Fallen angels

Anti-porn crusaders have given up trying to save women. Now it's just kids they want to protect.


Susie Bright
May 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Seen the latest news about pornography and children? Excuse me for being coy -- of course you have. There's not a media consumer alive who hasn't seen the urgent studies, the tearful press conferences, the agonized lobbying of the porn-obsessed.

Pornography as a topic today is all about kids and it's all about accessibility. Here's a typical example from the Associated Press last week: "Gene McConnell said he started looking at pornography at age 12, and although it wasn't something he was proud of, he didn't think he was hurting anyone. But he gradually became obsessed with it."

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We all know where this is headed. McConnell went on to rape and molest young women, and now he blames his actions on the influence of porn upon his tender young mind. Today he is a spokesman for the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families, and is happy to share his sordid story if that means he can prevent one more smut-provoked atrocity. In his press conference he was supported by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., who chimed in with the requisite scholarship stating that "research has shown pornography contributes to sexual assault, including rape and molestation of children."

Ordinarily, when I come across an item like this, I get fired up to expose its gratuitous lies and distortions. I wouldn't trust Gene McConnell with the King James Bible if he's given no more consideration to his rape history than to observe that he beat off to the wrong magazines. As for the "research," we all know how politicians love statistics that prove that bad guys do mildly bad things before they graduate to doing really, really bad things. Of course most child molesters have looked at dirty books, and while we're at it, why don't we throw out that most of them probably smoked marijuana and drank Pepsi out of the can. You can pick any behavior you please from their lives and find that it matches the habits of millions of people who never raped anybody.

But enough of that. This time, with this article, I couldn't be bothered to fact-check the white noise. Instead, my head snapped in an altogether unexpected direction. I realized that something fundamental has changed in the never-ending Puritan beef with pornography: The focus isn't on women.

Female victims used to be de rigueur in the boilerplate perils of porn stump speech -- in fact, women's virtue was by far the main issue, often way ahead of children's. Sometimes children were never mentioned at all. If you asked anyone to define pornography 10 years ago, the resounding answer would have been: "sexual material which is ..." May I have a drum roll, please? "degrading to women." Those three words were an anthem of modern feminism.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying children's welfare has never been a concern, nor do I believe that the extreme anti-porn crusaders have abandoned their desire to defend feminine delicacy. No, I'm talking about marketing, and if there was ever a social message that has been marketed like snake oil, it's been the crusade against sexual expression.

My friend David Steinberg has written extensively about the various tides and turns of sexual repression, and he has frequently pointed out that in American culture we always have a class of "designated innocents." The social function of this group, David writes, "is to posit the existence of a class of people so pure of heart and spirit that they have not been sullied by sex in any form." Until very recently, women and children were together in that class; it was always the ladies and the babies.

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The last hurrah of the women-targeted anti-porn campaigns came with the findings of the 1986 Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, popularly called the Meese Report. At the time, I didn't know this monumental justice investigation was signaling the end of an era. I only felt its misery raining down on me, an independent feminist porn provider. At the time I published books and magazines intended for women who celebrated and asserted their sexuality -- and yet the language of the Meese Report would lead you to believe such women were a biological impossibility. Its 1,960 pages presented a spectrum of religious conservatives and feminist liberals who joined together to testify that porn was destroying women's lives.

In those days, it felt as if the minority of feminists who defended erotic expression were shouting into a hurricane of opinion that insisted that no sex was good sex for the decent women of America. I didn't realize until now that this fundamentalist-feminist coalition was on its last legs. I should have known that once the government gets involved with something, it's a sure sign that it's gone out of vogue. No one since has been able to assert a mainstream crusade against pornography, because nobody can get any kind of consensus from women about what porn is anymore, let alone if it should be banned. "Degrading" has lost its definitive cachet, and there's no telling where any nice girl draws the line -- whether at her Victoria's Secret catalog or her X-rated video stash. Only her vibrator may know for sure.

Meanwhile, the vast right-wing conspiracy hasn't lost its distaste for tales of pornographic downfall and redemption like Gene McConnell's. But as a marketing strategy, it's replaced Linda Lovelace with Tinky Winky. I guess these days you just can't raise enough money for the cause of saving grown-up women from unspeakable depravities, because frankly, the big girls have already spoken for themselves.

In one respect, I feel like celebrating for my gender. The ladies auxiliary to the anti-smut campaign has literally closed down for lack of interest, which suggests a surplus of female sexual confidence. We can no longer be infantilized at the drop of a hat.

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But then I feel sad, because now the "designated innocents" are only the kids. They're all alone on the propaganda hit list. In this climate, "children" are defined as persons all the way up to 18 years of age -- and sometimes even over, if you listen to the scare tactics being used on college students today.

How do kids defend their genuine and natural sexual feelings when our culture says they don't have any, not unless they've been corrupted by outside forces? If they manage to survive puberty (the sexual shit-storm of life), the public service message they hear for the duration is: Don't even think about sex, it's too dangerous, it'll ruin your life. Our current parental guidance trends render adolescents incapable of reasonable risk management. Abstinence will take care of everything, isn't that what we've all learned? We don't empower young people, we treat them as if they are all on the same level of immaturity and helplessness. And our tactics demand either a humiliating submission or an ugly confrontation. Talk about degrading. We tell young people their only erotic role model is to be victim or monster, because we can't face our grown-up ugliness.

Young women may finally have a fair chance to grow into sexual adults in their own right, but what kind of shape will they be in when the birthday balloons pop? I'd hate to be a teenager at the cusp of the 21st century. It's nothing but a siege of enforced arrested development.

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Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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