This summer's trial of Robert and Carleen Thomas was more than a routine bust of a dirtybooks distributor.
The Thomases, both 38, of Milpitas, California, were convicted on July 28 of transmitting obscenity through interstate phone lines via their computer bulletin board system on the Internet. The case, which is being appealed, served to open the eyes of both the computer network industry and Christians to the growing availability and acceptance of sexually explicit images over the emerging information superhighway and the eroding control of parents over the information their children take in.
"Now, with the advance of technology, [porn] can come right into the privacy of your own home," says Donna Rice Hughes, spokesperson for the Fairfax, Virginia-based Enough Is Enough, an antipornography women's organization. "A lot of parents are still trying to figure out how to set the clock on their VCR while their kids are in their bedrooms accessing cyberporn," says Hughes.
There may be other milestone convictions in the near future, as the ever-resourceful pornography industry exploits computer and communications technology. In recent months, other instances have surfaced:
* Officials at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory near San Francisco announced in July that the lab's advanced computers were being used by computer hackers to store and distribute more than 1,000 hard-core pornographic images.
* Pedophiles have used computer bulletin boards to contact children, learn their names and addresses, and set up meetings with them. "We've already had rapes of children occur through that type of setup," says antipornography activist Len Munsil.
* Phone-sex operators, stymied by legal and business barriers from drawing consumers with costly 900 numbers, have begun using 800 numbers—normally tollfree, but used by phone-sex corporations to charge enough to make 800-number phone sex an annual $100 million business. (Ameritech will no longer bill customers for charges resulting from 800 number calls beginning this month.)
* Some phone-sex firms have relocated to other countries out of the reach of the Federal Communications Commission. Then, from Moldova, the Dominican Republic, or African islands, the companies receive calls rerouted from 800 or 900 numbers in the United States. Businesses are often unaware that they are paying thousands of dollars in phone sex bills, because the overseas porn provider is not identified on the phone bills.
* Sexually explicit discussion groups on the Internet, a "network of computer networks," are regularly logging the greatest number of messages by Internet's 25 million estimated users.
The difference between the red-light district of the past and the home cyberporn connection of today is the tolerance that has grown with the relaxation of public attitudes and prosecutorial zeal. After a decade of high-profile convictions of people such as major pornography distributor Reuben Sturman, and highly visible Christian involvement in fighting pornography, including Focus on the Family president James Dobson's work on the 1986 Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, broad-based Christian activism appears to be waning.
Jerry Kirk, a longtime antiporn activist and Presbyterian pastor, believes churches are often reluctant to remain involved in the fight over the long haul. "Christians don't like conflict. They don't like risk," he says.
"One of the difficulties we struggle with again and again with churches," says Deen Kaplan, vice president of public policy for the National Coalition Against Pornography (NCAP), "is that the problem of pornography and sexual exploitation in general is an extremely unpleasant problem. You're forced to confront things that you and I probably would wish didn't exist."
Some religiously based organizations have joined the fight, including the American Family Association Law Center, the National Family Legal Foundation, and the Religious Alliance Against Pornography. Other groups find themselves trying to defend traditional values on such a wide range of issues that they inevitably have to pick and choose.
POLITICS AND PORN
Evangelicals and liberal First Amendment advocates are drawing different lines in the sand over the Thomas trial and its implications for pornography.
To "Village Voice" columnist Nat Hentoff, former Attorney General Edwin Meese's Justice Department set the stage for the Thomas prosecution by shopping around obscenity cases until it found a community likely to convict. Hentoff notes that the California-based Thomases were convicted in Memphis.
"Hard core is legal in some jurisdictions," Hentoff told CHRISTIANITY TODAY. "I think it should be in all, as disgusting as it is." He urges a free standard for computer networks. "If this so-called electronic superhighway is to be of use for free speech, it should be considered a common carrier," like telephone companies.
People making their living off the information superhighway fear being held responsible for what users of their systems do, actions that may be beyond the reach of system administrators. Karl Denninger, administrator for MCSNET, a Chicago computer uplink to Internet, says the Thomases should have been forewarned that they should not sell accounts in conservative Memphis or be prepared to face the consequences of possible prosecution.
"If there is no way for me as an operator of this kind of system to ascertain ahead of time whether or not it is legal to deliver that information … what option do I have?" asks Denninger. "The only one that's immediately obvious is to pull access to all that material. The problem with that is it's impossible."
MCSNET does not carry Internet groups consisting of hard-core pictures because of their content and concern over copyright infringement. Furthermore, individuals using MCSNET must specifically request available adult services or their accounts will not be enabled to receive them. Though there is a small amount of policing that network administrators can do on their systems—such as canceling accounts of people who place inappropriate messages in general computer news groups—not all administrators avoid the material like Denninger does.
Despite his precautions, Denninger worries that local administrators such as himself could still be held liable, whereas phone companies and large computer networks that may be just as involved get off scot-free because of their size. If the Thomases' convictions stand, he predicts, the large online vendors will have to patrol their systems to keep out any potentially explicit material.
The U.S. Justice Department is not offering any consolation to nervous network administrators, though. "We've gone after computer bulletin board pornographers before and have been successful, and we'll still go after them" in the future, Justice Department spokesperson John Russell told CT.
"I don't know if we're sending a message," says Russell. "It's a matter that violated the obscenity laws that we have. Whether it's a deterrent … that's not for me to say."
The ongoing connection of home personal computers onto worldwide computer networks increases the ability of children to access obscene materials. NCAP'S Deen Kaplan gives credit to the Justice Department for its recent cyberporn victory, but he qualifies the compliment. "When one takes a look at the sort of images involved—torture and mutilation of women, defecation on women, bestiality, and there are 6,000-plus child images on that bulletin board—it doesn't take a great leap of faith for any law enforcement authority to make the decision to prosecute that sort of material."
SHIFTING COMMUNITY STANDARDS
Pornography that was once low-quality material sold in seedy, out-of-the-way stores is now mainstreamed in attractive packaging for sale in neighborhoods. In addition, the mass-market cable movie channel Showtime devotes air time to soft-core films or nudity-laden series, such as Red Shoe Diaries. In a similar vein, HBO's Real Sex series has had explicit segments on masturbation techniques and bondage. There also has been a crossover to public broadcasting. In January, some PBS stations aired "Tales of the City," a three-part series about "bathhouse life" in San Francisco, including scenes with frontal nudity and foul language.
"I think we're seeing a shift," says Len Munsil, executive director of Phoenix-based National Family Legal Foundation. "The obscenity test is based on community standards, and as our culture continues to decline and standards of morality continue to decline, and as hard-core pornography becomes much more accessible, more and more people see it [and] it's harder to get prosecutions undertaken."
Munsil does not believe it is more difficult to obtain convictions. However, he says it is tougher to get prosecutors "to do anything about the problem or for people even to recognize that it is a problem."
He complains that prosecutors adhere to an "absolutist" view of the First Amendment and without public pressure are unlikely to declare war against smut. "Lawyers who end up as prosecutors … begin to think [porn] is really not much of a problem-these laws are just an anachronism, and we'll just prosecute these other things," Munsil says. They don't "recognize that where prosecutors have been successful in impacting the availability of pornography through obscenity laws, the rape rate drops."
Pornography and criminal behavior have been linked in recent research, including a University of New Hampshire study that demonstrated higher rape rates in states with broader availability of pornographic material. There is some evidence that the danger can be mitigated by enforcement of obscenity laws, as one Oklahoma county discovered when it closed 147 of its 150 pornographic businesses and experienced a 25 percent rape rate drop.
Antipornography advocates hope to stimulate greater public awareness and more prosecution of obscenity delivered by computer modem. "Computers will be the means of transmission for pornography in the next quarter-century," says NCAP'S Kaplan. "Most people don't realize that their child can take the home computer and dial up electronic bulletin boards that functionally have the equivalent of an entire adult bookstore online."
Kaplan suggests new standards for what is permitted on computer networks, just as cable and broadcast television have different standards. "We need to look at [computer networks] more in terms of a broadcast medium and some of the careful restrictions that go into that to protect children."
The emergence of Enough Is Enough—with its high-profile across the political spectrum—highlights the often-reluctant participation of men. Janet LaRue, senior counsel for the National Center for Children and Families in Santa Ana, California, admits that men are more difficult to get involved because "so many men are users of the product."
FRIEND OR FOE?
During the Reagan-Bush years, significant strides were made in educating Americans about the effects of pornography on women, children, and men.
The Clinton administration has been sending a mixed message, however. Reno's Justice Department has found itself at the center of a firestorm over accusations that the department tried to dilute child pornography prosecution.
In 1991, during the Bush administration, Stephen Knox was prosecuted by the Justice Department over three videotapes showing partially clad prepubescent girls in sexually suggestive poses. Knox, who was convicted and sentenced to a five-year prison term, appealed his case, arguing that the videos did not constitute child pornography because the girls were not nude and genitalia were not visible.
Under Reno, the Justice Department switched sides and helped Knox win a round in court last year. That action prompted the U.S. Senate to pass an amendment disagreeing with the Justice Department's position in a 100-to-0 vote. In June, a federal appeals court upheld Knox's original conviction, ruling that nudity was not necessary for depictions to qualify as "lascivious."
"We all assumed that the battle over child pornography was won during the 1980s," Munsil says. "Then, all of a sudden, you have a few ideologues in the Justice Department getting into power, and now we're having to refight that battle."
Activists fear that the Knox case could result in the further spread of child pornography, despite the upheld conviction. "It really was incredibly naive, because there's a tremendous amount of interest in child pornography out there that is fed by that kind of position," says Bruce Green, an attorney with the American Family Association Law Center. "It creates a climate of tolerance."
Many people worry that a signal from Washington that obscenity convictions are a low priority could be disastrous. "It leads to a greater tolerance of things that might very well in a different time be viewed as intolerable," says Green, "and that is the harm that comes from unregulated pornography and obscenity of any kind."
The federal government can bring the full force of federal law enforcement power against national distributors, Munsil says. Without that pressure, "it just means there is a faster flow of hardcore material into all of the communities."
In combating pornography's growing acceptance and availability, pastors, lawyers, and other activists envision a two-track approach. One avenue is to insist on the resumption of aggressive federal prosecution on distributors of obscene material. The other is to teach parents how to defend their children and their homes.
"There doesn't seem to be an initiative with an adequate number of new cases being brought," says Alan Sears, a federal prosecutor in the Reagan and Bush administrations and executive director of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography.
In some states that do not have grand juries, for example, there is no way to subpoena corporate records except for a trial, Sears says. "Without extreme difficulty, you can't conduct searches out of your own state." Federal prosecutors are able to get around those difficulties and can engage in multi-district prosecutions.
Enough Is Enough has assembled a board of technology experts to help it develop strategies to defeat porn in its new technologies. Donna Rice Hughes, who gained notoriety because of her relationship with politician Gary Hart, says many of these new technologies grew out of defense research. So her group took its experts from the defense industry as well.
"The main thing we need to do is protect our children by making parents aware that [cyberporn] is out there," Munsil says. "You can no more leave your children alone to travel the information superhighway than you can leave them alone in Times Square in New York . … You've got to supervise your children when they're on a computer system and not let them have hours and hours to fiddle around on a bulletin board system."
Christians also need to recognize that laws usually allow for prosecution of such transmissions, Munsil says. "The laws are there; it's a matter of enforcement."
Janet LaRue is working to toughen California laws against child pornography. LaRue, who was victimized as a child, says pornography is "nothing but molestation" and urges churches to raise the level of their involvement. "Most churches are unaware of the problem and the fact that there are men in churches who are not only viewers of pornography but are addicted to it."
Kirk says, "We haven't believed God wanted us to go after the scientific world, the media world, the education world. We need to begin to believe God and not believe our limited abilities."
In some ways, the fight against pornography is a war of attrition, a grueling test to see which side will outlast the other. Kaplan says pornographers are in the business for one reason: to make money. According to the New York Times, one West Coast firm, Evil Angel Productions, reported gross revenues are "skyrocketing" from $34,000 in 1990 to more than $1 million this year. Adult Video News, a trade journal, says rentals and retail sales of adult videos have grown to $2 billion annually. And the industry is quickly moving into new technologies, such as interactive compact disks. In Rhode Island, South Pointe Enterprises Inc., a publicly traded adult entertainment firm, is digitizing some films for playback on personal computers.
Kaplan, commenting on the profit motive of the industry, says, "They don't care about speech rights, the rights of women, religious freedom—any of these loftier goals that are put out there in the public forum as reasons to protect what they're doing.
"So even when they are breaking the law, they will continue breaking the law until citizens gather and fight."
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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