Statement of Dr. Judith Becker and Ellen Levine

Porn Studies > Meese Report Table of Contents

In accepting appointments to the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, we both believed that stimulation of a national dialogue and debate on this very controversial subject was well within the purview of the government and in the best interests of the country. To this challenging commitment we bring very different personal and professional expertise. Dr. Judith Becker is a behavioral scientist whose career has been devoted to evaluating and treating victims and perpetrators of sexual crimes. Mrs. Ellen Levine is a journalist and editor who has focused on women's news. Although our backgrounds are different, we have found throughout the hearings and Commission meetings that we share similar views about the nature of the testimony presented and alternative ways in which the issue of obscenity might be approached. We have, therefore, decided to submit this joint statement.
  1. The Process

    During its public hearings, the Commission has accomplished much, garnered some press attention, and, as anticipated, created a certain amount of controversy. Our hope is that the past year's work will not end with the publication of this report, but will begin a process of discovery and disciplined study of the complicated problems associated with this subject.

    We would be remiss, however, if we did not point out the limitations inherent in the investigative process we have just finished, because in some serious ways, the Commission's methods themselves have hindered the adequate pursuit of information.

    1. The Limitation of the Public Forum

      All meetings and hearings have been held as public forums, according to law, and although we do not suggest that it should have been otherwise, we must emphasize that such an open forum naturally inhibits a frank and full discussion of a subject as personal, private and emotionally volatile as the consumption of pornography. In collecting the testimony of victims, it was difficult enough to find witnesses willing to speak out about their intimate negative experiences with pornography. To find people willing to acknowledge their personal consumption of erotic and pornographic materials and comment favorably in public about their use has been nearly impossible. Since such material is selling to millions of apparently satisfied consumers, it seems obvious that the data gathered is not well balanced.

    2. The Constraints of Time and Money

      A number of factors directly affecting the Commission complicated its work and strained its abilities to work as thoroughly and effectively as it might have. Both the time and the money needed to work through these complications was lacking and hence they were largely unsolved.

      1. The very word pornography, with its negative connotation, imposes impediments to an open-minded and objective investigation. Every member of the group brought suitcases full of prior bias, including previous personal exposure, religious, ethical, social, and even professional beliefs. To some a discussion of pornography raises concerns of sincerely and deeply felt moral imperatives; to others it is a feminist issue of violence against women; and to still others, it is a lightning rod attracting debates about First Amendment guarantees with the threat of censorship seen as the overriding danger. Full airing of the differences of the members of the Commission and establishment of a wide and firm common ground was not possible in the time and with the funds allotted.
      2. The issue of pornography has confounded people for centuries and has long been a subject of sincere disagreement among decent people. Pornography has religious, ethical, social, psychological and legal ramifications. The idea that eleven individuals studying in their spare time could complete a comprehensive report on so complex a matter in so constricted a time frame is simply unrealistic. No self-respecting investigator would accept conclusions based on such a study, and unfortunately the document produced reflects these inadequacies.
      3. The variety of pornography, in its forms, qualities, and intensities of expression is vast. The Commission concentrated almost exclusively on formulating recommendations aimed at law enforcement. While that fulfills the Commission's mandate, we believe that the core issues involving pornography and its prevalence are more usefully viewed as health and welfare concerns. As such, they would properly be matters for research by committees established by the National Institute of Mental Health.

      Given the varied backgrounds of the commissioners, the depth and complications of the subject historically, and the variety of the materials available today, the Commission's most severe limitation was imposed by a lack of time and money to complete a thorough study.

      Because it has been sixteen years since the last Commission on this topic met and it is likely to be years before another government group tangles with these questions, we believe it would have been reasonable to grant the group, if not more money, at least more time, as requested.

  2. The Mandate
    1. The first element of the Commission's mandate was the assessment of the problem's dimensions. While there is little doubt about the proliferation of pornography since 1970, no serious effort has been made to quantify the increase, either in general or specifically as to the various types of pornography sold. We do not even know whether or not what the Commission viewed during the course of the year reflected the nature of most of the pornographic and obscene material in the market; nor do we know if the materials shown us mirror the taste of the majority of consumers of pornography. The visuals, both print and video, were skewed to the very violent and extremely degrading. While one does not deny the existence of this material, the fact that it dominated the materials presented at our hearings may have distorted the Commission's judgment about the proportion of such violent material in relation to the total pornographic material in distribution. The Commission's investigations did reveal that technological innovations have created a new delivery system for the consumption of pornographic and erotic material (notably via home video and cable). Since the home video industry is still young, it is reasonable to assume that the supply and public demand for pornographic materials may increase. Some recent industry figures actually show video purchases and rentals of pornography on the increase. There is, however, a significant corresponding decrease in both the number of adult theaters in this country and the circulation figures of the so-called skin magazines. This may indicate that although there is a change in the way in which pornography is purchased, there is actually a stable (nongrowth) market for it. We simply do not know.

      Because of the stunning change in the way in which people now receive erotic stimuli (a shift from print to video), we suggest that research be conducted to discover whether and to what extent video makes a greater or stronger impression on the vulnerable users, particularly children and adolescents, than does print.

    2. One critical concern of this Commission was to measure and assess pornography's role in causing anti-social behavior; but although the Commission struggled mightily to agree on definitions of such basic terms as pornography and erotica, it never did so. This failure to establish definitions acceptable to all members severely limited our ability to come to grips with the question of impact. Only the term "obscenity," which has a legal meaning, became a category we all understood. In fact, the commission failed to carve out a mutually satisfactory definition of antisocial behavior. In this statement, it should be noted, therefore, we use the phrase "antisocial behavior" to describe forced sexual acts: acts involving coercion of any kind or lack of consent. We do not include (as certain commissioners desired) such private sexual practices as masturbation, homosexuality between consenting adults or premarital sex, practices that are not the province of government to regulate.
    3. The final responsibility of the Commission was to recommend to the Attorney General specific measures to limit the spread of pornography. While much of the Commission's time was spent on these proposals, only the child pornography recommendations received thorough discussion. Accordingly we strongly endorse those proposals.

    We reiterate our strong belief that the paucity of certain types of testimony, including dissenting expert opinion and the haste and absence of significant debate with which other recommendations and their supporting arguments were prepared did not leave adequate time for full and fair discussions of many of the more restrictive and controversial proposals. Consequently, while we endorse many of these recommendations, we dissent on some, for reasons of critical policy differences, lack of clarity and more importantly, because evidence essential to a considered evaluation of the proposals was not presented.

    For example, the concept of mandatory sentencing supported in several recommendations is a theory hotly debated by both law enforcement personnel and experts specializing in penal reform. Little testimony was heard on the merits or liabilities of this concept with the exception of pleas from understandably frustrated prosecutors discouraged by light sentencing. Without reasoned assessment of this problem, we cannot support the proposal for mandatory sentencing. Other specific recommendations with which we disagree will follow here.

    • Congress should enact a forfeiture statute to reach the proceeds and instruments of any offense commited in violation of the Federal obscenity laws.
    • Congress should amend the Federal laws to eliminate the necessity of proving transportation in interstate commerce. The laws should be enacted to only require proof that the distribution of the obscene material "affects" interstate commerce.
    • Congress should enact legislation making it an unfair business practice and an unfair labor practice for any employer to hire individuals to participate in commercial sexual performances.
    • State legislatures should amend, if necessary, obscenity statutes to eliminate misdemeanor status for second offenses and make any second offense punishable as a felony.
    • State legislatures should enact, if necessary, forfeiture provisions as part of the state obscenity laws.
    • The President's Commission on Uniform Sentencing should consider a provision for a minimum of one year imprisonment for any second or subsequent violation of Federal law involving obscene material that depicts adults.
    • Legislatures should conduct hearings and consider legislation recognizing a civil remedy for harms attributable to pornography.
    • Any form of indecent act by or among "adults only" pornographic outlet patrons should be unlawful.
  3. Testimony on Social Science Data

    We have limited our comments here to the relatively bias-free testimony and social-science data.

    Our interpretation of the material presented is, consequently, somewhat different from that of other Commission members. It has led us to a different emphasis in priorities and recommendations.

    The Commission sought to break down pornography into the various types of sexually explicit material available in our society. Unfortunately, social science research to date has not uniformly followed any such categorization (although we certainly suggest that future researchers consider this option), and the attempt to force the available social science data to fit the Commission's categories is fruitless. That is why in this statement the conclusions and interpretations of what the social science data says and does not say follow the research, not the Commission, categories.

    First, it is essential to state that the social science research has not been designed to evaluate the relationship between exposure to pornography and the commission of sexual crimes; therefore efforts to tease the current data into proof of a causal link between these acts simply cannot be accepted. Furthermore, social science does not speak to harm, on which this Commission report focuses. Social science research speaks of a relationship among variables or effects that can be positive or negative.

    Research has evaluated adults rather than children, and it is the latter who are most likely to be influenced by pornography. Studies have relied almost exclusively on male college student volunteers, which means that the "generalizability" of this data is extremely limited. The only other category studied in depth is sex offenders. Information from the sex-offender population must be interpreted with care because it may be selfserving. The research conducted to date has been correlational and experimental. Despite these limitations, the research data can be interpreted to indicate the following:

    1. In a laboratory setting, exposure to sexually violent stimuli has a negative effect on research subjects as measured by acceptance of rape myth and aggression and callousness toward women. We do not know, however, how long this attitudinal change is sustained without further stimulation; more importantly, we do not know whether and why such an attitudinal change might transfer into a behavioral change. There is reason for concern about these findings because we do know that experience with sex offenders indicates they harbor belief systems and attitudes consistent with deviant sexual practices (e.g. "women enjoy being raped" or "sexual acts with a child are a way of showing love and affection to that child"). We know further that such attitudes appear to be a precursor and maintainer of actual deviant behavior in an offender population. Although we believe the potential exists for attitudinal changes to translate into behavioral changes in some circumstances, this possibility needs considerable additional investigation.
    2. Very little social-science research has been conducted evaluating the impact of non-violent degrading material on the average adult. Furthermore, there is a problem of definition about what constitutes "degrading material." We strongly encourage further research to define and evaluate the impact of such material.
    3. Although research findings are far from conclusive, the preponderance of existing data indicates that non-violent and non-degrading sexually explicit materials does not have a negative effect on adults.
    4. In documents attached to the main report mention has been made of a possible relationship between circulation rates of pornographic magazines and sex crime rates. One of the authors of the study on which the Commission has based its conclusion, Murray Straus, has written to explain his own research, which he suggested was being misinterpreted. "I do not believe that this research demonstrates that pornography causes rape. . . .In general the scientific evidence clearly indicates that if one is concerned with the effects of media on rape, the problem lies in the prevalence of violence in the media, not on sex in the media."
    5. To date there is no single comprehensive theory that is agreed upon to explain the development of paraphilic behavior. Human behavior is complex and multicausal. To say that exposure to pornography in and of itself causes an individual to commit a sexual crime is simplistic, not supported by the social science data, and overlooks many of the other variables that may be contributing causes. Research must be conducted on the development of sexual interest patterns if we are to understand and control paraphilic behavior.
    6. Unfortunately little is known about the impact of sexually explicit material on children. Ethically and morally one could not and would not conduct experiments to examine such a relationship. We do know that adolescents and young adults are large consumers of these materials, and little is yet known about its impact on this population. We underscore the statement made in the main body of the Commission's report regarding social science research: "In many respects, research is still at a fairly rudimentary stage, and with few attempts to standardize categories of analysis, self-reporting questionnaires, types of stimulus materials, description of stimulus materials, measurement of effects and related problems. We recommend that moneys be made available to fund further research on this topic."
  4. Enforcement Priorities

    We have been encouraged by testimony from federal, state, and local officials that those involved in the heinous crime of child pornography are being prosecuted vigorously and that this effort is a national priority. We applaud that action and believe that this prosecution should continue to be a number one priority in law enforcement resource allotments.

    On the other hand, we have heard frequently that there is virtually no enforcement of adult obscenity laws. Our analysis of the data leads us to believe that the sexually violent material that is unquestionably obscene and described in the main report is of sufficient concern to warrant intensified prosecution. We are concerned about such material because the violence and the eroticization of that violence may indeed be a potentially explosive mix. Even in this category, however, social science research does not claim a casual link.

    The social science data, however, provides even less basis for the claim of a causal link between non-violent degrading and humiliating pornography and sexual violence. One might assume that this material may teach offensive, though not necessarily criminal, behavior to certain vulnerable consumers.

    Accordingly, in communities where standards so dictate, prosecution of non-violent degrading obscene materials may assume a lesser priority. It is in this area of non-violent degrading and humiliating pornographic images that the most controversy may arise. What is seen as degrading by one viewer may in fact not be so seen by another, much in the same way that one person's erotica is another's pornography. But this is one of the categories about which much needs to be learned. Perhaps there is a distinct difference between what men see as degrading to women and what women consider to be degrading.

    As vital as this category of non-violent degrading material may be to the ultimate understanding of the effects of pornographic material in society, we caution against an overinclusive interpretation of it. The Report suggests that most of the pornographic material in circulation now belongs in this category. We have not been able to draw this conclusion based on evidence presented. As stated earlier, attempts to quantify the materials in circulation and the particular character of the content of that material remain only "guesstimates."

  5. What of Our Children?

    The most disturbing issue facing the panel this year was the concern about children and their exposure to child and adult pornography. Adolescents are acknowledged as an enormous market for pornographic materials, and despite legislative efforts to restrict access, this material remains easily available to youngsters.

    In fact, from an early age American children are bombarded by very stimulating sexual messages, most of which are not pornographic but certainly are frightening. This year, for example, the AIDS epidemic has prompted health officials to broadcast urgent radio and television warnings against homosexual anal intercourse and group sex and pleas for the use of condoms.

    Because children may have trouble with these very public messages, and because too many young people get too much of their sex education from pornographic magazines and films, we strongly support relevant school sex education programs. Appropriate and accurate information about loving sexual experiences can help inoculate children against the potential damage from early exposure to negative images. Furthermore, we urge parents to monitor carefully their own children's exposure to these materials.

    There cannot be enough done to protect our children-both from people who would abuse and seduce them into the abhorrent world of child pornography and from the unwelcome intrusion of too many sexual messages. And we urge that child pornography prosecutions be given priority over all other forms of obscenity violations.

  6. Conclusion

    Why does pornography thrive and proliferate today? Is the demand for pornography a mirror or a beacon? Why do consumers support a multi-million dollar market for such a variety of products? Is lack of vigorous law enforcement to blame? Is society more tolerant of pornography than ever before? Is society's perception of what constitutes pornography changing? Do the production and increasing sophistication of sexually explicit materials in themselves stimulate more interest in pornographic magazines, films and videos? Or vice-versa? Or are other social forces chiefly to blame?

    The most knowledgeable observers suggest that these are complex and difficult questions, ones that cannot be easily answered and which in our opinions this Commission did not adequately address.

    Consider what has occurred during the past two decades. The birth control pill has become widely used, with an associated increase in sexual activity. The mobility of the population continues to increase, with a subsequent breakdown in community attachments for more and more people. The divorce rate has skyrocketed. We have a national drug abuse problem. The Vietnam war has taken its toll on the national psyche. Twenty-five million additional women have joined the work force. The so-called Sexual Revolution has come and gone (Time magazine on April 9, 1984, announced its demise). Has not each of these factors and others had a role to play in the growth of pornography?

    After a year of forums and deliberations, it is tempting to join in offering simple solutions to complex problems, in the form of the Commission's Recommendations. But we are not persuaded to do so. We believe it would be seriously misleading to read this report and see a green light for prosecuting all pornographers. We still know too little about why many men and some women use and enjoy pornography; if and why women's and men's sexual arousal response patterns to pornography differ. We still have more questions than answers, and we stress the need for both non-governmental solutions and tolerance for the views of others.

    The commission of sexual crimes, the degradation of women, and the abuse and mistreatment of children are terrible and pressing problems that concern us urgently. As we face up to the extensive public consumption even of certain types of extreme pornographic materials, a need for massive public reeducation about potential problems associated with them seems strongly indicated. We cannot tolerate messages of sexual humiliation directed to any group. But to make all pornography the scapegoat is not constructive. In the absence of significant social sanctions against pornography, the possibility of halting its use seems as slim as was the chance of halting the sales of liquor during Prohibition. In conclusion we repeat that we face a complex social and legal problem that requires extensive study before realistic remedies can be recommended.

Porn Studies > Meese Report Table of Contents

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