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Prosecuting pornography

It's a $12 billion industry in the United States, with 40 million adults visiting "adult" Internet sites each year. Inevitably, such a big business is also becoming more mainstream. The New York Times business page now covers pornography as blithely as any legitimate industry, even citing names of actors and movies, as if the average reader would be familiar with this body of work.

Americans hate pornography. In the recently released National Cultural Values Survey, 2/3 of us say there's too much sex in the media, and 75 percent of us worry about the decline in moral values. Yet we seem powerless to oppose it - in part because so many of us say that "adult entertainment" is harmless, or somehow therapeutic, or even a right.

The Supreme Court has ruled that, while adult pornography is protected by the First Amendment, obscenity is not. In the 1974 Hamling v. United States obscenity case, the Supreme Court did say that the word "obscene" connotes sexual conduct that is "portrayed in a manner so offensive as to make it unacceptable under current community mores." The court also said that the "mere availability" of similar pornography in the community doesn't make it less obscene.

By that definition, the pornography that began to proliferate on the Internet in the 1990s, and continues to this day, is obscene. It is something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden. Something that you wouldn't show your friends, your family - or your spouse.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton made fighting pornography one of his campaign promises. "Be assured that aggressive enforcement of federal obscenity laws by the Justice Department," he wrote, "will be a priority in a Clinton-Gore administration."

But by 1994, Department of Justice enforcement of federal obscenity laws against commercial distributors of hard-core pornography had for the most part come to an end. When under President Bush the Department of Justice began to enforce obscenity laws again, headlines excoriated the new administration.

Why was the president spending time and resources going after pornography when so many worse threats loomed? They blamed the "Christian right" for obsessing about naughty pictures while more frightening enemies lined up against us.

But the truth is, the flood of pornography threatens us in ways that may not be as obvious as threats like terrorism and drug abuse, but are every bit as grave.

Pornography threatens marriage and the family by distorting the very meaning of sexuality. It threatens women by reducing them to objects of male pleasure, and blurring the lines between what is acceptable and what isn't. It threatens young people by stoking appetites that are increasingly difficult to satisfy. It abuses freedom of speech, because this freedom that was meant to be at the service of public debate, is now being identified with unbridled obscenity.

And it leads to other crimes. In conjunction with Bishop Paul Loverde's teaching efforts, the Alpha Omega Clinic in northern Virginia launched a Web site, "Unity Restored," to help fight pornography in practical ways. The site points out the strong correlation between use of pornography and theft, violence and other anti-social behaviors because it encourages users in the habit of seeing other people as objects to be manipulated instead of persons to be loved.

The Web site further exposes the darkness of the pornography industry:

• A University of New Hampshire study released in February found that 2/3 of children exposed to pornography in the course of a year came across it accidentally during innocent Internet searches.

• "Stealth" pornography is particularly malicious because viewing graphic sexual imagery causes a biological and psychological response in viewers, whether or not they desire it - a response that makes resisting more difficult. Pornographers try to "hook" young people and other innocents to get new customers.

• Dr. C.J. Manning's 2006 study on sexual compulsion showed that learning of a spouse's porn use typically has the same impact on an innocent spouse as learning of an affair - and pornography is a significant factor leading to divorce.

• "Adult" images won't enhance sexual intimacy (a common justification); research consistently shows that pornography use decreases the desire and ability to have relations with a partner.

America is a democracy. In the end, the fight against pornography will only be as strong as we are willing to make it. For information on fighting pornography and helping enforce America's obscenity laws, see the Web site of Morality in Media (MoralityinMedia.org).

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