Andrew Sullivan used to make the “conservative” case for re-defining marriage, arguing that recognizing same-sex sexual partnerships as marriages would spread traditional norms of monogamy and sexual fidelity where promiscuity and “open” partnerships tended to prevail. Of course, he gave that up long ago, announcing in the face of criticism (by Peter Kurth) of such advocacy that he affirmed “the beauty and mystery and spirituality of sex, including anonymous sex.” Anonymous sex, I gather, is sex between strangers who do not even bother to reveal their names to each other, and in some cases don’t show their faces to each other.
So it’s scarcely a surprise that Dr. Sullivan disapproves of the efforts I have undertaken with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf to persuade CEOs of America’s major hotel chains to stop offering pornography to their customers. Why would someone who celebrates promiscuity and casual sexual encounters as a form of “spirituality” think there is anything degrading or dehumanizing about porn and the porn trade? In commenting on our efforts, though, Sullivan oddly claims that Shaykh Hamza and I are “hiding behind the civil rights movement” to take his porn away.
Of course, in our letter to hotel executives, posted here yesterday, we weren’t “hiding behind” anything. We made our argument in an open and straightforward way. Here is what we said:
Pornography is degrading, dehumanizing, and corrupting. It undermines self-respect and respect for others. It reduces persons—creatures bearing profound, inherent, and equal dignity—to the status of objects. It robs a central aspect of our humanity—our sexuality—of its dignity and beauty. It ensnares some in addiction. It deprives others of their sense of self-worth. It teaches our young people to settle for the cheap satisfactions of lust, rather than to do the hard, yet ultimately liberating and fulfilling, work of love.
Later in the letter, having made our substantive argument, we mentioned racial injustice in anticipating and rebutting a possible rejoinder, namely, the claim that there is nothing objectionable about offering pornography in hotel rooms, since offering the material is perfectly legal (assuming that the porn in question, however graphic or violent, does not technically qualify as “obscenity”). We reminded the hotel executives that not all that many decades ago racial segregation, for example, was legal; but that didn’t make it right. Our appeal to the respectable business people who are profiting from porn-dealing today was not to law, but to conscience. We asked them to consider whether they would want their own wives, sisters, or daughters to be depicted as women are depicted in pornographic films and other materials. And we urged them to regard all women as they would wish their wives, sisters, and daughters to be regarded, i.e., not as de-personalized sexual objects or bundles of sexual appetites, but as persons—bearers of dignity who, as such, deserve respect.
Our point was not that the fight against the dehumanizing and degrading phenomenon of pornography is just like the fight against the dehumanizing and degrading practice of racial segregation. There are important and obvious differences. Our point was that something’s being legal does not justify anyone’s doing it, even for the sake of increasing shareholders’ profits in a corporate business (which, as a general matter, management has a fiduciary obligation to do). But since Dr. Sullivan has raised the issue of parallels between the civil rights movement and the struggle against pornography, if only to deride the idea, it’s worth mentioning one important parallel: the sickeningly widespread exploitation of women (among them many troubled or abused teenage girls who have run away from home, and many young women lured from Eastern Europe, southeast Asia, and elsewhere with false promises of honorable employment) who are trafficked into the porn production business (and often into prostitution, as well). No need to trust me or Shaykh Hamza on the reality of this vile and massive abuse of civil rights. Here’s Lara Janson, writing on the liberal Huffington Post.
Surely decent people on the left and the right can agree that the trafficking of human beings into sexual slavery is a horrific evil that we should do everything in our power to oppose. But if we are to make any progress in the struggle, we need to take the measure of the problem and that means recognizing its connection to, among other evils, the porn business. Regarding and depicting porn makers as mere purveyors of harmless “naughtiness” of the sort that it’s prudish and silly for sophisticated people to get worked up about is to abandon victims of exploitation whose fundamental human rights are routinely being violated.