Mending the culture -- should Congress try

When 31 high school seniors wandered into a Russell Senate Office Building hearing room Thursday, they did not know what Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), presiding, would be talking about. It was just a convenient room for them to wait in before being picked up outside.

But the group, here for the National Youth Leadership Conference, might be affected by the hearing more than they know. Brownback was grappling with a subject that has concerned him for some time — pornography addiction.
Photo illustration by Pedro Sa Da Bandeira

When asked if he’d tell his parents about the pornography hearing, 16-year-old Noah Davidson looked down at his shoes and replied sheepishly, “I’ll probably accidentally forget by that time.”

While many of the teenagers giggled in their seats over the topic of the hearing, the four witnesses who were busy presenting the relationship between brain chemistry and porn addiction were serious about a topic they anticipate will come up repeatedly in the course of the new Congress.

With Republicans in a clear position of authority after gains in the Nov. 2 election, members such as Brownback feel freer to bring up indecency and other subjects under the broad rubric of “morality.”

Brownback, a Catholic convert, declared, “This is one of the most troubling panels I’ve ever heard in the Senate.” He promised to hold more such hearings in the 109th Congress.

The senator wasn’t shy about describing his own experiences with pornography and remarking on how times have changed. When he was growing up, he said, “a guy would sneak in a magazine and show us. Today, soft porn is staring you in the face all the time.”

Brownback said he knows men who are careful not to spend too much time in hotel rooms alone to avoid the temptation to purchase pornography on television. “At my age, men plan their trips [so as not to be] in the hotel room too long before they go to bed,” he said.

Richard Davis, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, wasn’t surprised to hear of Brownback’s hearing. Davis said he believes this is only the beginning of Congress addressing a raft of indecency issues. “They have been hearing about this for a long time,” he said. “Now they feel like they have a license to do something about it.”

Many scholars say that society is experiencing a severe backlash for becoming morally loose and liberal. “I think it’s because people are like, ‘Woops, we’ve gone too far,’” Davis said. “During these times, typically people become uneasy because although they accept a gentle change, they are not too happy with cataclysmic change.”

By this, the professor means the acceptance of gays and lesbians and the increased secularization of society. He said the backlash stems from a “dramatic moment” such as the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s directing the state to accept gay marriage or the San Francisco mayor’s issuing marriage licenses to gay couples despite state law’s not allowing it.

“Conservatives [are reacting to] seeing millions and millions of gay people who are taking over the world,” Davis said.

Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, acknowledged that society is changing but said he’s not sure what can or should be done about it. He pointed to daytime TV that has grown racier and to increased voter interest in morality: “There is a general sense that the cultural climate has deteriorated, but I guess there is a question of once the genie comes out of the bottle is it possible to put it back in?”

Back inside Brownback’s hearing, the witnesses compared pornography to hard-core street drugs such as heroin and cocaine. “It’s like a designer drug to produce the highest rates of addiction,” said Jeffrey Satinover, a professor at Princeton University who founded an alcohol and drug treatment center in Stamford, Conn. “Money, power, lust. It’s an extraordinary delivery system. We tinker with it at our peril.”

Mary Anne Layden, co-director of the sexual-trauma and psychopathology program at the University of Pennsylvania, has testified at Brownback’s indecency hearings before. She stressed how grave a problem pornography addiction is, saying that it’s “more difficult for a porn addict to get into remission than a cocaine addict. There is no detox for pornography addiction.”

Among other topics at the hearing were Janet Jackson’s exposed breast on national television at February’s Super Bowl and last week’s spectacle on ABC during “Monday Night Football” in which actress Nicolette Sheridan (“Desperate Housewives”) dropped her towel in an effort to lure one of the players away from his game.

Pat Trueman, senior legal counsel for the Family Research Council, was incensed by the “Desperate Housewives” promo. “As soon as I saw that, my visceral reaction was, why do they have to invade this space with that kind of material?” he said.

“Frankly, I’m not even tuned in to what ‘Desperate Housewives’ was. I didn’t know who the woman was, and I didn’t know who the two ladies were who were saying how desperate that woman is.”

Trueman, who formerly headed the U.S. Justice Department’s child-exploitation and obscenities section, which prosecutes obscenity and child sex abuse, said it was a violation of his space. He stressed that “so-called ‘value voters’ are paying close attention to the coarsening of our culture. So they will look to Congress to mend the culture by having Congress pay attention to moral values and certainly what is on television.”

Indecency legislation, which would increase Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fines for inappropriate material on TV or radio airwaves, will again surface in the next session of Congress, since it passed the House but not the Senate. If passed, it could impose fines on performers of $500,000.

The Values Action Team in the House, a group of lawmakers that develops a strategy by listening to the likes of the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the National Right to Life Committee, is also promising to bring up indecency issues in the new Congress — everything from the value of abstinence education to the Federal Marriage Amendment to abortion issues.

“We definitely have more public support,” said Derek Karchner, spokesman for Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), who chairs the Values Action Team, which was first developed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in 1997.

Karchner said it is clearly Congress’s business: “Any law that you pass is legislating morality.”

Over the years, the group has grown. Just three years ago, there were 40 lawmakers in it; today there are 55, with more expected to join next year.

Not everyone is ecstatic about the new climate, but even some Democrats concede that this is the way it is.

“Democrats need to be doing a better job talking about values,” said Rep. Dennis
Moore (D-Kan.). “Discussion is appropriate. If Senator Brownback wants to have hearings, more power to him.”

Some other Democrats were less pleased to hear of Brownback’s hearing. “Winning the war on terrorism is much more important than winning a theoretic war on pornography,” said Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). “If you look at history, it shows that government can play a role in setting moral standards but the more important factors have been family, school, and religious institutions.”

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) looked crestfallen at the prospect of Congress legislating morality. “Oh yeah, it’s going to be a rough time,” he said of the next four years.
“Everybody wants to protect our kids from indecency. I think they are coming really close to a line where we are getting censorship and intimidation.

“These guys [Republicans] are so emboldened with what they think is a mandate. We can’t turn the proper concern for moral values into a witch hunt and censoring free speech.”

Some of the possible legislative initiatives that emerged from Brownback’s hearing on pornography addiction included warning labels on pornography, funding research into the addiction, increased FCC fines and a public-health campaign.

James Weaver, one of the witnesses at the hearing and a psychology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said there had to be more open, public dialogue about sex and pornography.

“No,” he said, during one of the question-and-answer portions of the hearing, “most women don’t like having sex with three men at one time.”

He worries about what life will be like for his 3-year-old daughter when she grows up — a daughter who during the course of his day on Capitol Hill kept calling his cell phone, saying, “Daddy, come home!”