The Obscenity Flood: Can It Be Stopped?


Strolling through a magazine or book shop these days can be a shock for someone who hasn’t visited such an establishment recently. In addition to the usual publications, pornography is often available, even prominently displayed.

A multitude of magazines feature full-color photographs of nude or seminude men and women. Titles and covers on paperback books openly advertise tales of sexual activities, sadism, and violence, with emphasis on lust.

Movie advertisements in many of the nation’s newspapers make it clear such fare is not confined to magazines and books. Little more than a decade ago court battles were fought over whether certain explicit books could be sold in this country; now, even more explicit, more violent stories are depicted in living color, many times life size, in the theaters.

Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, husband-and-wife criminologists and researchers on family life and delinquency, warn of an increase in the amount of pornography available in the United States. They see a corresponding increase in danger to young people because of the availability of smut. In fact, says Mrs. Glueck, “so widespread are the destructive influences today that even a child raised in the best of home surroundings may very well be endangered innocently.”

Can this flood of filth be stopped before it engulfs the family? The answer is a qualified yes, depending on how well parents understand the limits of legal action and the necessity of moral leadership in the home.

The key question that has plagued legislative bodies and courts in limiting pornography is this: What is obscene?

The individual, guided by moral precepts that have become part of his patterns of thought, instantaneously makes the decision that, to him at least, certain matter is obscene. But lawmakers and law interpreters cannot make such quick judgments, and they never will be able to until all men agree on the moral standards to be maintained in society. The courts must take into account guarantees of freedom that apply to millions of individuals living by different philosophies of life. The Supreme Court finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to determine what moral standards may be constitutionally applied to every United States citizen without restricting freedom of speech.

The Court did not issue its first definitive decision on obscenity until 1957, in the landmark Roth-Alberts case, when it ruled that obscene expression is not protected by the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. It outlined a threefold test for obscenity: (1) the dominant theme of the material must appeal to prurient interest; (2) the material must be patently offensive; (3) it must be utterly without redeeming social value.

At first glance this test may seem to be solid ground from which to judge obscene material, but it has proved to be a quicksand bog of semantics for the prosecutor or the court.

What, for instance, is prurient interest? Is it the prurient interest of the normal, heterosexual adult? of the pubescent youngster? And must the material be patently offensive to a local standard of morality, or to some national “average” standard? If to the national standard, then those communities where high morals prevail must lower their legal standards because of more prevalent immorality elsewhere.

The Supreme Court has been liberal in its interpretation of patent offensiveness. It has held, for instance, that this does not prohibit explicit nude pictures of the male or female body. (Manual Enterprises v. Day, 370 U.S. 478, 1962.)

But the last part of the Roth test, the “redeeming social value” requirement, probably poses the greatest problem in pornography prosecutions, for an imaginative pornographer can easily point to some “moral” value in the vilest trash, even if the work only serves as a negative example.

The Supreme Court has also been liberal in its interpretation of this standard. It has declared that the material must be “unqualifiedly worthless before it can be deemed obscene.” (Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 419, 1966.) In the same decision, the court held that the social value of the material “can neither be weighed against nor canceled by its prurient appeal or patent offensiveness.”

Subsequent decisions have added to the Roth test. The Court later held, for instance, that material that may not be obscene in itself may be so judged if, in advertising it, the seller panders to the sexual interests of his audience by emphasizing the provocative nature of the material. (Ginzburg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463, 1966.)

Sadly, the Supreme Court has recently shown signs of taking an even more permissive position on obscenity than it did in the Roth test and its later elaborations. In 1969, it ruled that under the First Amendment a state cannot prohibit mere private possession of pornography. (Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 1969.) This obvious departure from the Court’s previous position—that pornography is not protected under the First Amendment—has prompted defenders of freedom of speech to argue that where there is a right to possess pornography, there is a corresponding right to produce and distribute it.

Thus far the Supreme Court has seen fit to uphold laws that protect the juvenile and the unwilling adult from exposure to obscenity if those laws also safeguard the rights of others. One such law is a new piece of legislation that went into effect February 1, 1971. This law allows the individual to put his name on a list of those who do not wish to receive “sexually oriented” advertising. Mailers must purchase the list and heed the registrant’s wishes or face a possible prison term or fine. The act is specific enough in its definition of “sexually oriented” that enforcement should not be difficult.

One other decision may give some indication of the direction the Supreme Court has taken most recently in obscenity cases; that ruling involved the movie I Am Curious (Yellow), whose most outstanding feature is its extreme sexual explicitness. On February 23, 1971, the court refused to issue a permanent injunction to bar prosecution of the movie’s Massachusetts exhibitors and declined to strike down the Massachusetts statute under which prosecution had been initiated. This left the way open for further proceedings against the movie and its exhibitors in that state. But it should be noted that the court did not rule on the crucial obscenity vs. freedom of speech issue. And the case offers one more indication of the difficulties present-day prosecutors face in obscenity matters; Massachusetts was obliged by federal court order to let the film run unmolested for four months before the exhibitor was convicted under the state’s obscenity law.

The recommendations made last fall by the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography show how deep are the inroads smut has made in American society in the past few years.

One of the main responsibilities given to the commission by Congress was to recommend legislative, administrative, or other action to effectively regulate the flow of pornography without impairment of anyone’s constitutional rights. Instead, the commission recommended that all forms of pornography be legalized for adults and that laws against pornography for children prohibit only obscene pictures! Written erotic material damaging to children is too hard to define, the commission said, and therefore should not be banned.

Much in the 646-page commission report has been criticized, but the section that has probably been most often attacked by experts is the report of the Effects Panel. That panel was charged with determining the effects of pornography, and was largely responsible for the conclusion that “if a case is to be made against pornography in 1970, it will have to be made on grounds other than demonstrated effects of damaging personal or social nature. Empirical research … has found no reliable evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal sexual behavior among youth or adults.”

One of the experts who has actively criticized the Effects Panel report is Dr. Victor B. Cline, a University of Utah professor of psychology, author, researcher, and formerly a practicing clinical psychologist. In September 1970 he testified before the Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, citing some of the shortcomings he had found in the report.

Dr. Cline found, for example, that study results unfavorable to the panel’s conclusions often were not reported by the panel, even though the studies themselves were cited. One study found a strong relationship between exposure of subjects to pornography at an early age and sexual deviance; this finding was not mentioned in the Effects Panel report, even though the study was in the hands of the commission for many months.

The commission report asserts in a summary section that professional workers in the fields of human conduct generally do not believe that sexual materials have a harmful effect on the reader. But it does not tell the reader that this conclusion is based on a mail survey in which only one-third of the chosen sample responded. Furthermore, a substantial minority of those who did respond disagreed with the conclusion drawn by the panel.

In another study, a significant minority of sex offenders polled reported that pornography had something to do with their committing the crime for which they were convicted. The writers of the report raise the possibility that the felons may be scapegoating, or blaming their troubles on someone or something else. While that is possible, it is also possible, Dr. Cline noted, that they were telling the truth. And the attempt to play down this possibility casts doubt on the objectivity of the report’s writers.

One of the commission’s more serious lapses into improper methodology occurs when the report cites data described as unreliable by researchers who gathered it. The commission report does not tell the reader that the cited study is flawed. Moreover, it ignores other data from the study that were unfavorable to the report’s conclusions.

The reader of the pornography report notes other shortcomings as well. For one thing, there were no long-term studies of the effects of pornography on the consumer. And, as Dr. Cline notes, there were no studies involving youth, even though the commission’s report boldly declares that there is no evidence to prove that exposure to explicit sexual materials is a cause of crime by either adults or youth.

Some of the research data may have been slanted by bias of those whose responses were studied. For instance, the panel notes that after intensive exposure to pornography, only one of a group of many study subjects felt more in favor of legal controls on smut. The rest reported either no change in their attitude or increased tolerance for pornography. The panel notes only in passing that the study subjects were so interested in pornography even before the study began that they expressed willingness to pay for the opportunity to take part in the experiment. It is hardly surprising, then, that their attitude shifts should be mostly in favor of smut.

The Effects Panel’s conclusions on the effects of pornography sound much like the tobacco industry’s now shopworn defense of smoking. Applied to pornography, it goes like this: Research has not demonstrated undeniably that there is a link between the increased availability of erotic materials and increases in sex crimes. Therefore, pornography cannot be labeled harmful, and it should be up to each individual whether he chooses to steep himself in erotica.

But the testimony of legal authorities who deal with sex offenders, and of the criminals themselves, cannot be ignored. Neither can common sense. It is illogical to argue that material whose intent is sexual arousal of the partaker shares none of the blame for crimes whose purpose is sexual gratification.

Fortunately, the commission report was firmly repudiated by the President and Congress. But while the commission was spending a great deal of time and money to produce a set of morally repugnant recommendations, precious little was being done to discourage production of pornography.

The law can do little at present to deny erotica to the willing seeker, even if he be a juvenile. Filth seems able to find its way even into junior high and grade school youngsters’ hands, aided many times by uncaring or, worse yet, conspiring adults.

Can parents really expect, considering these influences, to protect their children from the effects of pornography? They can if they help the children develop an internal moral censor to steer them away from smutty material, even in the face of peer pressure.

It goes without saying that doing this will require a high level of trust and love between parents and children. But family heads and their partners who are living the commandments of God will have already achieved that level of trust.

In addition, parents must be interested enough in their community and its standards to invest time and effort in fighting smut by all legal means. Obviously, such a temporal problem requires a temporal, as well as spiritual, solution. Pornography will not be stamped out unless private citizens make the effort to fight it and its producers and distributors in court; unless citizens demand that governments make and enforce valid laws against obscenity; unless citizens throw their support to decent publications and movies.

Those who take the easy, live-and-let-live approach to pornography will have no choice but to live with filth as it spreads.

A copy editor and editorial writer for the Deseret News, Brother Searle holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in communications from Brigham Young University. He has filled a mission to the Guatemala-El Salvador Mission. He lives in Granger 20th Ward, Granger Stake.