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Princeton Professor Calls out ‘Public Health Crisis,’ Demands Department of Justice Tackle Porn Epidemic

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The “public health crisis” of pornography consumption is now being taken to a federal level. Terms like "obscene" must be defined.


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Tré Goins-Phillips

Over the last few years, a total of 16 states have deemed pornography consumption a “public health crisis.” Now, a leading conservative scholar is urging the U.S. attorney general to take action on the federal level.

Robert P. George, a distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, authored a letter to Attorney General William Barr, according to The Daily Wire, seeking “clarification regarding current [Department of Justice] policy for the enforcement of existing obscenity laws.” He is specifically interested in how officials with the DOJ understand 18 U.S.C. § 1460–1470, our federal obscenity laws.

“As everyone knows, the online pornography industry has exploded,” George wrote. “There has been a dramatic rise in illegal pornography production and distribution. Hotels, cable and TV companies and internet pornography distributors regularly sell pornography featuring horrific themes, such as the rape of teenagers, incest, sexual assault, sex trafficking and slavery, suffocation, bondage and even cartoon pornography targeted at minor children…a 13-year-old with a smartphone now has unlimited access to his own personal theatre of sexual horrors.”

The professor went on to note “extensive” research suggesting exposure to pornography results in “severe harm” to children, youth and adults. He also pointed to experts who argue pornography consumption “is potentially biologically addictive,” and as such, requires ever-increasing novelty—or perversion—in order for the user to reach satisfaction, similar to that which is required of those who abuse chemical drugs.

George asked Barr to explain how his department defines “obscenity,” what categories of internet-based pornography might fit into that definition, whether DOJ officials believe pornography is subject to regulation under our federal obscenity laws, and how the Trump administration is cracking down on those who have violated the obscenity laws still on the books today.

The difficulty, though, in answering those questions is “obscenity” has proven to be an incredibly tricky word to define from a legal standpoint. Even then-Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had trouble coming up with a definition for “hardcore” (or “obscene”) pornography.

In his famous opinion on Jacobellis v. Ohio, a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1964 over whether Ohio could ban the showing of the French film The Lovers, which the state had deemed obscene for its sexual content, Stewart wrote of “obscene” material, “I know it when I see it.”

He’s right. I’d argue anyone with a moral compass knows it when they see it. But that phenomenon is of little to no help when it comes to the black-and-white strictures of the law.

In 1973, in the Supreme Court’s ruling over Miller v. California, the high court established its three-pronged standard, now known as the Miller test, for what constitutes “obscene” material.

Then-Chief Justice Warren Burger came up with the following test for classifying content as “obscene:”

  1. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests (i.e., an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex or excretion);
  2. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way (i.e., ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated, masturbation, excretory functions, lewd exhibition of the genitals or sadomasochistic sexual abuse); and
  3. Whether a reasonable person finds that the matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

However, in order for Burger’s three-pronged definition to carry any water, there must be an agreed-upon societal understanding of “contemporary adult community standards.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see there isn’t much room for absolutism of any kind in this hyper-relativistic era. After all, people want to post naked pictures of themselves to Instagram and call it political art.

Then there’s the right to privacy issue. The case could be made that sharing pornography isn’t a protected First Amendment right, but that says nothing of an individual’s right to quietly possess materials (so long as any people involved in the content are above the legal age of consent, which is 18-years-old) for their own personal gratification. While there are no laws that specifically outline a person’s right to own pornographic material, there is undoubtedly a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.

None of this is to suggest it’s not worth trying to find a way to enforce the obscenity laws we have on the books—because it is in every way a noble effort. It will, though, be a difficult task, given the laws have, for the most part, only been applied when it comes to explicit materials involving children and minors.

I spoke last year with Donna Rice Hughes, founder of Enough Is Enough, an advocacy organization dedicated to making the internet a safer place. She told me she is “very hopeful” Barr will work to “aggressively enforce” the country’s sleeping obscenity laws.

There’s no doubt in my mind pornography is not by any stretch of the imagination a protected form of free speech; it is dangerous content that has wreaked untold havoc on our world.

If you are struggling with sexual sin or have a propensity toward consuming pornography, Faithwire has created a seven-week video course, Set Free, designed to give participants the practical and spiritual tools they need to face this issue head-on. If you are addicted to pornography, you are not alone; roughly 40 million Americans visit pornographic websites every single day.

As Hughes said, “It is a public health issue, and the science backs that up.”