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Bush’s War on Porn

WWW- You’ve heard of Johnson’s War on Poverty and Nixon’s War on Drugs, and even today’s kindergartners can tell you all about the War on Terror. But you may not know of one of other top priorities of the Bush administration: the War on Porn.

The initiative may come as a surprise to many college-aged readers, as federal obscenity prosecutions have not been in vogue since the Reagan years. Our generation has grown up alongside the explosive proliferation of pornography that accompanied the internet boom and advances in home entertainment technologies.

Once relegated to red light districts and seedy XXX theaters, the industry now nets more than $10 billion annually. Adult entertainment is available from cable and satellite television providers and many a posh hotel. Inveterate companies including General Motors, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Time Warner garner profits from interests in explicit adult entertainment.

One could claim that pornography has attained a fairly accepted and legitimized status in society: porn star Mary Carey and hard core pornographer Mark Kulkis of Kick Ass Pictures were welcome guests at the National Republican Congressional Committee’s gala fundraiser for Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign (each, of course, having paid the $2,500 for their ticket)

There are many who are less than thrilled by such developments – especially conservative Christians – who view pornography as morally unacceptable. Robert Peters, president of Morality in the Media, a not-for-profit, interfaith organization committed to upholding decency standards the media, believes pornography is an addictive moral evil threatening families everywhere.

Many critics believe that a causal link exists between pornography and sexual violence, citing high rates of pornography use among sex offenders.

“‘Conclusive scientific data’ is not necessary,” Peters said. “There is already enough evidence of a causal link between pornography and sex crimes to justify enforcement of obscenity laws, and there would be much more if we would listen more to the people who deal with pornography first hand.”

Anti-pornography groups have pushed for more stringent and effective enforcement of obscenity laws, and Washington is listening. Before examining the recent actions taken by Congress and the Bush administration, we first have to provide some definitions.

The United States owes its current test for obscenity to the 1973 Supreme Court case of Miller v. California. For a work to be deemed obscene, it must depict or describe sexual conduct as defined by state law in a patently offensive way so that the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work as a whole appeals to prurient interest. The work also must be judged to lack any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

This legal definition leaves some room for contention. One man’s art may be another’s abomination. (Remember former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s fracas with the Brooklyn Museum over Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” the work which incorporated elephant dung and cut-outs from pornographic magazines?)

Because the test invokes local community standards, something considered perfectly legal in San Francisco may be deemed obscene by a jury in Lubbock, Texas. This situation can become even more problematic when a defendant ships sexual materials to different parts of the country or distributes content via the Internet. It is an open question whether the law intends a distributor in New York to be subject to the standards of a customer’s more conservative locale.

But there’s no need to start erasing your hard drive just yet: with the exception of child porn, it is not a crime to merely possess obscene materials for private use, but only to sell, distribute, or import/transport them across state lines.

Peddlers of porn, beware: Gonzales has got your number

In the first major address of his tenure, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales laid out his obscenity agenda. “Another area where I will continue to advance the cause of justice and human dignity is in the aggressive prosecution of purveyors of obscene materials … obscene materials are not protected by the First Amendment, and I am committed to prosecuting these crimes aggressively,” Gonzales told his audience at the Hoover Institute last February.

He began the speech by praising the service of his predecessor Edwin Meese III, a man who during his tenure as Attorney General under Reagan, argued that adult pornography is a threat to families and children. Meese appointed a commission which released a highly critical report on pornography in 1986.

The present attorney general proved true to his word. In May the Justice Department announced the creation of an Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, a group dedicated to “the investigation and prosecution of the distributors of hard-core pornography that meets the test for obscenity.” The act was hailed by many social conservatives, some of whom were disappointed by previous Attorney General John Ashcroft’s perceived failure to prosecute porn aggressively in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The act, as the Family Research Counsel put it, added to “a growing sense of confidence in our new attorney general.”

The move has elicited criticism from some White House insiders, federal prosecutors, and law enforcement agents. “Compared to terrorism, public corruption and narcotics, [pornography] is no worse than dropping gum on the sidewalk,” said Stephen Bronis, chair of the white-collar crime division of the American Bar Association, in a Daily Buisness Review article.

Last August, the FBI’s Washington Field Office began recruitment for a new eight-agent anti-obscenity squad, which will investigate the producers and distributors of adult pornography as specified by a 2005 congressional initiative. The Washington Post has reported that attached to the job posting was a memo from headquarters to all of the country’s 56 field offices, affirming that the obscenity initiative is “one of the top priorities” of Attorney General Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. The memo stated that the best chance for convictions comes from porn that includes “bestiality, urination, defecation, as well as sadistic and masochistic behavior,” but warned that such prosecutions “encounter many legal issues, including First Amendment claims.”

Though the initiatives have not been major headline makers, reactions among the populace have been mixed. Many worry that funds could be better invested, addressing more pressing security and law enforcement concerns.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, one frustrated FBI agent told the Washington Post, “I guess this means we’ve won the war on terror. We must not need any more resources for espionage.”

Predictably, the adult entertainment industry itself is up in arms. “If the government would spend half the time they spend, and half the money they spend, chasing constitutionally protected legal adult speech, and spend that on actually enforcing the child pornography laws, they would benefit children tremendously,” said Michelle Freridge, the executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the trade organization of the adult entertainment industry, told National Public Radio.

Not everyone agrees: “While there are crimes like drugs and public corruption in Miami, this is also a form of corruption and should be a priority,” said Anthony Verdugo, director of the Miami Christian Family Coalition, to the Daily Buisness Review. “Pornography is a poison and it’s addictive. It’s not a victimless crime. Women are the victims.”

Even some opponents acknowledge that certain kinds of pornography are disgusting. (They could cite the videos produced by Max Hardcore or Extreme Associates, frequent defendants in obscenity cases, whose exploits we won’t discuss here out of consideration for those of you who may be dining as you read the Daily – just think bodily fluids.)

Free speech advocates, such as the ACLU, maintain that the Constitution protects speech no matter how odious. “The First Amendment exists precisely to protect the most offensive and controversial speech from government suppression,” it says on its website. “The best way to counter obnoxious speech is with more speech.”

Practitioners of alternative sexualities are also concerned, often voicing their frustrations in online communities. For instance, some in the BDSM community (BDSM refers to bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism) fear persecution because their sexual interests are not well understood by the country at large.

The Justice Department reports that it obtained 38 obscenity convictions during President Bush’s first term, compared to only four during the eight-year tenure of President Clinton. Interestingly, the crackdown has not been limited to distributors of DVDs and magazines, pictures and streaming video. On Oct. 3, the FBI’s anti-obscenity squad raided the Pittsburgh home of the owner of Red-rose-stories.com, a text-only website devoted to erotic fiction. Charges have not yet been filed, but this may prove to be an important test case, as written stories alone have never been the grounds for obscenity prosecution under the current statutes.

The indictments are having ripple effects: fearing the legal and financial troubles of prosecution, some Internet sites devoted to alternative forms of sexual expression are taking preventative self-censoring measures. The popular alternaporn website SuicideGirls.com has removed “any images with fake blood and any images we felt could be wrongfully construed as sadist or masochist.” Similarly, the fetish model and author Midori, who teaches classes on Japanese rope bondage, has taken down her site BeautyBound.com.

The owner of three Web sites that focused openly on BDSM, known only as GrandPa DeSade, has removed all of his content from the Web despite the fact that the sites were primarily education-oriented and not for profit.

“One of the criteria for porn prosecution is if the site promotes or features S&M. If convicted they can confiscate anything involved and throw the owners in jail. Even if not convicted, or the conviction overturned, the process would financially break us,” DeSade told YNOT.com.

With current controversy over same sex marriage, abortion, and abstinence-only education, it seems that sexual matters have rejoined religion and politics as one of those topics unmentionable in mixed company, and it is likely that the obscenity debate will only intensify the country’s cultural divide.

“This is a very complicated issue that tends to get talked about in simplistic terms by both sides,” Tufts Assistant Professor of Philosophy Nancy Bauer said.

Armed with information, let the debate commence.

 

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