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L.A.'s smut empire

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Today's question: Economically, porn is a major industry for L.A., and the market is more open and legal than it used to be. Are these positive or negative developments? Previously, McDonald and Stagliano debated the kerfuffle over Judge Alex Kozinski’s picture collection and the constitutionality of obscenity laws.

The true cost of pornPoint: Barry McDonald
In contrast to the past two days, today's question appears to shift from issues related to obscene -- and hence illegal -- pornography and addresses more policy-related issues related to the production and consumption of hard-core and other forms of pornography that are generally legal (i.e., porn that doesn't involve violent rape, bestiality, necrophilia, et cetera).

Especially in these difficult economic times, there will be many who say that the economic benefits of the legal porn industry are welcome indeed. Putting aside the fact that in porn, as in other commercial industries in our country, the vast bulk of the money generally ends up in the pockets of relatively few people who get obscenely (pardon the pun) rich, one also has to ask at what cost to society (including the L.A. community and people involved with porn) these benefits are gained. Since commercial pornography has been around awhile, many scientific or scholarly studies have been performed on its impact on people and their lives. The results are very sobering, and also give the lie to the popular canard that porn harms no one.

Let's start with the people involved in the production of porn, and particularly the women "actors." Free will, right? If they want to do it, what's the problem? Those studying this phenomenon have argued that for many women (non-starlets, of course), porn participation is little different from prostitution. They are essentially forced into it by some combination of dire financial straits, broken homes, lack of education, drug or alcohol problems, and physical or sexual abuse.

On the consumption side, studies have documented many problems. It is widely known that porn can be addictive (essentially targeting our biological impulses that John extols so gloriously). When such addiction happens, or even when porn is simply consumed in inordinate quantities, the lives of people and their families can be ruined. When husbands or fathers become obsessed with porn, as often happens, children are ignored, wives become alienated, and the family is often destroyed. Moreover, studies have documented how even nonviolent porn can trigger physical aggression in men toward women when they are already prone to such behavior. Studies have also linked the teen exposure to porn to an increase in promiscuous behavior, sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies. And even as to those who consume porn "responsibly," studies have indicated that it can create unrealistic expectations about their own sex performance or enjoyment that leads to diminished satisfaction with their own sex lives and perceptions about themselves.

Space limitations prevent me from going on, but let me just mention briefly a few of the porn industry's effects on our society that have been examined: the commoditization and coarsening of human sexuality in general, and women as sex objects in particular; the creation and perpetuation of objectionable stereotypes; increased crime and other hard social costs, which state Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D- Montebello) has recently proposed a special tax on porn to combat; and the intrusion into, and disruption of, residential neighborhoods in L.A. by porn production crews that this newspaper has occasionally reported. And, of course, another major problem with a legal porn industry is that it inevitably spins off some who turn to producing obscene and illegal fare that already-stretched law enforcement agencies do little about.

Again, I could go on, but all of this raises a basic question that everyone must decide for themselves: When it comes to the touted economic and other benefits of the porn industry, is the candle really worth the wick?

Barry McDonald is an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and teaches and writes on 1st Amendment law.


What happens when government regulatesCounterpoint: John Stagliano
Today's question is one that unfortunately gets asked about a lot of industries. Shouldn't we encourage the mainstream movie industry to shoot in Los Angeles more (with tax breaks)? Shouldn't we have an NFL team here because of the economic activity this business will generate (and do this with public subsidies)? And in this case, isn't the porn business good for L.A.'s economy? The implication is that even if porn is (allegedly) a sleazy business, it does provide work for people.

This assumes that it is the government's function to worry about this kind of thing, and in fact the government does "worry." I must take issue with this thinking here, Barry, if you care at all about freedom. If you concede that it is a proper function of government to "encourage" economic growth, then it is easy to say that the government ought to impose a certain value system on the people it governs and control what kind of economic activities they engage in.

Now, we have special interest groups fighting over the "pie" of tax money and other groups, like the religious right, fighting over the use of government power to shape our character. This is the essential issue that must always be kept in mind, because when anyone talks about freedom, that is what he is talking about: the freedom to choose. And some of our most important "choices" are where to live, what kind of work we want to do and how to think.

The sad thing is that The Times and other papers most often assume that it is the proper function of government to restrict more and more of our freedoms. Clearly it is your assumption, Barry, that this is what the government should do. Unfortunately, there is an economic self-interest on the part of government officials, most law professors and The Times to have these freedoms vulnerable to the machinations of government. The Times (in its coverage of politics and law), law professors vested in subjects concerning the scope of government and government bureaucrats are all far more important in the world if personal choices are open to being controlled by the government. They have power over the freedoms of people, and power corrupts on all levels of government nearly all the time.

The Times is filled with articles about abuses of power by officials in all levels of government. Stories about government corruption are more common than those about abuses in the private sector. Even the housing crisis can be traced to pressure put on banks by the government to lend to anyone and to not "discriminate" against people on the basis that maybe they cannot pay back a loan.

I worked in the savings and loan industry in the 1970s and early '80s. I saw firsthand the deals that institutions made to satisfy regulators' political concerns about redlining and the abuses executives committed because their deposits were "insured" by the government. They "gambled" on risky loans, which cost them nothing personally if the deals went bad (we know how that turned out) and made them lots of money if the loans paid off.

Regarding our personal choices about what kind of work we want to do, if you allow the government to have a say in this, corruption will occur. Some porn companies would be "judged" fit to exist, while others would be forced to close. The bigger, more established companies have the resources to lobby for their cause; new or smaller companies would find it harder and harder to exist. The consumer would suffer along with the rights of the little guy -- and though I am not a little guy, I would never use the power of government to "improve" (read: eliminate competition) my business.

I believe that the bulk of what you write, Barry, should have been addressed in tomorrow's post, given that much of what you talk about is the subject of tomorrow's question. If you wish to discuss the harm viewing porn does to people, consider what happened with the Meese Commission report in 1986. In that case, one set of findings was presented to the public, and then later several of the people on that commission disputed the reported findings as not being what they actually found. Clearly politics -- corrupt politics -- played a major part in this process. And please, Barry, for our benefit, identify the studies you are using to support your arguments.

John Stagliano is an adult-entertainment director, producer and distributor.

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