Analysis: Day 3 of L.A. Times 'Dust Up'

LOS ANGELES - It's probably what one would expect from an associate professor at a Christian law school headed by Bill Clinton persecutor Ken Starr: A litany of lies and half-truths about the adult industry, its product and its effects on society. And that's what Pepperdine Law School's Barry McDonald rolled out in Wednesday's "Dust-Up" column, this week featuring a "debate" between McDonald and Evil Angel owner John Stagliano.

In a piece titled "The true cost of porn," McDonald claims, of the San Fernando Valley's adult industry, "Putting aside the fact that in porn, as in other commercial industries in our country, the vast bulk of the money generally ends up in the pockets of relatively few people who get obscenely (pardon the pun) rich, one also has to ask at what cost to society (including the L.A. community and people involved with porn) these benefits are gained."

First of all, while nationwide, retail sales of adult material is in the $10 to $12 billion range, the idea that any adult entrepreneurs are going to wind up in the Fortune 500 is ludicrous. Wholesale sales are about one-tenth what retail sales bring in, and while several adult producers and a few performers are living quite comfortably, no adult company is in the Fortune 500, and no adult businessperson comes close to being a billionaire, nor appearing on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list.

"Since commercial pornography has been around awhile," McDonald continues, "many scientific or scholarly studies have been performed on its impact on people and their lives. The results are very sobering, and also give the lie to the popular canard that porn harms no one."

Of course, as Stagliano notes in his rebuttal, McDonald identifies not one single "scientific or scholarly stud[y]" to back up his claim ... but let's examine what he does say.

"[F]or many women (non-starlets, of course), porn participation is little different from prostitution," McDonald assesses. "They are essentially forced into it by some combination of dire financial straits, broken homes, lack of education, drug or alcohol problems, and physical or sexual abuse."

While McDonald's exemption of "non-starlets" is puzzling - he never explains what he means by the term - the fact is that porn performers tend to be young, 18-25, and very few people of any profession at that age are rich - and depending on how much their schooling has cost (or is costing), they may be deeply in debt. Performing sex on camera is certainly one way to earn a living and pay off one's student (or car) loan or home mortgage.

However, in the modern porn industry, there are plenty of actresses who are working their way through college, who don't do drugs or drink to excess, with solid family backgrounds and who aren't being (and haven't been) abused by anybody. They're just sane enough to see that having sex on camera pays well, and exhibitionistic enough to enjoy doing it. If McDonald has any basis for his above statement other than reading discredited statements from the likes of Shelley Lubben, he doesn't say.

And then there are the outright lies.

  • "[P]orn can be addictive," such that "the lives of people and their families can be ruined," where "children are ignored, wives become alienated, and the family is often destroyed."

Wrong. The psychological syndrome Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has been diagnosed, and the obsession can take many forms, including gambling, hand-washing, even praying. Someone who suffers from OCD can fixate on porn, but it isn't porn causing the disorder. That's a lie.

  • "[S]tudies have documented how even nonviolent porn can trigger physical aggression in men toward women when they are already prone to such behavior."

Wrong again. Several scientific studies have disproved this claim, perhaps the most notable having been published by Meese Commission witness Dr. Edward Donnerstein and partners Dr. Daniel Linz and Dr. Steven Penrod in 1987 as "The Question of Pornography." They found that exposure to non-violent porn creates no aggressive impulses toward women even in men "prone to such behavior," although violent porn may - but the effect dissipates fairly rapidly.

  • "Studies have also linked the teen exposure to porn to an increase in promiscuous behavior, sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies."

Half-truth. Humans are sexual animals - the normal ones, anyway - and once they reach puberty, sex and its depictions (porn) will naturally be attractive to them. Such inclinations can be redirected by comprehensive sex education courses in high schools and junior high schools, thus limiting "promiscuous behavior, sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies" - but conservative religious leaders and their flocks vehemently oppose this, and the Bush administration has sunk billions of dollars into failed "abstinence education" programs.

Porn, of course, is for adults, so kids shouldn't be looking at it - but since they do, sex education is the best "antidote" - yet somehow, McDonald doesn't mention that as a solution to his "problems." Such education can even short-circuit "unrealistic expectations about their own sex performance or enjoyment" by making teens see that porn is, above all else, fantasy. (Funny how reading science-fiction, for instance, isn't blamed for giving kids "unrealistic expectations" that they'll one day travel in outer space!)

"Space limitations prevent" McDonald from backing up his claims that porn causes "the commodotization [sic] and coarsening of human sexuality in general, and women as sex objects in particular" - unlike, for instance, beer and cosmetics commercials on TV - and "the creation and perpetuation of objectionable stereotypes" - like the conservatives' painting of Hispanics as shiftless job-stealers and terrorists, global-warming experts as "whackos" and Halliburton and Blackwater employees as "patriots."

McDonald also claims that porn creates "increased crime and other hard social costs, which state Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D- Montebello) has recently proposed a special tax on porn to combat" - failing to note that all modern scientific studies have shown that adult businesses produce less harmful secondary effects than fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, and that Calderon's proposed tax on one type of speech is unconstitutional.

Finally, McDonald laments "the intrusion into, and disruption of, residential neighborhoods in L.A. by porn production crews that this newspaper has occasionally reported." "Occasionally" is the key word there - and apparently he's never tried to use a freeway or city street late at night that's been blocked off for a Hollywood movie shoot.

  • "And, of course, another major problem with a legal porn industry is that it inevitably spins off some who turn to producing obscene and illegal fare that already-stretched law enforcement agencies do little about."

Oooh, oooh - didn't some Supreme Court justice have something to say on that subject? Why yes, I think one did:

"The government may not prohibit speech because it increases the chance an unlawful act will be committed 'at some indefinite future time'." And, "The Government may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech. Protected speech does not become unprotected merely because it resembles the latter. The Constitution requires the reverse. '[T]he possible harm to society in permitting some unprotected speech to go unpunished is outweighed by the possibility that protected speech of others may be muted....' Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S., at 612." - quotes from Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition.

So yes, Prof. McDonald, when it comes to adult entertainment, "the candle is really worth the wick." [Emphasis added]

For his part, Stagliano once again approaches the question from a libertarian viewpoint, observing that whether the porn industry is good for L.A. "assumes that it is the government's function to worry about this kind of thing," even while noting that it does.

But for Stagliano, the fly in the ointment is, "If you concede that it is a proper function of government to 'encourage' economic growth, then it is an easy step to saying that it is proper for the government to impose a certain value system onto the people that it governs and control what kind of economic activities the people engage in." True, but not really an answer to McDonald's ravings.

So while Stagliano's reply is certainly worth reading, it falls short of the well-researched answer that McDonald (and LA Times readers) deserve. Sad.