Bundy’s Tape Fuels Dispute on Porn, Antisocial Behavior
The execution-eve interview last week in which Ted Bundy traced his legacy of serial murder to the influence of sexual violence in the media is rapidly becoming a centerpiece in the religious crusade against pornography.
The half-hour talk with a Pomona-based religious broadcaster, billed as first-person testimony to the corrupting power of violent pornography, is to be aired this week on 1,300 religious radio stations and reproduced on videocassette for nationwide distribution.
“It’s a consciousness-raising event,” Dennis Jarrard of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese’s Obscenity and Pornography Commission said of the Jan. 23 interview. “It was a moment of truth for him, and a moment of truth for society.”
In interviews last week, however, some psychologists challenged the assumptions on which the use of the tape is based: that the confessions of a sociopath facing a death sentence are worth believing, and that pornography could turn a normal adolescent down the road to mayhem.
Many acknowledged that exposure to sexual violence in magazines and films may well have helped fuel Bundy’s urge to rape and murder. But they contended that pornography was not the cause but merely a symptom of a profound derangement perhaps rooted in childhood trauma.
“If you took all this material away, would it change anything? The sad thing is--no,” said Edward Donnerstein, a psychologist and professor of communications at UC Santa Barbara. “Unfortunately, there are so many factors that the removal of any one isn’t going to solve the problem.”
Others noted that Bundy was an especially manipulative individual who may have been leading on and being led on by his interviewer, James C. Dobson, a longtime battler against pornography. One of Bundy’s biographers described him as a “chameleon” who “gave back what the listener wanted.”
In any event, the interview and its widespread circulation can be expected to fuel the longstanding dispute over whether pornography--particularly sexually violent pornography--can be blamed for antisocial behavior.
While most experts agree that exposure to violent pornography can sometimes alter people’s attitudes, they disagree on whether those attitudes then prompt violent behavior. Moreover, the effect of violent pornography on children is difficult to gauge. There is little research on the problem because of ethical concerns about deliberately exposing children to pornography.
Dobson’s interview with Bundy took place in a state prison in Starke, Fla., where, hours later at dawn, the 42-year-old confessed murderer died in the electric chair.
Among the most notorious serial killers in history, Bundy was executed for the 1978 murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach of Lake City, Fla. But in his final days, he had let loose a flood of confessions that included details of as many as 50 murders in nine states.
According to Dobson, Bundy requested the interview. The two men had exchanged letters since 1987 when, ministry officials say, Bundy contacted Dobson through John Tanner, a Florida attorney and born-again Christian and who at the time had a prison ministry.
In the interview, Bundy told Dobson that his exposure as a 12-year-old child to soft-core pornography in grocery stores led to an appetite for detective magazines, violent pornography and “more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material.”
“Until you reach a point where the pornography only goes so far, you reach that jumping off point where you begin to wonder if maybe actually doing it would give you that which is beyond just reading it or looking at it,” he said.
Bundy insisted that he was “not blaming pornography. I’m not saying that it caused me to go out and do certain things.” He said it stirred in him “a compulsion . . . a building up of this destructive energy.” It became unleashed, he said, when he was drinking.
Sobbing and Smiling
Handcuffed and alternately sobbing and smiling, Bundy cautioned against blaming his upbringing. He said he grew up “in a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents.” It was a Christian household, he said, with no drinking, smoking, gambling, fighting or physical abuse.
“We are your sons and we are your husbands and we grew up in regular families,” Bundy warned, referring to men, like himself, susceptible to the influence of pornography. “And pornography can reach out and snatch a kid out of any house today.”
Under an agreement between Dobson’s ministry and the television networks and major news wire services, videocassettes of the interview were made available Tuesday, Jan. 24, the day of Bundy’s execution. The interview has since been aired widely, in part or in full, in the media.
On Thursday and Friday, it will be heard in full on Dobson’s half-hour radio program, which is broadcast to 1,300 stations nationwide. Videocassettes will be available to the public within weeks, in return for a suggested donation.
At a convention of 3,000 religious broadcasters meeting in Washington over the weekend, interest in the videocassette was high. Asked by Dobson if they might buy the tape, more than two-thirds of the broadcasters raised their hands.
Wide Usage Predicted
The Rev. Billy Melvin, executive director of the National Assn. of Evangelicals and a participant in anti-pornography groups, predicted that the tape would be used widely. He said Bundy “makes it very clear that pornography played a large part in his behavior.”
“It confirms what we’ve known all along--that so many mass murderers were addicted to pornography,” added Jarrard of the Los Angeles Archdiocese in an interview. “But it has never been so spectacularly highlighted as it was in this video.”
“You don’t have to be a psychopath to become desensitized to violence and harm to other people,” Dobson asserted in an interview in Washington. “You can show statistically that exposing young boys to certain kinds of sexual experience in early adolescence produces a rather high probability of sexual problems later on.”
Some psychologists and researchers tend to agree.
M. Douglas Reed, an Ohio psychologist and a vice president of the National Coalition Against Pornography, said it affirms research on the addicting and desensitizing effects of pornography, and suspicions about pornography’s effect on impressionable children.
Reed, who said he recently reviewed the scientific literature on pornography and behavior, acknowledged that some people may be more likely than others to be influenced. But, he said, “even normal people . . . can have their attitudes changed.”
Also impressed by the Bundy tape was Diana Russell, a sociology professor at Mills College in Oakland and author of books and articles on rape, sexual assault and pornography. Mills argues that there is a direct causal link between pornography and rape.
Issue of Predisposition
“Most people who are skeptical about the causal relationship focus on the issue of whether pornography can dispose someone (to violence against women) who was not predisposed,” said Russell. She contends that the argument is moot because “an awful lot are predisposed.”
“Right at the end (of his life) it seems like he suddenly became a little honest,” Russell said of Bundy. “Obviously, he was trying to save himself, too. But I don’t see how saying that about pornography does that.”
Others who saw the tape or read the transcript were more skeptical.
Several psychologists emphasized that Bundy was a sociopath, a psychopath of proven antisocial impulses. They said a classic characteristic of such a person is to seek to shift responsibility away from himself--in this case, placing responsibility with society.
“I think he continued to be able to portray himself in some self-righteous manner, as now educating the public about pornography,” said Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist affiliated with the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the San Diego Police Department.
“There is a sense that what he got out of this was continued self-importance, continued narcissistic attention,” Mantell said. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if, to himself, he smiled and winked and thought he had pulled the wool over (the eyes of) society once again.”
Equally dubious were at least one of Bundy’s lawyers and two authors of books on Bundy.
“I felt that Ted was being led by Dr. Dobson in this interview into (offering) tremendously simplistic causes for a terribly complex disorder,” said Ann Rule, the Seattle-based author of “The Stranger Beside Me” in a comment echoed by others.
Called a Chameleon
In a telephone interview, Rule described Bundy as a “chameleon” and said of the tape, “His word inflection, his self-deprecation and manner of speaking are exactly what I’ve always heard when I knew he wasn’t sincere.”
As for Bundy’s professed religious beliefs, Rule said that in the time she had known him he had been, over the last 20 years, Methodist, Mormon, briefly Roman Catholic and, in a Florida prison, “a Hindu in order to get a vegetarian diet they only permitted for religious reasons.”
Rule and others questioned whether pornography really played a pivotal role for Bundy.
Neal Malamuth, a professor of psychology and communications at UCLA, said research by himself and others indicates that some men exposed to sexual violence in the media sometimes become more accepting of violence to women.
But such attitudes affect behavior only if other factors are present, Malamuth’s research suggests. Those include hostility toward women, a tendency to be aroused sexually by aggression and a tendency toward an antisocial personality, Malamuth said.
“Some men are vulnerable to the influence of pornography,” said William Marshall, a professor of psychology at Queens University in Ontario, Canada. “But usually speaking, those men at an early age tend to seek it out. It just doesn’t fall into their hands by accident.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Ted Bundy would have become a sex offender whether he had seen pornography or not,” added Marshall, who treats sex offenders in the Canadian prison system. “I think the pornography is part and parcel of his deviance.”
Other Forces Involved
What other forces shaped Bundy remain unclear.
According to the report of a psychiatrist who examined Bundy on Jan. 23 and some of whose findings appeared in the Seattle Times, Bundy suffered from manic-depressive illness perhaps traceable to his early childhood when he lived with his mother and grandparents in Philadelphia. He subsequently learned he was illegitimate.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis of New Haven, Conn., reportedly described Bundy’s grandfather as “an extremely violent and frightening individual” who would kick dogs, swing cats by the tail and beat people who made him angry.
Later, Bundy was raised by his mother and stepfather.
“He’s obviously a sociopath, we’ll all agree,” said Donnerstein of UC Santa Barbara. “Was he a schizophrenic? Did he have multiple personalities? Something went astray. He’s not unique, unfortunately. Why? We’ll never know.”
Times Religion Writer Russell Chandler in Washington also contributed to this story.