Meese Panel Asks Porn Crackdown : Sexually Violent Materials and Actions Connected, Commission Concludes
The Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, contending that a link exists between sexually violent materials and “anti-social acts of sexual violence,” called Wednesday for a crackdown by federal, state and local authorities on the estimated $8-billion-a-year pornography industry.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, in receiving the nearly 2,000-page report from commission Chairman Henry E. Hudson, would not discuss its sweeping recommendations until he has read them. But the proposals were immediately denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics as censorship that threatens to violate First Amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of the press.
The report, emphasizing that citizens have every right to condemn material protected by the First Amendment--such as magazines, books and films--endorsed “protesting” in the vicinity of stores that carry pornographic items. Such forms of protest, the report said, could include formal complaints to government authorities or boycotting of materials that citizens find “harmful, immoral or objectionable.”
Makes 92 Recommendations
The commission proposed a wide-ranging crackdown, outlined in 92 recommendations, which called for federal, state, local and private actions aimed at curbing pornography.
The recommendations varied from making it a felony to knowingly possess child pornography to ordering immediate obscenity investigations and prosecutions by U.S. attorneys, aided by specially created task forces of prosecutors and federal agents. The panel would also outlaw obscene cable television programming and holes in peep show booths that permit sexual contact between patrons.
In concluding that a link exists between sexually violent materials and “anti-social acts of sexual violence,” the commission said that in both clinical and experimental settings, “exposure to sexually violent materials has indicated an increase in the likelihood of aggression.” This research, it said, “shows a causal relationship between exposure to material of this type and aggressive behavior toward women.”
The commission said it was not arguing that all people with “heightened levels of aggression will commit acts of sexual violence. But . . . over a sufficiently large number of cases we are confident in asserting that an increase in aggressive behavior directed at women will cause an increase in the level of sexual violence directed at women.”
The conclusion of a link between sexually violent books, films and magazines and actions conflicted with the 1970 finding by the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography that found no such evidence. The 1970 commission, created by President Lyndon B. Johnson, called for repealing all legislation prohibiting sale of sexual material to consenting adults.
The attorney general’s commission, taking note of the conflicting findings of the two panels, said there had been “enormous technological changes” affecting the transmission of sounds, words and images in the 16 years between the two reports.
“These technological developments have themselves caused such significant changes in the practices relating to the distribution of pornography that the analysis of 16 years ago is starkly obsolete,” the commission said.
Besides finding a link between sexually violent materials and actions, the commission concluded that exposure to nonviolent but sexually degrading materials “bears some causal relationship to the level of sexual violence, sexual coercion or unwanted sexual aggression in the population so exposed.”
The commission, in defining what it considers to be degrading material, said it meant that which “depicts people, usually women, as existing solely for the sexual satisfaction of others, usually men, or that depicts people, usually women, in decidedly subordinate roles in their sexual relations with others, or that depicts people engaged in sexual practices that would to most people be considered humiliating.”
Social Scientists Object
The panel said its conclusions on a link between such degrading materials and sexually degrading attitudes are “substantially similar” to those it reached about the relationship between sexually violent materials and violent actions. However, the commission said it reached the conclusions about nonviolent materials with “less confidence . . . and more in the way of assumption.”
Some social scientists contended that the panel had distorted their work in citing it as a partial basis for a link between sexually violent material and actions, but Hudson dismissed such criticism. “If we relied exclusively on scientific data for every one of our findings, I’m afraid that all of our work would be inconclusive because there is a real scarcity of scientific research in many of these areas,” he said.
The commission considered, along with scientific data, the totality of evidence, moral and ethical considerations and common sense, said Hudson, a Virginia prosecutor who first captured White House attention with his crackdown on local adult bookstores and massage parlors and was later named a U.S. attorney by President Reagan.
The report said that the most controversial category of pornographic materials for the 11 commission members was that which is not violent or degrading, but “pure sex.” In addition, it said, they “disagreed substantially about the effects of such materials.”
Despite such disagreement on the widespread ramifications of these materials on society, the commission severely criticized sexual promiscuity. “It is far from implausible to hypothesize that materials depicting sexual activity without marriage, love, commitment or affection bear some causal relationship to sexual activity without marriage, love, commitment or affection,” it said.
“Although there are many members of this society who can and have made affirmative cases for uncommitted sexuality, none of us believes it to be a good thing,” the report said.
Criticism of Work
Criticism of the panel’s work was not confined to sources outside the commission. Two members, Dr. Judith Becker and Ellen Levine, said the commission’s one-year timetable and $500,000 budget fell far short of what was needed to complete its difficult and massive assignment.
“No self-respecting investigator would accept conclusions based on such a study, and unfortunately the document produced reflects these inadequacies,” they wrote in one of several separate statements by commissioners.
Becker, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, is also director of the sexual behavior clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Levine is editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day and a vice president of CBS Magazines.
Barry Lynn, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which tracked the commission’s work through several drafts, said the report failed to prove that any pornography causes sexual violence.
“All that this government study proves is that if you give a biased, pro-censorship commission a half-million tax dollars and a year, they will write a lopsided pro-censorship report at the end,” Lynn told a press conference.
California Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, branded the report “an embarrassment to the Administration. They stacked the panel in their favor and still couldn’t find the evidence of a link between depiction of sex and violent behavior. . . . At most, they came up with some evidence of a link between depiction of violence and violent behavior. That shouldn’t have cost half a million dollars.”
Applause for Report
However, the report drew applause from the National Coalition Against Pornography, which describes itself as representing 70 religious denominations and private organizations.
“I’m appalled at the potshots being taken at the Meese commission’s report on pornography,” said Jerry R. Kirk, the Cincinnati-based coalition’s president. “But I’m really not surprised. Pornography is an $8-billion-a-year industry in this country, and it’s running scared--because the Meese commission has done an excellent job of showing how harmful pornography really is.”
Christian Voice, a politically active fundamentalist group claiming 350,000 supporters, called the report “a proper step” toward reducing child abuse and sexually oriented crime, which it said are rooted in pornography.
The United Orthodoxy Jewish Communities of the U.S. and Canada lauded the findings as “a welcome significant step in defense of decency and the sanctity of the family.”
Falwell Defends Report
And the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority, once the driving force among politically active fundamentalist groups, strongly defended the report against charges of censorship, saying instead that its findings were “common sense,” saying: “It appeals to the grass-roots heartbeat of this country to begin putting an end to this scab in our society.”
Meese said he considers the $500,000 “well spent,” noting that the commission was formed in response to “numerous complaints from a number of citizens.” He said Justice Department officials will review the report and recommend “action steps” to him in two to four weeks.
In calling for stepped-up actions by U.S. attorneys, the commission noted that from May 1, 1984, through July, 1985, obscenity prosecutions were conducted in only seven of the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts.
None in Manhattan or L.A.
And, over that time span, there were no obscenity prosecutions in Manhattan or Los Angeles, “where the majority of obscene materials are now and were then being produced or distributed,” the report said.
In other recommendations, the commission called for:
--Judges to sentence convicted child pornographers to lifetime probation along with appropriate incarceration so that they may be continually monitored;
--Removal of doors from the booths of “adults only” pornographic peep show facilities;
--States to require photo finishing laboratories to report suspected child pornography;
--Easing the proof required for establishing child molestation in pornography cases;
--Considering setting a minimum of one-year in prison for persons convicted of a second offense involving obscene material that depicts adults;
--The Federal Communications Commission to use its full regulatory powers and appropriate sanctions against those who provide obscene dial-a-porn telephone services;
--The FCC to do the same against cable and satellite television programmers who transmit obscene programs;
--State and local prosecutors to use all available laws to prosecute cable and satellite television for obscenity violations;
--Congress to amend the federal criminal code to specifically outlaw obscene cable television programming.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.