Usually pornography starts the ball rolling. When you get an adult theater, an adult bookstore, customers go in and become aroused. When they come out, they have to let off that steam they have built up within themselves. -- Los Angeles Police Capt. James Docherty, testifying before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography

The only thing Judith Becker wanted was a steaming shower.

"The hygiene in these places is upsetting, and the viewing rooms and booths just smell bad back there," says the Columbia University psychologist of an expedition with her fellow commissioners to three adult bookstores in Houston last September.

It was all in a night's work for the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography. Its one-year mandate: "to determine the nature, extent and impact on society of pornography in the United States," as the official charter provides, and to tell America "what we can do about it," as President Reagan pronounced.

The 11 commissioners devoted hundreds of hours to scrutinizing the unwatchable and listening to the unspeakable, descriptions of which are unprintable. It was a $500,000 exploration, with the help of an ad hoc staff of law enforcement officers, of everything from Miami vice to sexual perversity in Chicago.

The hefty final report -- replete with more than 5,000 titles of X-rated materials and scene-by-scene accounts of such films as "Biker Slave Girls" -- will be formally delivered to Attorney General Edwin Meese in early July and published by the Government Printing Office. It is doubtful that the authors will look back fondly.

"One of the most unpleasant things I've ever done in my life," says Commissioner James C. Dobson, a family counselor from California who hosts a syndicated radio show.

"It's sort of like being in the trenches for a year," says Commissioner Deanne Tilton, a child-abuse treatment administrator from California. "If I were to describe my emotional reaction all year, it would be a chronic state of anxiety over not being able to review all the material and make a credible assessment of it."

The trip to the bookstores in Houston, after a day of public testimony, was just such an anxiety-producer. The commissioners were ferried through the city's red-light district in government vans, TV crews in tow. When they arrived at the first porn shop most of the customers fled, leaving the Justice Department delegation to its own devices. Staff members passed out tokens for the peep shows. The commissioners stepped into the arcade and watched, while camera crews watched them watching.

"Very unsettling," says Tilton. "The smell, the atmosphere, the lonely people standing around looking for whatever seemed to be missing from their lives, by way of this sad vicarious mechanism, sitting or standing in a small booth to watch 90 seconds of explicit sex and depositing coin after coin to continue the process.

"It was a rest-room ambiance -- the floors were sticky, the air was musty. I was astonished at the ability of some people to be sexually aroused in a place like that."

*At one point a Houston vice cop flung open a booth to point out two customers in the middle of a sex act. The commission's chief antagonist, Barry Lynn, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union on assignment to dog the panel's every step, recalls that various commissioners drifted furtively toward the discovery in the dark, dank back room.

"It reminded me very much of the day in sixth grade," he says, "when someone brought their dead cat to class."

I don't know what to recommend to this commission. We are lost . . . I don't know if anybody else has done this for you all, but I want to pray for you right now, and I want to ask everybody in this room that fears God to bow their head. -- June Griffin of the Cumberland Missionary Society

Commission Chairman Henry Hudson, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, is no stranger to government panels. He had previously served on the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

"It was much more of a safety topic," Hudson says of the earlier experience. "There's a difference between seat belts and pornographic material."

Indeed, when it came to the latter, prayer must have occasionally seemed the best solution.

"It was excruciating -- not just boring," says the ACLU's Lynn. He recalls a late-night session last February in Scottsdale, Ariz., one of seven cities where he and the panel set up shop, in which commissioners spent the better part of an hour listening to "Dial-a-Porn" tapes. "If that's not dull, I don't know what is -- sitting around in Arizona, wishing you were out in the desert air, but instead listening to 57-second messages about anal intercourse."

The commissioners had to endure the flip comments of friends and associates as well as the rather more searing ridicule of Lynn, who pursued the group in the role of a one-man "truth squad."

"He accomplished his purpose very well -- which was to neutralize the impact of the commission," Dobson says ruefully of the porn panel's nemesis. And Lynn's presence was just one of the things that made being a commissioner an often thankless task.

*"We often worked 11 or 12 hours a day with a 30-minute lunch break and a very meager meal served because of the tight budgetary constraints," Dobson says. "We received no compensation. I haven't even received a refund for my expenses for some of the trips. At one point they were $1,500 behind on paying me and not in a terrible hurry about it. Let me tell you, it was all give."

To make matters worse, several of the commissioners were caricatured in a full-page cartoon in Screw magazine. It depicted them participating in a dubious activity with Edwin Meese. "My law partner just about turned green when he saw it," says Commissioner Harold (Tex) Lezar, a Dallas attorney. The Justice Department had warned panelists to expect such attacks.

"They told me," says Park Elliott Dietz, a professor of law, behavioral medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia, "that I had to recognize at the outset that if I undertook to serve on the commission there would be efforts to discredit me. They also told me that I could be subject to threats. But since I do research on threats, it seemed to me another data source."

Happily, Dietz was deprived of his data -- there were no threats. On the other hand, says Alan Sears, the commission's executive director, there were a few laughs. One occasion for levity, for instance, was spending taxpayers' money to buy "Pregnant Lesbians," "Dirty Boys in the Bushes," "Tri-Sexual Lust" and other illustrated literature.

"I mean, how do you write this up?" asks Sears, a federal prosecutor from Kentucky. "That was one of the more ingenious bureaucratic challenges of my tenure. We decided to call them 'educational books and materials.' Then there was the problem of receipts. There was a great deal of resistance to receipts from some of these guys in the book shops. We had to get them to make receipts for us on the back of brown paper bags."

Now, I would ask you, since each of these portfolios cost over $300 to put together, if you don't like some of the material, please don't throw it away. Give it to Alan and let him find somebody else who may like it. -- Forensic Sexologist Ted McIlvenna of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality

Dietz vividly recalls Ted McIlvenna's "portfolio," presented to him and fellow commissioners in Los Angeles last October.

"There were a number of museum-quality reproductions of oriental erotic art," he says. "There were two video tapes, one with scenes from 'smoker films' -- that is, very old pornographic films that were sexually explicit -- and the other tape labeled 'Sex and Violence,' with scenes from Hollywood movies showing brutal violence related to sexual behavior. And then there were two devices of the kind referred to in our deliberations as 'rubber goods.' "

The rubber goods were problematic.

Dietz says he brought them home to Charlottesville, but locked them in a file drawer "away from my son."

"I honestly think I lost them," says Tilton.

For Commissioner Ellen Levine, the editor-in-chief of Woman's Day, they posed a well-nigh existential dilemma.

"I didn't want to leave them in my hotel room," she says, "because I thought, 'My God, what's the maid going to think?' Nor did I want to take them on the plane, because everything gets scanned at the airport. I seriously thought about depositing them in other people's wastebaskets. I finally left the rubber goods in the hotel room."

Commissioner Diane D. Cusack, the former vice mayor of Scottsdale, suffered no such qualms. "They've been in the garbage for months," she says.

I had your typical, I guess, middle-class upbringing. My father was a police officer for New York's Finest. My mother was a PTA member. She sold Tupperware. -- Linda (Lovelace) Marchiano, of "Deep Throat" fame

"The point where I'd had enough came very early in the process," says Lezar. "I was so shellshocked that it took several minutes before it finally dawned on me who Linda Marchiano was. And then I thought, 'Oh, my God -- I've heard of her!' "

The actress, an American icon, was one in an endless procession of witnesses with stories to tell. There were photographs of unthinkable acts. There were slides of naked children, "with that dead look in their eyes," as Levine puts it. In New York, the commission was prayed over. In Los Angeles, a vice detective raised a wobbly rubber fist at the panel.

Commissioners' reactions to all this ranged from shell shock to the shock of recognition to just plain shock.

"It was the first time I had ever experienced through sight and sound the actual content of these materials," says Cusack. "It's one thing to hear about it and quite another to see it firsthand. There was a point at which I said, 'My God! There can't possibly be any worse than this.' And of course, the next meeting we had, there was."

"There was a fascinating dichotomy of perspectives thrown at us," says Tilton. "It ran the gamut from those who are glamorizing rape to those who would like to censor the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel . . . When all else failed, much of my reaction was to listen to my stomach -- when my stomach started tightening into a knot. I had a few sleepless nights."

"It's a touchy subject," says Lezar. "I was upset emotionally and strung out after coming back from the hearings."

"I got to know on an individual basis a number of persons who testified about victimization in their lives," says Sears, "and, you know, I can say the impact of getting to know those people changed my life. Just to be honest, a lot of what I heard just broke my heart."

"There is a desensitization process that takes place," says Dobson. "The human mind has an incredible capacity to adapt to whatever is shocking in the beginning."

Still, it would have been hard to adapt to one witness in Chicago, who told of being abused from the age of 3. Mary Steinman recounted for the commissioners how her father would set pornographic magazines on a nearby easel and hang her upside down in a closet.

"My life is an open book," she said at the end of her disturbing testimony. "And anybody who has questions, feel free to ask. I am not intimidated at all."

Nobody asked a thing.

The next magazine is called B&D Sex Devices. This is basically a catalogue-type magazine . . . It features a new line of abusive furniture. -- Detective Joseph Haggerty of the D.C. Police Department Vice Squad

Ultimately, the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography decided that at worst, pornography tends to encourage sexual violence, and at the very least it is an unhealthy influence on prevailing sexual attitudes. Any conclusion was bound to be controversial, and this one has already been widely attacked. Two of the commissioners -- Judith Becker and Ellen Levine -- have issued a sharp dissent, saying the study is unworthy of any "self-respecting investigator."

Barry Lynn, meanwhile, wonders whether the commissioners have been truthful with themselves. "I don't think that any male commissioner could honestly say that none of this was erotic, that none of it was sexually appealing," he says. "Certainly some of it was to me. The failure to ever acknowledge that was an oddity. I found it very strange."

Given their concern that pornography is hazardous to public health, did the commissioners and staff suffer from all that exposure?

"Ask me in 10 years," says Lezar.

"I was worried it might," says Dobson, "but it didn't."

"There are too many ramifications to quote-unquote sex to even give a broad answer to that," says Cusack.

"I had some pretty strong foundational beliefs about sex before I ever got involved with this," says Sears. "This is a terrible analogy maybe, but just because you're in a car wreck, does that change your attitude about cars? No, it doesn't change your attitude about cars."

"It didn't affect my attitudes toward sex," says Tilton. "It didn't change my behavior or intrude on my personal life. If you were, for instance, alone and vulnerable emotionally, then the impact of that the material is very much different from sitting in public with a task before you. Watching this material for a year did not create deviant behavior on the part of the commissioners. At least I don't know of any of the commissioners being arrested for sex crimes. I certainly haven't been."

* Dear Father . . . I pray that you would destroy wickedness in this city and every wicked city. I pray that you draw the line, as it is written here, and those that are righteous, let them be righteous still, and they that are filthy, let them be filthy still . . .

-- June Griffin of the Cumberland Missionary Society