Last May the U.S. attorney general empaneled a commission of prominent citizens to decide whether the pornography industry, ever hustling to satisfy a jaded clientele, had finally sunk beyond the depths of public tolerance, thereby inviting more governmental controls. In question was the flagrant perversion of an “entertainment” specializing in abuse—its magazines and films devoted to group sex, oral sex, anal sex, gay and lesbian sex, sex with pregnant women, sex with crippled women, bestiality, incest, and sadomasochism. And as to the extent of that abuse, Catharine MacKinnon, a prominent feminist opponent of pornography, testified: “Women are bound, battered, tortured, humiliated.… For every act you see in the visual materials, a woman had to be tied or cut or burned or gagged or whipped or chained.…”

To the commission’s public hearings, held last year in large cities across the country, came a remarkable procession of people with something to say about the subject. There were people who spoke for prostitutes, nudists, and Baptists. There were child molesters, molested children, detectives, FBI agents, postal inspectors, angry community activists, angrier feminists, sociologists, psychologists, sexologists, the surgeon general, the Senate chaplain, and six U.S. senators.

Above all, there were the pornographers themselves—publishers of “soft-porn” as well as the most unimaginable perversions—who came to patiently explain why obscenity must have its place in the sun, lest the country go to ruin.

The “Justification” Of Porn

Why must a moral society tolerate the burgeoning market for perversion? Indeed, who says it must? And on what grounds? What, in fact, are the strongest intellectual arguments foisted upon the public by the exponents of pornography, and what is an effective Christian response?

A few organizations occasionally defend pornographic interests, but most keep quiet. There are two organizations, however, that do press the case thoroughly and assiduously in whatever forum is available. They are the Playboy Foundation, a subsidiary of the magazine, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU’s goals are self-evident from its name, but its peculiar views of church-state separation have made it anathema to many evangelicals. The organization tirelessly sues to erase most forms of Christian expression in public places, while at the same time it defends the rights of the pornography industry to promote its messages as it chooses.

Article continues below

As for the Playboy Foundation, its flagship publication is tame when compared to its perverted progeny. But the philosophy underlying its advice columns and commentary is clear: “morality” is relative—anything goes that is mutually pleasurable between persons. Moreover, Playboy defends even the vilest obscenity on First Amendment grounds, claiming that censorship is a worse evil than any harm pornography causes.

Not surprisingly, Playboy and the ACLU are allied. Carol Pitchersky, associate director of the ACLU, told the American Bar Association Journal, “We have a very good working relationship with the Playboy Foundation. Not only does it contribute money but foundation leaders are involved in the organization in other important ways.” Burton Joseph, the foundation’s chairman, is on the Illinois ACLU board and has been on the national board. Christie Hefner (daughter of Hugh), president of Playboy Enterprises, is also on the Illinois ACLU board and belongs to the national ACLU President’s Committee. And according to Joseph, the Playboy Foundation has contributed about $150,000 to the ACLU.

Joseph, and Barry Lynn, the Washington, D.C., legislative counsel of the ACLU, both testified against obscenity laws at pornography commission hearings last year. Between them they made the most complete defense of pornography available today. Here is a summary of their major arguments:

• The nation’s vitality depends on free expression and debate of all ideas, so that the best ideas will prevail.

• Definitions of obscenity are impossible to formulate and apply fairly at local levels because tastes vary.

• The most common effect of pornography is the stimulation of fantasies. It is dangerous and futile for government to attempt to control the private thoughts of its citizens.

• Once society accepts the premise that it can control contemptible images, there is no stopping the regulatory process. Censorship can be, and has been, used to censor highly literary works.

• Even if it can be shown that pornography incites some people to violent behavior—and it has not been conclusively shown—broad intrusions into First Amendment rights are still unjustified.

• Censorship is an attempt to impose religious values on society. Censorship cannot be enforced, and therefore it demeans the law.

• Legal remedies already exist to protect people from actual sexual abuse, whether or not it is incited by pornography.

Article continues below

That Dark Word “Censorship”

These, then, are the main struts undergirding the “publish as you please” point of view. The heart of the argument, however, is that dark word “censorship”—and it is a potent tool for shaping the opinion of the undecided. After all, who, in a free society, can favor censorship? The very idea conjures up images of jackboots, book burnings, and governmental oppression.

The simple fact, however, is that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared in decision after decision that obscenity is not protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment (obscenity, essentially, is pornography that is so morally debased as to be unlawful). This was clearly established in the 1957 Roth v. United States decision, in which the Court majority wrote that all ideas having even the slightest social importance have full First Amendment protection, but “implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without social importance.”

In nine major federal and Supreme Court decisions since then, that principle has been reaffirmed. In what is, perhaps, the most important of them, the 1973 Miller v. California decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger strongly restated the principle: “This much has been categorically settled by the court, that obscene material is unprotected by the First Amendment.”

(When they cry censorship, then, obscenity merchants are shouting into the legal wind. The wonder is that so many people unfamilar with the law hear them and believe they have no choice but to endure the onslaught.)

Although the Supreme Court has spoken clearly, enforcement problems do arise at local levels when prosecutors are unwilling (or not encouraged) to enforce the applicable state laws, or when those state laws are not drawn in accordance with the standards of the Miller decision. Nonetheless, the legal principles are so clear that when Christians oppose pornography they need not fear they are forcing their religious views on anyone. All they need do is insist that the law of the land be enforced.

How Much Is Too Much?

History shows it is patently false to say that if society actively works to control offensive ideas and images, the censor will never be satisfied. In fact, a look into our own past shows the opposite to be true.

In the last century, Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, could destroy 50 tons of pornographic books and 3.9 million photographs; but today, such roundhouse rebellion has disappeared. There are occasional back-country book burnings, but they are disjointed and insular.

Article continues below

Fifty years ago, Massachusetts could ban the works of Theodore Dreiser and D. H. Lawrence; but today, An American Tragedy and Lady Chatterly’s Lover are plainly safe. So are other important works once in the dock, such as those of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and James Joyce. Thus, no case can be made that suppression of any literature will ultimately threaten all literature. (A much plainer case can be made that unsuppressed obscenity breeds ever-more poisonous strains, given the evidence of the last ten years.)

It is questionable whether even the harsh censorship of sexually explicit literature in the nineteenth century ever diminished the free expression of ideas. Chief Justice Burger, citing a range of scholarly works on American thought, concluded in his Miller opinion that even when antiobscenity campaigns raged, there was no dampening of social discourse. Burger said:

“There is no evidence, empirical or historical, that the stern 19th century American censorship of public distribution and display of material relating to sex … in any way limited or affected serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific ideas. On the contrary, it is beyond any question that the era following Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt was an ‘extraordinarily vigorous period,’ not just in economics and politics, but in belles lettres, and in the ‘outlying fields of social and political philosophies.’ ”

Moreover, the Supreme Court has drawn the boundaries of obscenity so narrowly and precisely that no overcharged prosecutor can, today, remove legitimate literature for long. One of the three guidelines in the 1973 Miller decision limited the scope of obscenity to very graphic depictions. The Court even gave two examples of what this includes:

“Patently offensive representations of ultimate sex acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated. Patently offensive representations or descriptions of masturbation, excretory functions, and lewd exhibition of the genitals.”

The Court added two other safeguards: first, that the average person applying local community standards finds that the work on the whole must appeal to the prurient interest, and, second, that the work, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Article continues below

Significantly, when pornographers cry censorship, they are not joined by the mainstream publishing community. Townsend Hoopes is president of the American Association of Publishers, whose 300 members publish 85 percent of all general and educational books in the United States. In his testimony before the pornography commission, Hoopes said the Court’s definition of obscenity is so limited that it is no threat to the association’s members. He expressed concern over the exuberance of some local prosecutions, but he broadly endorsed the Supreme Court’s obscenity rulings.

And the American Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents the bulk of daily newspaper production in the United States, furiously defends any First Amendment breach it finds, but it did not even appear at the hearings. Newspaper publishers generally have not considered obscenity laws a First Amendment threat. (Local newspaper columnists and editorial writers sometimes do so, however, but not newspaper managements.)

The Human Tragedy

Because they so firmly attach themselves to the First Amendment, the spokesmen for the pornography industry are able to turn the argument away from the most devastating consequence of pornography—the physical and psychological abuse it causes people who are trapped by it, either as victims or victimizers. Astonishing evidence only now is emerging that shows the destructive attitudes toward sexuality and family life, and the brutal physical damage that pornography engenders, particularly to children and women.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other sexual abuse therapists described to the pornography commission case after doleful case, from city after city, of children who have stumbled upon parental caches of pornography and tried out what they saw—often with lasting physical harm to genitals, sometimes actual pregnancies, and often enduring psychological consequences. Parents, and sometimes children themselves, have come forward to recount lengthy episodes of child molestation. And battered women have told of spouses who forced them to imitate perverted sexual acts depicted in pornographic magazines, to the point of broken marriages.

But these are anecdotes, and it is critical to know whether they are isolated cases or symptomatic of a large-scale problem that requires a moral society to act decisively to protect its innocent. In answer to this pivotal question, systematic, scientifically sound studies are now offering conclusions that corroborate the anecdotal evidence. Here are some examples:

Article continues below

• Last year Victor Cline, a University of Utah psychologist, conducted for the U.S. Justice Department a pilot study of children who were customers of a New York dial-a-porn service. He interviewed 14 children, 11 boys and 3 girls, all about junior high age. (He located many other children, but parents would not allow them to participate in the study.) Cline found that without exception, the children had become “addicted” to hearing about explicit adult sex by phone. In several cases, the children made more than 300 telephone calls before parents received enormous phone bills and ended the practice. In one case, a distraught mother found no way at all to prevent her child from making the calls. The results of Cline’s small sample were so consistent that he believes it is valid to project a significant problem.

• One of the country’s preeminent researchers, psychologist Edward Donnerstein of the University of Wisconsin, conducted a careful study of the effects of pornographic violence (mutilation, rape, sexual murder, etc.) on men’s attitudes toward women. He found that a heavy diet of sexually violent movies (even R-rated movies) desensitizes men toward violence and makes them trivialize rape.

• Another preeminent researcher in the field, psychologist Dolf Zillman of the University of Indiana, studied the effect on viewers of nonviolent pornographic movies, featuring the common themes of fellatio, cunnilingus, intercourse in all conceivable positions, and group sex. He found that massive consumption of this creates strong appetites for ever-more bizarre forms of pornography. He also found that men begin to view women as insatiably sexual playthings; that men become more aggressive toward women; and that they begin to view rape as a trivial offense—something that all women secretly desire. “There can be no doubt,” he concluded, “that pornography, as a form of primarily male entertainment, promotes the victimization of women.”

(Because of the reputations of Zillman and Donnerstein, and their independent, yet similar conclusions, their findings are generally regarded as serious evidence of systematic attitude changes brought about by pornography. In the face of this, spokesmen for the pornography industry still maintain there is no proof pornography causes violence, even though it may change attitudes.) at the University of Pennsylvania, has been working with victims of sexual assault at Boston City Hospital since 1972. She edited a major book on child sexual assault in 1978 and was awarded a federal grant to study child pornography. She told the pornography commission that in her study of child sex rings, she found that adult pornography is used by child molesters to convince children that deviant sex acts are normal, and to break down their resistance.

Article continues below

• Judith Reisman, a researcher at American University, recently completed an exhaustive study in which she and her researchers analyzed the extent to which sex involving children was presented in every photograph and cartoon in every issue of the three most widely circulated pornographic magazines, Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. She found that from the first issue of Playboy in 1954, children in cartoons (or photographs of adults dressed to suggest older children) have appeared in sexual contact with adults, and the frequency and intensity of these contacts has increased through the years. Reisman reported that the dominant impression was that adult/child sex is glamorous, “thereby enhancing the impression that such activities are harmless.” In all, her team counted 6,004 images linking children with sex, or an average of 8.2 times in each issue of Playboy, 6.4 times in each issue of Penthouse, and 14.1 times in each issue of Hustler.

• The Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI Academy studied the histories of 36 men who had committed sexual killings. The study found that more than half had highly developed rape fantasies before they killed; and that visual sexual stimuli, such as pornography or voyeurism, were an important factor in developing the fantasies.

• The academy also studied the records of 157 cases of suspected “autoerotic” deaths. These are instances in which people accidentally asphyxiate themselves while trying to reduce oxygen to the brain, believing this heightens sexual arousal. Most of the deaths occurred by hanging. In 44 of these cases, police files mentioned the presence of commercial pornography at the scene (its absence did not necessarily prove it played no part). One wife volunteered that she found her husband’s body next to one of his bondage magazines, opened to his favorite picture. She said he often tried to replicate every knot in it. The average age of the 157 deceased was 26.5. Four of the deceased were children and 37 were teenagers.

Article continues below

What Christians Can Do

Obscenity laws are unlike most other laws. Their interpretation is meant to be flexible. This gives local citizens the opportunity to decide for themselves what their community standards are, within bounds. The challenge facing these same citizens, however, is to avoid having those critical standards shaped for them due to their own apathy and inactivity.

Most states already have enforceable obscenity laws, but in some communities the public does not pressure prosecutors to use them. (For example, the same state law ignored in New York City has resulted in the closing of most pornographic outlets in the state’s second largest city, Buffalo.) In other communities, judges assess fines so small that police officials lose heart. All of these problems have been solved in various places by committed people (many times pastors) willing to take upon themselves the responsibility to see that laws are enforced, either by present politicians or by new ones.

Experience has shown how much impact people can have. There are no “adult” bookstores in Atlanta, and Hustler magazine, generally available at most newsstands, is not sold anywhere in that city. Neither is explicit pornography, including Hustler, available in Cincinnati. The Playboy channel has been removed in Virginia Beach, Virginia (see “Pornbusting in Virginia Beach”), and hard-core videos are no longer available for rental in Williamson County, Texas, just north of Austin. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, some 2,000 volunteers took turns picketing for nearly two years before a new prosecutor was elected and the last pornographic outlet was closed. These are a few examples of the scattered victories that are beginning to be won by people who are demanding simply that laws be enforced.

Four organizations have been leading the way in providing information to citizens, advice to prosecutors, and in organizing local antiobscenity campaigns. They are the Citizens for Decency through Law, Morality in Media, the National Federation for Decency, and the National Christian Association. In 1983 these groups coalesced under one coordinating framework, called the National Coalition Against Pornography, led by a Presbyterian pastor, Jerry Kirk. (A good overview of the pornography problem and the most effective strategies being used against it are available in Kirk’s book, The Mind Polluters, published last year by Thomas Nelson.)

Article continues below

The coalition is beginning to enlist Christian denominations that have never before considered pornography to be a serious concern. Executives from 26 denominations (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox) attended the coalition’s most recent national conference.

The evidence continues to build that pornography is harmful—in its degrading depictions of women, its destructive attitudes towards sex and moral health, and in the physical and psychological damage it inflicts upon children and adolescents. All citizens, and Christians in particular, must begin to share the responsibility for curbing this damage, a responsibility that a few are now bearing by themselves.

Pornbusting in Virginia Beach: “God got mad”

A newspaper reporter, disgusted by the snatches of movies he saw originating on the Playboy cable channel, approached a pastors’ group about the problem. “You have to do something,” he said. And it was then that the Reverend Frederick H. “Fritz” Stegemann felt a tug at the edge of his conscience: “I knew it was my turn in the barrel.”

In February 1984, Stegemann, pastor of the Open Door Chapel in Virginia Beach, Virginia, half-heartedly launched a letter-writing campaign. Stegemann admits it failed dismally because he knew nothing about the programming the channel offered. “I don’t subscribe to Playboy, and most Christians don’t. I was not aware of how horribly bad it was.” Then some newspaper headlines caught Stegemann’s attention.

“I started to notice reports of rape, assault, and incest in the paper,” he said. He was especially alarmed to learn that there were 60 reported cases of rape in 1983 in Virginia Beach, and 127 in 1984—a 112 percent increase. Stegemann wondered whether a connection exists between pornography and violent crime, and he learned that in cities where pornography is readily available there tends to be an increased rate of sexual crime and violence.

He was further disturbed by reports of the effects of pornography in the lives of some of the people he counseled. One 40-year-old woman came to him saying her husband ignored her and she feared her marriage would break up. She discovered that her husband stayed up night after night to watch Playboy movies and had no interest in normal sexual relations.

A city councilman told Stegemann hearings were scheduled to discuss a rate increase for Cox Cable’s 112,000 area subscribers. Setting aside his earlier disappointment, Stegemann prepared for another battle. An antipornography group in Memphis sent him a 90-minute videocassette tape of Playboy film clips, and he took it to his friend Paul A. Sciortino, the commonwealth’s attorney for the region.

Article continues below

But the city council paid scant attention to him. And Sciortino refused to watch the tape, telling his friend the Virginia obscenity law was too vague to use in prosecuting a cable television case. “There is nothing we can do,” Sciortino said.

Feeling he had struck out again, Stegemann asked God for wisdom, and received an answer: “Contact all the pastors in this city.”

He recruited 15 parishioners to spend two days calling every clergyman in town. “There was no pressure put on [the clergymen] to join an army to march on city hall,” Stegemann said. “We just asked if they would pray about an effort to rid this city of the pornography channel.”

His telephone volunteers heard the same response over and over: “We’re with you 100 percent.” Three of the pastors contacted volunteered a list of 80 pastors, representing 50,000 churchgoers, and presented the names to the city council.

At the packed public hearing on January 7, Stegemann and his supporters tried their best to persuade city leaders that Playboy did not belong among the cable listings in Virginia Beach. But the rate increase passed, nevertheless.

At this point, Stegemann believes, “God got mad. He heard his pastors in this city standing together against this sin, this filth and garbage, and God honored that. God as much as said to me, ‘You’ve done your part. Leave the rest up to me.’ ”

“The rest” included the uncovering of phenomenal profit making by Cox Cable. Consequently, the rate increase was reconsidered and denied. But with its continuation of the Playboy Channel, the broadcaster’s reputation was now doubly on the line. Stegemann took his videotape of the Playboy movies back to Paul Sciortino’s office and convinced him to watch it. What he saw on Stegemann’s tape convinced him that the channel might be violating Virginia’s obscenity statute after all.

With unanimous endorsement from the city council, Sciortino planned an investigation. He bought ten blank video cassette tapes and began recording the Playboy Channel every evening from 8 P.M. to 1 A.M. for ten days. He and a team of lawyers viewed all 50 hours of programming. “We knew that most of what they show would not be found to be objectionable under our obscenity statute,” Sciortino said. The exception was the “Hot Spot,” a movie shown each night from 11:30 P.M. to 1 A.M.

Article continues below

Those movies featured sex acts throughout, at intervals of every four to six minutes, including heterosexual, homosexual, and group encounters. Most had no discernible plot, acording to Sciortino. He and his lawyers watched these movies a second time, logging the frequency of sex acts in each film. They found one out of the ten films viewed that did not cross over the boundaries fixed by Virginia law, which says an appeal to prurient interest in sex must be the dominant theme of a film in its entirety for it to be considered pornographic.

Against the other nine, Sciortino drafted indictments, and the case went to a grand jury. They returned with seven indictments, saying two of the films were not pornographic because one had literary merit and the other showed only one nude figure at a time.

The grand jury set a trial date, charging Cox Cable with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of $7,000. No indictment was entered against the Playboy Channel itself, which is based in Chicago. In response, Cox Cable dropped Playboy from its lineup on February 27, 1985. Because of Cox’s good-will gesture, Sciortino said, “We accepted their olive branch and dropped the charges. Our goal was the removal of the channel, and the channel was off the air.”

Today, there is no trace of an organization left from the efforts of the 80 pastors, and Stegemann believes that is the way it should be. “If it happened again, we would stand together again.”


A Disrespecter of Persons

The following is adapted from testimony presented to the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. Linking the use of pornography with aberrant behavior, it is typical of many stories the commission heard.

I came from an abusive background but had no exposure to pornography. In fact, my parents were very strict about the issue of sex and sexuality.

In 1972, the year we first met, Tom introduced me to pornography. He brought to my attention the variety of magazines available as “resource material.” He treated this information as normal, and so I began to read.

We discussed some of the techniques described in the magazines, and eventually Tom began to experiment with tying me up for sexual purposes. I found this very frightening and thought something was wrong with me because I was not receptive. Tom’s approach was that I’d “get used to it.” For the next 11 years I would wonder what was wrong with me sexually.

Article continues below

In the fall of 1975 I found out Tom was having sex with many of our friends. Each one of them had been told she was the “one” in his life, aside from me. During this time I felt rejected. I felt even more that I had a personality flaw or that something else was wrong with me. Why else would a husband bed with so many unattractive women?… Tom swore he did not use prostitutes, but he [admitted he] did fantasize quite a bit with magazines. I thought: [Why can] my husband have sex with magazines but not with me?

Once in this sexual dry spell, Tom tried to get me to have sex with one of my friends (his lover). I was so dead inside that all I could do was watch the two of them and feel disgust and contempt for myself because I had allowed my marriage to get to this point.

In 1981 we moved back to Houston, after Tom could no longer function in his job. I thought at the time that his boss was mean to him and that he was overworked. Now I know that he could no longer partake in the daily and hourly use of pornographic magazines, theaters, and shops because he had to account for his time.

The years 1981–82 were also the beginning of our financial downfall. Money had disappeared mysteriously over the years. Tom would not let me have access to our finances. I thought he was telling the truth when he said he liked to pay the bills and keep the records.… [But, in fact, much] of our joint income was spent on sex in porno houses, porno magazines at $10 per copy, and the hotel rooms and movie theaters that he frequented.

I lost the home I had worked so hard for and the ability to buy another because my husband would rather spend time having sex with a magazine than work to pay the mortgage and other bills. More publicity about the negative effects of pornography would have certainly opened my eyes sooner, and those bills would have been paid. Instead, our money was spent on something that cripples the mind and body. It warps a person’s perception of himself and others.

There was an enormous void spiritually. I have learned how important spirituality is. Pornography and spirituality do not coexist. If a person is spiritually aware, he has respect for himself and others. Pornography sells and feeds off of disrespect for self and others.

It has been two-and-a-half years since I divorced my husband. I am a single parent who has a lovely child. I am afraid of relationships with men, but like to believe I’ll find someone to love and trust, and who will feel the same about me.

Tom is getting ready to remarry, and I am not upset or jealous of his bride-to-be. I would love to tell her about Tom, but I know she wouldn’t believe me.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.