Pornography Not your typical Senate hearing

Though it ranks among the Senate’s more stately spaces, the mahogany-paneled Commerce Committee hearing room took on an especially decorous air Thursday afternoon as senators took on an especially indecorous subject.

“Women in pornography are not valued for their intellect or strength,” Virginia State University professor James Weaver reminded the panel. “No, the unequivocal message of pornography is that women are valued only as objects for male sexual gratification.”

All signs point to an epic battle in the culture wars this year, with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) rumored to be readying a decency crackdown. Still, the committee was a bastion of bipartisan revulsion at the ease of porn procurement. The committee’s four female members were all absent, leaving the males to keep their brows furrowed and their manner circumspect.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), the committee’s ranking Democrat, parsed his words carefully in his first question of Weaver, who last appeared at Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) 2004 hearing on porn addiction.

“What is your definition of child pornography?” Inouye asked.

Weaver answered by citing adult-film legend and best-selling author Traci Lords. “I’m not sure. It’s impossible to be sure because some people are very petite. … There was a famous actress who made adult productions when she was 16 years old.”

Conservative skepticism of the wisdom that “ you can’t legislate morality,” a common refrain of free-speech advocates who warn that stronger indecency statutes would risk judicial overturning, has only strengthened since Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) declared last year that “you can’t NOT legislate morality.” In fact, even Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) sounded ready for Congress to play reluctant moral policeman.

“We can’t sit by and let all of this happen,” Lautenberg said of the growth in pornographic websites, which Inouye estimated to be a 20-fold explosion between 1998 and 2003. “Violence is often created by children who are susceptible to perform violent acts because of what they saw on TV. So it goes with sexual [acts].”

Lautenberg shook his head in disbelief while recounting the tale of a father nabbed by authorities for making pornographic videos of his own children.

“It’s awkward because it’s so horrifying,” Lautenberg said. “When you realize how depraved the conduct is, here we are trying to make sense of it, frankly, in what is too short a period of time.”

Some senators used their allotted five minutes — a limit Stevens strictly enforces — to criticize Internet technology more than pornography. After Tatiana Platt, America Online’s chief trust officer, touted the success of AOL’s spyware and spam filtering services, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) lamented how difficult the filters are to install.

“Thank goodness my wife Susan’s father taught computers at Piedmont Community College,” Allen said. He went on to describe the uncomfortable and universal experience of receiving a sexy spam e-mail.

“Sometimes you don’t know what it is,” Allen said. “You think it’s your sister’s name [on the e-mail]. Well, it’s not your sister.”

One senator who dove into the porn debate without flinching was also a witness: Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) touted her Internet Safety and Child Protection Act. Lincoln’s bill imposes a 25 percent tax on all Internet pornography transactions and uses proceeds to enforce a strict age-screening requirement on all proprietors of smutty websites.

Lincoln said, “When it’s something you believe in, I don’t think there’s any intimidation whatsoever” in talking about the touchy topic of porn. “I felt very comfortable coming before my colleagues.”

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) had a surefire, if draconian, suggestion to stop unwanted sexual come-ons from flooding American inboxes: Put a lock on every family’s computer.

“If you’ve got young folks in your home, make sure your computer’s where everybody is around. You can lock those things,” Burns said.

What if a child has to work on a school report? “They’re doing it when Mom and Dad’s home,” Burns replied, “or they’re doing it in longhand.”

Burns echoed fellow lawmakers on the disconcerting task of investigating the online porn industry, which hauls in $12 billion in annual revenue from more than 200 million sites, only 100,000 of which are illegal child pornography. “Mature entertainment,” as obscenity attorney Paul Cambria put it, is a First Amendment right and a valid commercial endeavor.

Cambria appeared at the Commerce hearing on behalf of the Adult Freedom Foundation, a pornography trade association formed last year to defend the industry’s right to sell pornography to consenting adults. To discourage senators from scoring points by savaging him, Cambria immediately mentioned his five young daughters.

But that did not stop Stevens from pressing Cambria, who has successfully fought off lawsuits brought against Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, rapper DMX and rocker Marilyn Manson. After reading from testimony, Cambria told Stevens that porn producers should label products with “adults only” ratings.

“You tell your clients they’d better do it soon,” Stevens retorted sharply. “We’ll mandate it if they don’t.”

The foundation does not disclose its member companies, to protect them from harassment, according to a spokesman. Cambria’s quiet defense of free speech, however, was far less salacious than the porn crash course offered by Weaver.

Asking his college-age students to search online for “free love” in the guise of researching 1960s political movements, Weaver said the result was “streaming videos of individuals engaged in sex acts in all sorts of public locations.”

When both Yahoo and Google look for “free love,” the top results include an encyclopedia entry on the 1960s social trend, an ad for a poetry contest and a site offering free horoscopes — hardly the smut Weaver said he found.

Meanwhile, Google has mounted its own counterattack to Washington’s renewed interest in online porn. The country’s favorite Web search engine is refusing to comply with a Justice Department subpoena seeking user records, citing privacy concerns.