There was a rumor at my (small, private, Christian) high school that a group of seven or eight guys in my class got together at one of their homes our junior year and watched pornography together. The host's parents weren't home, and supposedly the boys played a DVD on the family television, right in the living room. What else they did I didn't want to hear or know or in any way attempt to verify. I was young for my grade, and quite innocent, and it had never before occurred to me that any of these boys I considered my friends would look at porn, let alone watch it together.

By the time my sons are in high school, that story will seem quaint. Perhaps it is quaint already, if a recent widely shared article from The Dallas Morning News is any indication. "When 6th graders can access rape porn on their smartphones, school becomes toxic," its title declares in an understatement. In it, a mother recounts her 11-year-old daughter's story of being shown a Snapchat video on a friend's phone in which boys from her class laughed as they watched rape porn together. In every respect this is an escalation of my experience: I only heard about the porn party; this girl saw it. I was probably 16 and my classmates 17; these are young children, some of them prepubescent. And there was never any suggestion that the porn my classmates watched played out a rape fantasy in which "the woman was bound up, saying 'no' as a masked man approached her."

These two stories alone are enough to make me understand why many conservatives are calling for a total federal ban on digital porn. But though I share their horror, I can't follow to their policy proposal. I want pornography gone — but I don't want it banned.

The latest iteration of the "ban porn" debate kicked off with a letter from four Republican lawmakers to Attorney General William Barr. Sent in early December, the note argues that the unprecedented availability of graphic pornography made possible by the internet has produced a host of deleterious effects in our society, particularly for children, whose average age for first exposure to porn is now 11.

The legislators only asked Barr to more strictly enforce extant obscenity laws, but soon The Daily Wire's Matt Walsh expressed hope that this letter might be merely "a first step towards a wider-ranging war on hardcore porn." Walsh argued for "at a minimum, much heavier regulation on internet porn," if not an outright ban, noting that it is impossible for porn viewers to know whether they are watching sex between consenting adults and that the new ubiquity of digital porn renders exhortations to protect your own children from obscenity inherently inadequate.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a former contributor here at The Week, weighed in this past weekend with a lengthy "science-based case for ending the porn epidemic." "[T]oday's porn is fundamentally different from yesterday's," Gobry contends, in that "unlike Playboy, online porn provides literally infinite novelty with no effort." Our brains — especially the half-finished brains of young children — cannot handle it. Online porn, Gobry says, marshalling a number of scientific studies to his cause, may be fairly likened to dangerous and addictive drugs like heroin. Meanwhile, The American Conservative on Tuesday published a case for banning porn which argues that because of "the extensive relationship between porn and worldwide human trafficking," it is fairly compared to slavery and equally appropriate for state prohibition.

Against all this, libertarians and conservatives more in the classical liberal tradition have responded in two ways. The first is to warn of unintended consequences. See, for example, this piece from Reason's Robby Soave, who asks, "Should we default toward trusting parents to know what's best for their kids, or should they have to prove that they are better stewards of their own children's well-being than a vast government bureaucracy?" He points as well to broader argument against prohibition of behaviors better categorized as vices than crimes. The moral monstrosities of the modern drug war, including where hard drugs like heroin are concerned, provide a compelling caution against such bans.

The second type of claim instead focuses on digital porn itself, arguing that its harms are greatly exaggerated. An explainer from Soave's colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown is perhaps the best representative of the lot. She presents evidence that the rise of digital porn has not led to increased violence against women, sexual activity by teenagers, pornography addiction, erectile dysfunction, or human trafficking. "As in all sexual matters," Brown concludes, "the line between legal and illegal pornography should turn on the willing participation of those involved, not the tastes of whoever shouts the loudest."

As a matter of policy, I agree with that conclusion but adamantly reject Brown's suggestion that porn isn't so bad. Even if all her data is entirely correct — I know, for instance, that she's right at least about the dramatic fall of violent crime rates and the more gradual decline of teen sex — the moral problem remains utterly unaddressed. Porn, as Gobry has argued, is bad. And "bad" is too mild a word. Porn is destructive. It is vile. And it absolutely should never fall into the hands of children, or, honestly, anyone of any age. Social conservatives (and some radical feminists) are right about this.

My sons are still a few days shy of seven months, but my husband and I already talk regularly about what our house rules will be to keep them safe from porn and other ills of the internet. Last night I got drinks with a friend and most of our conversation centered on our bewilderment about handling this and other dilemmas of sexual ethics which our children will encounter easily 20 years younger than we did. The world has changed so rapidly in this regard. There is literally no one who can say, "Here's what did and didn't work for me and my kids," because internet access as it now exists is a legitimately new thing. No parent can speak from experience here. There is no older, wiser voice to guide us.

So I understand why "ban porn" appeals. Yet I'm not echoing those calls. Of course, pornography involving children or anyone who has not consented should be (and is) illegal. Beyond that, however, I believe prohibition would be a serious mistake, not so much because of Brown's class of arguments but because of Soave's. And this is something social conservatives would do well to thoroughly consider.

If pornography is banned on grounds that it is harmful children, we open a door to significant new state restrictions on content in the future. There are already plenty who argue that teaching religion to young children is harmful, that it's a morally untenable "indoctrination" which takes advantage of kids' gullibility and the trust they place in their parents to brainwash them into religiosity before they are able to encounter and assess faith as rational adults. Researchers at Boston University reported in 2014 that "young children with a religious background are less able to distinguish between fantasy and reality compared with their secular counterparts." Richard Dawkins says teaching children religion is "child abuse." We could even note that high teen birth rates correlate with higher rates of religiosity, a fact that can be explained by value systems which lead pregnant teens to carry their babies to term instead of aborting — but which could also be used to argue religion is objectively harmful to teenagers, who along with their children often face a host of adverse outcomes their peers are able to avoid.

If the state can ban porn because viewing it can hurt kids, it can ban other things deemed to hurt kids, too. And though bans on religious content for children now seem farfetched, let me mention two more facts. First, that religiosity is on a steep decline in America. And second, that obscenity legislation has always tended to rely on public opinion. In Miller v. California (1973), the Supreme Court established a three-pronged test for identifying obscenity, and each of the three prongs is based on the assessment of a "reasonable person" or an "average person, applying contemporary adult community standards."

Maybe a porn panic can be generated such that all online pornography becomes unacceptable to an "average person, applying contemporary adult community standards." But those standards will change. They will probably change in ways porn ban proponents do not like. And when that happens, do you really want to have opened the door to state content bans "for the children"? As evil as I believe porn to be, as much as I hope to keep it from my children, I cannot see wisdom in giving this prohibitionary power to the state. The risk of unforeseen consequences, to say nothing of probable enforcement abuse, would be tremendous.

Thus rejecting a porn ban leaves unsolved the parenting dilemma, I'll grant. But as I hope conservatives will realize, prohibition was never the panacea it might seem. Even with a ban, this problem would not go away, as 50 years of drug war have shown. "Don't let your kids have smartphones" would still be, at best, a half-measure, for Walsh is not wrong that "all it requires is one friend whose parents have not taken that step." There is no easy solution here, nor, I suspect, any solution that can be effectively applied by a single nuclear family without considerable community support.

It is building that support to which porn opponents should turn their energies. Instead of seeking a ban, seek to make it unnecessary, at least in your little corner of the world. Strictly defined, our task is not to keep our kids isolated from porn but to teach them to abhor and refuse it.