The Waxing and Waning GOP Crusade Against Pornography

The Republican Party platform didn't mention the issue for more than 100 years. But anti-porn fervor peaked in 1992 -- and it won't last much longer.


Prior to the GOP primaries, few imagined that pornography would emerge as a minor issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, but Rick Santorum, the socially conservative candidate and surprise runner-up, has helped make it so. The proximate cause of controversy is a statement on his campaign Web site stating that "America is suffering a pandemic of harm from pornography," and pledging that if elected president he would vigorously enforce obscenity laws. It's a fight that few in his party are eager to pick, and the former Pennsylvania senator was widely portrayed as being out of the mainstream on the issue as soon as his position was reported in the news media.

That portrayal is probably accurate. Even so, the guff he's taken is noteworthy, because until very recently the Republican Party establishment conspicuously embraced the position that he has taken. It's all in the platforms that they adopt every four years -- and the history is fascinating.

For more than a century after the Republican Party published its first platform in 1856, neither obscenity nor pornography were mentioned, but in 1964, as Barry Goldwater sought the presidency, the GOP made the minor pledge to enact legislation "despite Democratic opposition, to curb the flow through the mails of obscene materials which has flourished into a multimillion dollar obscenity racket." In 1968 and 1972, the issue went unmentioned, and when it next came up in 1976 the position hadn't changed: "The work presently being done to tighten the anti-obscenity provisions of the criminal code has our full support. Since the jurisdiction of the federal government in this field is limited to interstate commerce and the mails, we urge state and local governments to assume a major role in limiting the distribution and availability of obscene materials."

Of course, obscenity law and controversies related to it were frequent in the decades between the 1850s and the 1970s, especially within states and localities, but our concern here is the Republican Party and its national platform, for focusing there tells us something about how our politics has evolved. The word pornography made its first ever appearance in the 1984 platform, as Ronald Reagan sought re-election in a race he'd win in a landslide. Note the change in emphasis from earlier times when the GOP pledged merely to keep obscenity out of the mail:

We and the vast majority of Americans are repulsed by pornography. We will vigorously enforce constitutional laws to control obscene materials which degrade everyone, particularly women, and depict the exploitation of children. We commend the Reagan Administration for creating a commission on pornography and the President for signing the new law to eliminate child pornography. We stand with our President in his determination to solve the problem. We call upon the Federal Communications Commission, and all other federal, State, and local agencies with proper authority, to strictly enforce the law regarding cable pornography and to implement rules and regulations to clean up cable pornography and the abuse of telephone service for obscene purposes.

As Americans would later discover through the Internet and the preferences it revealed, the vast majority of the population isn't in fact repulsed by pornography. But at the time that wasn't a controversial plank for the GOP. In fact, by 1988 they were bragging about their anti-porn successes:

America's children deserve to be free from pornography. We applaud Republicans in the 100th Congress who took the lead to ban interstate dial-a-porn. We endorse legislative and regulatory efforts to anchor more securely a standard of decency in telecommunications and to prohibit the sale of sexually explicit materials in outlets operated on federal property. We commend those who refuse to sell pornographic material. We support the rigorous enforcement of "community standards" against pornography.

As it turned out, ending the scourge of "dial-a-porn" wasn't enough for social conservatives. Their fervor increased by 1992, when Pat Buchanan was challenging George H.W. Bush from the right. The platform Republican delegates adopted that year is the high-water mark of anti-porn fervor:

The time has come for a national crusade against pornography. Some would have us believe that obscenity and pornography have no social impact. But if hard-core pornography does not cheapen the human spirit, then neither does Shakespeare elevate it. We call on federal agencies to halt the sale, under government auspices, of pornographic materials.

We endorse Republican legislation, the Pornography Victims Compensation Act, allowing victims of pornography to seek damages from those who make or sell it, especially since the Commission on Pornography, in 1986, found a direct link between pornography and violent crimes committed against women and children. Further, we propose a computerized federal registry to track persons convicted of molesting children. We also believe... State legislatures should create a civil cause of action against makers and distributors of pornography when their material incites a violent crime.

Four years of living under Bill Clinton drove a lot of conservatives to near hysteria, but it apparently mellowed them out on pornography. In 1996 the GOP adopted a position on the issue that bordered on uncontroversial. "To promote the dignity of all members of the Armed Forces and their families, we endorse the efforts of congressional Republicans to halt the sale, in military facilities, of pornographic materials," it stated. "We endorse Bob Dole's call to bring federal penalties for child pornography in line with far tougher State penalties: ten years for a first offense."

In 2000, George W. Bush presided over a GOP that, for the purposes of its platform, had stopped trying to regulate adult access to pornography altogether. Suddenly the focus was keeping porn away from kids. "When the FBI reports that porn sites are the most frequently accessed on the Internet, it's time for parents at home -- and communities through their public institutions -- to take action," the platform stated. "We endorse Republican legislation pending in the Congress to require schools and libraries to secure their computers against on-line porn and predators if they accept federal subsides to connect to the Internet. This is not a question of free speech. Kids in a public library should not be victims of filth, and porn addicts should not use library facilities for their addiction... public libraries and schools should secure their computers..."

Anti-porn forces succeeded in pushing the party a bit father in 2004, when the GOP platform kept applauding steps taken to keep kids from having access to pornography, but also included the following:

The Republican Party shares the position of the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. California that obscene material is "unprotected by the first amendment" and that "to equate the free and robust exchange of ideas and political debate with commercial exploitation of obscene material demeans the grand conception of the first amendment and its high purposes in the historic struggle for freedom." We therefore support vigorous prosecution of obscene material by the U.S. Department of Justice.

That isn't so different from Santorum's position.

In 2008, the GOP platform swung in the other direction. Leaving even the ability of children to access pornography on the Web unmentioned, it focused entirely on children appearing in pornography:

We commit to do whatever it takes, using all the tools of innovative technology, to thwart those who would prey upon our children. We call on service providers to exercise due care to ensure that the Internet cannot become a safe haven for criminals.

Child pornography is a hideous form of child abuse. Those who produce it -- and those who traffic in it -- must be punished to the maximum extent of the law. Because it is an international problem, the Executive branch must carry the fight overseas to where the molesters perpetrate their evil. Congress should expand the range of companies required to report the existence of child pornography, and we congratulate the social networking sites that agree to bar known sex offenders from participation.

If Rick Santorum had his way, the GOP would attack child pornography and pornography starring consenting adults. That is to say, he'd go no farther than the planks uncontroversially adopted in 2004, and perhaps less far than the language of 1992. As yet, he hasn't called for a crusade.

The Pennsylvania senator's position hasn't changed much over the years. But the United States has. We've seen an unprecedented normalization of pornography, thanks largely to changes in technology. The explosion of pornographic material also has coincided with falling crime, including rape, so it is increasingly difficult to persuade any empirically-minded person that one drives the other. And even people who find the ubiquity of pornography demeaning or harmful generally accept that a society cannot be free, hooked up to the Internet, and stop pornography. There are, finally, more voters than ever who would rebel if anyone made the attempt. That's why I predict that the language in the next GOP platform won't go beyond child pornography. And if it does, it'll turn out to be the last gasp of an anti-porn movement that cannot win.

Image credit: Reuters