The year 2004 witnessed the continued mainstreaming, popularity, and proliferation of adult entertainment -- its detractors simply call it pornography -- in American culture. Despite this country's documented appetite for sexual fare, a vocal minority hopes to put the brakes on the widespread availability of adult material.
The success of adult video star Jenna Jameson's best-selling book, "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," is testament alone to the popularity of this material. The memoir detailing the trials and tribulations of the world's most popular adult actress was such a hit this year that people stood in line for 2 1/2 hours at a book signing in San Francisco. According to Publishers Weekly, the book already has had three press runs, with 100,000 copies in print.
Then there's the continued expansion and development of publisher Larry Flynt's chain of clean, well-lighted "Hustler Hollywood" stores across the United States. No longer limited to the original Sunset Boulevard locale in West Hollywood, one can now find the upscale adult emporiums in places ranging from Lexington, Ky., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
All of the growth and success of the multi-billion dollar adult entertainment industry in 2004 came despite a well-publicized HIV scare among its workers in Southern California. But just when you thought it was safe to visit that sexually explicit website or drive to the adult store to pick up the latest flick from Vivid Video, the forces of censorship are at it again. And this time they are taking the battle to Congress with the all-too-familiar parade of "experts" predicting certain doom if sexual content doesn't remain tucked away behind bedroom doors.
Last month, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing called "The Science Behind Pornography Addiction." It featured four antipornography activists -- each with "Dr." before his or her name -- testifying about the horrors of viewing adult content. No one from the adult entertainment industry, according to the Adult Video News, was notified in advance by the committee's staff.
The battle is now being framed as one of science versus speech. But despite cloaking attacks on the First Amendment in the guise of science, the testimony was littered with the usual rhetoric and hyperbole.
For instance, Mary Anne Layden, the co-director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, testified that pornography is a "toxin" and causes "sexual miseducation." She also compared pornography with cocaine and went so far as to call it the "most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today."
The heart of the witnesses' arguments ultimately is that science now has solid proof about the harms of viewing sexually explicit material -- harms that trump the First Amendment protection of free speech. In fact, Judith Reisman of the California Protective Parents Association suggested that pornography does not even constitute speech. She proclaimed, "Thanks to the latest advances in neuroscience, we now know that pornographic visual images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an instant, involuntary, but lasting, biochemical memory trail, arguably, subverting the First Amendment by overriding the cognitive speech process."
Keeping the adult entertainment industry away from Washington made for a tidy hearing by allowing the views of the antipornography clan to go unchecked. Moreover, it is unlikely that many Americans will shed tears over the underrepresentation of the adult industry at a Senate hearing. But this legislative snubbing is indicative of a larger emerging problem whereby the government allows the viewpoints of a few to shape the national speech agenda for the whole, particularly on the topic of sex.
Nowhere is this trend more focused than in the recent happenings at the Federal Communications Commission. The flurry of activity over indecency and profanity has brought that government agency to a fever's pitch, levying fines and warnings to broadcasters across America. The message is clear: America is fed up with foul language and sexual content on radio and television. Or is it?
For the past year, the FCC has led us to believe that the country wants the airwaves cleaned up -- and that chairman Michael Powell and his fellow arbiters of good taste are up to the task. Last February, Powell told lawmakers that the commission has experienced "a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes," touting figures which showed fewer than 350 complaints in 2001 to a record 240,000 in 2003.
Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request to the agency, the nation learned last week that a staggering 99.8 percent of all indecency complaints filed during that year came from just one group, the Parents Television Council, a conservative advocacy group that boasts, on its website, it is "bringing America's demand for positive, family-oriented television programming to the entertainment industry."
PTC's president L. Brent Bozell is no stranger to Congress. In fact, he has testified before the very committee that hosted the four antipornography activists. And the core message is strikingly similar: We need to save America from itself.
But does mainstream America want the government's protection?
The business community doesn't think so.
Sirius satellite radio picked up the FCC's favorite loud-mouthed target Howard Stern for a reported $500 million. With subscriptions to the unregulated service now running at less than $13 a month, that company is banking on a mass exodus of Stern's loyal fans from free broadcasting to the paid variety.
In similar fashion, Larry Flynt's retail expansion throughout the country demonstrates faith in the mainstream marketplace and recognizes that Americans are not as uptight about sex as the FCC commissioners and some members of Congress.
Although the private sector will take care of itself, the American public should question how much money the federal government is spending on congressional hearings, questionable science and related efforts to appease a well-organized minority that feels it knows what's best for the country.
Robert D. Richards and Clay Calvert are professors of communications and law at Penn State University and co-directors of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment.
© 2004 Boston Globe