COVER

PORNOGRAPHY ON TRIAL

IAN AUSTEN September 1 1986
COVER

PORNOGRAPHY ON TRIAL

IAN AUSTEN September 1 1986

PORNOGRAPHY ON TRIAL

COVER

For a full six months before the U.S. Commission on Pornography delivered its two-volume report to Attorney General Edwin Meese on July 9, critics were attacking what they assumed would be its findings. That is because in April the commission avoided a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) by agreeing to make public draft reports and other preliminary material, some of which did not even appear in the final version. The controversy spread to scientists whose work the committee had examined. Some scientists read draft reports and complained that their conclusions had been misinterpreted. In the course of hearings, four members of the 11-member panel itself expressed unhappiness with their efforts. And leaks about the study’s superficial methods and biased findings made headlines in the press. Indeed, a July issue of The New Republic, a respected Washington-based weekly political magazine, published a pastel cover illustration of the bulky Meese reclining coyly with his suit jacket and shirt teasingly undone. The headline description of the porn commission was, “Fast, loose and stacked.”

Control: Although control of pornography has been a national concern in the United States since 1842, when the U.S. government passed the first obscenity statute aimed at halting the importation of sexy “French” postcards from abroad, the issue has been the centre of renewed public attention since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. The endorsement of Reagan by followers of religious fundamentalists gave the issue a high profile at the White House. But widespread discrediting of the Meese

commission continued after the release of its report, which made a cause-andeffect link between pornography and sexual violence, but failed to prove that pornographic materials are harmful to the public. Public reaction against the report and the defeat in June of an antiporn referendum in

Maine may reverse the issue’s high profile. Reagan himself has avoided discussing the topic publicly since the report’s release.

The one-year study by the Meese panelists failed to clearly define pornography, the very subject of its study, but it did contain a highly controversial claim. Nine of the 11 members, under

the guidance of chairman Henry Hudson, a federal attorney from Virginia known for his antiporn prosecutions, agreed that “substantial exposure” to pornography is a cause of “sexual violence, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual acts.” Although the panel did not commission any original research, its report states that the conclusions are supported by “clinical evidence as well as by much of the less scientific evidence. . .and our own common sense.”

But that claim was quickly rejected by committee members Ellen Levine, editor of Woman's Day, and Judith Becker, the director of the Sexual Behavior Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Said Becker: “I

have been working with sex offenders for 11 years, have reviewed the scientific literature, and I don’t think a causal link has been demonstrated between pornography and sex crimes.” Rape: As well, critics point out that the commission cited the work of sociologist Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire to link high rape rates with the circulation of magazines such as Playboy and Hustler. Although Straus acknowledges that there is a relation^ ship between high sexQ magazine circulation and ^ rape rates—which range g from 9.3 per 100,000 peo| pie in North Dakota to \ 83.3 per 100,000 in Alas-

£ ka—the social scientist in fact says that the magazines are not to blame. Said Straus: “Alaska has a lot of young men, and North Dakota has an aging farm population. Young men are the ones who commit rape and young men are the ones who buy sex magazines.”

Alan Sears, a government lawyer who acted as the commission’s executive director, said that the commis-

sion’s findings were influenced by the testimony of many witnesses. Among those who testified—the 208 people included abused wives and children, former porn star Linda (Lovelace) Marciano and 68 law enforcement officials—was a self-proclaimed “victim of pornography” who appeared at a Miami hearing. Carrying a Bible, 38year-old Larry Madigan described how his life took a wrong turn when he was 12. Exploring a shed, he found a deck of playing cards adorned with hard-core pornographic images. He said that the incident led him into shoplifting, masturbation, anal intercourse with another teenaged boy, sexual abuse of the family dog, reading Playboy and watching R-rated films on cable television. The commissioners, without exception, appeared embarrassed and puzzled by the story, which concluded, “If it weren’t for Meese (left) my faith in God and the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, I would now possibly be a pervert, an alcoholic or dead.”

Prison: And the Meese commission’s stern recommendations were relatively limited. The report calls for mandatory 20-year prison terms for second offences of selling obscene material and the prosecution of porn filmmakers under antiprostitution laws, giving the government the power to seize all the assets of any obscenity-related business. It also recommends a citizens’ enforcement campaign, including the picketing and boycotting of shops selling porn even when the sales are legal. The Supreme Court has taken the position that under the constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and the press, materialmust be obscene and not just pornographic to be illegal. A landmark 1973 decision defined obscenity as material that appeals to “prurient interests,” is offensive in its portrayal of sex and has no literary, artistic or scientific merit.

Although the future of the report is uncertain, the Meese commission has

already had an impact in America. Last February Meese lawyer Sears sent letters to 23 corporations that sell magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse. Sears advised them that testimonylater identified as that given by Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the Missis-

sippi-based National Federation for Decency-had linked them with “the sale or distribution of pornography.” The letter asked them to reply to the charge before a master list of porn distributors

was compiled for the report. Within weeks a number of chains, including Dallas-based Southland Corp.’s 7-Eleven stores, had stopped selling the magazines.

When Playboy Enterprises Inc. challenged the commission, a federal dis-

trict court judge in Washington ruled that Sears’s letter violated the constitution and ordered it retracted. And no such list appeared in the final report. But for the publishers—including those of American Photographer, which lost newsstand space because the May issue contained a single photo of a naked woman—the victory was hollow: few of the estimated 15,000 outlets that dropped the magazines are likely to restock them.

Obscenity: But the

political climate for acting on the report’s suggestions is not promising. Less than a month before its release, Maine residents voted on a law that would have made it a crime to deal in obg scenity. It was supported

1 by Roman Catholic Bishop Edward O’Leary of

2 Portland and a group of I evangelical ministers. 5 The ACLU, horror novel| ist and Maine resident I Stephen King and the

state’s governor, Joseph

Brennan, opposed it. On

June 10 Maine’s traditionally conservative voters rejected the proposal 48,976 to 16,101.

The $49 report itself has become a best-seller. Long lines stretched out from the government printing office in Washington the day of its release. Part of the reason is its often-sensational contents. While much of the 1,960-page report contains poorly printed findings, it also includes an appendix of 2,325 porn magazine titles, 725 book titles and 2,370 “adults-only” films — some described in detail. Each of the 63 photos from the magazine TriSexual Lust are discussed. And there are scene-by-scene descripB tions of such films as § Debbie Does Dallas, The I Devil in Miss Jones and y Biker Slave Girls. Barry ¡3 Lynn, a lawyer for the I Civil Liberties Union “ who attended most of the hearings, declared, “Although I find much of the material in this volume highly offensive, I would nevertheless defend absolutely the federal government’s right to publish it.”

—IAN AUSTEN in Washington