Evangelicals excused porn under Trump, but are ready to restart their crusade

Bad movies relax me. I still enjoy watching the early ’80s Christian paranoia film, Rock: It’s Your Decision. It’s an anti-rock music film featuring a boy who becomes warped by his fundamentalist parents into becoming a judgmental jerk. It’s not enough that he decides to no longer listen to what he considers “evil” music, like Barry Manilow, but he demands that all of his friends and classmates stop listening as well. He yells at them, calls them sinners, and then casts himself as a persecuted victim when they ignore him. (So, no, these people don’t ever change.)

The evangelical war on music seems ridiculous now, but it actually helped lay the groundwork for today’s nonstop culture wars. This initial foray into morality politics laid the template: Construct outrage around a perceived inherent evil force designed to disrupt the "traditional" family and national values.

Pornography is another issue popularized by evangelicals in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan even established a commission on pornography to try to “stamp it out.” The attacks more or less fizzled by the 1990s, when Republican moralists tried to take down Bill Clinton with an impeachment fixated on his sexual exploits. Instead, his popularity soared, and Democrats gained seats in the House.  

The war on pornography limped along for the years that followed, being replaced by focused attacks on gay marriage and reproductive freedom. Then, in what has got to be the most egregious display of hypocrisy, evangelical leaders briefly suspended their fight against porn because they feared it would lead to attacks on Donald Trump. Trump was not only a porn aficionado who spoke in lustful terms about his own daughter, but had also used campaign money to pay off porn star Stormy Daniels, whom he slept with during his wife Melania’s pregnancy. Yet the religious right excused, and even justified, his behavior. (Just as they are doing right now with evangelical Republican Dennis Hastert and Rep. Matt Gaetz.) As a direct result of evangelicals’ glorification of Trump, pornography was able to “enter the political and cultural mainstream.”

Evangelical leaders were brutally mocked by late-night comedians for “normalizing porn” over Trump. The GOP had essentially given up on pornography as a culture war. In the 1970s, Jerry Falwell, who led the Moral Majority, went to war over Playboy magazine, saying Jimmy Carter’s interview lent “credence and dignity” to what he considered a vulgar publication. Yet when Trump was campaigning in 2016, Jerry Falwell Jr. posed for a photo of himself and Trump in front of a framed cover of that exact same magazine with a provocative photo. (This was also long before Jerry Falwell Jr.’s own sex scandals became public knowledge.)  

Even when Christian nationalists finally decided it was time to try to renew their crusade against pornography after Trump left office, they didn’t quite know how to do it. After all, most Americans now believe pornography is morally acceptable, and they don’t take kindly to being lectured on morality by hypocrites. Moralist lectures and propaganda films simply don’t work anymore, if they ever did, which is why we will never see a film with the name Pornography: It’s Your Decision. (Actually, there are a few low-budget Christian anti-pornography films, but they are really bad.) Instead, they did something much more sinister, but effective.

One of the biggest Christian anti-porn lobbies, Morality in Media, the one that pushed for Reagan to declare war on pornography, figured it was on the side of a losing battle. This is a group that has stated, falsely, that pornography is a public health crisis, and still classifies Cosmopolitan and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue as “hardcore pornography.” However, they decided they could be effective if they managed to disguise their agenda, so that’s exactly what they did. Morality in Media completely rebranded into the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE)—which was meant to sound similar to the legitimate nonprofit called the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The NCOSE website was scrubbed of any mention of morality or religion.

Their rebranding ploy worked, as they are now often quoted by mainstream media, and even get an audience with Democratic politicians. Instead of preaching about general moral decay, this group succeeds by conflating consensual sexual expression with serious sexual crimes that everyone agrees are bad, such as sexual abuse and human trafficking.

By deceptively rebranding as an organization to fight sex crimes as opposed to policing pornography, their budget and spending have exploded. This has allowed them to host conferences, workshops, and seminars for other organizations so they can copy their model. They teach their questionable strategies about not disclosing religious origins, make false comparisons of porn to human trafficking and slavery, and constantly (and falsely) claim that pornography is a public health crisis. One of their apprentice organizations was a shady evangelical group called Exodus Cry.  

Scene from “God Loves Uganda”

Exodus Cry started as a prayer group tied to a church in the Charismatic Christian community. Charismatic Christians believe people can manifest physical, supernatural experiences such as prophecy, spirit healing, speaking in tongues, and—within some factions—even snake handling. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett identifies as a Charismatic Christian, which some refer to as a cult within Christianity.

The church was called the International House of Prayer, or IHOP. (And yes, they were sued for that.) The church is famous for being featured in the documentary God Loves Uganda, which detailed a church leader’s pressure on Uganda to not just condemn homosexuality, but to promote the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that allowed the death penalty for gays and lesbians. Sadly, American evangelical missionaries have strongly pushed anti-gay messaging in Africa for decades, including prominent evangelical leaders like Rick Warren and John Ashcroft.

In the U.S., Exodus Cry got into the anti-pornography business, but took NCOSE’s advice and “altered its mission statement to remove all references to Jesus Christ and prayer.” Unfortunately, Exodus Cry and NCOSE have been very effective in bypassing traditional right-wing media, and instead promote their message of online censorship on non-conservative platforms such as Good Morning America and CNN.

They were at their most effective when it came to supporting two laws, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which were sold to lawmakers as a way to fight sex trafficking. In reality, these laws amended the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to remove the protection granted to websites for the content of its users if that content is found to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” In other words, under SESTA-FOSTA, any website with any sexual content could be feasibly held legally liable for sex trafficking, a term that is very broadly defined in the legislation. But what the laws don’t do is anything to target actual illegal sex trafficking.

The laws are written vaguely enough so that anti-porn groups have been successfully going after payments of creators using cryptocurrencies or credit cards. Legal internet videos and escort services have also been targets. Although the laws are supposed to focus on prostitution only, anti-porn activists were able to define pornography as "performance prostitution." This means a platform has to be worried about being sued if a striptease artist performs online.

These laws also mandate a 25-year prison sentence for anyone who “acts with reckless disregard that such conduct contributes to sex trafficking.” This is why personal ads disappeared on Craigslist. 

Yet these laws were so bad that they damaged how the internet is governed, since the laws didn’t bother to differentiate between consensual and nonconsensual sex work. Taking down consensual sex work sites means sex workers could not vet or choose clients online, which is much safer than working on the streets. Platforms that had groups for sex workers, such as spaces where they could list dangerous clients to avoid, were also taken down.

FOSTA-SESTA also allowed NCOSE to go after OnlyFans. This is an online platform that allows people to create content in the form of photos, videos, and livestreams and sell them via a monthly membership. Most creators are fitness trainers and models, but some make “adult content.” The site exploded in popularity during the pandemic, as many unemployed people turned to the site to survive.

However, the new legislation nearly succeeded in shutting this site down by pressuring banks and payment processors to sever ties. Going after banks and payment processors is part of the latest coordinated anti-porn campaign by these Christian activist groups, and this tactic has proven extremely effective. After credit card companies dropped Pornhub, it removed over 10 million videos—over 80% of its content.

Joy Rider performs during a burlesque show at the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender in Las Vegas, Nevada, on April 16, 2022.

OnlyFans was temporarily forced to ban the posting of any sexual material, but was able to fight back and restore their status. Most people on OnlyFans use it to supplement their income, yet they suddenly found themselves targeted by the anti-porn crusaders. “Camming,” which is when someone is requested to perform certain activities (sexual or nonsexual) on a webcam for paying clients, is by far one of the safest types of sex work as it’s done in the safety of their own home. Shutting that down forces sex workers who need money to consider taking more risks, like going back to meeting strangers in public without being able to vet them. Going after people on OnlyFans doesn’t help anyone; It just takes away a safe environment and criminalizes sexuality.  

Slate talked to a woman who was a burlesque performer, which generally includes provocative and creative stripping, but was locked down in her New York apartment during COVID-19. Not being allowed on sets or events, OnlyFans saved her from becoming homeless and greatly supplemented her lost income. Right-wing organizations and politicians are trying hard to ban people like her from working, but have never expressed interest in helping them if their ploy to ban these sites succeed.

The anti-pornography bills are part of a unique conservative strategy that was labeled Project Blitz, which is modeled after the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC provides model draft legislation for conservative politicians to push through their respective state legislatures in order to pass a right-wing agenda. Project Blitz uses the same strategy, but for Christian Nationalism:  

Chief on Project Blitz’s agenda—which they laid out in a 148-page 2018 “playbook”—was enabling religious-based discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, promoting the Bible in public schools and plastering the words “In God We Trust” across license plates and government buildings.

But they’re also expressly concerned with destroying all forms of porn, sex work and premarital sex. In their playbook, they claim that states would “benefit” from public policy that limits sexual intercourse to “only between a married, heterosexual couple,” and erroneously associate any other type of interpersonal gyrating with an undefined, yet “enormously expensive disease.”

I should mention that not all Christians believe pornography is evil. There’s the pastor who left her church because she felt called to become a stripper. One prominent OnlyFans Christian creator, Nita Marie, stated her belief that “Jesus would have loved sex workers.” There are also several Christian OnlyFans models, such as Lindsay Capuano, who makes over $200,000 a month, but insists she is a devout Christian.

💋 pic.twitter.com/R7n7H36Gmf

— Lindsay Capuano (@Lindsay_capuano) June 28, 2019

Again, there are legitimate concerns about real sex crimes, such as human trafficking and revenge porn, that need to be addressed. Yet time, money, and resources are being devoted to attacking healthy, consensual sexual relationships.  

The same people who want to tell you what books to read, what medicines to take, what films to watch, what states you can travel to, and what you can do with your own body are the same ones screaming about freedom. This is all about having power over people, and turning our democracy into an authoritarian Christian nationalist society. It’s why evangelical leaders openly embrace someone with such moral failings as Trump, because he promised them power.

There has never been much of an interest from the right in fighting sex trafficking, but there has always been an interest in a war on sex. That is all about control. More specifically, this is another front in the war on women. Just as Christian men have had no issues with abortion when it’s their mistress or wife, they also have no issues with pornography when they are using it or benefiting from those who do. It’s everyone else who is the problem.

As always, there is a misogyny angle in the religious right’s war on pornography. Whether you agree with pornography as an industry or not, you must admit that it is primarily female-dominated. Content creators, such as on OnlyFans, are mostly women making videos for their customers, who are overwhelmingly white, straight, self-identified Christian men. In fact, the top nine states for pornography are all in the Bible Belt. 

If Republicans truly hate OnlyFans, which they don’t, they are free not to use it. One big reason that sites like OnlyFans are popular is that they provide the creator with a revenue stream they can use to either live off of or supplement their income. The creators have sole discretion over their content. They have power over their craft and their lives, and can make a living off it in a safe environment.

There is an argument to be made that many creators would prefer another line of work, but this would require a guaranteed living wage, affordable housing, food security, and access to health care. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called attention to this when conservatives, along with the New York Post, tried to shame a medic who used OnlyFans to literally make ends meet.

Leave her alone. The actual scandalous headline here is “Medics in the United States need two jobs to survive”

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) December 14, 2020

Yet the reality is there would still be people who do it because they want to, and that’s fine. Our religious, patriarchal society has been conditioned to treat sex like a dirty secret. Then, when men get caught watching porn, it feeds into that dirty-secret mentality. Too many religious leaders treat consensual sex like it’s a problem that needs to be eradicated. The problem has never been porn or sites that provide it, but the inability to deal with sex in a healthy way. Sadly, there is no law that can help with that.