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Is the Overton Window Shifting on Porn?

Last Updated: May 3, 2016

Those who produce porn for a living, and those who consume it, may have never heard the name Joseph P. Overton.

That shouldn’t be a surprise.

Overton studied electrical engineering and law and worked for a chemical company and a free market think tank. He died in a plane crash in 2003. He focused his attention on economic issues, trying to shift public policy toward more economic freedom. His work stayed away from cultural and social issues, but his legacy helps us understand why any policy changes.

public policy of porn

The Overton Window

Overton identified a phenomenon that shows how elected officials’ stances on public policy issues keep them in office or remove them from office. It’s called the “Overton Window.” It’s the range of politically acceptable options. For instance, at one time, smoking anywhere was politically accepted. My late grandmother recounted a time when it was commonplace in her Pennsylvania hometown for the entire church congregation to smoke with the pastor after the Sunday morning service. But times have changed. Science shows how smoking is bad for your health. The government eventually raised taxes on cigarettes and limited where smokers can light up. Politicians supporting more smoking regulations generations ago would risk losing their seat, but today they feel confident endorsing those policies as the Overton Window shifted on the issue.

In 2000, first-term governor of South Carolina Jim Hodges supported a measure to remove the Confederate Flag from the state’s Capitol and move it to its grounds. It wasn’t the only issue that divided South Carolina voters at the time, but it didn’t help Hodges’ reelection campaign. He was forced to move out of the governor’s mansion in 2002. By 2015, the Overton Window had clearly shifted and South Carolina’s current governor confidently signed a law removing the flag from the grounds and moving it to a museum.

The Public Policy of Porn

Now, there’s another social issue playing out that the public will help politicians decide whether to support or reject. Two weeks ago, Utah passed legislation designating pornography as “a public health hazard.” The measure doesn’t ban porn, nor does it appropriate any money. It’s more of a statement that a majority of Utah lawmakers considers porn to be bad for society.

The scientific debate continues as to whether porn addiction exists and what it does to the human brain. But lawmakers found it necessary to take a bold step.

All this while, a recent survey of thousands of Americans shows teens and young adults are mostly indifferent toward pornography. Nearly half of teens (47%) and young adults (48%) believe porn is neither good nor bad for society. That same group of people (13 to 24-year-olds) believe not recycling is more immoral than watching pornography.

However, there’s a growing movement of millennials who have consumed pornography throughout their childhood and now want nothing to do with it. Some tech companies also specialize in helping people break free from porn.

Utah took the first step in bringing porn back to the public policy debate. And while those involved in it may have never heard of Overton, or the Overton Window, they will be keeping close attention as to how the phenomenon impacts their industry.

  1. Betsy

    It would be so amazing if that window closed! However, there are still Wars to be fought on this subject. When I heard about Playboy’s decision to no longer have nude models in their magazine, I was so angered. They will only have scantily clad, lingerie on instead. How does that help anything? It helps Playboy magazine no longer be covered up with a cardboard at the store. It helps Playboy magazine to look less horrible, while making itself be more “purchasable” to people who will excuse themselves to buy it because the models are “covered”. Pornography is so rampant online, I’m sure this was all a design to reach more men and boys they might not have been able to reach before. I am saddened by the state of the world. There is so much discussion on modesty and immodesty, what is and what isn’t considered modesty. Fashion “trends” have blurred lines. But mostly the fact that women will purchase and publicly wear immodest clothing more than they used to seems to me to be a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis in our country. Changing the definition of Modesty to fit the fashion trends will change the affect that wearing immodest dress will have personally on a woman’s spirituality and on a nation. The closer women get to wearing revealing clothing in public, the close they all slide toward that change in Playboy magazine. Justification does not change how God views our choices. It only changes our view.And we are kidding ourselves.

  2. As true believes, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, we must avoid the Ovwrton Window. Porn is not, however much it impacts human sexuality or the brain, a health issue. IT IS A HEART ISSUE!! When the “window” shifts again and it isn’t a health issue, we will look exceedingly foolish and lead many astray.

  3. Benjamin Warner

    This is was a good article because it is so true

    • The problem with this cartoon is that the author displays his ignorance of Judaism. For an atheist that claims to be an “enlightened intellect” simply because they choose not to believe in G-d, I find this ignorance of religious history surprising. G-d did not choose the Jews because we bow down to Him, the Jews were the &#12e0;chos2n․ ones, because G-d chose them not vice versa to observe his mitzvot. The concept being that since G-d is holy, and that since we human beings are made in G-d’s image and he wants us to be holy as He is, observing the mitzvot makes us holy.

    • Chris McKenna

      Hi Jessie – what cartoon are you referring to in the post? I can’t find one. Thanks, Chris (Covenant Eyes)

  4. Peggy

    Adults and children both have believed the lie that pornography has no victims. Many times there are minors in those films that are not there of their own free will. I know. Even some of the adults started young. Many times you are tricked into this, or threatened. I have never heard of this man either, but it is good to know this because of current work with human trafficking and speaking about the subject. I thank you for bringing this up at the CHAP homeschool convention. I hope to be able to get away from my responsibilities to go and hear your talk there.

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