The War on Porn: The Declaration

Like Moses hoisting the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments, Attorney General Ed Meese hefted two thick blue books that were meant to save his people from the evils of pornography.  These volumes, the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission Report on Pornography, contained details of porn that most fans would never encounter: bestiality, child sex, extreme S and M, and such aberrations as asphyxiation, excretions, necrophilia, sweat sniffing, self-castration and toenail clipping collecting.  Did the A.G. want to cleanse the nation of sick stuff and leave good, healthy all-American erotica alone?


The first targets of his newly-appointed Commission were magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse.  The Commission’s infamous “7-Eleven letter”–on Justice Department stationery—scared 17,000 convenience stores into dropping (temporarily) all magazines containing nudity. For the forces behind the Meese Commission anything related to sex was evil.

In the early 1980s, the Religious Right had a hissy fit over porn videos appearing in shopping malls. Having helped Reagan get elected, these crusaders demanded quid pro quo.  To please them, the Meese Commission was formed, and its eleven members made a highly-publicized excursion through the porno underbelly of America.

(Passages from SKINFLICKS are in italics. ) Calling the trek “a surrealist mystery tour of sexual perversity,” Time magazine ran a photo of Chairman Hudson emerging from a dark den of peep-show booths in a Houston porn shop, shoulders slumped, tie askew, lips a thin hard line and his sweaty pate gleaming with reflected neon.  During their visit to three Houston arcades, the Commission’s vice cop tour guide had yanked open the door of one of the booths to expose two startled patrons in the midst of fellatio.  “And here,” droned the guide, “we have two men engaged in the act of oral copulation.” Before leaving, the group bought one magazine: Young Girls in Bondage. “It is as if by finding the single most despicable scene of sexual conduct ever photographed,” said ACLU legislative counsel Barry Lynn, “the commission would be justified in urging the suppression of all sexually oriented material.”

Reagan’s War on Porn erupted just as I was selling the rights to Superior Video’s titles.  I was retiring from porn and beginning to transcribe my notes for SKINFLICKS.  I bought a copy of the Commission’s Report for $35. This encyclopedia of sexual grotesquery became a Government Printing Office best seller, going into a third 1500-copy run. (“4500 of a number,” cracked one porn publisher. “We should all be so lucky.”)

Few took the Report seriously. “Little Official Alarm Over Porno Report” went a headline in Video Extra magazine, which quoted Art Ross, a VSDA director: “It’ll remain a hot topic and a nine-day wonder until something else comes along.”  “Absurd but not threatening” was The Washington Post’s assessment.  The pundits were wrong—extremely wrong!

Meese’s vow that “the cancer of pornography” would be “pursued with a vengeance and prosecuted to the hilt” sounded like some grand mullah’s call for a holy war.

And war it was.

Like a major military campaign this war had many fronts: battles were fought in streets, businesses, churches, courtrooms, convention halls, police stations, prisons and private dwellings.  Spies infiltrated enemy camps and compiled hit lists. Troops with assault rifles smashed into homes.  Fortunes were plundered; children taken from their parents.  Buildings were burned and government forces threw volumes of books into bonfires. Laws were passed against freedoms previously taken for granted.

As the War on Porn raged throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, my attention was split between writing about the porn industry and keeping track of efforts to snuff  it out.  I relied on Adult Video News for the most current updates.  That magazine became the most important source of information for video retailers trying to stay out of jail.  They needed answers to the Big Question: What’s illegal?

At the unveiling of the Commission’s big blue books, that question caused confusion. A journalist asked the Attorney General if the Report would condemn the Spirit of Justice statue behind him as obscene. Meese turned to look at the aluminum female figure with one bared breast.  He stammered that he didn’t know; he hadn’t yet read the report (which had been available to him for over a month).  Somebody put a coat on that lady!

The War on Porn is behind us now.  Could it happen again?  That was a campaign promise of presidential wanna-be Rick Santorum. And the winds of politics blow in many directions.

Periodically, this blog will address aspects of the Porn War, raising that maddening question: WHAT CONSTITUTES OBSCENITY?

Comments are invited.