My father once said, “It’s a witch hunt and I’m one of the few people who knows what those unscrupulous, publicity seeking authorities are doing to free speech in this country.” This was a quote of his from an article that appeared in The Inquirer Magazine in 1977 and he was referring to his indictment on obscenity charges for distributing Deep Throat. His words are just as relevant today. Recent letters urging Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute pornography distributors have made me wonder if it’s possible to prosecute today’s porn industry with the same fervor it was subject to in the ‘70s. The latest letter was signed by 43 Senators on April 4th and seems to echo a letter sent by Reps. J. Randy Forbes (R-Virginia) and Mike McIntyre (D-North Carolina) back in February. This all comes shortly after the John Stagliano indictment and his acquittal in July 2010, which was the first serious legal action against porn in over 25 years.
Although these proceedings got me speculating about the possibility of another witch hunt going after porn, I concluded it’s unlikely we’ll see another obscenity case like Deep Throat again and here’s why. History seems to be a good predictor of the future and in the last 35 years no one has successfully prosecuted obscenity to thwart the spread of pornography. Not one single win. In these types of cases the argument to protect free speech has been effective and endured because of an underlying fear that banning porn could lead us down the wrong path of limiting our liberties. I also think those who vigorously stood up against pornography unknowingly created a tipping point that made porn culturally acceptable and consequently turned it into a multi-billion dollar industry. Raising such a fuss obviously inspired everyone’s ogling curiosity.
Also, anti-porn advocates typically use incoherent arguments to state their case against pornography. They rely on unfounded claims and scare tactics to make people believe pornography inspires horrible crimes, and this obvious deceit undermines any credibility for their cause. If research were available to prove porn harms people, like the kind that proves smoking causes cancer, then this debate would be very different.
Lastly, the Obama Administration has more important problems to deal with than America’s libido. Terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, revolutions in the Middle East, and let’s not forget the myriad of domestic problems: reducing the deficit, homelessness, lack of healthcare, hunger, taking care of the mental health needs of our veterans returning home from war. These pressing issues crowd the top of most voters’ agendas. The insidious danger of porn isn’t even on the list.
But the recent letters from legislators do highlight a problem that’s worth talking about — pornography addiction. There is a body of research that supports that a person can become addicted to pornography just like food, gambling, drugs, alcohol, shopping, etc. The April 4th letter notes pornography addiction will be listed in the next version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and in my opinion it rightfully belongs in this bible of mental health disorders.
Pornography addiction can be a serious problem. But I would emphasize here the word “addiction,” not “pornography” and suggest that this is truly a mental health issue and not a case of a specific type of media egging on aberrant behavior in normal adults. To scapegoat porn will not solve the problem of addiction (which some even see as a physiological problem). What troubles me most is the fact that legislators who sign letters calling for legal action against porn could instead use their influence to provide adequate funding for addiction treatment and research. But the real services needed are consistently underfunded, and the chosen path is grandstanding to the conservative reaches of politics on this polarizing and “sexy” social topic. It’s a sad commentary about how Washington works.
I’ll always wonder why porn is still cast as such an evil in society and why we keep having these same conversations over and over again. The “witch hunt” against pornography, I suspect, will forever remain a threat.