Techdirt’s Mike Masnick on Anti-Porn Crusaders Who Heart SESTA

Lobby card for the 1934 film The Scarlet Letter starring Henry B. Walthall, Colleen Moore, Hardie Albright, and Cora Sue Collins
via Wikimedia Commons

Among a cadre of enlightened writers and reporters who regularly address tech issues there is a shared realization that many of those agitating for the amendment of Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996  (CDA) are also at war with sexual openness, pornography, and prostitution.

Those scribes include Reason.com’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Notre Dame University  law professor Alexandra Levy, and Techdirt stalwarts Tim Cushing and Mike Masnick (the latter is Techdirt’s founder and CEO), to name a handful. Not only do they oppose Congress’ proposed nullification of Section 230, which holds interactive websites blameless for third-party content posted by others; they also have observed that the war on “sex trafficking” has morphed into a war on prostitution between consenting adults, on online pornography, and on sex itself.

In a recent piece on Techdirt, Masnick observes that the  National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), a longtime anti-porn and anti-prostitution organization, is pushing hard for the proposed Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which would upend Section 230 and make website owners responsible for content posted by users.

NCSE’s website notes that it opposes all “sexual exploitation,” a term it broadly defines as including “a wide-range of sexual abuse or utilitarian sexual uses of persons, regardless of age, including sexual objectification, sexual violence, pornography, prostitution, sex trafficking, and more,” as well as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes.”

The group’s rhetoric might seem extreme, but there’s nothing new in the conflation of voluntary prostitution with sexual slavery, or the conflation of porn created among consenting adults with child porn or snuff films. Such rhetoric was common in the 1980s, when feminists and Bible-thumpers locked arms to condemn everything from Debbie Does Dallas to campus bookstores that sold Playboy.

Literary buffs might think of novelist John Irving’s depiction of the fanatical Ellen Jamesians in his 1978 best seller The World According to Garp . But the theme is even older than Hester Prynne.  And the CDA itself initially was intended to block the transmission of porn to minors. (Federal courts ruled that effort overbroad and unconstitutional.)

Masnick tags his spiel, “from the good-luck-with -that dept,” clearly  conveying his belief that when it comes to battling porn in the 21st Century, the genie is out of the bottle to stay.  That contention works best when one buys in to the exceptionalism of the tech industry. But as Arthur Miller knew well when he penned The CrucibleAmerica is never far from its repressive, witch-hanging past.

Writes Masnick:

But perhaps the motivation behind some SESTA supporters is… even more absurd. An email popped up in my inbox recently with a bunch of really strong language supporting SESTA, coming from a group calling itself the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE). They run the website “End Sexual Exploitation” and are strong supporters of SESTA. But what caught my eye is that the end of the email noted the true mission of NCSE isn’t to end sex trafficking… but to rid the world of the “public health crisis of pornography.”

NCSE appears to believe that all porn is pure evil and must be eradicated. The group has insisted that porn is a “public health crisis” and has worked to get states to declare it as such. It also posts a Dirty Dozen list of organizations that it needs to shame for “perpetuating sexual exploitation.”

Click here to follow Mike Masnick on Twitter. And click on the link below to read his article in its entirety.

Campaigners for SESTA See It as a First Step to Stomping Out Porn

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.