Socially responsible investing, once associated
with causes like combating South African apartheid, has the potential to
become a serious way to combat the harms pornography causes in our
society. The proliferation of Corporate Responsibility departments at
corporations attests to the continued importance of socially responsible
investing, a practice that has and continues to have a serious impact
on America’s leading businesses. It’s now time to apply these principles
to the issue of pornography.

One of the recommendations published in the Witherspoon Institute’s report on “The Social Costs of Pornography
is a call for the hospitality industry to “be mindful of its
responsibilities to society.” Since many hotels are publicly traded,
this recommendation is a call for shareholders to make changes in their
business as well. Many people forget that they actually own a business
when they buy a stock, equity, mutual fund, etc. As such, investors can
fight pornography using the principles of socially responsible investing
by not investing in companies that profit from pornography. Individuals
can also become shareholders or owners of companies that earn part of
their profits from pornography for the purpose of encouraging the
management of the company to stop their involvement in
pornography. Although anyone can try to influence a company to change
its practices, shareholders of a company have more sway with management
than the average person. And, the more shares you own the more you can
influence a company’s management.

What is the moral argument for only investing in companies that do
not profit from pornography? Germain Grisez argues that “if some of the
company’s profit-enhancing policies and actions are immoral, the
investor normally intends the immorality and so shares moral
responsibility for it,” because:

one normally has no reason to invest directly in a
particular company’s stock unless one expects and intends one’s money to
be used to make a profit, and one normally cannot intend that without
intending that the company do all that one is aware of its doing to make
its profit: treat people in certain ways, encourage potential customers
to choose its products or services, and so on.

Considering the difficulty of determining whether a company profits
from pornography, it can be daunting for an individual investor to try
to wade through opaque financial statements, SEC filings, and corporate
red tape to attempt to determine how much money a particular company
makes from pornography or any other immoral practice. In addition to the
technical difficulty, there is a great amount of moral complexity, as
Grisez goes on to note:

But if one reasonably judges that such activities and/or a
company’s bad products and services are unnecessary for a company’s
profitability and will contribute little to expected income, direct
investment need not be wrong, and one could have a good reason to buy
the stock despite the company’s wrongdoing.

We are left to make a prudential decision in gray areas where
companies make only part of their money on immoral products or services.
These prudential decisions are generally made with the help of an
expert in this area since there are many nuances that require a deeper
level of understanding.

Obvious names such as Playboy and Penthouse are not the only
companies making money off of pornography. In fact, the pornography
industry is estimated to be worth $13 billion. However, it can be
difficult to tell the amount of corporate profit that comes from
pornography because most pornography firms are privately held, thus
making it very difficult to obtain accurate information. In addition,
there is no hard and fast definition of pornography. Companies are not
anxious to voluntarily disclose their participation in pornography
because pornography is often an ancillary part of an otherwise
family-friendly business. All of this means that it can be difficult to
determine which companies profit from pornography and to what extent.
Hunting this information down becomes the task of investment firms that
put together what are called “investment screens” for socially
responsible investors who want to avoid investing in companies that
profit from pornography.

Most people can recall that pornography was available at a particular
hotel where they stayed, but this sort of empirical data only goes so
far. And, although it is certainly possible to ask web-hosting companies
like GoDaddy or Yahoo if they host pornographic websites and how much
money they make from them, the information is certainly not readily
available. These questions need to be asked in order to bring to light
the places where pornography is hiding.

And it may not be hiding where you think it is. Disney, an icon of
children’s entertainment, distributes NC-17 movies, for example, which,
although they are not technically pornographic according to some, are a
far cry from Disney’s wholesome classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other major media companies engage in the same sort of distribution, or worse.

Companies that distribute pornography as a small part of their
business cannot hide behind any variation of the excuse that “every
other media conglomerate is doing it.” Apple, a significant media
distributor in its own right, has banned adult content from its
applications, or “apps,” downloadable programs tailored for the iPhone.
Apple has retained discretion to approve or deny iPhone Apps, and Apple
has faced consistent pressure from some app producers and some in the
media to relax its prohibitions against obscenity. Steve Jobs and his
team at Apple have maintained a very high standard to date that has won
them some negative press. In fact, Jobs was quoted in The Guardian
as saying, “We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn
off the iPhone … Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone.”

There is also good news from the hospitality industry, though much
work remains to be done. Marriott International, for instance, provided
one of my colleagues with the following statement:

It is Marriott’s practice to keep adult content out of
the reach of children and unavailable to any adult who chooses not to
view it. We have strong controls in place that allow guests to block
these materials. Changing technology and how guests access entertainment
has reduced the revenue hotels and their owners derive from in-room
movies, including adult content. We are working with in-room
entertainment providers and technology vendors to transition to the next
generation of in-room entertainment. This new platform of
Internet-based video-on-demand will facilitate our exit from the
traditional hotel video systems that included adult content in the menu
selection, and will also provide guests greater choice and control over
what they watch. As we transition to this new platform, adult content
will be off the menu for virtually all of our newly built hotels. Over
the next few years, this will be the policy across our system.

Though pornography would still be available until Marriott’s new
system is fully integrated, removing it from the menus of TV screens is a
positive development.

Recently, Dan Nielsen, the Director of Socially Responsible Investing
at Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS) released an “Action
Alert” encouraging people to sign a letter to media companies asking
these companies to stop distributing pornography. CBIS is an investment
management firm with approximately $3.6 billion in assets under
management for more than 1,000 Catholic institutions worldwide. In the
letter, Mr. Nielsen cites the Witherspoon Institute’s study on “The
Social Costs of Pornography.” Nielsen asks companies such as Comcast,
Time Warner Cable, DIRECTV, Dish Network, and Cablevision to “1) Stop
distributing pornographic programs, and 2) Improve public disclosure of
potential business risks and revenues earned from distributing
pornography.” This letter serves as a warning to these media companies
about the growing legal and reputational risk that pornography
production and distribution will face as the information in the
Witherspoon report becomes more widely known. Not everyone may have the
money or time to have an impact through socially responsible investing,
but signing onto the letter
represents an excellent opportunity to bolster CBIS’s efforts to
encourage publicly-traded media companies to stop distributing

Blake Robinson is a Financial Advisor at Fulcrum Securities, a
regional financial services firm that tailors individual and
institutional portfolios to clients’ ethical concerns. His article is reproduced here with the permission of
the Witherspoon Institute.