U.S. Senate Committee Hears Bad Science

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation quietly held a hearing Thursday on “The Science Behind Pornography Addiction.” While notice of the hearing had been posted in the Congressional Register, no one in the adult entertainment industry had been notified of it by committee staff, and only four witnesses testified, all of whom have solid credentials as anti-porn activists – as do several of the committee members.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who stumped for President Bush on the campaign trail, chairs the committee, but among the more high-profile members are Republicans Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Trent Lott (Miss.) who are frequently lauded by pro-censorship groups like the American Family Assn. and Concerned Women for America, and in the right-wing religious press.

At least two of the witnesses are similarly distinguished. Though Dr. Judith Reisman’s official bio neglects to mention her testimony in front of the Meese Commission on her study of cartoons in adult magazines, it does include her stint as a prosecution witness for the state of Ohio when it attempted to remove photos by Robert Mapplethorpe from Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center – the move failed, thanks to attorney H. Louis Sirkin – and her institute’s amicus brief against Stephen Knox, who was convicted in federal court of child pornography for videotaping children with a focus on their (clothed) groin areas.

Dr. Jeffrey Satinover made his anti-sex bones through a series of books, lectures – he spoke, for instance, at the 2004 Conservative Political Action Conference – and testimony in which he’s denied that there’s a controlling genetic component to sexual orientation – in other words, homosexuality, he claims, is a choice.

While not as well-known as Reisman and Satinover, Dr. Mary Anne Layden has a history of being an anti-porn witness. For instance, in 1999 testimony before another Senate Commerce Committee panel, she falsely claimed that in a study, “Five hours of pornographic videos produced a belief in these 18 year-old subjects that 24 million Americans are having sex with Fido,” and that, “In 14 years I have not treated one case of sexual violence that did not involve pornography. In every case of sibling incest that I have treated, the kind of pornography involved has been soft-core nonviolent pornography. Exposing children to pornography meets the criteria for childhood sexual abuse.”

The final witness, Dr. James B. Weaver III, did not provide a copy of his prepared remarks, and a transcript of his testimony will not be available for several weeks. However, Dr. Satinover’s supplied testimony noted two articles co-authored with Weaver, “Exploring the Social and Sexual ‘Reality’ of Contemporary Pornography” and “Pornography and Sexual Callousness: The Perceptual and Behavioral Consequences of Exposure to Pornography.” It was likely that latter work that led to his testimony, quoted by Associated Press reporter Connie Cass, that prolonged use of pornography leads to "sexual callousness, the erosion of family values and diminished sexual satisfaction."

What unites all the witnesses who testified before the Committee is that their opinions on the effects of porn use are not shared by the majority of those who have done similar research, are largely anecdotal – and in some cases, just completely whacked out.

For instance, Layden puts forth the notion that, “For the viewer, pornography increases the likelihood of sexual addiction and they respond in ways similar to other addicts. Sexual addicts develop tolerance and will need more and harder kinds of pornographic material. They have escalating compulsive sexual behavior becoming more out of control and also experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop the use of the sexual material.”

None of this is borne out by rigorous research, which has found that the majority of porn viewers find a type of porn they like and generally stick with it, do not “act out” based on what they’ve seen, and feel righteously indignant rather than “withdrawal symptoms” when some entity (like the government) tries to prevent them from viewing their material of choice.

Layden also has some skewed ideas about adult performers.

“Those who now work in the porn industry were often little girls who got into their beds each night, rolled themselves into a fetal position and each night he came in [and] pealed [sic] her open. They work in the porn industry with its physical invasion and visual invasion because it feels like home. Once they are in the industry they have high rates of substance abuse, typically alcohol and cocaine, depression, borderline personality disorder which is a particularly serious disorder and dissociative identity disorder which used to be called multiple personality disorder. The experience I find most common among the performers is that they have to be drunk, high or dissociated in order to go to work. Their work environment is particularly toxic. One study on strippers indicated that they were likely to be punched, slapped, grabbed, called cunt and whore and to be followed home or stalked.”

Aside from all the other errors, Layden apparently doesn’t know the definition of the word “toxic.”

Sadly, Satinover’s prepared remarks are virtually undecipherable for the lay reader, but he does note that, “The manifest content of pornography has been extensively examined, for example, revealing that (1) pornography’s dominant theme is one of unrestrained human sexual promiscuity and (2) it’s devoid of coercion and violent action (Brosius, Weaver, & Staab, 1994).” And later, “Initial hesitations to enjoy the material are rapidly lost with repeated exposure and give way to unadulterated reactions of enjoyment.” Sounds about right!

But it’s not all good, Satinover’s remarks include claims that, “Prolonged exposure to pornography stimulates a preference for depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual contact with animals,” and “trivializes nonviolent forms of the sexual abuse of children.” However, while claiming that “Prolonged exposure to pornography trivializes rape as a criminal offense,” he admits that “Psychotic men are strongly affected, whereas men with minimal psychotic inclination are not.”

For a position with almost no scientific basis, take Reisman’s claim that, “Thanks to the latest advances in neuroscience, we now know that pornographic visual images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an instant, involuntary, but lasting, biochemical memory trail, arguably, subverting the First Amendment by overriding the cognitive speech process. This is true of so-called ‘soft-core’ and ‘hard-core’ pornography. And once new neurochemical pathways are established they are difficult or impossible to delete.”

“I do not believe the technology exists as she describes it,” responded First Amendment advocate Jeffrey Douglas, “but even it it did, what does that mean? Who in the world has not been exposed to softcore pornography? As has been so famously noted, the people who study the material, they would all have to be drooling idiots by now, since they’ve watched more of it than a normal consumer would.”

Not only is there nothing about it that’s credible, there’s nothing about it that’s even logical,” he continued. “But her reference to the First Amendment is simply an attempt to get around the Constitution by saying that sexually explicit imagery is more like a chemical than an idea.

"Let’s think about that for a moment; something she obviously has not done: Assuming for a moment that what she says has some rough validity; that is, that there is something in sexually oriented material that causes a reflex action. What does that do to undermine the communicative content of the speaker? That is, if I were to stand in front of a group of people and say something deeply frightening that made everyone’s heart race and made the autonomic system pump adrenaline into them, causing them to want to do something, how does one analyze that as not being protected by the First Amendment? It’s not the audience reaction that dictates whether speech is protected; it’s the intention of the speaker.

"So if I wish to arouse the audience, whether erotically arouse, politically arouse, religiously arouse, it is the intent of the speaker that is what deserves First Amendment protection.”

Referring specifically to Reisman’s distinction between sexual speech and sexual imagery, Douglas noted, “When Alfred Hitchcock made the movie Psycho, he used a rapid procession of images in the shower scene and a number of other scenes to put forth images that cannot consciously register in order to create inexplicable anxiety in the audience. Music does the exact same thing in a soundtrack; there is nothing that one can articulate specifically about what messages one is getting from the music but one is getting messages and it has its impact.

"So whether I choose to communicate to my audience through pictures or communicate to my audience through words, the point is, am I attempting to communicate something, and that is the fundamental basis of the First Amendment. The fact that she doesn’t like what the response is, fictional though her theory of what that response may be, that is tough. Neither she nor the government get to decide that someone may not receive that communication.”

Almost 50 years of experimental science back up Douglas’ conclusions as to the “subliminal effect” of exposure to particular imagery. In 1957, one of America’s most popular books was Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which described, in credulous terms, the idea that it was possible, for instance, to impel moviegoers to buy sodas and popcorn during a film by flashing enticing images of same on-screen for 1/3000th of a second every five seconds. In fact, one James Vicary claimed to have done exactly that in a theater in Ft. Lee, N.J. in 1957, then claimed an amazing 18.1 percent increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a whopping 57.8 percent jump in popcorn purchases.

Trouble was, when he was challenged to repeat the test by the president of the Psychological Corporation, Dr. Henry Link, Vicary's duplication of his original experiment produced no significant increase in popcorn or Coca-Cola sales. Eventually Vicary confessed that he had falsified the data from his first experiments, and some critics have since expressed doubts that he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all.

But the FCC banned "subliminal advertising" from radio and television airwaves in 1974, despite that fact that no studies have ever shown it to be effective, and even though its alleged efficacy was based on a fraud.

Sadly, there’s little doubt that the Bush administration and its congressional cohorts will use the bad and non-science testimony received by this committee to pass further laws targeting the adult industry. However, legitimate sex researchers are now being contacted and encouraged to submit their own testimony to the committee, which hopefully will give it the consideration that a true fact-finding body should.