The Time the US Government Tried To Ban Porn

B eing a ‘nation under God,’ while trying to honor each of your citizens’ individual freedoms is a lot like trying to stay friends with benefits for 200+ years without ever becoming exclusive: at some point, the two goals converge, and only one comes out unscathed. America’s is the fascinating case of a country whose people constantly demand more in the way of autonomy from lawmakers that seem much more interested in seeking protection for a set of ‘traditional values’ that they believe their constituents hold sacred. As a result of this paradox, US history is rife with incidents that highlight the internal tug-of-war inherent in adding onto existing freedoms without compromising an unwritten set of established values.

Twice in less than twenty years, multiple groups made a concerted effort to restrict access to porn in the United States for political reasons. Sometimes in response to this, other times of their own volition, three different presidents in office during three different decades sought to vilify the adult entertainment industry as an ill worthy not only of society’s attention, but also complete moral condemnation. In spite of long-standing constitutional protections, members of the U.S. Congress, under political pressure from a number of entities–including their own commanders in chief–searched for ways to justify exactly those sorts of restrictions.

The President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1970)

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stanley v. Georgia that people could read and look at whatever they wished in the privacy of their own homes after a Georgia bookmaker was unlawfully arrested for possessing reels of pornography in his home. In response to this, Congress authorized $2 million to fund a Presidential commission to study pornography in the United States, with specific attention given to the effects of porn on youth and its relationship to crime.

Because of the anti-porn background of many of the commission members, accusations of the commission’s creation being nothing more than a tool to root out any trace of porn in the US followed shortly thereafter. The timing of the commission’s formation was also a bit curious. At the same time the formal investigation was getting underway, the country was also embroiled in simmering civil rights discord, while also grappling with growing public backlash against what proved to be America’s most costly year of military operations–in terms of casualties, and very nearly financially as well–in the Vietnam War.

Reactions to the President’s Commission were all over the place. On one end of the spectrum, you had anti-porn ministers serving on the commission holding separate public hearings outside of Washington to further condemn pornography in areas where they felt that their own commission was falling short. On the other, you had an opponent of the commission throwing cottage cheese pies in the faces of his interrogators– presumably in the garb of a Looney Tunes character–while discrediting the proceedings in their entirety as a “blatant McCarthyesque witch hunt.”

Despite giving rise to a circus-like spectacle reminiscent of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Showbiz Madam trial, the President’s Commission ultimately rendered a final report, whose conclusions appealed for additional research into pornography’s effects, along with more contraceptive-friendly health initiatives.

If the commission’s inability to openly condemn porn wasn’t strange enough, stranger still was the commission’s researchers maintaining that based on their findings, legislation “should not seek to interfere with the right of adults who wish… to read, obtain, or view explicit sexual materials.” They would go on to note that it was also “inappropriate to adjust the level of adult communication to that considered suitable for children” in response to the view that pornographic material should be restricted for adults in order to protect young people from exposure to them. The Supreme Court subsequently supported this view.

So, after having been hand-picked and bankrolled by Congress to slap together a halfway-credible report trumpeting the social risks of porn consumption, members of the very first President’s Commission did an about-face and appealed to Congress for more time alone to review the material in question.

It’s fun to envision President Johnson’s reaction to the report briefing as a redux of that infamous Adolf Hitler outburst in the movie Downfall. You’ve got members of the commission no doubt gathered around a table in some nondescript White House meeting room, while LBJ systematically dresses each of them down, alternating between incoherent expletive jumbles, and variations of “YOU HAD ONE JOB TO DO!”

Despite the first round of ambiguity surrounding porn’s impacts, however, America’s political brass remained resolute in their crusade. Incoming president Richard Nixon was quoted as saying, “So long as I am in the White House, there will be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life.” Though Nixon never funded a large-scale research project to discredit the findings of the first commission, Ronald Reagan would use his presidency to carry the anti-porn torch nearly a decade later.

The Meese Commission

anti-porn roundtable

In 1984 Congress passed the Child Protection Act, a legislative device that strengthened regulation on–among other things–the legal age of minors and the production and distribution of child pornography. In conjunction with the signing of the Act, President Reagan made known his plans to set up a commission to study pornography, with the goal of obtaining results more in line with the “traditional values” ideology espoused by his baby boomer voting bloc than the conclusions reached by the 1970 Commission.

The following year, the United States Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography was formed in response to a bevy of concerns related to recent porn releases. From the commission’s formation ultimately came the appointment of an 11-person panel in the spring of 1985 by then-Attorney General Edwin Meese. The majority of the members of that panel, like those in the previous commission, had established records as anti-pornography crusaders.

In the run-up to and shortly after the formation of this new commission, a series of legal precedents did a lot to inform the way that society would view porn in the context of constitutional rights. Cases ranged from an artificial rape incident inspired by the TV drama Born Innocent, to a pair of cases addressing the regulation of x-rated movie screenings by zoning laws and porn’s discriminate impact on women.

The interesting thing about the rulings in all of those cases was that the courts didn’t necessarily disagree with the notion that pornography leads to the subordination of women and possibly even to “battery and rape on the streets.” Instead, they compared porn to speech that promotes hatred and bigotry: no matter how harmful it may seem, it’s protected by the First Amendment.

While court rulings surrounding impacts of porn and media portrayals relied heavily on constitutional interpretation, the Meese Commission was a bit more keen to have many of its conclusions guided by slightly more subjective criteria, such as matters of morality and ‘gut feelings.’

Addressing the aforementioned precedent of violence and aggression in the context of sex, the commissioners noted that, “While admitting that establishment of a link between aggressive behavior and sexual violence requires assumptions not found exclusively in the experimental evidence, we see no reason, however, not to make these assumptions…that are plainly justified by our own common sense.”

Support and opposition to pornography

As it became increasingly evident that much of the report’s findings were trending in the direction of the unsubstantiated, outspoken opposition to the commission once again made its way to the fore. The Meese Commission Exposed (text unavailable), which appeared well before the Commission issued its report, featured transcripts of speeches by public figures such as Kurt Vonnegut and Betty Friedan at a conference for the National Coalition against Censorship (NCAC). In The Meese Report On Pornography And Its Respondents— a literary review– it was noted that the speakers, most of whom had attended hearings held by the Commission, spoke out “preemptively and forcefully against what they perceived to be the inevitable conclusions toward which the commission was moving.”

By the same token, the commission’s anti-porn stance also enjoyed considerable support, particularly in the southern United States, where groups such as the Mississippi-based National Federation for Decency advocated picketing and boycotting of chain stores selling adult magazines. Various accounts from the organization and others like it placed claims of the number of stores that had been stopped from selling magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse in light of these protests between 5000 and 7500.

Meese commission findings

Divided into five parts and 35 chapters, the 1,960-page Meese Report was finally made available to the public in July of 1986 following a workshop one month prior, which had experts gather to reach a consensus on porn’s effects. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the report leaned toward conclusions, which, on face, would be pretty damaging for the adult films industry. Just a few of the findings published in the report included:

  • Prolonged use of pornography increases beliefs that less common sexual practices are more common;
  • Pornography that portrays sexual aggression as pleasurable for the victim increases the acceptance of the use of coercion in sexual relationships; and
  • Exposure to violent pornography increases violent behavior toward women.

BUT WAIT, ANOTHER TWIST! In a section that was underlined for emphasis in the report, but given little attention in popular accounts taken from it, the Commission pointed out that consequences of viewing sexually-violent materials “do not vary with the extent of sexual explicitness so long as the violence is presented in an undeniably sexual context.”

In other words: given its highly violent content, a so-called “slasher” film is even more likely to produce the harmful outcomes listed above than are most of the materials available in ‘adult-only’ porn outlets.”

Ugh. Again, Commission: one job to do.

Public reaction to Meese Commission report

For a variety of reasons, public reception of the report probably wasn’t what the commission or President Reagan had hoped it would be.

From a legal perspective, an analysis issued by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress maintained that porn fails to satisfy the legal criteria for ‘obscenity,’ thereby making it protected by the Constitution in all cases not involving minors.

With respect to statistical methods, analysts criticized the Meese Commission’s analysis of public opinion as being “marred by several factors,” including inappropriate comparisons between samples and the wording of questions, omitting statistical tests of significance when comparing survey results, and failure to use the best available data in the interest of supporting preconceived conclusions regarding the effects of porn.

Publicly, ACLU members denounced the report for its seeming moral condemnation of those engaging in porn consumption. Even religious bookstores–ironically enough–refused to stock the Commission’s report for fear of offending their customers with extensive quotations from and descriptions of pornographic books and films.

Banksy-inspired porn throw

Amidst the mounting pressure of public opposition to the report, experts from the June workshop gradually began distancing themselves from the findings in much the same way that one would a poorly-timed fart.

Neil Malamuth, one of the social science experts that participated in the workshop, objected to the wording of the Surgeon General’s report, writing in American Psychologist that, although the participants agreed “pornography that portrays sexual aggression as pleasurable for the victim increases the acceptance of coercion in sexual relations,” they did not reach consensus that “this type of pornography is at the root of much of the rape that occurs today.” Nor did they agree on other statements, which Surgeon General Koop appended to their conclusions in his article. Malamuth concluded, “Obviously, the Surgeon General is entitled to his own opinions in this matter. However, it would be wrong to conclude that…they were endorsed by all of the workshop’s participants.”

“Wasn’t me.”

In the aftermath of the Meese Commission and the findings it ultimately yielded, popular response spoke volumes about the report and, more broadly, the implications of the decades-long effort made by actors within the US government to wage a moral crusade against the adult films industry. Joseph E. Scott, an academic that reviewed the Commission’s work shortly after the release of the findings noted:

“The Meese Commission’s concentration on sexual materials, despite overwhelming evidence that violence is the main source of harm, has been compared to “a physician who examines a patient complaining of a cold and, during the course of a physical examination, discovers the patient is also suffering from cancer. The physician treats the patient only for his cold and justifies ignoring the cancer because the patient came in for treatment of a cold.”

Scott’s argument was that violence in popular culture, particularly the brand to which children are exposed, was significantly more cancerous than any kind of non-violent sexual material and that those looking to scapegoat erotica were ignoring the larger issue.

Ultimately, despite the backlash that the report received, there is something to be said for the ability of the Commission’s work to galvanize an entire nation–even onlookers in the international community–to begin having discussions about porn’s place in society. Though the report’s findings were largely disputed or rejected entirely, many of the conclusions did pave the way for further non-federally-funded investigations into the impacts of violence, pornography, and the blending of the two on the adult and adolescent psyche. It also allowed ‘traditional family values’ and individual liberties–concepts that aren’t always mutually exclusive–to square off once again. In the end, as always, only one came out unscathed.

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