The Obscene, Disgusting, and Vile
Meese Commission Report

Pat Califia, 1986

Our Teflon President and his Attorney General, Edwin "There Is No There There" Meese III, have thrown a big, juicy bone to the mad dog packs of the New Christian Right. The Justice Department recently appointed a Commission with the mandate to overturn the 1970 Presidential Commission on Pornography's finding that there is no evidence of a link between sexually explicit materials and delinquent or criminal behavior. The final report of this new Commission, published in July, 1986, holds out the hope that by using draconian measures against pornography we can turn America into a rerun of "Leave It to Beaver." The Commission's findings should placate the lowest common denominator of the citizenry who made a drugstore cowboy our Chief Executive--those folks who believe the Bible should be taken literally, but the First Amendment should not.

In a press conference to announce selection of Commission members, Meese claimed that since l970, "the content of pornography has radically changed, with more and more emphasis upon extreme violence." He also claimed that his Commission "has not come to their task with minds made up. Their job is to approach the issues objectively...In any recommendation the commission makes, it will carefully balance the need to control the distribution of pornography with the need to protect very carefully first amendment freedoms." [1]

This statement was not reassuring, coming from a man who thinks the Supreme Court should not compel the states to abide by the Bill of Rights, a man who has said, "Miranda only helps guilty defendants. Most innocent people are glad to talk to the police." Under his direction, the Justice Department has become an Orwellian ministry that wages war on affirmative action, tried to halt funding for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence on the grounds that it was a "pro-lesbian" group, [2] and ruled that employers can discriminate against people with AIDS (or people who have been exposed to HTLV-III) if they believe they are preventing the spread of the disease. [3]

The most powerful commissioners--chairman Henry Hudson, vice-chairman Tex Lezar, executive director Alan Sears, and Edward J. Garcia--are law-enforcement professionals. When he was the commonwealth's attorney for a suburb of Washington, D.C., Hudson received a presidential commendation for closing down every adult bookstore and massage parlor in the county. The Commission's constitutional expert, Frederick Schauer, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, takes the position that pornography is not protected by the First Amendment since it is a form of sexual activity, not speech.

The two social scientists on the Commission included Park Elliott Dietz, an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia. Dietz has a visiting appointment as a consultant and guest lecturer at the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI Academy. He believes that masturbating to deviant images supports and maintains (if not causes) deviance, and he has published research on the dangers of detective magazines. The other researcher, Judith Veronica Becker, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, is the director of the Sexual Behavior Clinic in New York. It was probably thought that her work with rape victims would make her sympathetic to efforts to wipe out smut.

Three of the commissioners are moral crusaders. Reverend Bruce Ritter, a Franciscan priest and ardent foe of Times Square, is the founder of Covenant House, a crisis center for runaways. As the vice-mayor and a council-member of Scottsdale, Arizona, Diane D. Cusack urged citizens to photograph patrons of the town's only adult movie theater, copy down their license-plate numbers, and turn over this "evidence" to police. And Dr. James C. Dobson is a fundamentalist pediatrician with a syndicated right-wing radio program, "Focus on the Family."

Deanne Tilton-Durfee, the president of the California Consortium of Child Abuse Councils, was probably expected to join this trio in supporting all proposals to regulate child pornography and hopefully adults-only material as well.

The closest thing the Commission had to a representative of the publishing industry or the arts was Ellen Levine, a vice president of CBS and editor of Woman's Day. [4]

This "objective" body was given one year and half a million dollars to come up with a solution to pornography. The 1970 Commission had two million dollars and two years. It funded over eighty independent studies of porn. [5] The new Commission couldn't do that, so it held public hearings--lots of them. From June of l985 to January of l986, the Commission held two-day hearings in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City. Their 1,960-page, two-volume Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, Final Report was thrown together during work sessions in Washington, D.C., and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Despite its bulk, this is a quick and dirty piece of work. It is also the harbinger of a new wave of sexual McCarthyism. Porn is about to become the "red menace" of the '80s. The report even makes a metaphorical connection between the two: "That the Communist Party is a lawful organization does not prevent most Americans from finding its tenets abhorrent, and the same holds true for a wide variety of sexually-oriented material." [6]

Reading the report is about as much fun as listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Bizarre examples of doublespeak keep cropping up. "The right to privacy" is a right that is violated when adults appear in sexually explicit material or view such material; "public entertainment" is a married couple watching the Playboy Channel after they have put the kids to bed in another room; "community standards" are the opinions of a bunch of zealots whose politics are slightly to the right of the Old Testament and whose sense of truth and beauty comes from K-Mart; "consent" is something "every adult needs special safeguards against" if they choose to appear in porn; [7] and "protecting the First Amendment" is something you do by fighting porn because its "plausibility" is "jeopardized when the First Amendment too often becomes the rhetorical device by which the commercial trade in materials directed virtually exclusively at sexual arousal is defended." [8]

The report also makes generous use of feminist antiporn rhetoric. New York Women Against Pornography (WAP) helped the Commission staff locate witnesses who testified as "victims of pornography," but at some point it occurred to WAP leaders that it was time to duck the charge of being tools of the state. Dorchen Leidholdt (along with several other WAP leaders) had been willing to testify before the Commission in Washington, D.C., but on the first day of the New York hearings, she led a demonstration against them--the critical edge of which was blunted a little when an officer of the court opened the gate and escorted the WAPettes to a microphone at the witness stand. Chairman Henry Hudson even asked for a copy of her remarks to enter into the record!

When the Final Report was issued, WAP called a triumphant press conference. In a joint statement, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon crowed over the Commission's endorsement of their ordinance, which defines and bans pornography as a violation of women's civil rights. They never mentioned the minor hitch that the ordinance had already been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it would proscribe material that is protected by the First Amendment. [9] Perhaps they had not read the full text of the Commission's recommendation of their ordinance, which contains the demurrer that, of course, "The only constitutionally permissible to reach material containing sexually violent or...degrading material when it is legally obscene." [10] It takes more than a press conference to hide the fact that WAP was hoodwinked, coopted, and used.

The Commission's proposals for dealing with porn are hair-raising. They want stepped-up enforcement of existing obscenity laws; increased cooperation between local, state, and federal law enforcement personnel and the IRS; and a computerized national database. They want forfeiture statutes, so that any proceeds from production of pornography can be confiscated. They want Congress to enact a statute that the distribution of obscene material "affects" interstate commerce. This would eliminate the necessity to prove transportation in interstate commerce in obscenity cases. According to the Commission, hiring individuals to participate in commercial sexual performances should be made an unfair labor practice. Transmission of obscene matter over cable TV and telephone lines should be proscribed. Obscenity should be made a predicate act for a group to be investigated under the frighteningly powerful Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and states should enact their own versions of RICO. All state legislatures should adopt the lower standard of proof of obscenity found in Miller v. California. [11] Pandering laws should be used against porn producers. Conditions within adult bookstores should be investigated and health violations prosecuted. Peep show booths should not be allowed to have doors or holes in the walls between the booths. Use of performers under the age of twenty-one should be forbidden by act of Congress, and producers, retailers, and distributors of sexually explicit material should be required to maintain records containing consent forms and proof of performers' ages. [12]

It was only by a very narrow margin that the Commission did not vote to recommend legislation that would have made vibrators and dildos obscene. Although the report admits that sexually explicit material which is text only (words) should usually be exempt from prosecution, Chairman Henry Hudson says in his individual statement that this exemption "is disturbing." [13]

The Commission's staff was formulating these recommendations from the very first day of hearings, before they heard social-science data about whether or not porn caused harm, before they even defined pornography. In the Final Report, "pornography" is distinguished from the legal term "obscenity" and defined as material that "is predominantly sexually explicit and intended primarily for the purpose of sexual arousal." This is an extremely broad category which could include almost anything that deals with human sexuality. The report attempts to sidestep this problem by going on to say, "Whether some or all of what qualifies as pornographic under this definition should be prohibited, or even condemned, is not a question that should be answered under the guise of definition." [14]

But the report does in fact assume that none of this material should be available. Since the First Amendment prevents the government from going after everything, the Final Report provides a detailed manual on how citizens' action groups can combat "non-obscene but offensive pornographic material." Furthermore, "If a decision is reached to establish such a group, its members should become involved in advocating, establishing and maintaining community standards related to pornography." [15] So much for pluralism.

What is the justification for recommending such sweeping measures? The evidence compiled by the Commission is embarrassingly biased and lightweight, and eventually led three of the women--Levine, Becker, and Tilton-Durfee--to write individual statements that dissent from many of the Commission's findings.

Of 208 witnesses, at least 160 (77 percent) urged tighter control of sexually explicit material. Dozens of these people were self-described "victims of pornography" who claimed that porn had brought adultery, battery, drug abuse, and other miseries into their lives. Only 40 witnesses (19 percent) urged repeal of existing laws or suggested that things should be left as they are. The remaining 8 witnesses were social scientists or academics who tried to explain that the existing evidence doesn't prove porn causes violence or other antisocial behavior. [16] While antiporn activists and "victims of pornography" were rarely cross-examined, anticensorship witnesses were treated with asperity. They were asked if they received funding from the Playboy Foundation. Did they advocate kiddy porn or snuff films? Were they aware that porn is controlled by organized crime?

Commissioners Judith Becker and Ellen Levine complained, "While there is little doubt about the proliferation of pornography since 1970, no serious effort has been made to quantify the increase...We do not even know whether or not what the Commission viewed during the course of the year reflected the nature of most of the pornographic and obscene material in the market; nor do we know if the materials shown us mirror the taste of the majority of consumers of pornography. The visuals, both print and video, were skewed to the very violent and extremely degrading. While one does not deny the existence of this material, the fact that it dominated the materials presented...may have distorted the Commission's judgment." [17]

Highly touted "new research" that was to show a link between pornography and violent crime simply doesn't exist. The Commission hired Canadian sociologist Edna F. Einsiedel to review and summarize existing studies that might have a bearing on their findings. She reported, "No evidence currently exists that actually links fantasies with specific sexual offenses; the relationship at this point remains an inference." She also noted that pornography has been of value to some therapists who use it to treat patients. For writing this report, Einsiedel was placed under a gag order obtained by Alan Sears, and her summation does not appear in the Commission's Final Report. [18]

The experts who testified have expressed dismay over how their testimony was used. Edward Donnerstein, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin whose research shows some connection between viewing certain types of violent pornography and aggressive behavior, said the Commission's "conclusions seem bizarre to me...It is the violence more than the sex--and negative messages about human relationships--that are the problem. And these messages are everywhere." Murray Strauss, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, has said that the Commission misinterpreted his work. "I do not believe that this research demonstrates that pornography causes rape," he wrote to them. [19]

Two feeble attempts were made to provide research that was tailor-made to support the Commission. The Justice Department had given antiporn activist Judith Reisman a grant for $734,000 to study the cartoons in Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. Reisman is known for attacking Kinsey, whom she says got all his evidence about child sexuality from a man who molested over eight hundred children. Her knowledge of child sexuality probably comes from her experience as a scriptwriter for "Captain Kangaroo." Her grant was so poorly written and its budget so inflated that it drew criticism from the Senate Juvenile Justice Subcommittee. It emerged that Reisman's "peer review" had been conducted by three vice cops, an FBI agent, and fellow antiporn activist and beneficiary of Justice Department funding, Ann Burgess. Reisman testified at the hearings, but her warning that "The cartoon scenario is the common setting in erotica/pornography within which the breaking of sexual taboos first appears," was not exactly what the Commission needed to put itself over the top. [20]

A long list (over one hundred pages) of the magazine, book, and movie titles found in a dozen or so adult bookstores in six cities was compiled for a content analysis study by staff members trained in "the distinctions necessary to complete the forms (e.g., the distinction between whipping and spanking)." [21] Incidentally, both The Advocate and Advocate Men are on this list. Unfortunately, "Full formal results were not completed at the time of printing of this final report." [22] Nevertheless, the list of titles appears in the Final Report.

The Commission tries to gloss over the lack of conclusive social-science data by calling for further research, but if more research is needed, why make such dramatic recommendations for changes in policy and law? Because, huffs the Final Report, "The Commission has examined social and behavioral science research in recognition of the role it plays in determining legal standards and social policy. This role, while notable, is not, nor should it be, the sole basis for developing standards or policy." [23]

Nevertheless, when it came time to write up their conclusions, the commissioners faced quite a dilemma: how could they justify recommending allocation of scarce funds and police time to shutting down the immensely popular adult entertainment industry if they couldn't prove pornography is bad for anybody? Hudson presented his commissioners with a deus ex machina. Until the end of their fact-finding mission, pornography had been considered as a single body of material. Now, it was divided into four categories--sexually violent material; explicit sexual activity which depicts submission, humiliation, dominance, or degradation; explicit sexual activity without submission, humiliation, dominance, or degradation; and mere nudity. The key terms violence, submission, sexual activity, etc., were not defined. The commissioners were then asked to evaluate each category based on three distinct bases: social-science research, totality of the evidence (e.g., the claims of the "victims"), and moral, ethical, and cultural considerations. [24]

This intellectually bankrupt scheme allowed commissioners who were so inclined to vote that all of the categories of porn were harmful. Materials which show adults only engaging in consensual vanilla sex--even mere nudity--were not exonerated. Sadly, the press ignored the fallacious basis of the Commission's findings and simply reported that a link had been found between pornography and violence.

The Final Report comes down hard on child pornography, and its treatment of this issue has also been underexamined. It thunders for intensification of efforts to wipe out child pornography, despite the testimony of two law enforcement officials that the huge bureaucracy already in place to do so has succeeded. Sergeant. W. D. Brown of the Houston vice squad said, "Presently, there is no child pornography that is being sold readily over the counter," [25] and retired FBI agent William Kelly told them, "The laws against child porn could not be better. It never constituted more than 1 percent of the total market, but still gets 99 percent of the attention." [26]

The Commission made skillful use of a vague and ever broader definition of "child pornography" to smear material that depicts and is intended only for the use of adults. Any sexually explicit material which adults might show to children to teach them about sex or seduce them into sexual activity was referred to as "child porn." This term also came to include cartoons or drawings of children, photographs of adult models made up to look like children, or the contents of Dial-A-Porn or cable television if children have gained access to these media. Commissioners coined a new phrase--"children between the ages of 18 and 21"--who presumably need as much protection as prepubescents. [27]

The Commission would like to use the current child-pornography law as a precedent to control a wider range of adults-only material. New York v. Ferber allows images of actual children to be banned even if they are not obscene. [28] The Final Report suggests new categories of material that could be proscribed in a similar fashion--for example, "sexually violent material." All images of S/M activity will almost certainly vanish over the next year as it becomes a category as verboten as kiddy porn. You may not care if there are no more magazines full of whip-wielding ladies in leather corsets, but don't forget that WAP used Ferber to justify its civil rights antiporn ordinance and would like to ban many kinds of nonobscene, sexually explicit images on the grounds that they endanger women.

As shoddy as it is, the chilling effect of the Commission's report is already being felt. The Commission had originally planned to publish a list of distributors of pornography. Sears sent a letter to the twenty-three companies on the list informing them of this plan and warning that failure to reply would be taken as acquiescence. The companies were also sent anonymous excerpts from the testimony of Mississippi minister Reverend Donald Wildmon, whose newsletter targets corporations that he feels sponsor "filth," such as CBS, Time Inc., Coca-Cola, and Simon & Schuster. Southland Corporation, which had been under attack by Wildmon and Jerry Falwell for three years, dropped Playboy, Penthouse, and all Penthouse publications from its 4,500 7-Eleven stores. [29] Playboy, the American Booksellers Association, and the Council for Periodical Distributors Association filed a lawsuit that blocked publication of the list, but many other chains of food, drug, and convenience stores banished these magazines from their premises. [30] This is nothing less than the return of the blacklist.

The Meese Commission has highlighted the failure of most civil libertarians to deal directly with porn. The typical anticensorship witness argued that we can't ban porn because the next things to go would be important--art, literature, theater, legitimate film, political protest. But this claim rings hollow. Silencing artists and radicals is not on the Commission's agenda. Most of the commissioners are quite plain about the fact that they just don't like people having sex out of wedlock or looking at porn and not feeling guilty about it.

The flaws of pornography make it difficult to defend. Much of it is sexist, made under poor working conditions, overpriced, and controlled by the Mafia. But you can't fix any of these problems by making it even more illegal and harder to get. The more marginal, the more persecuted porn is, the worse it will become. And the new producers who are gambling with nonsexist, challenging material will be squeezed out of business.

More of us have to start saying that we use porn, like it, and want it to be accessible. Even given the constraints under which it is currently produced, pornography is valuable. It sends out messages of comfort and rebellion. It says: Lust is not evil. The body is not hateful. Physical pleasure is a joyful thing and should not be hidden or denied. It is not true that women have no sexual hunger. There are other people who think about and do the things you dream about. Freedom is possible. There is a choice.

Even those of us who are deviants or sex radicals or both can't seem to stop apologizing for the shabby forms our society often forces Eros to assume. Meanwhile, war has been declared against the sexual imagination, and I'm afraid we're all going to lose.


Pat Califia is the author of many books, notably Macho Sluts, Melting Point, and The Advocate Advisor. She lives in San Fransisco. This article is taken from her 1994 book Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, available from Cleis Press.