Say No to the Neopuritans


Warning: This editorial discusses various aspects of sexual behavior. Those offended by frank discussion of this issue may wish to turn the page.

Sex is still a difficult subject for Americans to deal with. Other advanced societies seem to take a far more matter-of-fact, live-and-let-live attitude toward sexual matters—in many European countries nude beaches, prostitution, and erotica are legal, and Japan has a long tradition of pillow books and sex hotels. Not everyone in these countries makes use of these practices—but those who don't, generally do not try to invoke the force of law to deprive others of them.

But not here. Not these days. America's baby-boom generation is the first to come of age since the development of nearly foolproof contraception. So the past 25 years have witnessed a "sexual revolution" in which—at least for the younger generation—openness about sex has become the norm. But those who make the laws and control the government are mostly from earlier generations. For them, the specter of sex-as-sin still retains much of its power.

For the past five years or so, a neopuritan movement has been attempting to play on our lawmakers' unease about sex. Led by a Mississippi preacher, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, they have labeled all forms of erotic materials "pornography" and argued that this pornography causes crime, the destruction of families, and other assorted evils. Their campaign caught the eye of the Reagan administration. Last year, Attorney General Ed Meese appointed a national commission heavily stacked with these people (see "Reagan's Smutstompers" by Martin Morse Wooster, April) to investigate the problem. Now the commission report is out, and its conclusions bear out individualist worries.

One of the most troubling aspects of the commission's work is its deliberate distortion of the everyday meaning of certain key words. Drawing heavily on the rhetoric and style of Wildmon's National Federation for Decency, the commission's basic M.O. was to give expansive new meanings to terms that carry strongly negative emotional connotations for most Americans. Three principal examples:

Pornography. The commission, like Wildmon, used this single term to apply to all forms of erotic material, from the simple nude photos in Playboy to bizarre fetishist movies like Big Tit Dildo Bondage. Focusing heavily on examples of the latter in its reports and exhibits to create a negative reaction among ordinary people—and no doubt among its own members—the commission then capitalized on this reaction by snaring Playboy and R-rated cable films in the same "pornography" net.

Organized crime. After failing to produce evidence that the expansively defined "pornography industry" is controlled by the Mafia, the commission relied on the following sort of verbal sleight-of-hand, as offered by FBI pornography-hunter William P. Kelley: "[If you have] an office, toll-free telephone number, a warehouse of some size, several salesmen, and possibly even a fleet of trucks—I call that a highly organized business enterprise," Kelley testified. Fair enough. But now get this: "And where dealing in legally obscene materials, it is [therefore] 'organized crime,'" he continued. And sure enough, the commission's report is full of scare-mongering about the involvement of organized crime in the distribution of erotica.

Child pornography. Every decent person is opposed to the sexual exploitation of children in pictures and films. That's what "child pornography" means. But to capitalize on that opposition, commission members attempted to define all sorts of other things as "child pornography," too, including the possibility that kids might tune in an R-rated movie on cable TV, or even the depiction of adult models in child-like poses or costumes.

The underlying premise of these people is a form of moral collectivism—that their view of proper sexual behavior is the only one that should be permitted by law. Their excuse for thereby depriving others of their liberty? According to Ed Meese, a "healthy society" must control "the ways in which its people publicly [!] entertain themselves." The commission's two clergymen, Revs. Bruce Ritter and James Dobson, contend that even "nonviolent, nondegrading" erotic material "weaken the family" and should therefore be illegal. Some commission members even think that nonviolent, consensual activity such as oral sex or possessing a vibrator should be illegal. Their concept of the collective good of society, they say, ought to overrule individual choice—voluntary, noncoercive choice, in the most personal and intimate of all human concerns.

By its very nature, sexual response is a matter of a person's individual nature. What turns someone on is a complex result of his or her upbringing, book-learning, character, personality…who knows what! The more we learn about sexuality, the more we realize how diverse people's tastes and turn-ons really are, as witness the bestselling The Joy of Sex with its vast array of possible (nonviolent, consensual) sexual practices.

Thanks to numerous studies and books, both scholarly and popular, we now appreciate what a key role fantasy plays in many people's sex lives. One reason for the immense popularity of adult videos and other X-rated erotica is their role in encouraging fantasies that can make for better sex. (Some facts: 40 percent of male and female respondents to a People magazine survey have watched at least one X-rated video on a VCR. Some 60 percent of adult-video customers are women. Overall, 13 percent of video-store revenues comes from adult videos.)

The underlying premise—that the law should forbid materials that people use as adjuncts to sexual pleasure—must be challenged. Since no two people are exactly alike in their sexual psychology, the law must steer clear of attempting to dictate and circumscribe individual choices in so profoundly personal and intimate an area of life. What's at stake here goes far beyond hairsplitting interpretations of the First Amendment. At issue is the bedrock principle of individualism enunciated in the Declaration of Independence—the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is high time the neopuritans were put in their place. Yes, they have every right to their views of what is and is not "decent," "proper" sexual behavior. And they have every right to use the means available to people in a free society—speaking out, publishing, boycotting—to convince others of their views. But they have no right, none whatsoever, to use the force of law to outlaw private, voluntary, noncoercive actions by adults—such as producing or buying erotic videos, books, magazines, or devices.

No one has stated this principle of moral individualism better than 19th-century political philosopher John Stuart Mill. In his classic volume, On Liberty, Mill wrote: "The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."