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Latest antiporn target: hotel-room TV

A campaign urges prosecution of hotels under obscenity laws – and directs people to smut-free lodging.

By Matt BradleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 6, 2006



It's a business that has become quietly entrenched in America's corporate culture: pay-per-view pornography in hotel rooms. Most large chains provide the service, along with standard-issue films.

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The pay-per-view service has brought hotels millions of dollars a year. But these days, the US hotel business is also attracting moral outrage and vitriol – on a scale that pornography insiders say amounts to one of the largest organized assaults on the skin business in recent memory.

A consortium of 13 conservative groups has created CleanHotels.com, a website that provides listings and reservation services for US hotels where travelers can rest safe from taint or temptation. The conservative groups have also run a series of full-page ads in USA Today, urging authorities to prosecute hoteliers under federal and local obscenity statutes.

Currently, the listings on CleanHotels.com number between 13,000 and 15,000 – mostly including small chains, with a notable one being Omni Hotels. Many in the pornography industry contend the effort won't have much effect on their business, but those on the other side are equally adamant they can make a difference.

"We wanted to provide an alternative," says Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, an Ohio-based "pro-family" organization that is part of the consortium. "Not only were we disgusted with the fact that major hotels that present themselves as being family-friendly were offering hard-core pornography ... we wanted to point out the fact that there are thousands and thousands of hotels that do not offer in-room pornography."

The strategy, Mr. Burress says, is to expose hotels that offer pay-per-view porn and let the market take care of the rest.

But such an approach might not be effective, says Paul Cambria, general counsel for the Adult Freedom Foundation in Los Angeles. "The hotels understand that that's just part of the package that they offer their guests.... I don't think they will be intimidated." He adds, "Most responsible prosecutors are realizing that this is a waste of time and money to prosecute this."

While the financial extent of hotel porn is hard to estimate – hotels keep statistics to themselves or don't keep them at all – the adult pay-per-view and video-on-demand businesses, both in hotels and private residences, will bring in an estimated $1.6 billion in 2006. In 1996, that number was $593 million, according to California-based Kagan Research.

When it comes to accessing adult pay-per-view in hotel rooms, the system has safety checks. Parents can block viewing by either clicking a remote-control code or calling the front desk.

"All the protective measures are in place. It's not like you can go into a hotel room and turn on a television set and pornography comes blaring out," says Kathy Shepard, spokeswoman for Hilton Hotels, which offers the service to guests in all its nonfranchised properties. "The majority of our guests recognize that it's a choice that's made available for those who want to participate. It's an added cost."

But to the antiporn campaigners, the in-room service represents a worsening public-health crisis. Activists cite what they consider to be a strong connection between pornography "addiction" and a myriad of other issues – from rape and child molestation to failed marriages.

"It's interesting to me that the Marriott hotels have just announced that all their hotels will be smoke-free," says Jan LaRue of Concerned Women for America, one of the 13 organizations behind CleanHotels.com. "I would like to see Marriott as concerned with the public health in that sense as they are with my lungs."

If the antismut campaigners seem suddenly emboldened, it may be because they see a like-minded president in the White House. Last year, the Justice Department convened a new Obscenity Prosecution Task Force to focus exclusively on adult obscenity – as opposed to patently illegal child pornography.

Last August, the Justice Department began recruiting FBI agents to investigate adult smut, which created a minor row among federal law-enforcement agencies, The Washington Post reported.

But despite these commitments, it was the Bush administration's perceived lack of action that gave new impetus to citizen activists, says Burress. That, and a sense of fresh outrage sparked by the Internet's digital parade of flesh.

"It's finally getting to the point where we're upset with the Justice Department. We're six years into the Bush administration," says Burress. "We were told that this was a high priority. And now nothing's being done. Instead of just waiting for them, we've gone to the public."

For those who make and sell the controversial material, authorities' reluctance to actually prosecute pruriency comes as no surprise. In fact, the ubiquity of smut on the Internet, says Mr. Cambria of the Adult Freedom Foundation, may have made the defense of its consumption more socially acceptable.

"There are some who are interested in adult entertainment and some who aren't. That hasn't changed much," he says. "What's changed is the willingness of adults who express those feelings: 'If it's all adult material ... and an adult wants to consume it, that's fine with me.' "

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