Op-ed on obscenity in communication
Dirty Tactics of a Growing Dial-a-Porn Empire
By Cathy Ruse
Dial 1-800-Worship and you could lose your soul.
The Associated Press recently uncovered a greedy Dial-a-Porn network that gobbles up 1-800 numbers the moment they are relinquished and redirects them to phone-sex services without changing their names. (David B. Caruso, "Porn company is amassing 1-800 numbers," 4/19/11.) Phone numbers previously held by Cadillac and Whirlpool are examples of other toll-free lines that PrimeTel Communications of Philadelphia has transformed into phone-sex lines through its business partner, National A-1 Advertising. Apparently snaring the unsuspecting makes for good business.
The "dirty trick" aspect of PrimeTel's approach is noteworthy, but so is the sheer number of toll-free lines that PrimeTel has amassed. PrimeTel controls 1.7 million 800 numbers - more than any company, including Verizon and AT&T. And most of these toll-free numbers redirect callers to phone sex, according to an industry source.
How many women (and men) must be waiting to provide this degrading "service" to customers on 1.7 million lines? And how many millions of lonely souls are willing to pay so much per minute to have phone sex with strangers?
The Dial-a-Porn industry was born in the 1980s. As early as 1983 the FCC reported that phone sex lines received up to half a million calls a day. Employers even went to Congress over the astronomical bills they had to pay for calls employees made on company time.
But what made the problem especially horrific, says Morality in Media, Inc. (MIM), was that any child old enough to use a telephone could reach thousands of Dial-a-Porn lines without proof of age or pre-payment; calls were automatically billed to phone numbers.
MIM has chronicled scores of news reports on the problem, including the case of the $10 million lawsuit filed against Pacific Bell and a phone sex company by the parents of a 12-year old boy and the 4-year old girl he was accused of sexually molesting after listening to phone sex for hours. Psychologist Victor Kline, an expert on how pornography affects the brain, asserted in sworn testimony that the boy's exposure to dial-a-porn was a direct and causal contribution to the assault of the toddler.
Fortunately the law now requires commercial phone sex providers to take modest steps to increase the likelihood that children are not among their customers (such as requiring purchase by credit card). Unfortunately, what was a somewhat contained problem in the 1980s (due to the static nature of phones) has potentially exploded today in the age of the cell phone.
The AP story got one part spectacularly wrong. "There is nothing illegal about using toll-free phone services to promote adult entertainment," says the AP. Nothing illegal if the content of your material is legal, that is.
No one has a First Amendment right to express content that is "obscene." The Supreme Court has upheld this distinction between legal and illegal speech and in the 1973 case of Miller v. California set guidelines for defining what is "obscene," including "patently offensive representations or descriptions of ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted." Juries have the last word on offensiveness and on whether material can be redeemed for having serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. "Obscenity" is the legal term; a commonplace reference might be "hardcore porn." Deep Throat, not Michelangelo's David.
The federal criminal code specifically outlaws the use of the telephone to make obscene communications for commercial purposes in 47 U.S.C. 223(b), added by Congress in 1988 and upheld by the Supreme Court a year later in Sable Communications of California, Inc. v. FCC. Dial-a-Porn providers that peddle hardcore pornography, therefore, can and should be prosecuted under 47 U.S.C. 223(b). Prosecutions have been brought successfully in the past.
If most of PrimeTel's 1.7 million numbers are phone sex lines, is the content provided on every one of them staying this side of the line of legality?
Ultimately it's up to the American people, as jurors, to decide what pornography is obscene, and in this way to have a voice in shaping the culture. But if obscenity prosecutions are never brought, then trials never commence, juries never sit, and pornography, however extreme, is never curtailed. Enforcing our nation's obscenity laws is the job of Attorney General Eric Holder. Failing to enforce them robs Americans of their voice on the matter.
Someone will shape the culture. Leaving it to the pornographers is madness.
Cathy Ruse is senior fellow for legal studies with the Family Research Council.
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