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December 5th, 2012 at 6:00 am

Whitney Strub — The Politics of Porn 2012 (Part 1)

“That the conservative attack on birth control failed miserably, and set the stage for some Democratic congressional coups, hardly means porn won’t return to the table again; in fact, with the diminishing returns on the homophobia that the Right has utilized so effectively for the past 35 years, it might well be slated for a revival sooner than Fifty Shades readers think.”—Whitney Strub

The following post is by Whitney Strub, author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. (You can also read an interview with Whitney Strub):

Whitney Strub, Perversion for ProfitWhere did the politics of pornography go in 2012? An initial answer might be, into remission. It certainly fell into the shadow of other big social issues of the moment, from LGBT rights to contraception. Yet the absence of overt political mobilization around the topic is itself revealing—one more pocket of social terrain where control seems to have slipped from government or activism to that totalizing force known as The Market. In this two-part blog post, I’ll review the partisan (non)politics of porn in 2012 here, then examine the cultural side of the issue next.

When Perversion for Profit went to press in 2010, Barack Obama had been in office just over a year, but it was already clear the politics of pornography had downshifted from the relatively suppressive Bush administration back to the more hands-off approach of the Clinton era. Indeed, much of Obama’s first term felt like Clinton redux; back came Rahm Emanuel, back came Larry Summers, back came neoliberal policy couched in a veneer of progressiveness on social issues—and with the latter, back came relative safety for pornographers, especially those in the kinky margins who had provided targets for the Bush Justice Department, which created an Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in 2005. Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, disbanded it in 2011.

It’s not just the powers of the state through obscenity law that have withered. The social conservatism of Morality in Media, or its predecessor Citizens for Decent Literature, has lost significance purchase on the mainstream; the antiporn feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s has also lost much of its visibility and grassroots infrastructure as it’s been superseded by self-declared sex-positive, Third Wave feminists. This creates something of a vacuum, filled only by the reigning liberalism that imagines free speech as a cardinal virtue, merrily detached from power relations, institutional access, or other complicating factors—the same brand of liberalism that saw the ACLU and the reactionary Supreme Court on the same side of Citizens United. The governing logic here, of course, is the market—not so much that old 20th-century utopian marketplace of ideas as the more literal field of commodity exchange, which plays out through texts like Fifty Shades of Grey (to which I’ll return next round). In the wake of that disastrous Court opinion, voting with your dollars has taken ominously literal meaning, but it also serves as the central regulatory mechanism of contemporary smut.

Did the election of 2012 shed any new light on the politics of pornography and obscenity? Well, the Democratic Party platform said nothing direct on the topic, but declared President Obama “strongly committed to protecting an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, creativity, consumer choice, and free speech, unfettered by censorship or undue violations of privacy.” This is in keeping with the general free-speech sentiments of Democratic Party platforms of the past forty years, and the party’s resolute disinterest in using pornography as a campaign topic. It’s less interesting for what it says about obscenity than the extent to which free speech has effectively been subsumed under consumerism.

The Republicans, perhaps unsurprisingly, insisted that “current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.” The party apparently forgot about adult smut in 2008, mentioning only child pornography that election season, but the 2012 declaration returned to the consistent culture-war rhetoric of recent decades. The GOP has invoked the need to combat obscenity in most platforms since 1964, with the high-water mark coming in 1992’s call for a “national crusade” against it.

This year, though, the reappearance felt like something of an afterthought. Mitt Romney pledged to reinstate adult obscenity prosecutions, even sending a top advisor to woo Morality in Media chief Patrick Trueman. As everyone from bloggers at RedState to those at the lefty Alternet agree, Romney never made a very convincing social conservative; in this case, Trueman noted to the Deseret News, Romney had served on the board of Marriott for most of the 1990s (and as recently as 2011) while the hotel chain profited from pay-per-view smut. As with gay rights and universal healthcare, he was for it before he was against it.

Trueman still spoke favorably of Romney. And so did gay porn magnate Michael Lucas—though like so many other conservatives, he qualified his endorsement (“There is nobody else to support,” Lucas told Yahoo News; “I am not in love with him, but I like him”). Gay porn has historically faced greater risks from obscenity law than its straight counterparts, but the libertarian Lucas explained that Romney was no real threat. He was probably right; the shifting boundaries of sexual citizenship have expanded to include gays and lesbians, so that it’s difficult to imagine successful prosecutions against any relatively vanilla hardcore porn, straight or gay. Even under Bush, it was primarily purveyors of rough, transgressive, or otherwise “deviant” sexuality who felt the force of obscenity law.

For Bush, like Reagan and Nixon before him, antiporn sentiment was rarely anything other than political theater. Its sensational aspects traditionally made for good political theater, though—at least, when the actors are convincing. Here, they were not (the only time Romney truly seemed sincere on the campaign trail was while denigrating the working poor). There wasn’t much of a stage, or even an audience, to rally them. When Obama got rid of the Bush Justice Department obscenity unit, 41 senators, led by Utah’s Orrin Hatch, signed a letter of protest—which then immediately disappeared from view. Aside from his efforts to appease Morality in Media, Romney clearly had no interest in the issue. And nobody expects adult obscenity prosecutions under the Obama administration.

Did Perversion for Profit end at just the right moment, then, when the politics of porn became obsolete? I’d caution against such a conclusion. Historians of sexuality remind us that sexual politics do not follow a linear course of increasing freedom and acceptance—and if anyone needs an example of an issue that seemed to be long-settled by social consensus, just look at the erupting politicization of women’s access to contraception earlier this year. That the conservative attack on birth control failed miserably, and set the stage for some Democratic congressional coups, hardly means porn won’t return to the table again; in fact, with the diminishing returns on the homophobia that the Right has utilized so effectively for the past 35 years, it might well be slated for a revival sooner than Fifty Shades readers think. The cultural mainstreaming of porn, though, makes it difficult to imagine exactly what a 21st-century antiporn campaign would target—which is where part 2 begins.

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