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Should Gonzo Porn Be Regulated By the Feds?

Porn is becoming more and more extreme, and more and more accessible -- including to kids. Is it time for the government to step in?
 
 
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We all know how the Internet has changed the porn business. The video clips available for free to any pimply faced teen with a modem make  Deep Throat look positively PG-rated. But might the Internet also change the anti-porn biz? Once the exclusive province of evangelical prudes like Phyllis Schlafly and furious feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, the evils of pornography are becoming more of a mainstream political issue—if only because most of us, at some point, have stumbled upon a site like  www.naked.com while innocently searching for a fruit juice company.

On Tuesday, a group of anti-porn activists and scholars arrived on Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress and their staffs and to call for  beefed-up federal enforcement of obscenity laws. They weren't there to fret about the pornographers of old: the loveable chauvinist Hugh Hefner and his scantily clad bunnies, or even the not-so-loveable-but-occasionally-principled First Amendment crusader,  Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. No, they had come to alert Congress to websites like GagFactor.com, whose teasers alone are way more graphic than anything Hefner ever published, and whose content doesn't portend a spirited First Amendment defense.

"The days of women wearing a coy smile and not much else are long gone," Gail Dines explained to the congressional crowd. A women's studies professor at Boston's Wheelock College and author of the upcoming book  Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality, Dines has perused Gag Factor, and she described some of its content to the crowd—including a video of a woman with her head in a vice during oral sex. "Porn is an industrial product," said Dines, who has studied the industry for 20-plus years. "I cannot believe how brutal it has become so quickly." Gag Factor and their ilk, she added, are now the main source of sex education for boys.

Government prosecutors, the speakers said, haven't kept pace with the industry's rapid expansion. (In 1988, for instance, the adult entertainment industry released 1,300 porn videos. In 2005, it released  more than 10 times as many.) Indeed, Patrick Trueman, a chief obscenity prosecutor at the Department of Justice under the first President Bush, stopped short of bashing Attorney General Eric Holder for going soft on porn. But he came mighty close, suggesting that the multibillion-dollar porn industry is a low priority for the Obama administration, even though the government typically prevails when it aims to shut down porn providers. Prosecuting the biggest fish, rather than the occasional small-fry consumer, Trueman suggested, would make a huge dent in the volume of online smut.

Christian-right groups have been complaining about porn forever, of course, and Trueman, a lawyer with the anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund, falls within that camp. But technology has made the right's argument far more compelling, as the Internet has brought pornography to a far bigger and more vulnerable audience than ever before. The adult entertainment industry has fought to protect its burgeoning business by invoking the Constitution and arguing that its work is an expression of free speech. Its lobbying group, in fact, is called the  Free Speech Coalition. And it's true that the courts have found soft-core porn like  Playboy, and the bookstores selling such wares, to be constitutionally protected. (For adults, that is. Legally, soft-core porn is labeled as harmful to minors.)

Courts have also struck down as unconstitutional previous attempts by Congress to curb Internet smut with restrictions like age-verification screens and bans on teaser photos. In one  case, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that parents need only put filters on their computers if they wanted to protect their kids—apparently unaware of data showing that many parents are also downloading porn.

 
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