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Give me PornHub or give me death

| Thursday, November 1, 2018

“[I]t is the state — not free speech — that has been the oppressor of women. It was the state, not pornography, that burned women as witches. It was 18th and 19th century law, not pornography, that defined women as chattel … 20th century laws that refused to recognized rape within marriage … It is the state, not pornography, that has raised barriers against women. It is censorship, not freedom, that will keep the walls intact.” — Wendy McElroy

Introduction

One of the strongest instinctual urges of humanity is the impulse to label any content which we deem to be immoral as deserving of censorship. Everyone pretends to embrace the principle of free speech until they encounter speech with which they disagree; suddenly, they are all too willing to subject that speech to censorship. The authors and signatories of the two recently-published letters-to-the-editor requesting that Notre Dame implement a pornography filter have fallen to this primal instinct.

Censorship, even if well-intentioned, is bad for women

Restricting the content or information accessible to the Notre Dame community does no service to the prosperity of women. Historically, censorial power (exercised by both the government and private entities), particularly in the context of sexual expression, has been disproportionately wielded against women (and often under the same guise offered by the ill-guided authors of these letters — the guise of protecting women). As American author Ellen Willis said, “The only obscenity law that will not be used against women is no law at all. How long will it take oppressed groups to learn that if we give the state enough rope, it will end up around our necks?” Don’t take Ellen’s word for it — examine recent history. Why did Margaret Sanger spend so much time in prison during her crusade to disseminate information about female reproductive health, contraception and abortion? Because it was a federal crime under the Comstock Act to disseminate such information. Sanger is just one of countless feminists arrested under the Comstock Laws during the suffragist movement. Similar to the arguments presented by the authors to which I am responding, the government justified their censorship of these materials as being necessary to protect women and to maintain societal standards of propriety and morality. In fact, the New York Court of Appeals held that a film produced by Sanger entitled “Birth Control” could be censored “in the interest of morality, decency and public safety and welfare.” Sounds familiar! Moreover, it is not just feminists that have faced the consequences of censorial measures that they were promised would function to their benefit; activists of every minority movement for equality — black Americans, LGBTQ+ Americans etc. — have been crushed by laws intended to achieve the very goals outlined by Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP). I need not remind the Notre Dame community that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter while imprisoned in Birmingham for daring to defy the censorial efforts of the local government (efforts that were made in the name of cultural integrity).

The relationship between the codified suppression of sexually-oriented material and the subordination of women extends well into the modern era (and will inevitably persist into the future). For example, consider the following ten countries in which pornography is illegal or vastly restricted:

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Pakistan
  3. Iraq
  4. Iran
  5. Libya
  6. Egypt
  7. Sudan
  8. Somalia
  9. Saudi Arabia
  10. China

Ah yes, to be a woman in Afghanistan! Censorship of pornography has done wonders for their liberation and progression!

Trusting the Notre Dame administration?

I trust the Notre Dame administration to make these subjective determinations as much as I trust the government to — that is to say, not at all. Furthermore, if the Notre Dame administration is going to engage their subjective power to determine what information or content should be inaccessible to our community, why not ban material that supports gay marriage as well? Why not ban access to Planned Parenthood websites? If you demand that Notre Dame prohibit the consumption of pornography because it violates the principles of our school, should Notre Dame, by that argument, not ban any and all material that contradicts Catholic teachings? Once we permit the implementation of filters for the sake of restricting material that contradicts the mission of Notre Dame, what content will be safe? Individual students, not the administration, must be allowed to make decisions about material consumption for themselves. If this power is given to the administration, they will inevitably censor material that even SCOP thought would be protected. The women of Notre Dame neither need nor deserve regulations restricting access to certain categories of sexually-oriented expression. Rather, the women of Notre Dame need and deserve what all women of the world should be afforded — robust freedom.

Conclusion

We must never conclude that because a certain category of expression is immoral to some that it must be inaccessible to all. Giving any governing body — even a private entity not bound by the First Amendment — the subjective power to determine what content is or is not permissible has never, and will never, lead to prosperity for the intended beneficiaries of such censorial measures. If you want to combat the alleged ill-effects of exposure to pornography identified in your letters, engage in counter-speech. Persuade your fellow students to join your holy abstention from pornographic consumption. Convince our community that you are right, and that we should willingly and voluntarily disengage the pornographic industry. But do not demand that you should make that decision for all of us, and certainly do not do it in my name. As a fellow man of Notre Dame, I must respectfully dissent.

 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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