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On Saturday, The New York Times published a sobering report about the recent explosion of online child pornography. According to the story, in 2018 there were a record 45 million photos and videos of child sexual abuse reported by tech companies, a monumental increase from only a few years ago. Law enforcement officials have been overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of cases, logistically unable to properly investigate every report. Faced with the equivalent of a rapidly sinking boat, federal agencies have been asked to fix it with nothing more than a bucket to bail out the water—a hopeless task.

The increased exposure brought to the issue of pornography is a welcome development. The proliferation of sexually abusive imagery, especially child pornography, has reached crisis levels in recent years, demanding a robust response from our political leaders. The Times report suggests that we must address the shortage of resources available to law enforcement. However, while certainly a crucial part of any response, this would only scratch the surface of the real problem.

The uncomfortable truth is that the rapid growth in child pornography is connected to the cultural normalization of online pornography as a whole. While research on the issue is relatively scarce, a number of studies have shown a relationship between habitual porn use and escalation to more deviant types. This makes intuitive sense. Just as a habitual drug user builds up a tolerance for a drug and is compelled to continually seek out stronger and more dangerous forms to achieve the same effect, so many porn users may find themselves engaging in the same process. Unfortunately, porn is more widely available and less stigmatized than drugs, leaving many more people vulnerable to its effects.

The full extent of porn’s current influence is alarming. According to the most popular pornography website, users viewed 4.6 billion hours of porn on its site in 2016 alone. Moreover, surveys have consistently shown that large numbers of people regularly use porn, including—most distressingly—young people, whose brains are not fully developed and thus far more susceptible to the effects of psychological stimuli. One recent poll found that 64 percent of respondents aged 13–24 actively seek out porn on a weekly basis, while another study of college males found that about half had first encountered porn before age 13.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as our culture has become increasingly sexualized, more and more people are turning to perverse and abusive forms of media. Given what we know about how pornography works, this should be expected. Some of our political leaders seem to recognize this. For example, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) recently pressured tech companies over their passive enabling of online child exploitation, while 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted last month that he believes children’s easy access to porn is “a real problem.” But besides these outliers, relatively few leaders have been willing to actively speak out. Why?

Many suggest we should avoid engaging these types of issues in politics—sometimes out of a progressive desire to promote sexual liberation, but usually out of a libertarian concern about the potential for too much government involvement. Instead, we are told to engage the culture directly.

True, there are good efforts underway in the culture to combat pornography. But politics is not separate from culture, nor irrelevant to culture, nor downstream from culture. Politics is a key part of culture, and often drives it. The law can serve as a teacher and a guide to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative ones. 

Consider, for example, what the Civil Rights Act did to racist discrimination in the South. Not only did it become unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, it became viewed within the culture as morally repugnant. Today, racism is universally regarded as so evil and out-of-bounds that one could argue the law preventing such discrimination from taking place is no longer even necessary—a theoretical outfit that chose to discriminate against its customers on the basis of race would be driven out of business within days by an outraged citizenry. Would this positive cultural shift have happened without the Civil Rights Act? Probably not. 

Today, unfortunately, our law promotes pornography culture via the lack of enforcement of existing obscenity statutes; via federal funding for the abhorrent Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, which encourages the premature sexualization of our children; and via our government’s subsidization and cooperation with abortion mills like Planned Parenthood that depend on a hypersexualized culture to sustain its business model. Until this changes—and until we engage this issue in politics and take more aggressive action to regulate pornography and protect young children from being subjected to it—pornography culture will only become more pervasive, and with it horrific sexual violence against women and children. To prevent future Times articles from being written, we must finally discover the political courage to act.

Terry Schilling is the executive director at American Principles Project, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to putting human dignity at the heart of public policy.

Photo by Denis Dervisevic via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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