently discovered interview from 2021 where he called for an all-out ban on pornography and also blamed contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage for ruining society. Rather than apologize, he has used these positions as central themes in the campaign, building on GOP efforts to make the culture wars central to the party’s platform.
This year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law HB 1557, which critics call the “don’t say gay” bill, claiming that “clearly inappropriate pornographic materials” are readily available in elementary schools across the state. Texas schools started pulling books deemed “overtly sexual” by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). According to one report, banned-book lists have been circulated in school districts across 26 states.
Less prominent in the headlines but no less consequential is the EARN IT Act, reappearing in Congress this term after initially being proposed in 2020. On the surface, the act is intended to prevent “online child sexual exploitation” but in practice it would mean that the government would have unprecedented access to an individual’s online data and the ability to regulate private websites of all kinds, not just the pornographic ones.
But pornography isn’t really what’s at stake here, nor is raising the marriage rate or improving the lives of children (there are many more direct routes for that). Instead, it’s what sociologist Joseph Gusfield has called a symbolic crusade. White conservative Christians like Vance, DeSantis and Abbott are leveraging the issue of pornography to secure their power within American culture and law, a tactic that has been used for well over a century.
The person responsible for implementing America’s earliest obscenity laws in 1873 was Anthony Comstock, a devout Protestant and Civil War veteran who opposed nudity in all forms, including in art and theater. He was also a staunch opponent of women’s voting rights, contraception, alcohol and gambling. And so he made it his personal mission to align the law with his religious beliefs. He successfully lobbied Congress to expand the federal punishment for transporting obscene materials using the U.S. mail and got himself appointed as a special agent of the U.S. Postal Service.
A self-proclaimed “weeder in God’s garden,” Comstock took responsibility for the arrests of more than 3,500 people on obscenity charges and for destroying 160 tons of obscene literature.