Making Porn Pay

Rape and abuse victims may soon be able to hold the smut merchants responsible for their actions.

What made Steven Pennell kill? When police arrested the “Corridor Killer” after a series of attacks on women along a Delaware highway, they discovered a variety of violent pornography in his possession. One scene from a videotape was strikingly similar to the mutilation performed on Pennell’s victims. Did watching the movie inspire him? Are its producers and distributors somehow responsible for his crimes?

Yes, it did—and yes, they are—say proponents of the Pornography Victims’ Compensation Act. Their legislation would allow victims of sex crimes to sue producers and distributors of obscene material if they can prove reading or viewing it caused the attack.

Opponents fear the act might trample First Amendment rights by preventing the production and distribution of any sexually explicit material, such as Playboy. “But the bill is a lot more specific than that,” says Caran McKee, spokesperson for the bill’s cosponsor Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). It is aimed at legally obscene materials, which are not constitutionally protected.

Proving in court that consuming porn causes violent behavior is indeed difficult. Even the act’s proponents concede that. But legal questions, however pertinent, must not obscure the larger issues the legislation addresses. At root are three essential questions regarding moral responsibility and hard-core pornography.

Who are its victims? For every visual portrayal of a sexually violent act, a person—usually a woman—must be battered, tortured, or humiliated. An estimated one million children are sexually abused each year by pedophiles, who have no greater obsession—other than molesting children—than ...

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