There's a dirty discourse around sex and sexuality, and it's not coming from where you think it is.
Previously, we've addressed the ways that SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist) politics have created policy bright lines that conflate consensual sex work with sex trafficking (see our articles on History Repeating Itself and Kamala Harris, respectively). But where does that come from? Surely feminists can't be the sole source of the problem.
The truth is that there are several organizations that can be pointed to as participants in molding the anti-sex worker public discourse, and they're more invisible and insidious today than publicly acknowledged.
The war on pornography still exists, though in a quieter, more clearly stated morally-centric way; perhaps you (or, more likely, your parents) have heard of Morality in Media. MiM, as an organization, was a right who’s who of Conservative Christian organizations who sought to see pornography banned outright. The organization had a history of approaching political candidates and swaying them to get the U.S. Department of Justice to crack down on current obscenity laws and to crack down on “porn and indecency.”
The anti-porn movement paved the way
When did Morality in Media start? Glad you asked. MiM has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s anti-pornography movements, and is a legit Venn diagram of where leftists meet conservations on issues of sexuality:
“In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-pornography movement was in its heyday. While religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly actively fought against what they considered to be immoral materials, their movement was aided by some strange ideological bedfellows: feminists. The two groups did not always agree on what was and was not obscene — some feminists, like Gloria Steinem, drew a distinction between pornography and erotica that would not likely have been embraced by the Schlafly's of the world — but found common ground and pushed for the government to crack down on hard-core pornography,”
from ThinkProgress' article This is the Way the War on Pornography Ends.
“In 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s socially conservative attorney general Edwin Meese led the Commission on Pornography to examine the societal impacts of pornography and to find “effective ways in which the spread of pornography could be contained, consistent with constitutional guarantees.”
The commission recommended a federal crackdown. MacKinnon praised the report, observing: “For the first time in history, women have succeeded in convincing a national governmental body of a truth women have long known: pornography harms women and children.” The then-president of Morality in Media celebrated the findings as the “death knell for the criminal pornographic industry” and predicted that if the Department of Justice implemented its “major recommendation for aggressive enforcement of existing obscenity laws,” all “hard-core pornography traffic” would be “brought to an end within two years.”
Morality in the Media doesn't exist today as it once did – it's worse.
The new iteration of MiM is an organization called the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, and according to their (very colorful) history, entitled NCOSE Today:
"Today, while the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly MIM) carries on in the tradition of those who pioneered before us, our mission is decidedly larger. Our more than 55-year history has given us a unique, panoramic perspective that has enabled us to see that sexual exploitation is not one issue – it is many issues. We know that child sexual abuse often predates an individual’s entry into prostitution, and that sexting makes many adolescents vulnerable to revenge porn or sexual extortion."
The links between child sex trafficking, violence, sexting, and prostitution aren't the only fantastical leaps of logic rooted in magical thinking that NCOSE makes – they also label the use of pornography as a public health crisis, paralleling it with the effects of tobacco. It's also worth noting that none of the things they claim to "know" here are connected in any way to legitimate scientific or academic research of any kind; they just know.
NCOSE credits themselves (or, rather, MiM) with single-handedly stopping the spread of internet porn. "This feisty little organization," they write, "successfully fought the titans of sexual exploitation, and kept the fires of human dignity burning brightly."
It would be one thing if NCOSE was merely a platform for neoconservative, Christian thought, however the organization hold sway and influence in policy and with politicians across the country. According to their 2018 "Dirty Dozen List", NCOSE claimed victories over twelve organizations, corporations, websites, and businesses, with a "Watch List" a mile long. Browsing the site's blog, headlines like "How Snapchat Was Used to Groom and Sell a 17 Year Old Sex Trafficking Victim" live alongside headlines like "Nevada's Legalized Prostitution is Still Exploitation."
While the site doesn't list specific politicians or parties they've endorsed, they're pretty clear about who they don't like. NCOSE has lashed out at everyone from Netflix to the US Department of Justice to Amnesty International, and in their just-released 2019 Dirty Dozen list, allege the national massage chain Massage Envy works to "promote and enable sexual exploitation."
You may be asking, how do we see this insidious influences playing out in our current political landscape? After all, it is certainly not happening overtly.
We've already written extensively about the many implications of FOSTA/SESTA (look here and here ) and while we've discussed how the legislation has its roots in a burdened entanglement with anti-sex worker discourse, it's worth noting how and where these concepts overlap. This rings especially true as information becomes more clandestine, hidden, and "alternative" (see: alternative facts).
Blurred lines disguise real motives
Anti-porn rhetoric has had a major influence on FOSTA/SESTA in that moralism has been the crux of savior-complex fueled stratagem for time eternal. Not only have toxic and reductionist conflations of sex work (that is, work done with consent) and sex trafficking permeated the public discourse, that it has become a mainstream (read: SWERF) feminist torch to carry only complicates the message in the era of #metoo and Trump politics. The lines are blurred because they have to be blurred; no female or liberal political looking to salvage the country from MAGA populism can afford to make that (extremely important) distinction.
Because – and here's where history and our present legislation collide – perhaps there is no room for nuanced conversation in America right now. The fact of the matter is that FOSTA/SESTA, the 70s anti-pornography movement, MiM, NCOSE, and all of the politicians and organizations supporting these policies are all manifestations of white saviorism and protectionism. When we disallow nuanced nuanced conversations and rely instead on bandwagon fallacies and soundbites ("build that wall," "lock her up,"), we are avoiding the topics of race and class.
We don't want to talk about pretty white girls being providers. We don't want to talk about people of color and trans folks having to be providers. The baseline is the only place where (cis)women can make more money than other individuals is in sex work – which means that systemic heteropatriarchy is being deployed. Instead of committing to making structural changes around these systems, we focus on paternalism that organizations like MiM & NCOSE employ in their quest to "save" these women from themselves.
Won't someone please think of the children?!
After all – and this is a key component for context – the NCOSE is a Christian, right-wing organization that was originally government-funded and has since become completely privatized. Inherent in the paternalistic mission statement and fight for "family values" is NCOSE's insistence that these policies save women and children who are victims. The organization is even reaching internationally to push the FOSTA/SESTA agenda, which begs the question: does a US-based morality organization have any business trying to influence international policy?
Here is what is not happening in the wider conversations around morality and the sex industry--We are not having a conversation about the ways these policies also create space to privilege the already privileged. Who is not being considered as a "victim" is street and/or survival workers--the very people most harmed by this legislation, who are otherwise unsupported by the system of capitalism that allows most other laborers room to thrive.
For scale, let's consider this: Morality in Media made FOSTA/SESTA real. MiM became NCOSE in an attempt to broaden their scope of influence to anything the organization deems exploitation. Funding and support go to Congresspeople and politicians who support said agenda (in much the same way the NRA operates), which distills the argument to something "solvable" – that is to say, that ending trafficking/exploitation (which are being used interchangeably in so much of this rhetoric) is the only surefire way to destroy the corruption of our country.
The reality is that this is a shell game: trafficking became a boogeyman onto which the NCOSE can attach their moral directives and bandy about to influence law and policy makers, turning the nebulous world of righteousness into a dangerous sport that, in some places, costs lives.