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A Feelthy Commission

The Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography

the text with Dissents and an Introduction by Clive Barnes
Bantam, 700 pp., $1.65 (to be published in hardcover by Random House in February) (paper)

It is surely odd that the only bequest of President Johnson’s to be repudiated by the votes of all but five senators and to be denounced as “morally bankrupt” by Mr. Nixon should be not his war but this report of his Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. Mr. Johnson’s virtues in this case seem to have occasioned more scandal than any of his vices have. And how virtuous this work ordained by him seems to us now as it lies there abused and violated, reduced almost to inaudibility except as the strangled cry of that Church of the Enlightened now in Exile—an exile that may, sooner than we think, be wholly silenced, the pursuit being as implacable as it is sullen.

We want then so much to cherish the poor thing. It somehow makes a great difference that the encyclicals of the social psychologists, having been applauded without being read under the Democrats, are now scorned without being read under the Republicans. The Church Triumphant might have seemed inadequate; but the Church Beleaguered looks more and more like our mother. The social psychologists have, to be sure, been especially tempted by the fraudulent when they put on their ceremonial robes as Presidential commissioners. But who among us will not be gentle with the fraud when he shares its piety, some compromise between truth and interest being as easy as it is ancient.

Still, someone, somewhere, owes us some critical examination of the Report on Obscenity, if only as an autopsy on a method of argument now dying and doubtless to be succeeded by a worse one. It was, after all, by adjusting their methods to their motives that so many of the liberal social scientists managed their transient authority—at best more respected than listened to—in our debate on large public questions. Having in most cases chosen their sides as moralists, they seemed to feel the need to present themselves as utilitarians and to give a weight to dubious research which, as practical men, they would be embarrassed to claim as the basis for sound principle. This posture in argument, the habit of a generation, seems especially inappropriate to the case at hand: the pornographer very clearly has rights, but it is hard to argue that he has uses.

The endurance of this habit of moral argument which appeals almost exclusively to utility may explain why the Commission, in defending its recommendations against statutory restraints on pornography, nowhere seems to mention the First Amendment, even though its chairman is dean of the law school of the University of Minnesota. There is, however, one assertion of living historical tradition: “Americans deeply value the right of each individual to determine for himself what books he wishes to read and what pictures or films he wishes to see.” This proposition would be more clearly beyond dispute if the President and 90 percent of the Senate had not so recently proclaimed that they feel otherwise. But, whether it is true or false, we ought to expect a constitutional lawyer to recognize that a fundamental right is not for public opinion to grant or withhold.

The Commission, in fairness, does not explicitly defend toleration by attesting the social value of the thing to be tolerated. The advance prospectus of its findings—leaked to the press, I am afraid, by some moralist of sexual liberation—did leave something of that impression, along with the promised amusement of being told that pornography arouses women just as much as it does men, and leaves political conservatives limp and political liberals tumescent. Had the social psychologists gone to their hanging with an uncharacteristic leap into gallows humor? Had they played upon their audience their last joke, by striking each reader in those illusions about himself he had held most precious—the liberal’s assurance of his superior delicacy, the conservative’s of his more active masculine appetite, even the liberated woman’s of her having burst the chains of the flesh? It is sad to search the final product and not to find, at least tangibly, comic ironies of such rich promise.

Still, the Commission’s findings permit and indeed even rather encourage the inference that pornography, if it can be said to have any effect at all, tends to be good for you:

The customers of adult movie theaters manifest a good deal of upward social mobility [p. 165]…. Studies of adult bookstore and motion picture patrons consistently report that the clients of these establishments are predominantly white, middle-aged, middle-class males, most of whom present the physical appearance of economical success and social respectability [p. 293]…. Fifty-six percent of these viewers identified aspects of information in adult films. [p. 164]

These studies suggest that persons who are more experienced recently with erotic materials are indeed attitudinally different from those with less experience…. The data show that highly experienced persons, as compared with others, are more supportive of First Amendment rights…and more active in local and national politics. They are also more highly educated and more frequently read books and magazines. [p. 236]

Available research indicates that sex offenders have had less adolescent experience with erotica than other adults [p. 285]…. Research shows that the early social environments of sex offenders may be characterized as sexually repressive and deprived. [p. 285]

The studies of P.H. Gebhard et al. on Sex Offenders1 seem to have been presented with proper credit by the Commission as its own:

On the whole sex offender groups reported least arousal from pornography [Gebhard and his associates have found]…. About all that can be said is that strong response to pornography is associated with imaginativeness, ability to project, and sensitivity, all of which generally increase as education increases…. Since the majority of sex offenders are not well educated, their responsiveness to pornography is correspondingly less. [p. 276]

Without excusing President Nixon’s language about such findings, we can feel some sympathy for the wound they occasioned him: no President, in all conscience, ought to have to draw from one of his own commissions the inference that the patrons of grind houses are persons of a sensibility much more refined than his own.

Yet we want so much to believe these data, not just for the cause they are tailored to support, but for the portrait of Americans to which they tempt us. Woman, for example, has not lately been presented often enough as so deserving of chivalry as she emerges here in her test by confrontation with the erotic. She is, it is true, not treated here with scrupulous fairness: the Commission’s researchers, in their earnest old-fashioned Ibsenite way, want very much to prove that she lusts as much as man does; and to establish as scientifically true what so much experience disputes, they sit her down before two dirty movies and then measure her faintest genital tinglings as equal on the scale of arousal to the partial erections of males in the audience.

Yet, burdened though she be here as elsewhere by the double standard, how healthy she comes through: Byrne, D. and Lamberth, J. demand that she choose her preference among depictions of nineteen different sexual situations; and she rates the image of “female torturing a male” seventeenth on the ladder of arousal, barely above “homosexual anal intercourse” and “female clothed” in its bottom rungs.

The heart leaps at all these findings; and yet the head holds back. Its trouble is not merely with the meagerness of these samples but with the habit the social psychologists have of offering their splendid prejudices in the disguise of utilitarian scientific discoveries. For, if they truly valued their data more than as ornament to a structure built in advance, they would hardly have served it up with typographical errors noticeable even to critics as well-disposed and as lacking in pertinacity as myself.2

The Commission’s methods are indeed more damaged than its recommendations by the attack of its dissenting members, Father Morton A. Hill, the Yorkville Jesuit, and the Reverend Winfrey C. Link, administrator of the McKendree Manor Methodist Retirement Home, Hermitage, Tennessee. These two old stagers have been crying out against smut in the streets for quite a while. Surely their hawkings ought to have so disabled their powers of reason by now that their arguments should be worth only a withering smile.

They do begin as badly as liberal bigotry might expect with the proclamation that “the Commission’s majority report is a Magna Carta for the pornographer.” Yet, having thus taken their position like fanatics, Father Hill and the Reverend Mr. Link surprise us by proceeding to argue it like philosophers. They even present us with the single most persuasive sentence in this whole document:

Because of the extreme complexity of the problem and the uniqueness of the human experience it is doubtful that we will ever have absolutely convincing scientific proof that pornography is or isn’t harmful.

They are sportsmen, and this condition, while commending them as divines, lames them for the quarrel. They have, for example, labored long over the data and have arisen with a most convincing portrait of a commission majority which winnowed the chaff that gave scientific color to its thesis from the chaff which might bring it into dispute. These worthies pick up all the discards and serve them back to us now as scholarly citations for their own thesis; but, being gentlemen, they have, I am afraid, quite given the game away, for having established the incompetence of this sort of thing in the service of the other side, they cannot hope to impress us with its service to their own.

Even so, their assault on the Commission’s research techniques turns out to be quite useful for illuminating the limitations of the social science method. As one instance, they pause and puzzle over the findings of Thorne and Haupt that 30 percent of convicted rapists report never having experienced a sexual orgasm. This surprises Father Hill and the Reverend Mr. Link as it ought to surprise us; and they work their way through to the only possible explanation: the rapist answers that he has never had an orgasm because he thinks he has been asked if he has ever been to an orgy. With such blocks as these—the replies of persons who do not understand the question—the social psychologists build their structures.

Father Hill and the Reverend Mr. Link were joined in their dissent by Charles H. Keating, Jr., founder of the Cincinnati Citizens for Decent Literature. Keating was Mr. Nixon’s only appointee to the Commission and thus the President’s entire contribution to its deliberations. He could not, as Mr. Nixon’s legate, satisfy himself by mere association with the comparative civilities of his pastoral brethren; he had to compose his own harangue. As support he presented the only purely disgusting material in this volume to be entered, and very probably savored, by any of its contributors—eleven closely printed pages of details of sexual offenses in California.

He adds, in a no more elevated key, the first-hand testament of witnesses:

A fur farmer in upper New York wrote me regarding migrant Puerto Rican and American Indian workers he has employed over the past twenty years…. He stated that they have changed from rather manly, decent people to rapists obsessed with sex, including many deviations. “I believe this is mostly obscene literature and obscene pictures such as I am sending to you.”

Thereupon, President Nixon’s personal commissioner on pornography puts into the record and for general circulation the names and addresses of eight firms which deal in erotica and includes for our convenience a notation of each one’s specialty.

There is also the evocation of witnesses of more cosmic import:

Pitirim Sorokin asserts…”there is no example of a community which has attained its high position on the social scale after less rigorous sexual customs have replaced more restricting ones.”

And:

(Ref. Toynbee: Moral decay from within destroyed most of the world’s great civilizations.) [p. 616]

Sex and anti-sex are alike religions, distinctly crude ones, sharing the same addiction to the millennial, the same obsession with history as nothing except their single subject, the same immunity to the smallest sense of the ridiculous. It is striking how much the rhetoric of Charles Keating sounds like the commentary in the film Sexual Freedom in Denmark. As Keating will soberly credit the “creativity and excellence of our society” to its history of “laws prohibiting obscenity and pornography,” Sexual Freedom in Denmark conceives of colonialism and imperialism as consequences only of the Victorian repression of the inner urge. You sit watching Sexual Freedom as two Lesbians moan pitiably at their business. You hear the voice of the commentator: “In Stanley vs. Georgia, the Supreme Court established….” No more for these Danes than for Charles Keating is that moment possible when you think you might, through the inappropriateness of image to message, be making a fool of yourself.

We have spent the foregoing time gently, languidly casting over one example of the deficiencies of the fallen church of Liberalism. Only now have we been brought to look upon Charles H. Keating and to sense the blow of what has taken its place—Mr. Nixon, heavily treading, preaching, abusing. And if he is too busy to come himself, he can be depended upon to send some friend like Charles H. Keating.

But then there is just no way to talk about this subject without violating some detail of moral delicacy. It would, of course, be wicked to stand neutral between Mr. Nixon and the Commission, since the one is malign, the other benignant. But both, to a better or to a worse degree, intrude upon each man’s right to his own damnation, Mr. Nixon by crying out against, and the Commission by denying—on a more generous impulse but no harder evidence—that the customer is damned. He may or may not be damned; but he is very probably cheated.

And most of their exploiters are cheated too. The other afternoon on Forty-second Street I passed an adult peep show arcade, empty except for its proprietor. He was watching Lucille Ball on television. You could imagine his latest economic enterprise—say an investment in Davy Crockett caps just before their market glut and crash. Now he was in beavers, as always too late.

What have the young in one another’s arms to do with us, the almost-old, who look at them with those two least pleasurable of sexual excitations, arousal or disgust toward an object beyond our reach? All thoughts and feelings which ought to embarrass you are better kept to yourself and those who think them better let alone. They have suffered enough.

  1. 1

    Harper and Row, 1965.

  2. 2

    Table 11, for example, lists a depiction of “nude female” as Number One (the most arousing) among nineteen sexual variants offered to the women sampled by Byrne and Lamberth. This, of course, was a finding of pervasive Sapphism that not even David Susskind could imagine; and it was made more confusing by the discovery that pictures of girls playing with each other rated only thirteenth on the scale of arousal.

    Could it be that women prefer women just so long as women don’t do anything? This sudden hope of a key to our grandest mystery did not, unfortunately, survive a recheck of the scale: the Commission had left out a digit: the image of “nude female” was only fourteenth among the erotic preferences of women, just two steps below “homosexual fellatio.”

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