The GOP primary is sort of fascinating for non-Republicans, like watching someone else’s family have an intense argument in public that airs all of their dirty laundry—moon bases, dogs tied to the tops of cars, multiple divorces, abortions, sexual harassment, even a racistly-named vacation spot. Along the way we’ve learned what the mostly old, white, somewhat crazy GOP base cares about, or at least what the candidates think they care about: not foreign policy (other than blindly supporting Israel and wanting to bomb Iran), not the economy (beyond the same ol’ “tax bad, Obama bad, socialism” talking points), but definitely gay marriage, contraception, and now, thanks to the reliably reactionary Rick Santorum, pornography.
The Republican Party seems to be going backwards on social issues. The whole “religious freedom”/contraception/women’s bodies/slut/blaaarghh-I-want-people-to-shut-up debate wasn’t even about abortion, it was about birth control, which 98 percent of Catholic women have taken. But Santorum, one of his party’s two remaining candidates, came out against it and got slammed, rightly, for doing so. You would think he learned his lesson about publically revealing his fundamentalism, but there he goes again, arguing—in an official statement, not an off-the-cuff remark—that ”America is suffering a pandemic of harm from pornography,” and pledging to enforce federal obscenity laws, which should be absolutely fucking terrifying for free-speech advocates and anyone who likes to watch naked people do fun stuff.
The federal obscenity laws are odd. For starters, there’s the legal definition of “obscenity,” which is subjective and has changed over time—at one point, James Joyce’s Ulysses was considered obscene. If you read these laws literally, they suggest that you can’t transport any obscene material across state lines. Your right to privacy, according to the courts, means that you can watch porn in your house, but you can’t necessarily distribute porn—which brings up the question of how the porn is supposed to get into people’s homes.
The government has dealt with this confusing situation by not enforcing the laws, except in rare cases, most notably United States v. Extreme Associates, when a porn company was prosecuted for its extreme content, which included vomit-drinking, simulated rape, and Jesus-on-angel sex. After years of bouncing from court to court, the defendants pleaded guilty, receiving a lighter sentence rather than risk having their lives ruined over a matter of principle.
But Santorum takes the hardline stance shared by many Christian anti-porn organizations, and wants to interpret the law literally. According to his campaign statement, “Current federal ‘obscenity’ laws prohibit distribution of hardcore (obscene) pornography on the Internet, on cable/satellite TV, on hotel/motel TV, in retail shops and through the mail or by common carrier” and therefore “federal obscenity laws should be vigorously enforced.”
Yup, one of the leading candidates for President of the United States officially wants to drag people who distribute porn—normal, non-child, non-bestiality, man-on-woman porn—into court. That’s fucking insane. So now some Republicans aren’t just trying to uphold the existing, unequal social order by stopping gays from getting married, they’re now trying to chip away at the First Amendment and reestablish the social mores of—when? The 50s? The 19th century? Are they going to try to make it illegal for women to work next, or bring back prohibition?
OK, deep breath. This is Santorum, after all, the guy who is not going to win the nomination. The problem is, Mitt Romney is getting pressured by the anti-porn people too, and given his track record of shifting to whatever position is demanded by the loudest section of the base, he won’t be able to resist matching Santorum’s pledge to prosecute pornographers. If he does, I doubt he’ll believe that people watching other people bang is really tearing society apart—but that’s not the point. The folks who can put him in office, and will likely influence his decisions if he becomes president, will want him to get rid of porn. And those folks, it’s becoming clear, aren’t just anti-gay or anti-women. They’re anti-modern.
Previously – Free Speech Isn’t for Pussies