Most societies have some kinds of sexually explicit words, images, and other materials that are disapproved, prohibited, illegal, or restricted in circulation; that are portrayed in a manner that is generally unacceptable; and that are classified as pornography. The term pornography often denotes subjective disapproval of materials rather than their content or effect.
Historically, attitudes toward pornography tend to be cyclical. The most recent expansion in the United States of the availability of such materials began in the 1960s, as a result of larger social trends, including the civil rights movement, the counterculture and antiwar movement, approval of the contraceptive pill, and liberal U.S. Supreme Court decisions providing access to previously banned novels and films. These trends contributed to continuing discussion on whether new forms of social control would be necessary to cope with pornography, and federal government investigations into pornography’s impact were launched in 1968 and 1985.
Both the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1971) and the Attorney General’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1986) felt that it was not possible to define pornography clearly. The term has no legal definition, although certain sexual content is not protected by the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and can be prosecuted under federal and state laws regulating obscenity.
Over the last several decades, the connotations of pornography have changed from a generic descriptor of explicit sexual content to more pejorative representations of sexual material. Pornography is often distinguished from erotica, which is a more tender, humanistic, and artistic type of sexual representation. The divergence in opinion on how to deal with the pornography problem could be seen in the different recommendations of the two federal commissions established to examine it. The President’s Commission recommended that the laws on obscenity should be repealed, because the material represented an insignificant social problem and had no lasting negative effect on its users. The report of the Attorney General’s Commission urged that the obscenity laws should be strictly enforced, because the material had significant negative impact and constituted an important national problem. One possible reason for this disagreement was the change in the market for explicit materials between 1970 and 1986, but another factor could have been differences in the time available, composition, and resources of the two commissions.
Because sexually explicit content is often initially excluded from mainstream channels of communication, its creators have usually been alert to newly emerging outlets for distribution. One of the first books to appear in print after Gutenberg developed printing around 1448 was Boccaccio’s erotic masterpiece, The Decameron. Soon after Edison developed moving pictures in 1891, underground ‘‘blue’’ movies began to appear. Super 8mm movies presenting sexually explicit content could be found in 1970, the very first year that the new technology appeared.
In the 1980s, soon after deregulation of the telephone business, many sex telephone services offered both recorded messages and the opportunity to have individualized ‘‘audiotext’’ conversations. Around the same time, sexually explicit movies became available via pay-per-view cable systems servicing homes and hotel chains.
In 1979, when fewer than 1 percent of American homes had videocassette recorders (VCRs), 80 percent of VCR owners bought or rented sexually explicit tapes. Some stores boosted sales of VCRs by giving a sexually explicit videotape as a gift with every purchase. During the 1990s, perhaps onethird of adult males and one-fifth of adult females have seen a sexually explicit videotape in a given year. The VCR is especially popular for viewing sexual content because it permits the user to speed up, slow down, replay, or freeze images. America is the world’s largest producer of sexually explicit videotapes, churning out approximately 7,500 per year. The huge growth in the explicit video market during the 1980s and 1990s paralleled an increase in the number of large strip clubs around the country. The videos have become a way of promoting the careers of the actresses who appear at the clubs, who also can be seen in men’s magazines.
CD-ROM and Internet income from sex-related content cannot be accurately measured but is believed to be enormous. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has established the Internet as a public forum hat is entitled to the highest level of protection by the First Amendment, including the representation of sexually explicit materials. Several laws that restricted access of children to the Internet have been declared unconstitutional by federal courts.
Rating systems represent one approach to social control of sexual content. The 1968 original movie rating system, by assigning sexually explicit materials to a special Adult X category and the development of similar kinds of ratings for television programs and popular music, further helped legitimate sexual content.
Within several years after the movie rating system began, X-rated films began to be shown at major theaters. The X-rated Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando, the country’s most celebrated actor, was one of the most popular films of 1973, the same year in which Deep Throat became a national sensation because of its enormous commercial success and humor. The X-rated Midnight Cowboy had already received an Academy Award as Best Picture in 1969.
In addition to ratings, technological approaches have been used as a way of regulating children’s access to sexual content. A special chip was developed so that parents could block children’s access to objectionable materials on television. Such approaches attempt to strike a balance between the American abhorrence of censorship and parents’ concern about their children’s exposure to inappropriate material.
The ultimate weapon in blocking the availability of offensive sexual material has always been the application of the laws against obscenity. Three criteria for obscenity were promulgated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Miller v. California (413 U.S. 15, 1973): the material had to be patently offensive; it must appeal to the prurient interest of the average adult applying contemporary standards; and it must have no literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Because the Court no longer wanted to deal with the stream of cases that it had been handling, ‘‘community’’ was newly defined to be a local county, state, or federal court district, so that each area could have whatever level of sexual material it found acceptable. The number of indictments and convictions declined after 1973 because of juries’ reluctance to convict, prosecutorial predictability, changes in the political climate that led to anti-pornography becoming a less salient and less attractive political theme, and communities’ views that criminal justice resources should give less attention to obscenity and focus more on crimes against persons.
The decline in implementation of criminal justice sanctions encouraged new entrepreneurs to produce and distribute sex-oriented materials. Another spur to entrepreneurs, in the 1980s, was the Federal Communications Commission’s decision not to regulate cable television, and this was followed in 1984 by the television networks’ decision to eliminate their national code of broadcast standards. The continuing competition for audiences between media further increased the likelihood that sexual content would receive more prominence, in a situation in which administrative barriers to representation of sex content were clearly diminishing.
Instead of criminal prosecution of materials for violation of the obscenity laws, a number of cities adopted a totally different approach in the 1990s. These communities use zoning laws against theaters, strip clubs, bookstores, and other sex related industries in order to break up their concentration and minimize visual pollution. The new approach accepted these establishments’ right to sell sexually explicit products or services but challenged their right to maintain their location.
The zoning laws rely on a U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that if ‘‘adult’’ businesses could be shown to have adverse secondary effects (decline in real estate values and quality of life and increase in crime), the community could make zoning changes, provided that reasonable alternative avenues of communication were available to the businesses (Playtime Theatres v. City of Renton, 106 U.S. 925, 1986).
An example of the zoning approach could be seen in New York City where a 1997 law required that ‘‘adult’’ bookstores, strip clubs, peepshows, and theaters be at least 500 feet from each other and at least 500 feet from residences and public buildings, thus eliminating the concentration of such establishments in Times Square. Any challenges to such zoning changes have been handled in the civil rather than the criminal courts.
One way in which producers of these materials attempt to minimize legal problems is to make publications, movies, and videotapes in both hardcore and soft-core versions, for targeted distribution to specific markets. The hard-core materials usually show some form of actual sexual interaction and the soft-core content generally presents simulated interaction. Any representation of sexual material involving children has been the target of intensive law enforcement and is very scarce. There seems to be no relationship between sexually explicit materials and prostitution; consumers of these materials are not likely to be customers of prostitutes, because of differences in the gratifications provided by the two activities. There also seems to be no significant relationship between the production and distribution of such materials and organized crime. There are now so many producers and distributors and the prices are so competitively low that organized crime groups cannot make a large enough profit to justify participation in the business.
Although there is no unified and consistent feminist attitude toward pornography, feminist opposition to pornography has generated much attention. One sustained feminist attack on pornography, jointly led by writer Andrea Dworkin and attorney Catherine A. MacKinnon, argued that pornography is misogynistic and dehumanizing, graphically presenting the sexually explicit subordination of women. They developed a model ordinance for Indianapolis that represented a civil rights approach, which identified pornography as a violation of the equality guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the ordinance was found to be unconstitutional by a federal appeals court (American Booksellers Association v. Hudnut, 771 F. 2d, 7th Circuit, 1985). A comparable approach was upheld by the highest court in Canada (Butler v. The Queen, 1 SCR 452, 199, 1992), where it has been primarily used to prosecute gay publications.
A collateral approach involved dissemination of feminist writer Robin Morgan’s slogan, ‘‘Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.’’ Around the same time that feminist theorists were arguing that the growing availability of misogynistic pornography was the direct cause of increasing rates of rape, a number of mass communication researchers conducted laboratory experiments that attempted to prove the connection between exposure to such materials and the development of callous attitudes toward women and rape. One of the problems with these studies is that they were usually conducted with college students, who were exposed to materials that they would not ordinarily see. There is also the possibility of an experimenter effect and the difficulty of proving the carrying over of an attitude from viewing a film to a real rape situation. Several researchers have expressed the view that to interpret their largely laboratory-based studies as confirming a causal nexus between exposure to sexually explicit films and subsequent sexually violent behavior would represent overgeneralization.
Another problem in arguing for such a nexus is that no large-scale content studies prove that there has been any increase in the amount of sexual violence in the media. An examination of the available data suggests that there has been a decline since 1977 in the amount of sexual violence in the media, but there has probably been an increase in violence in non-pornographic fare, such as action, slasher, and horror films. To single out pornography for stringent legal action and to ignore ideas about rape and violence that are otherwise so pervasive in our culture is not justified by the available evidence.
A number of natural experiments have provided information on the possible relationship between media sex content and rape and other sex crimes. In the United States, four states that eliminated all obscenity statutes and had a concomitant increase in the availability of sexually explicit materials for varying periods between 1973 and 1986 were studied. During the period of obscenity non-prosecution, the mean annual arrest rates for sex offenses in these four states declined significantly in comparison to the other forty-six states. A study of the first three countries to legalize sexually explicit materials (Denmark, Sweden, Germany) concluded that legalization did not lead to increased sexual violence in any of them.
Researchers using other indirect measures have similarly attempted to correlate sex offenses with previous exposure to sexually explicit materials. A large-scale study by the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research of convicted sex offenders found no relation between sex crimes and offenders’ exposure to such materials. Another study of non-incarcerated sex offenders reported no significant differences between the exposure to such materials of the offenders and the general adult male population. Whether on an individual, a regional, or a national basis, empirical studies have failed to find any consistent correlation between availability of and exposure to explicit materials and sex crimes against women.
A number of producers are actively distributing sexually explicit materials targeted for women consumers, and other producers have developed such materials for feminist audiences. Some feminists have produced their own explicit films and others have made videotapes for women and couples that are sold in mainstream superstores and direct mail catalogs. A number of performers who became known from appearing in explicit movies and tapes are obtaining roles in mainstream studio or independent films.
Research has identified a number of functions served by sexually explicit materials. They provide information that is not otherwise available, as well as fantasy outlets and sexual stimulation. They also provide reassurance about one’s body and about shame or guilt relating to specific practices. The materials can desensitize people so that they are better able to consider and discuss sexual matters, and can facilitate communication between sexual partners. The materials may provide a socially acceptable functional equivalent for masturbation and for acting out otherwise socially harmful sexual behavior. For members of a group audience, as in a strip club or a movie theater, the social context can reinforce the experience. The materials and performers also may provide a vehicle for connoisseurship.
Plausible next steps in sociological investigations of pornography could include cross-media content analyses, naturalistic studies of effects, systematic case studies of the role of the various interest groups involved in promoting or blocking pornography, investigation of the structure of the pornography industry, and studies of the role of the home environment in contributing to how explicit materials are used.
In Denmark, the first country to legalize pornography (1969), the market for such materials declined sharply, as a result of satiation of the audience. Tracking the cycle of acceptance of pornography in America, to see whether the Danish experience is relevant, could represent an important study. A collateral study could determine whether there are specific subgroups in the population for whom these materials are becoming more or less important. The extent to which pornography continues to be a feature of the political culture wars and a vehicle for obtaining support for larger economic and policy initiatives represents an important social indicator, as is the alliance between feminists and moral conservatives in opposing pornography. Another activity that will surely bear watching in the future is how the effort to regulate pornography on the Internet, for children or adults, can be accomplished by a state or a country that does not have legal jurisdiction over the global information network that is the Internet.
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