Having given the matter much thought, I’ve decided to terminate my participation in the “Young Voices” advocates program for principled reasons regarding this new organization’s management strategy and its emerging character. In particular, the recent on-boarding of a nominally libertarian porn star signals that Young Voices is not the relatively neutral support system for serious young libertarians that I’d assumed it would be. In the hopes that this individual decision can shed a bit of light on larger trends within the liberty movement, I explain my thought process here.
Young Voices is a libertarian media organization established last year (2013) with two main purposes: (1) serving college students and recent graduates who would like to become writers/pundits/public intellectuals by helping them to place pieces like op-eds in various pre-existing media outlets, (2) serving the “liberty movement” by providing a kind of speaker/writer clearinghouse to newspapers looking for op-ed writers, television shows looking for panel participants, etc. Cathy Reisenwitz, an associate at Young Voices and personal acquaintance, dropped me a line in October to ask if I had any interest in becoming a Young Voices advocate. Thinking I had nothing much to lose, I applied and was accepted.
My time with Young Voices has been brief but illuminating. To the organization’s credit, I was quickly placed on a panel of millennials on Fox’s The Kelly File show in November, which was a fun experience. I wrote something on emotional abuse legislation for the Daily Caller which Young Voices placed for me. This summer, the demands on my time lightened and I began thinking of stepping up my writing activities, at least in part through Young Voices. However upon serious and extended reflection, I no longer wish to participate in the advocates program, due to some of Young Voices’ recent strategic choices.
In June, it came to my attention through social media outlets and Young Voices correspondence that Miriam Weeks had been accepted as a Young Voices advocate, meaning that her profile would appear on the Young Voices website, that her writing would be publicized by Young Voices, that Young Voices associates would help Ms. Weeks to place her writing in news outlets, and that her writing would often identify Ms. Weeks as a “Young Voices Advocate.” Miriam Weeks is a now-19 year old student at Duke whose decision to perform in pornography (a.k.a. “Belle Knox”) to fund her education has been widely covered by the American mainstream media. Ms. Weeks has begun publishing writing of her own, and in particular her recent TIME piece on the costs of college publicly established her as politically aligned with Young Voices and its broad libertarianism.
In other words, upon Ms. Week’s addition to Young Voices, I found myself in the curious and unexpected position of being officially associated with a porn star, via a small and fairly ideologically homogenous organization (whose other members are mostly early career no-names, easily overshadowed by Ms. Weeks). At first, I felt the tug of a “tolerant,” progressive impulse not to care. However, the more I thought about e.g. prospective employers who know little about me discovering this association, the more I realized that my reasons for not wanting to be associated with a porn star are actually reasonable, and not merely knee-jerk.
When sexual norms are too restrictive, they produce too much (largely morally unwarranted) shame in the hearts of too many people. But when sexual norms are too permissive, it creates mating market collective action problems and harms the people who are most ill-equipped to handle sexual anomie. I agree with Damon Linker’s excellent piece, “What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex“: though many of the changes ushered in by the “sexual revolution” are right and good, it’s so new that the dust is only beginning to settle on whether we overshot the all-things-considered optimal set of sexual norms, and what implications that will have. Notice in the abstract, though, that when there are (rightfully) fewer laws constraining sex, we need more informally-enforced social norms to guide people in this important domain of life, not fewer.
I will be the first to admit that I have benefited from, and participated in, the sexual revolution in many ways: I’ve been taking the birth control pill since age 18, and have never experienced an unwanted pregnancy. I have a no-fault divorce under my belt. I’ve looked at porn online – who hasn’t? I learned to date as an adult in New York City, via online dating sites (use your imagination here). However, I enjoyed (or at least got through) most of these formative sexual experiences because I approached them from a place of privilege: supportive family, never literally impoverished, well-educated, accustomed to navigating the healthcare system, and so on. As such, my views on sex are a direct product of these experiences, not a hypocritical contrast to them. A free society can allow for things like porn, prostitution, and polyamory without normalizing them. The resulting socio-political situation is essentially just as “free” for those who want to partake, but generates much less of a pernicious sexual mire for those who are meaningfully unable to navigate it successfully.
With respect to Ms. Weeks herself, I wish her nothing but the best. I simply don’t know enough about her choice to do porn to give an informed, nuanced moral read of the situation (and you almost certainly don’t, either). She seems to like both sides of this coin: at times, she speaks of her career as a natural extension of her sexual personality; at others (as in TIME), she speaks of being cornered – with no other options to pay for college, and her entire future on the line. The fact of the matter is that this young woman at 18 (like everyone at 18) was still discovering and constructing a well-developed, stable concept of her “self.” Even assuming she consented meaningfully to perform in pornography, we needn’t therefore commit a fallacy of voluntaristic myopia and also say that the situation is totally morally unproblematic. I can’t help but think that this very public, weighty porn decision will lock Ms. Weeks into a certain narrative for the rest of her life (the victim empowerment, independent-and-quirky woman story, if you will), on pains of huge cognitive dissonance later. But my dissatisfaction with Young Voices doesn’t really have anything to do with her personally.
Principled but moderate libertarians cannot allow themselves to be bullied out of a perniciously insular movement that (at least on the internet) increasingly seems to take maximally extreme positions (on war, education, welfare, immigration, sexual/family issues, etc) as its hallmarks. As a libertarian, I want pornography and even prostitution to be legal, if reasonably regulated. But as a survivor of hookup culture, I can’t even implicitly condone rampant, publicized promiscuity (which even on camera and for money constitutes rampant promiscuity nonetheless). Keeping your experiments in sexual growth small and private helps to limit their potential to damage both yourself and our normative socio-sexual frameworks. I want to live in a community where people understand and respect that we are all sexual creatures, enjoy their sexuality in pro-social or at least benign ways, and limit it otherwise. Such a hypothetical community does not treat the decision to perform in pornography (and then talk about it all over the internet) as just one unimpeachably empowering life choice among many.
When Young Voices brought Ms. Weeks on board as an already-famous porn star with few libertarian bona fides (apart from apparently having been shown some Sheldon Richman writing, which she repeatedly references in TIME), they chose and broadcast a commitment to edginess, sound-bite repeatability, personality appeal, and vapid “sex positivity” over facts, careful rhetoric, and playing a respectable long game intellectually. Although the Young Voices enterprise was promising at its inception and may still do some good for liberty, I do not wish to be associated with an organization of such character. Liberty makes possible the achievement of other values; it does not eviscerate the need for them. Self-restraint, temperance, modesty, and lowered time preference may not be sexy, but in general these traits improve lives and improve societies. Since there is not much to having a value without acting upon it, I bid adieu to Young Voices and will continue speaking with this young voice of mine elsewhere.