A not-so-funny thing happened to the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography on its way to issuing its final report.
Several scientists whose studies were cited by the panel in a leaked final draft report have publicly declared that their work has been misrepresented. They say there is little evidence to support the commission's contention that there is a demonstrable link between pornography and sexual violence.
The 11-member commission is going out of business the same way it began a year ago, amid charges that most of its members sought a one-sided inquiry to buttress their view that pornography is a public menace.
"They take a dash of science and add it to a pound of their own intuition and biases," said Barry W. Lynn, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, who has waged a one-man guerrilla campaign against the commission. "They've stretched the science far beyond what it actually demonstrates. Their report reads more like a moral tract than a scientific or legal analysis."
Judith Becker, a Columbia University instructor and one of three women on the panel who dissented from the majority's findings, said the commission inaccurately described the available scientific evidence. "The people who did the research have not come out and made the quantum leap that some of the commissioners made," Becker said.
Commission Chairman Henry E. Hudson, who takes office next week as the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, has declined to discuss the panel's report until it is formally presented to Attorney General Edwin Meese III in July. Although Hudson made a career of cracking down on adult bookstores and massage parlors as Arlington County prosecutor, he has repeatedly said that he and his colleagues were open-minded and would produce a balanced report.
"The social science evidence is not and never was considered to be the total measure by which we reached our conclusions," said commission member Diane Cusack, former vice mayor of Scottsdale, Ariz. She said they also weighed testimony from "victims" of pornography, law enforcement officials and others, as well as each member's "ethical and cultural" values.
Testimony by the long list of "victims" -- such as Lisa, who said she was molested by her uncle at age 6, raped by a PCP dealer at 13 and later posed for pornographic pictures and attempted suicide -- has been criticized as too anecdotal. "How many anecdotes does it take to make a fact?" Cusack responded. "We heard a lot of anecdotes."
The panel's final recommendations come as little surprise, since Lynn periodically publicized -- and criticized -- its findings, at one point suing the Justice Department to maintain access to internal documents.
The panel's report urged federal and state prosecutors to target pornography in cooperation with a proposed Justice Department task force, the FBI, State Department, Customs Service, Internal Revenue Service and Federal Communications Commission. It said Congress should pass laws making it an unfair labor practice to hire actors and actresses for X-rated films, and should strengthen forfeiture and interstate commerce laws to combat pornography.
The panel also called for a ban on obscene material on cable television and on "Dial-a-Porn" telephone messages.It urged that local child pornography statutes be strengthened. And it suggested that citizen groups be formed to monitor newstands, videocassette stores and other outlets for allegedly obscene material, and that they boycott offending establishments and complain about lenient judges.
The commission stirred the most controversy by setting forth a scientific basis for its concerns.
"Finding a link between aggressive behavior toward women and sexual violence, whether lawful or unlawful, requires assumptions not found exclusively in the experimental evidence," the report says. "We see no reason, however, not to make these assumptions. The assumption that increasing aggressive behavior toward women is causally related . . . to increased sexual violence is significantly supported by the clinical evidence, as well as by much of the less scientific evidence . . . [and] our own common sense."
"This is not to say that all people with heightened levels of aggression will commit acts of sexual violence," the report says. But it says that "people with a substantial exposure to violent pornography are likely to see the rapist or other sexual offender as less responsible for the act and as deserving of less stringent punishment . . . [for] merely acceding to the 'real' wishes of the woman."
Edward Donnerstein, a University of Wisconsin communications professor whose work was cited by the panel, said the commission was "going beyond the evidence . . . . They are picking on pornography when the research shows quite clearly that you get similar effects from other material" that features violence.
Donnerstein said he found that college-age men exposed to violent X-rated films were more likely to deliver simulated shocks to women. But he also found that R-rated "slasher" films like "The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre," even if they had no sexual content, produced less sympathy for rape victims among his male subjects.
At the same time, Donnerstein said, he found no measurable changes from exposure to sexually explicit but nonviolent films, such as "Debbie Does Dallas."
"All one can show in these studies is that you're affecting people's attitudes," Donnerstein said. "Those shock techniques are a long way from real aggression . . . . It doesn't mean that someone exposed to this material who administers higher shocks is going to go out there and commit a sexually violent crime . . . . That's an awfully simple view of behavior."
Lynn said the research shows only that "highly charged, 20-year-old college students get excited and press buttons . . . . If you can regulate material on the basis of attitudinal change, then the First Amendment has no meaning."
Another researcher, UCLA communications professor Neil Malamuth, said the commission had "extrapolated" from his studies to apply its findings to nonviolent material. He said his research "suggests that sexually violent materials are one of several contributing factors to sexual violence in society," but that "such materials alone may have a negligible or insignificant effect."
The commission also cited the work of Murray Straus, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, to link increased rape rates with higher circulation of such sex magazines as Playboy and Hustler. Objecting, Straus said that his research "has been misused" and that the panel's findings are "contrary to what we have said about our studies."
There is a correlation, he said, between sex magazine sales and rape rates, which range from 9.3 per 100,000 in North Dakota to 83.3 per 100,000 in Alaska. But the underlying reason, Straus said, is that "Alaska has a lot of young men, and North Dakota has an aging farm population. Young men are the ones who commit rape, and young men are the ones who buy sex magazines. We argued that it's not a causal factor . . . . When proper statistical controls are introduced, the relationship between rape and pornography disappears."
The commission also declared that nonviolent sexual material that is "degrading" to women "bears some causal relationship" to aggressive attitudes and behavior. The panel did not spell out "degrading" because, commissioners said, they were unable to agree on what it means. Moreover, examples of what some members viewed as deviant behavior, such as homosexuality and masturbation, were stricken from the final report.
"If you read the report, pornography is not defined," Becker said. "A number of the commissioners wanted to discuss what was appropriate sexual behavior; the only approved sexual behavior would be that which occurs within a marriage and is procreative in nature. It was not the mandate of this commission to decide what the country should or should not be doing sexually."
For its least severe category, simple nudity, the commission said: "We are all concerned about the impact of such material on children, on attitudes toward women, on the relationship between the sexes and on attitudes toward sex in general, but the extent of the harms was the subject of some difference of opinion."
The critics' chief weapon against the commission has been ridicule. This week, for example, Lynn disclosed that the panel's report would include hundreds of pages of titles, including 2,325 sex magazine titles, 725 book titles and 2,370 film titles. These include descriptions of all 63 photographs in the magazine Tri-Sexual Lust, and scene-by-scene descriptions of such films as "The Devil in Miss Jones," "Debbie Does Dallas" and "Biker Slave Girls."
The bibliography alone, Lynn said, "should guarantee that this report will be one of the hottest-selling government publications in history."