Pornography and politics: A case for sane civility; Public policy on sexually explicit materials must tolerantly recognize explosive differences.


Though I probably should not admit it, I enjoy sex. On the other hand, I am a bit squeamish about the thought of mom and dad doing that sort of thing. Certainly grandma and grandpa ought not to even consider it, though both have recently become excited about the availability of Viagra.

The point is that although we may be comfortable with our own sexuality, the sexuality of others, especially if it seems different, or "improper," can cause discomfort. Pornography may be defined as sexually explicit material that somebody finds offensive, indecent, or in bad taste. The question then becomes, "who ought to decide, and should their viewpoint be institutionalized in a way that affects others"?

Pornography can be examined from several points of view. They include the literary, the political and the mental health perspectives. Recently, a number of new books have been published. In my judgment, no single text can fully reflect the diversity of viewpoints generated by this topic.

Better, then, to touch upon the issues that I consider significant from each perspective. From the literary perspective, pornography is often supported as a First Amendment right of free speech. Numerous texts have been written, their content ranging from scholarly discourse, through graphic depictions, to information about how to obtain it.

Included among these are "A History of Erotic Literature" by Patrick J. Kearney (MacMillan, 192 pages, $11) and "Pornocopia" by Lawrence O'Toole (Serpent's Tail, 386 pages, $19.99). Patrick Riley references a number of films in "The X-Rated Videotape Guide VII" (Prometheus, 751 pages, $24.95), and John Money touches upon the topic of pornography in "Love and Love Sickness" (Johns Hopkins Press, 256 pages, $6.95). The spectrum of human sexuality was chronicled in 1886 by Krafft-Ebing in "Psychopathia Sexualis," republished in English in 1997 (Velvet, 251 pages, $14.95). Opinions still differ about whether "The Joy of Sex" by Alex Comfort (Simon and Schuster, 255 pages, $6.95), published in 1972, should be considered pornographic.

Books and magazines that are clearly pornographic abound. Although it is politically correct to be opposed to pornography (what politician would dare declare himself in favor of it?), the sale of X-rated home videos is a lucrative enterprise; most hotel rooms offer "adult videos" as an entertainment option; the Internet is inundated with a variety of sexually explicit materials; and the Yellow Pages in virtually every major city openly advertise escort services (usually a euphemism for prostitution). Clearly, what is espoused publicly may not be accepted privately by millions of Americans.

In the 1950s, Elvis Presley could only be photographed from the waist up on The Ed Sullivan Show because some considered his gyrations pornographic. Two decades later, in 1972, the heresy of publicly acknowledging an interest in pornography was temporarily forgiven when the film "Deep Throat" opened in downtown Manhattan. For some time thereafter, the limousines of the rich and famous could be seen parked for blocks around. Similar public acceptance was visible in other cities as well.

Politically, pornography may be akin to a Rorschach test. That is, an individual's viewpoint, if spoken honestly, likely reflects more about his or her own beliefs and values than about pornography itself. Historically, opinions about pornography have been used to justify literary censorship and criminalization.

The United States government spent a considerable amount of money in support of the Meese Commission on Pornography. Perhaps, the bottom line politically is that we may have to agree to disagree, and that mutual tolerance and respect for individual viewpoints represents the best contemporary solution.

From a mental health perspective, the issue can be similarly complicated. Sex is a powerful force that touches the lives of each of us. In growing up, persons do not decide what will arouse them sexually. Rather, they discover the nature of their own sexual makeups. Viewing pornography likely causes the release of opiate-like chemicals in the brain. The interest in pornography is fueled by biological drive, not by logic.

When it comes to sex, and its expression through pornography, we are not all created equal in either the intensity or nature of our interests. Moral pronouncements are often made regarding such differences. A man who acts upon a strong sex drive may be labeled a womanizer; the woman who is sexually active may be viewed even more condescendingly.

Some relationships falter because a spouse considers a partner's interest, whether in oral sex, bondage, or crossdressing, pornographic. Those with unconventional sexual interests, no matter how decent they might otherwise be, are often labeled "perverts." Such prejudices can compromise objective exploration, and publication, of relevant mental health research.

Some sexual makeups are unhealthy. For some, sexual drive seems to control the individual, rather than vice versa. Some experience difficulty integrating their desire for sex into a loving, committed, intimate relationship.

The expression of sex in a coercive, non-consenting fashion, or with children, too young to give meaningful consent, cannot be accepted. Yet in considering the effects of pornography in such instances, it is important to note that explicit pictures of adult erotic activity would likely not be of much interest to an individual who is sexually attracted to children, whereas the classic RCA Victor logo of the dog pulling down the pajama bottoms of a young boy might be viewed as highly pornographic.

Little is known about why the same depiction can elicit erotic arousal in some, and either no feelings at all, or disgust in others. What is known is that for a variety of reasons, ranging from instinctual to learned, we do differ in such ways.

Individuals arrested for downloading child pornography from the Internet in recent years have included (1) a West Point alumnus, and former armed forces intelligence officer, who had graduated from law school magna cum laude, with a documented IQ of 172; (2) an employee of the United States Senate who had downloaded pornography onto a government computer; and (3) an FBI agent.

In some ways pornography is akin to alcohol. As suggested in "The Joy of Sex," it may sometimes be a source of benign fantasy and pleasure, perhaps enhancing a couple's intimate relationship, or defusing sexual tensions. Besides, an overzealous suppression of the natural curiosity about sex may be unhealthy.

On the other hand, for some, pornography can be a harmful force that can impair judgment and whet a dangerous sexual appetite, while disinhibiting behavioral control. Thus the philosophy that "anything goes" can be unhealthy and counterproductive. As with alcohol, prohibition seems unworkable.

In summary, what then can be said about pornography, and about its publication? Perhaps it is to speak against both secular and sectarian prejudices. Pornography cannot be discussed absent a dialog about values. The very term itself is value-laden.

When either untempered sexual expression, or untempered religious zeal, risks harm to others, society should strive to prevent that from occurring.

Potentially vulnerable individuals, such as children, need to be protected from exploitation in the production of pornography.

There is not one correct response to questions about pornography, and no single book has given a definitive answer. In preparing our children to grow up, we must prepare them for the fact that there is sexual diversity. As knowledge evolves we will learn more about what factors contribute to optimal and healthy sexual development.

In the meantime, it should be acceptable to exclude pornography from one's own life for religious, personal or mental health reasons, while still respecting the rights of others to publish it, and to have access to it. One of society's most vexing challenges may be to overcome unwarranted prejudices about sexual differences, and about their potential expression through pornography, while still maintaining proper standards of decency, free speech, individuality, privacy and sound mental health.

Fred S. Berlin, M.D., Ph.D., is the founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic and the director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma. He is also an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an attending physician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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