“Public Health Crisis”? The GOP Platform, Pornography, and Political History

15277Today we have a fascinating and topical guest post from Sarah L. Leonard, Associate Professor of History at Simmons College and author of Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Leonard's book investigates the creation of "obscene writings and images" as a category of print in nineteenth-century Germany, charting the process through which texts of many kinds—from popular medical works to stereoscope cards—were deemed dangerous to the intellectual and emotional lives of vulnerable consumers. In this post, Leonard brings her expertise on the history of pornography, and specifically her nuanced understanding of its perception as a threat or crisis, to bear on language adopted into the Republican party platform at the recent 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

What are the political effects of calling pornography "a public health crisis," as the US Republican party recently did in a proposed amendment to the 2016 party platform?

The Republicans wouldn't be the first group to suggest that minds, bodies and communities can be infected by exposure to the wrong kinds of sexual representations. Such assertions punctuate political history — from Napoleon's 1810 Civil Code, which criminalized "all outrages to public and religious morality," to Ronald Reagan's 1985 decision to initiate an Attorney General's Commission on Pornography. To understand what is achieved with these denunciations, it helps to consider both why evoking pornography has historically been an effective vehicle for conveying political ideas, and where pornography sits in relation to the current political landscape.

Politicians evoke pornography because it mobilizes the body and the bodily. The topic summons up a range of visceral responses, among them disgust, shame, fascination and titillation. If the members of a political party raise pornography only to denounce it, however, they provoke these strong responses and still keep their hands clean.

In early modern England and France, political opposition to those in power included the production of pornographic images and narratives starring their political opponents. Marie Antoinette, for example, was depicted in scenes of incest, bestiality, and lesbianism, which discredited the authority of the French King. Painting their political opponents with the brush of obscene behavior, protestors were able to harness the power and excitement of the pornographic idiom without having to be associated with it. While today’s Republicans may not be attributing licentious behavior to Michelle and Barack Obama, they are suggesting that pornography has reached crisis proportions under the current administration. They are effectively arguing that the American people are inadequately defended against what they regard as a serious threat.

Denouncing pornography is also a potent political tool because it produces unlikely bedfellows. In the 1980s American anti-pornography feminists found themselves in awkward alliance with the Republican Party. While these two groups differed on a host of issues, they found accord in an anti-pornography stance. Republican opposition to pornography was linked to their dismay about changes in sexuality and family ushered in by the 1960s and 1970s. Anti-pornography feminists, on the other hand, were striving to further feminist gains initiated in the 1970s. For them, pornography was part and parcel of women's continued economic and social subordination; reducing women to the status of objects for male consumption, they argued, produced inequality. Thus two groups with different political agendas found themselves allied against a common enemy.

The symbolic value of pornography is wonderfully protean, for it is a category capable of expressing a wide range of political, social, and even economic concerns. In early nineteenth-century Germany, for example, the authorities charged that obscene texts would disorder the mind and lead to irrational political behavior; people also worried that itinerant booksellers and fly-by-night lending libraries would spread "filth" from urban centers to rural areas. Later in the century, advertisements for contraceptives were prosecuted for causing "public offense" and for encouraging sex outside of marriage. In the current climate, the dangers of pornography evoke the vulnerability of children, anxieties surrounding the internet, the breakdown of traditional marriage, and concerns about male virility. Add to this the continued discomfort of some feminists with pornography, and one has a potent and flexible rhetorical tool.

Where does the idea of pornography as "public health crisis" sit in the current Republican articulation of its political priorities? It emphasizes two themes at the center of the 2016 party platform. The first is the vision of the American family as the central building block of civil society, as the bulwark against government intrusion in communities, and as under siege. The second is the state of national strength and security, which the Republicans argue has been eroded under the current regime.

According to the platform, pornography threatens the family first and foremost because it endangers the safety of children. As conceptualized in Republican rhetoric and policy, "the American family" should consist of a man and a woman who are married; its primary purpose is to raise and protect children. Children are framed as vulnerable to predators. At the same time, the platform asserts that the American family itself is under siege by forces that would broaden the definition of marriage or suggest that marriage is not essential. Pornography is dangerous in its exploration of non-reproductive sexuality outside of marriage; it offers a range of ways that sexuality could be (and in fact is) imagined and practiced.

The platform insists that American national security and military strength have been eroded. This theme dovetails nicely with concerns about the family, suggesting that American strength is endangered by threats from within and without. Bolstering the strength of the American family is, in the party platform, a way of achieving security at home and of eliminating the need for federal programs (communities, they argue, do things better than government). Shoring up the bulwarks against invasive threats is one way of strengthening America's position in the world. Thus terrorism, immigration, pornography, and a bloated federal government are all looming threats that a strong military and a strong American family can remedy.

It is not a coincidence that the 2016 platform takes up where the Reagan administration left off. Reagan is the muse that animates this document; his presidency provides the blueprint for American economic, political, and moral resurgence. There is some irony here. The final Report on pornography submitted to Reagan by Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1986 could not, after exhaustive and commendable research, establish credible causal links between social dangers and pornography. Perhaps this conclusion is now outdated; perhaps the internet has changed this equation. But even short of clear evidence that pornography endangers the health of the American public, pornography remains a powerful rhetorical tool, capable of attracting and focusing a range of concerns about gender, sexuality, childhood, and family.