President Trump’s election victory in 2016 panicked the adult film industry because it expected the biggest crackdown on pornography since the Reagan administration.
Mr. Trump was the only presidential candidate to sign a pledge from an anti-pornography group vowing to enforce existing laws against adult materials. The Republican platform branded pornography “a public health crisis” and conservative culture warriors filled the administration.
Pornography producers braced for a Justice Department clampdown that would hamstring the estimated $16 billion industry.
But obscenity prosecutions never materialized. Now Congress and anti-porn advocates want to know what happened.
“What is the Justice Department too busy with?” fumed Patrick Trueman, who headed up the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section from 1988 to 1993. “What is more important than human trafficking? What is more important than child sexual abuse?”
He continued, “If you don’t vigorously prosecute adult pornography you will be overwhelmed with child pornography because the men who consume vast amounts of adult pornography will look for something harder and more deviant, and many will land on child pornography.”
Earlier this month, four Republican Congressmen wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr urging him to honor Mr. Trump’s campaign promise.
“[The anti-pornography] pledge has so far been ignored by the Trump Administration with the result that the harms of illegal pornography have continued unabated, affecting children and adults so acutely to the point that 15 state legislatures have declared that pornography is causing a public health crisis,” they wrote. “It is imperative that you follow through on this important campaign promise made by Mr. Trump.”
The letter was signed by Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri and Brian Babin of Texas.
A Justice Department spokesperson said the department is reviewing the letter.
Although pornography is easily accessible on the internet, the sale or distribution of hard-core materials online or by mail is a violation of federal law. It is also illegal to transport obscene materials across state lines.
The Justice Department had aggressively prosecuted pornography cases under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, including during Mr. Barr’s first stint as attorney general.
But interest in such cases waned. In 2011, Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s attorney general, shuttered the department’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, a special unit established under the George W. Bush administration to tackle the increase of internet pornography.
Mr. Holder said at the time such cases were better handled by local U.S. attorneys and the department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, which targets sex crimes against children.
Brent Ward, a former U.S. attorney who led the task force, said its dissolution has led to the proliferation of adult and child pornography on the internet.
“No one is prosecuting these cases, and every Tom, Dick and Harry has gotten into the business,” he told The Washington Times. “It is a free-for-all and there is no enforcement, no penalty, no accountability and the statutes are ignored. And it is flaunted every day by the tens of thousands of people who are producing this material.”
More than a dozen states have declared pornography a public health crisis with at least 15 states adopting resolutions to prevent children’s exposure to online porn. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization recognized pornography addiction as a behavioral disorder.
Pornhub, one of the most popular adult content websites, says it received over 30 billion hits in 2018, largely from the U.S.
Covenant Eyes, an internet-accountability software company, says roughly 28,000 individuals are watching pornography every second, estimating the cost at $3,000 per second. It also says that 1 out of 5 mobile phone searches is for pornography.
“It’s overwhelming because the Justice Department hasn’t done its job,” Mr. Trueman said. “Federal law prohibits the distribution of adult pornography. Any one of those companies are targets for federal prosecution.”
Mike Stabile of the Free Speech Coalition, a group that represents producers of sexual materials, said claims about the harms of pornography are overblown.
“We’ve been told for decades that adult content promotes or encourages violence against women,” he said. “That is not borne out by the data If you look at the last 10 or 20 years when access to pornography has exploded, teen pregnancy rates are down, people are having sex with fewer partners. The scary thing for me is how divorced from reality that [congressmen’s] letter really is.”
Others say adult pornography is inseparably linked to crimes like human sex trafficking and child pornography.
“All sexual exploitation is linked,” Mr. Trueman said. “Sex trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The consequences of pornography are widespread and sex trafficking is one of the end results.”
Mr. Stabile disagreed, saying major producers are better at blocking child access to sites and ensuring performers are adults.
While obscenity prosecutions have lagged, the Justice Department has scored some high-profile child pornography and human trafficking busts in recent years, hitting porn providers that way.
In October, the department helped dismantle the child exploitation website Welcome To Video, resulting in the arrest of 337 people worldwide.
Last year, federal authorities shut down Backpage.com, a website carrying ads for sex workers. The department charged its CEO with felony pimping crimes.
Still, the last high-profile obscenity bust occurred in 2007, when the Justice Department indicted adult film star Max Hardcore, alleging his company transported five counts of mailing obscene matter. The allegations were related to specialized fetish content he produced involving urination and vomiting.
He was found guilty and sentenced to 46 months in prison.
One reason the government’s appetite for these cases has diminished is because of the vague standard for determining whether an erotic image is illegal. Under a Supreme Court ruling, material violates federal law if it violates community standards, is patently offensive and lacks serious artistic, scientific, political or literary merit.
Community standards differ by region, giving the Justice Department a mixed record on pornography prosecutions before disbanding the task force.
“If you sent a VHS to Utah, you might be able to say within this geographic location it violates community standards, but could you say the same about New York?” Mr. Stabile said.
Mr. Trueman believes jurors are more willing to convict pornography producers than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, which largely accounted for the government’s spotty win-loss record back then.
“Mothers are going to say ‘That is the guy who got my son addicted,’ ‘I got divorced because my husband got addicted,’” he said. “I think convictions would be easier today than when I was a chief.”
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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