Debbie does Washington
Masturbation lights up your brain like a parade. It makes you stop talking
to your wife. Yes, just another day at the Senate hearing on pornography.
By Michael Scherer
Nov. 11, 2005 | Sen. Sam Brownback has no trouble talking about sex. In
hearing after hearing, he has brought forward experts in sexual dysfunction,
lawyers fluent in the constitutional regulation of sex, and even journalists
who have studied American sexual behavior. His concerns are varied, ranging
from the horrors of international sex slavery to child exploitation. But on
Thursday, he convened his third hearing in just over a year on another
sexual topic altogether: porn.
"I think most Americans agree and know that pornography is bad. They know
that it involves exploitive images of men and women, and that it is morally
repugnant and offensive," Brownback said, kicking off a hearing of the
Senate's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights,
which he chairs. "What most Americans don't know is how harmful pornography
is to its users and their families."
With those words, Brownback kicked off a 90-minute discussion of hardcore
sex scenes, self-gratification and its negative impacts. "This is not just a
simple, benign form of expression, but rather a potentially addictive
substance," explained one of the subcommittee's panelists, Jill Manning, a
sociologist from Brigham Young University. "People watch a movie, read a
book, listen to music, but they masturbate to pornography. In that
difference, you have a different stimulation to the brain."
She went on to explain that the experience of masturbation activates about
14 neurotransmitters and hormones, causing a quick chain reaction of brain
activity. "There have been some experts who have even argued that, in and of
itself, overrides informed consent when encountering this material," she
said, apparently suggesting that an adult's own sexual self-stimulation can
lead to a loss of judgment. Pornography, she continued, had been shown to
increase the risk of divorce, decrease marital intimacy and cause
misunderstandings about the prevalence of less common sex practices like
group sex, bestiality and sadomasochistic activity. Men are not the only
victims. Women, she said, make up about 30 percent of the audience for
The problems caused by porn can strike at the heart of a marriage. Another
panelist, Pamela Paul, who recently wrote a book about the role of explicit
sexual material in American culture, spoke of a fateful decision faced by
some married men every day after work: They must choose between masturbating
at a computer and finding sexual satisfaction with their wives. "If they go
to their wives, well, just practically speaking, they have to make sure they
have done all of the chores around the house they were supposed to do. They
need to have a half-an-hour conversation about what they did that day," said
Paul. This courtship could take up to an hour and a half. By contrast, she
said, it takes "five minutes to go online."
There was little indication that Brownback's panelists reflected a full
range of views about the impacts of porn, however. "Typical of his hearings,
he has stacked the panel," said Tom Hymes, a spokesman for the Free Speech
Coalition, the porn industry's trade group, which claims to represent
several billion dollars in yearly revenue and more than 1.2 million adult
Web sites. In a telephone interview after the hearing, Hymes pointed out
that porn is widely, and regularly, consumed by consenting adults in each of
the 50 states. "Red states, in fact, enjoy the adult material more than the
blue states," he said. "The hotel rooms in Utah, for instance, download more
adult movies than any other state. I have that on a very good source."
At press time, the rate of pornographic viewership in Utah hotels could not
be independently verified. But Utah was represented at the hearing. Sen.
Orrin Hatch attended a portion of the hearing to voice his support for a
clampdown on pornography. He compared explicit sexual material to high-fat
food and secondhand smoke, saying this was a "problem of harm, not an issue
of taste." "America is more sex-ridden than any country in world history,"
said Utah's senior senator, quoting a 25-year-old study. "Today, as we enter
the holiday season, obtaining the catalog of certain clothing companies will
require a photo I.D."
The only other senator to participate was Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who is a
ranking member of the Constitution subcommittee. He told the panelists that
he shared Brownback's concerns over pornography involving children and human
sex trafficking. But he seemed more skeptical about the overall tone of the
"The subject of this hearing suggests that we may be faced with proposals
that go well beyond what Congress can constitutionally undertake," Feingold
To date, Brownback has put forward no specific legislation to address the
problems he sees with pornography. But he mentioned several possible
options, including a law that would encourage families to file civil suits
against porn producers if they felt harmed by the material, a strategy that
might put Brownback at odds with many of his Republican peers, who have
championed restrictions on civil litigation. He also talked about a federal
public education campaign, along the line of anti-drug advertising, to
inform Americans about the dangers of watching explicit sex.
Finally, Brownback spoke of possibly expanding the law to ban certain types
of pornography beyond the current obscenity statutes. But he was repeatedly
cautioned by one of the witnesses, Rodney Smolla, the dean of the University
of Richmond School of Law, who said that any such effort would likely be
shot down by the courts. The Supreme Court, Smolla explained, has been very
clear that pornography is entitled to First Amendment protections, unless it
is declared obscene.
For a magazine or video to be declared obscene in a particular community, a
jury must decide that the material meets three tests: It appeals to prurient
interests in sex; it has no political, artistic or scientific value; and it
depicts "in a patently offensive way" specific sexual conduct. To make those
determinations, jurors are asked to apply "contemporary community
standards," a squishy term that could lead a Texas jury to outlaw soft-core
scenes while allowing a California jury to excuse close-up shots of graphic
Under this standard, Smolla pointed out, much of the mainstream pornography
currently sold in video stores or distributed over cable or the Internet is
likely obscene in many communities. The problem was not the law, he said,
just the enforcement. "If you double or triple, or multiply tenfold, the
prosecutorial efforts, you would see results, no doubt about it," Smolla
said. "The law doesn't need changing so much as the social will to go after
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been trying to do just this, with
mixed success. While obscenity prosecutions are up, the Justice Department
faced a major setback in January, on the day of President Bush's
inauguration. A federal district judge in Pennsylvania dismissed an
obscenity case against one porn company, Extreme Associates, which produces
the most offensive types of pornography, including scenes that involve
violence, urination and simulated rape.
In his decision, Judge Gary Lancaster cited a recent Supreme Court decision,
in Lawrence v. Texas, that claimed a Texas ban on consensual sodomy violated
the constitutional rights of adults. Lancaster ruled that the same legal
reasoning all but nullified the rationale behind many obscenity laws. "After
Lawrence," the judge wrote, "the government can no longer rely on the
advancement of a moral code, i.e., preventing consenting adults from
entertaining lewd and lascivious thoughts, as a legitimate, let alone
compelling, state interest."
That ruling, if it is upheld on appeal, could be a death knell to the
principal legal remedy pornography opponents now have. In the meantime,
however, the Justice Department continues to win obscenity convictions. Just
a few weeks ago, Edward Wedelstedt, the millionaire owner of a chain of
adult video stores, pled guilty to distributing a video later deemed obscene
in Texas, "Tits & Ass #8."
At the hearing, Brownback nonetheless pressed his witnesses to find ways to
expand the legal regulation of whole categories of pornography. He asked the
panel's legal experts if the courts might be moved to whittle away at First
Amendment rights in the face of a public health crisis. "Are we getting to
the point of evidence where a court would be willing to say this is
enormously harmful?" Brownback asked.
"My simple answer is no," said Smolla.
A few minutes later, the hearing was gaveled to a close, ending, for several
months at least, all the official talk about masturbation on Capitol Hill.
-- By Michael Scherer
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