Pornography and politics: A case for sane civility

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

Public policy on sexually explicit materials must tolerantly recognize explosive differences.

February 07, 1999|By Fred S. Berlin | Fred S. Berlin,Special to the Sun

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.

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