Activists Decry Porn’s Move to Mainstream
By DAVID CRARY AP National Writer
NEW YORK Apr 1, 2006 (AP)— The industry’s VIPs mingle at political galas and Super Bowl parties. Their product is available on cell phones, podcasts, and particularly the Internet there it’s an attraction like no other, patronized by tens of millions of Americans.
It’s pornography. And if you’re a consumer, John Harmer thinks you’re damaging your brain.
Harmer is part of a cadre of anti-porn activists seeking new tactics to fight an unprecedented deluge of porn which they see as wrecking countless marriages and warping human sexuality. They are urging federal prosecutors to pursue more obscenity cases and raising funds for high-tech brain research that they hope will fuel lawsuits against porn magnates.
"We don’t think it’s a lost cause," said Harmer, a Utah-based auto executive and former politician who’s been fighting porn for 40 years.
"It’s the most profitable industry in the world," he said. "But I’m convinced we’ll demonstrate in the not-too-distant future the actual physical harm that pornography causes and hold them financially accountable. That could be the straw that breaks their back."
The activists’ adversary is a sprawling industry that, by some counts, offers more than 4 million porn sites on the Internet, that in the United States alone is estimated to be worth $12 billion a year. A tracking firm, comScore Media Metrix, says about 40 percent of Internet users in the United States visit adult sites each month.
Porn products are featured at popular sex expositions and retail chains such as Hustler Hollywood. Major hotels provide in-room porn, and adult film stars are now mainstream celebrities. Mary Carey attended a VIP Republican fundraiser in Washington in mid-March; Jenna Jameson’s "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star" hit the best-seller lists and she hosted a racy pre-Super Bowl party in Detroit in February.
As much as there is national consensus on the evils of child pornography, there is none whatever on porn featuring adults and marketed to them. It’s more pervasive than ever, yet activists and experts disagree bitterly over the extent of harm it causes.
"The form of entertainment is no problem," said Paul Cambria, general counsel for the porn industry’s Adult Freedom Foundation. "There are individuals who are going to react abnormally to normal material, but it’s not a problem for the average person."
For every couple driven apart by porn, there are others whose relationship is enlivened, Cambria argued. He dismissed contentions that porn is highly addictive or brain-damaging.
"Some people lie about it," Cambria said. "It’s their way of excusing personally unacceptable conduct ‘It wasn’t me, it was porn.’"
Such attitudes infuriate experts on the other side who say online porn is as addictive as crack cocaine.
"The Internet is the perfect delivery system for anti-social behavior it’s free, it’s piped into your house," said Mary Anne Layden, a psychologist and addiction expert at the University of Pennsylvania. "Internet porn is probably the biggest miseducation system we can devise in terms of sexuality, misuse of women."
She says many of her patients, rather than improving their sex lives with porn, suffer sexual dysfunction.
Interest in porn is age-old and normal, says psychologist David Greenfield of West Hartford, Conn., an expert on Internet behaviors, but it can become a destructive obsession for a minority who indulge in it at the expense of healthy relationships. Easy availability is part of the issue.
"It’s not your father’s porn," he said. "With little or no effort, as long as you have a computer, you can access some of the most stimulating content on the planet. There’s no delay, no person watching. It’s designed to very quickly get to a point where you’re not in full control."
He estimates that for up to 10 percent of porn users, relationships suffer with many husbands spending so much time online that they cease to have sex with their wives.
Divorce lawyers report that porn use is an increasingly common factor in marriage breakups: It can cause immense pain when a wife discovers her husband’s porn habit.
"I compare it to your house burning down," said Laurie Hall, who divorced her husband after writing a book called "An Affair of the Mind," about his 20-year obsession with porn.
"It destroys your sense of personhood when you bring all that you are into a relationship and someone chooses to ignore that," she said. "It eats away at the heart of the family."
Across America, compulsive porn use has spawned hundreds of support groups, treatment programs and Web sites where heartbroken spouses mostly wives swap stories of their mates’ obsessions.
Polls suggest most Americans believe porn should be off-limits to minors and available legally for adults. But groups such as Morality in Media think the public favors tougher enforcement of obscenity laws against hard-core porn; it operates a Web site that forwards obscenity complaints to federal officials.
"We’re not going to get rid of all of it, but we can push it back into the gutter as far as humanly possible," said Morality in Media president Robert Peters, a Dartmouth-educated attorney who struggled in his 20s to kick a porn habit that started in grade school.
"It was hell," said Peters, recalling a six-year stretch where he regularly visited porn outlets on New York’s 42nd Street. "It’s a very hard habit to break."
Mark Laaser of Eden Prairie, Minn., says he frequently sought out pornography and engaged in extramarital sex for more than 20 years, starting in college and continuing through a career as pastor and counselor. He now runs workshops, and consults with church congregations on the issue.
"I’ve seen the damage it does to marriages, to families," he said.
Though he stressed the need for individual willpower, Laaser also faulted the porn industry for employing aggressive online technologies that "besiege you."
"Sometimes it’s not a matter of free will," he said. "It’s a matter of invasion."
Another self-described former addict is Phil Burress, head of a Cincinnati-based conservative group called Citizens for Community Values.
Like many conservatives, he had hopes that the Bush administration would reverse Clinton White House policy and step up prosecutions of adult-porn obscenity cases as well as child porn cases. Thus far, Burress is disappointed.
"Five years into this administration, they get an F," he said.
Still, Burress is encouraged by the recent formation of an FBI anti-obscenity squad and the appointment of Brent Ward, a former U.S. attorney who combatted porn in Utah, to head an obscenity prosecution task force.
The Justice Department defends its record, saying it has indicted dozens of people on obscenity charges since 2001 and suggesting the pace will increase. But with a vast array of potential targets, and many other priorities, prosecutors must choose their battles carefully.
One pending case involves obscenity charges against a California couple whose company sold pornographic videos depicting simulated rape and murder. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison plus $7.5 million in fines.
The bottom line, perhaps, is that each side in the debate can make points that seem unassailable.
"Everyone agrees that tens of millions of Americans consume porn. … ministers, PTA members, policemen, teachers, soldiers, dentists and Boy Scout leaders," argues California sex therapist Marty Klein. "The overwhelming majority of them don’t rape strangers or emotionally abandon their wives."
But Layden, the Penn addiction expert, refuses to see porn as mostly harmless.
"When I ask men who are sex addicts if they would want their wife or daughter to be in porn, 100 percent say, ‘No,’" she said. "They want it to be somebody else’s wife or daughter. They know this material is damaging."
On the Net:
Porn industry group: http://www.adultfreedomfoundation.org/
Anti-porn group: http://www.obscenitycrimes.org