Smiting smut

March 25, 1992

On the last night of his life, Ted Bundy, condemned to death for the rape and torture, maim and murder of a slew of women, copped a plea: Hard-core pornography, he told a Christian radio broadcaster, made him do it.

Bundy's confession suited the agendas of an assortment of strange bedfellows, including hard-core Christians and hard-core feminists, plus certain hard-core politicians with only a soft-core grasp of the Constitution. The resulting "Bundy bill," more formally known as the Pornography Victims' Compensation Act, would allow victims of sex crimes to sue the producers and distributors of obscene material if they could prove that the crime was incited by the porn. Ted Bundy, under such a law, would be merely the hapless agent of the real criminal masterminds who produce Playboy magazine or "Deep Throat" movies.

The bill is the brainchild of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, who hopes to blunt constitutional objections by limiting its reach to obscenity and child pornography. Neither enjoys First Amendment protection. Still, "a description of a minor engaging in or participating in sexually explicit conduct," the bill's definition of child pornography, is pretty broad. Suppose it were proved that before killing one of his teen-aged victims Ted Bundy had been reading "Lolita," which deals with sex between a middle-aged man and an adolescent girl: Then should author Vladimir Nabokov's estate compen-sate Bundy's victim's estate? Suppose Bundy had been watching "90210" or another of the myriad sitcoms that have featured episodes in which school children are initiated into sex?

The Bundy bill implies that the Ted Bundys of society are not responsible for their actions, but are themselves victims. Similarly, smokers with lung cancer seek to blame their illnesses and their habits on cigarette companies, and the victims of drunk drivers or handgun accidents sue bartenders and firearms manufacturers. We don't have to resolve the philosophical problem of human free will to say that society is best served by holding individuals -- not someone else -- responsible for what they do.

At least, it is clear that tobacco, alcohol and firearms can be deadly. The link between pornography and sex crimes is not proved. There is a statistical association, but also a chicken-and-egg problem. The Bundy bill assumes that normal individuals are depraved by pornography and go on to commit sex crimes. It seems to us more likely that depraved individuals, some of whom may commit sex crimes, are drawn to pornography.

Legislators will not find it easy in an election year to resist smiting wickedness while standing foursquare for both family values and feminism. But we think the way to combat pornography, like AIDS and other evils, is to make this a better educated society, not a more repressive one.

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