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The Shame of America

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Early next month, one of the most provocative government documents in recent years will be delivered to Attorney General Edwin Meese: a two-volume, 1,900-page report compiled by his 11-member Commission on Pornography. It is the first government study to say that porn is a cause of sexual violence against women and children. It calls for stringent enforcement of the nation’s anti-smut laws and the extension of those laws into new areas. It lists thousands of pornographic films, books, magazines and sexual devices now on sale in the U.S. And although the Government Printing Office is readying a mere 2,400 copies (which will sell at $53 each), the report has all the earmarks of a best-seller; even before its final-draft stages, the rambling, disorganized work has sparked the kind of controversy that gladdens the hearts of most publishers.

Liberals and free-speech advocates have condemned the report as an unscientific manifesto produced by a band of blue-noses picked by design to support the conservative views of the Reagan Administration. Feminists have praised the report for bringing attention to the issue of sexual violence, but many worry that it may lead to government attempts to infringe on individual rights. Lawsuits already have been filed against the Commission alleging that it intimidated major retail chains like 7-Eleven into removing “adult” magazines from their shelves (see box, page 32). Right-wing fundamentalists have attacked Meese’s vice squad for not going far enough, while Hollywood worries that the report may push the conservative national mood too far (see box, page 31). As publication day approaches, the voices are growing more strident. Herewith the story behind the study—and a look at the tangle of ugly questions that the Commission confronted.

Four months into its yearlong, $500,000 probe into the seamy depths of America’s porn industry, the seven-man, four-woman Commission found itself piling off a tour bus and trooping into a Houston peep show. With reporters in tow, they stumbled onto a shocking scene. When their vice-cop tour guide opened the door to one of the stained booths where customers engage in anonymous sex, he found a pair of patrons flagrante delicto. “And here,” he announced, “we have two men engaged in the act of oral copulation.”

The Houston field trip was not the aesthetic nadir of what seemed to many Commission members like a long trip through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat. In open hearings in Washington, D.C., the group listened to graphic testimony covering all aspects of obscenity. They watched the vilest X-rated videocassettes, listened to dial-a-porn tapes, weighed explicit cable programming and heard from sexual-abuse victims, many of whom told their stories from behind translucent screens. Later they pored over scene-by-scene accounts of Debbie Does Dallas and Deep Throat (whose scripts are reprinted in the report). They found magazines that specialized in graphic depictions of sex between humans and animals, between children and adults. They saw photos of self-castration, of women strung up and tortured, of real-life rapes.

“I was just appalled at the incredible viciousness of pornography,” says Commission member the Rev. Bruce Ritter, the Catholic priest who founded and runs Covenant House shelters for abused and homeless youngsters. “The overwhelming message was that women love to be raped, to be subordinated, to experience pain. If what we saw had involved only men, it would be called torture. But because men did it to women, it was called ‘men’s fun.’ ” Perhaps no one better summarized the loathing felt by all commissioners upon examining what has happened to porn in America since the last government commission on the subject 16 years ago. The earlier group, the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, took twice as long and spent four times as much money on its study, which found no causal link between porn and sexual violence. Back then, however, as the new Commission points out, “adult” bookstores could be found only on a few seedy blocks of big cities. Videocassettes, dial-a-porn services and cable TV were almost unknown. Now there are thousands of “XXX” videos available. Any kid who can use a telephone can dial up the filthiest sexual conversations imaginable. And cable TV can bring graphic sex directly into the living room.

In analyzing this new situation, however, shock was not enough. While the 11 who served as Meese’s eyes and ears were unanimous in their revulsion, they had heated disagreements when it came time to hammer out a collective report. After the unpaid commissioners were named by Meese a year ago at President Reagan’s request, critics complained that the group was heavily weighted with citizens disinclined to study the issue dispassionately. Chairman Henry Hudson, for instance, now a top federal prosecutor in Virginia, prided himself on eliminating local adult bookstores and theaters from Arlington. New York’s Father Ritter has long been an outspoken porn foe. And California family counselor James Dobson, who has a Ph.D. in child development, is head of Focus on Family and one of the Christian Right’s vocal opponents of obscenity.

They were balanced, to an extent, by more liberal sorts like Deanne Tilton-Durfee, director of the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, and Dr. Judith Becker, a Columbia University associate professor of clinical psychology and researcher on sexual violence. Woman’s Day editor Ellen Levine, who with Becker issued a 20-page dissent from the panel’s conclusion that pornography can lead to violence, was, from the first, the standard-bearer for free speech. “I think there was a rush to judgment,” she says now. “Social science research has not been designed to evaluate the relationship between exposure to pornography and the commission of sexual crimes.”

“Anyone who reads the transcript can see that we disagreed very, very strongly about some issues,” says Father Ritter. “I think the fact that we could not agree gave the lie to the statement that we were chosen because the government wanted a prepackaged [conclusion].” Still, others have faulted the Commission’s entire way of doing things. By deliberately seeking out prostitutes and victims of sex crimes to hear their horror stories, critics say, the Commission skewed the evidence.

Not surprisingly, the subject of child pornography provoked the least dissension. According to the Commission’s estimates, it has become a $2 to $4 billion industry largely run by pedophiles who distribute their material through clandestine routes (including secret computer networks and coded magazine ads). Their wares are vile: Panel members saw photographs of oral, anal and genital sex among and between children, adults and animals, and torture was sometimes involved.

More than half of the panel’s 93 recommendations involved taking arms against such exploitation: They called for lifetime probation sentences for convicted child pornographers, for Congress to force traffickers to forfeit profits and for government to investigate and prosecute offenders more aggressively.

“The pervasiveness of [child pornography] is linked to the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse,” says Tilton-Durfee. “A picture of a naked child displaying his or her genitals is a photograph of child abuse as it is occurring.”

Other issues seemed less clear-cut. “We all agreed that sexually explicit material that is intended to arouse violence is definitely harmful,” says Ritter. “It encourages the rape myth…and should be proscribed.” The Commission also said, “pornography that was not explicitly violent but that was absolutely degrading was also harmful”—like photos of men urinating on a kneeling woman. Often working from 9 in the morning to 10 or 11 p.m., the group slogged through testimony. Commissioners like Levine were piqued that chairman Hudson and executive director Alan E. Sears, a former assistant U.S. attorney who gained a reputation as a tough anti-smut prosecutor in Kentucky, kept insisting that they should propose banning the sale of vibrators and anything else that stimulates the genitalia. (“Does that include my hand?” cracked one commissioner.) Others took issue with what they saw as Sears’s intransigence. “He kept pushing hard for his own conservative agenda,” says an observer who sat in on the hearings. When the shouting was over, the group emerged with a report that may prove historic. The 1970 report had urged the elimination of all restrictions on porn for adult consumers. In contrast, Meese’s Commission offers a detailed plan of action that infuriates civil libertarians like Barry Lynn, legislative counsel of the ACLU, who sued the Justice Department to release the report before it reached Meese. “Some of these recommendations are so draconian,” charges Lynn, who followed the investigation closely, “that it appears the Commission wants to send this country back to the sexual Dark Ages.”

While the panel suggests that obscene words without pictures not be subject to prosecution, it comes down hard on porn in other forms—calling for the FCC to move against cable programmers who transmit “obscene programs” and those who run “phone porn” and X-rated computer services. The report recommends arresting video porn performers for pandering. It urges the creation of a huge data bank listing individuals convicted of obscenity violations. “Citizen action groups,” the report says, should boycott, picket and monitor porn in all its forms. While no one wants to defend porn, many see serious dangers in the report’s demands. Says the ACLU’s Lynn: “They want citizen spies to wander around newsstands…this is a declaration of war on sexual material.”

The response from feminists has been guarded. Susan Brownmiller (author of the 1975 best-seller Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape) says, “We have two problems. Pornography is dangerous, and we must protect freedom of speech. Knowing those two things, how do we proceed?”

“I think that to censor something just because we find it personally distasteful is to put our freedom of speech and our constitutional rights in jeopardy,” says author Erica Jong, whose own work often turns on erotic themes. “It’s sex that [Meese’s Commission] wants to restrict. It’s another form of Puritanism.”

Sticks and stones notwithstanding, the Commission members (with the exception of dissenters Becker and Levine) are standing by their findings. “The [study] is not a call to arms. It’s not a manifesto,” says commissioner Frederick Schauer, a University of Michigan law professor who drafted the heart of the report. “We just want people to read the report and think seriously about pornography. It’s a complex, important issue that deserves some careful attention.” If the prepublication debate is any indication, the Meese Commission’s hefty volumes will get it.