Family Policy for a Great Country

The Case of Pornography

Great nations need great families. There is no way to get from the principles of modern feminism to great families. I took some heat for a speech to this effect at the 2021 National Conservative conference. I was even investigated for Title IX violations at my home institution a few weeks after the speech, though, I was assured, the speech had nothing to do with the fact that I was investigated. Free speech is perfectly secure on the campus, as long as you do not cross the sacred principles of the gynocracy.

I am freer now. If last year I criticized the modern independent woman, this year no one even knows what a woman is. Last year, I called modern feminist women “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome.” My critics harassed my wife, tried to spike my financial accounts, tried to get me fired from my job—all while on anti-depressants. Sounds like vindication!

These ideologues should be treated with magnanimity and charity. They are sheep, not lions. They are the eunuchs in our new post-family global order and among its victims.

Family decline is evident all over the Western world. You all know the song. Birth rates have plummeted. Many, or most, children are born outside of marriage. Pornography is rampant. Divorce remains near historic highs. The idea that there is no relation between one’s sex and one’s gender identity seems to be making itself immune from public disapproval. Many things that we used to take for granted can no longer be taken for granted. We thought most people would want the lifetime companionship of marriage. No more. With each generation fewer even desire marriage. We thought women wanted to be mothers. No more. Within a generation, near a majority of women will be childless if current trends continue. We thought men would be manly and responsible. Less no now. Many men are not rising to the level of self-respect or responsibility. Since a country is a collection of men and women, united in memory and committed to a common regime, if women do not have children, if men do not rise to responsibility, and if they do not marry, the country has no future.

This movement seems universal and fated. As a result, conservatives are uneasy: the future of the country depends on reversing family decline, but family decline seems inevitable. The forces of modernity seem to be eroding the very bonds and mores that make family life strong, possible and desirable. When I have thought about it, I have been in some part inclined to this opinion. Nonetheless, so that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fate is arbiter of half our actions, she also leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern. But governing fate requires a deep understanding of the ideological movements through which the forces of modernity travel.

Last year, I began to peel back the onion on one of those forces—the ideology of feminism. Feminism does not mean “women in the workplace” or “equal opportunity” (as some would have it today). Feminism means erasing the difference between men and women, females seeing themselves as economically and emotionally independent from the family, and bringing about an end of all sexual taboos. More women in the workplace or “equal opportunity” are just intermediate goals to achieve these larger ends. This is why today’s feminists are perfectly happy with disparities that favor women (more men go to prison, for instance), but express maximum outrage at disparities that do not favor women. Equal opportunity has never been the real goal—it has always been an intermediate goal that helps feminists peddle their revolutionary goals at a particular time. Rooting out these deeper revolutionary goals is necessary to recover family life. Thinking about the world without feminist ideology is necessary for national conservatives in our context. For a beginning, see last year’s speech.

Today, however, I want to leave the woman question behind. Let’s talk about sex and the sexual revolution. Peeling back the layers of the onion takes us to places it is difficult for us to go. Some of the left’s goals are immediate, but they have deeper revolutionary motivations. The sexual revolution is a big deal. No person under the age of fifty even remembers the world without the sexual revolution. Its ways have been normalized. The world before the sexual revolution is black-and-white.

The sexual revolution is not a set of policies. It is a whole approach to human life. The sexual revolution consists in policies such as sex education in the public schools, de-regulating pornography, gay rights, trans rights, bikinis and Elvis gyrating his hips. The revolutionary assumptions of the sexual revolution make all of these policies possible—and rooting out these assumptions is the work of those who would like to recover and restore family life. If you go after the policies without going after the assumptions on which the policies are based, no victory is permanent or even worth having.

What are the assumptions of the sexual revolution? That human beings are fundamentally sexual creatures from birth, that men and women have the same interests in sex—sexual pleasure; that emancipating and affirming every iota of that sexual nature is the prerequisite for a good life, that stigmas and taboos repress natural and healthy sexual desires, and that nothing is more important to human identity than these natural sexual desires.

To support this vision, we have adopted a whole new sexual constitution. All political communities have a sexual constitution of some sort. By sexual constitution I mean a set of norms and mores, expressed in terms of shame and honor, that shape and guide desire toward certain experiences and expressions and away from others. Laws provide public reinforcement for these norms and mores. Certain sexual practices will be encouraged. Certain will be discouraged. People will rank sexual goods somewhere among the many goods that people can pursue. Other practices might be tolerated, but they will be dishonored and discouraged.

Our new constitution is not about honoring choice or authentic selves. It promotes ways of doing sex and thinking about sex. Their authentic selves go in the same direction. They celebrate drag shows within Gay Pride events. Authentic selves practice polyamory—they rarely become nuns! Authentic selves have few or no children—rarely mothers of twelve! Most everyone marries later, though fewer marry. Most everyone thinks sex outside of marriage is no big deal. Most everyone accepts pornography. Our independent thinkers are all slaves to the same morality.

This new constitution shapes our world, makes men and women different than they used to be. Let me illustrate with pornography. Obscenity was effectively de-regulated between 1957 and the early 1970s. An industry grew up. Then internet pornography inaugurated a second era of obscenity—where all kinds of pornography are readily available on every device. Pornography consumption has skyrocketed.

What has the effect been? Human beings and especially men have erotic desires or eros. Regulating obscenity in the past had been done for the sake of shaping eros—it was thought bad for men and for family life in general to emancipate eros from marital sex and it was thought bad to give an excessively sexual interpretation of human eros. Society aimed to teach men to put sex in its place, to subordinate sex within a web of relations, and to subordinate sexual eros to a sense of personal mission or accomplishment. The regulation of pornography or obscenity allowed for the subordination of sexual desire in the ranks of human goods. It would be something people do, not who we are.

Pornography consumption leads to the acceptance of sexual freedom generally. Just as important is the effect pornography consumption has on men and their ambition: men who consume much pornography are plagued by a spiritual apathy best captured by the ancient word “acedia.” Eros may be grounded in the body, but it need not stop there. Philosophers have an erotic desire to know, to fill the void in their soul, as do all who thirst for knowledge and all who have great ambition. Sexual eros is a particularly low form of eros. If people are taught to celebrate sexual eros, they lose vitality, ambition, and higher responsibility. Pornography is not the only factor explaining the widely-observed decline of men, but it is hardly an insubstantial one. It points to the limiting of manly ambition to sexual conquest, rather than the discipline of eros toward higher things. Pornography marks a kind of enslavement, one our elite masters are happy to see.

What should national conservatives aim to do with pornography? Investigative journalism should do exposes on the poor girls used as sexual tools in the porn industry. I recently saw an article about those who regret entering the porn industry. The images of her will never leave the internet. How did they get into it? What were the working conditions like? What were they asked to do? How did having videos of them on the internet affect their life course? Stigmatizing the endeavor is needful.

Attorneys general could investigate porn companies on the model of the tobacco settlement. Everything porn companies and websites do to create clicks, addiction, and escalation of porn use should be subject to investigation. New obscenity laws should be passed, not unlike the national law in 1996, and attorneys general and district attorneys should flood the zone on a scale not unlike how the Left has tried to reinstate abortion on demand. The porn industry must be put under ever greater legal pressure and be put in ever greater legal jeopardy.

All of this is done to create an atmosphere where pornography is dishonored in the public’s mind. Enough has been done to demonstrate its pernicious effects on men. More needs to be done to show that the industry is filled with sickos and lowlifes who prey on vulnerable women and cause untold social ills in what it does and what it leaves undone. Journalism might help in this regard, if we have any journalists in the country left. They might find washed out older women who have exited the porn industry and show its effect on their lives. Or the finances of porn companies could be scrutinized with some of our 87,000 new IRS agents. Just kidding.

Why would all of this be done? It is done to encourage the subordination of sex, to show that people are more than their sexual desires, that to govern eros is to be capable of greater things. We have to move the needle in the short term, but we have long-term ambitions to revitalize a decent sexual constitution.  

In picking the example of pornography, I am choosing a relatively easy example. Peeling back the sexual revolution’s onion reveals at its center these revolutionary assumptions that man are fundamentally sexual. Every argument should emphasize that the idea that man is all about sex is preposterous and beneath human dignity. Why should Freud govern us, when we could govern ourselves? This is the mission—to confront the idea that sex and sexual identity defines the human good. Obviously, this mission has implications for all kinds of things modern Americans take Pride in.

Man is an erotic animal, but eros is not primarily sexual. Man is also a political animal—and the stunted eros makes men less political. Man is also a rational animal—and the stunted eros makes man less reasonable. Man is also a religious animal—again, stunted eros detracts from faith. Can a country, saturated with pornography, be a great country? History hardly provides examples. This is not an accident. Great countries have great men. Solid families arise from a surplus of male ambition and accomplishment. Pornography undermines all of this—and the project of revivifying manliness must start not by seeing men as victims of this scourge, but rather by teaching men about what a self-respecting and respectable man desires and serves.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

**Editor’s Note: this article was originally given as a speech at the Third Annual National Conservatism Conference (NatCon3) in Miami (September 2022).

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor Scott Yenor is a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and author of The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies, just out in paperback from Baylor University Press.