Walking down Marszalkowska Street in downtown Warsaw, the brightly painted "sex shops" are impossible to miss, hawking erotic magazines, videos, and other items. Forbidden under Communist rule, pornography has been one of the clearest signs of the free market's arrival in Poland, along with flashy cars and neon signs.
But perhaps not for long. Parliament is due to vote March 1 on landmark legislation that would, in its strongest form, ban all pornography. Weaker versions would criminalize - and, in a first for Europe, define - hard-core pornography, with lengthy sentences for its production and distribution.
Yet critics are particularly upset at the provision defining hard-core material as any depiction of "sexual organs during sexual intercourse." They argue it will limit the discretion of judges and siphon funds from efforts to fight more-serious crime. The definition was included to aid prosecutors, often hindered by the difficulty of determining exactly what is pornographic.
Pornography involving children younger than 18, animals, or violence would fall under the "hard-core" category as well.
"No country has successfully specified what pornography is, and that's because it cannot be done," says Edward Wende, a prominent lawyer and Senate member who opposes the ban. "It is better to give a general definition, as the current law does, so that judges have the freedom to decide what is and is not pornographic."
Many Poles blame the easy availability of pornography for a perceived decline in social order and family values since Communist rule ended in 1990. The proposed law, which must be signed by the president to take effect, in part reflects the extraordinary influence of the Roman Catholic Church. In this country of 38 million, 95 percent consider themselves Catholic. Pope John Paul II is Polish.
During debate on the legislation last month, a deputy from the Solidarity Elections Action party (AWS) cited the Bible, saying, "It is historically proven that civilizations have fallen because of pornography, such as Sodom and Gomorrah." Cardinal Jozef Glemp, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, hailed the first draft of the law in December as "a step toward civilization."
The measure has secular supporters as well. As in the United States, opponents of pornography here claim it causes crime, particularly against women. "Some people think if you fight pornography, you fight freedom," Ewa Kowalewska of the Forum of Polish Women said at a December news conference. "But you have to know what pornography leads to. Pornography in a sense is like an instruction for rape and violence."
Such materials have never been as visible in Poland as in neighboring Hungary and the Czech Republic, or even in Russia, where pornography was technically illegal until 1997 but rarely prosecuted after 1989. Polish law already stipulates that hard-core magazines must be wrapped in non-transparent plastic and placed on upper shelves of newsstands - where children cannot see them. It is illegal to produce or distribute pornography involving children, animals, or violence.
But many Poles feel these laws aren't adequately enforced. In one 1997 poll, more than 50 percent of respondents thought pornography producers were not sufficiently prosecuted. Many also feel that such materials are still too readily available. "We have to protect our children and people on the street, who don't want to see pornography in public," says Mikhail Kaminski, a delegate of the right-wing Christian National Union, who supports a complete ban.
In the US, pornography has been shielded from such comprehensive bans by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Although the Polish Constitution also guarantees free speech, scarcely anyone here (pornographers aside) has invoked it in this context.
"The distribution of pornography has nothing to do with freedom of speech," says Mr. Wende. "Democracy gives you the right of free speech, but you cannot violate someone else's freedom. You cannot insult or offend other people."
Instead, the law's critics, which include the opposition Democratic Left Alliance, along with most of the Polish intelligentsia, claim a comprehensive ban is unenforceable and would waste resources that could be devoted to combatting more serious crimes.
Last month, Poland's deputy minister of justice, Janusz Niemcewicz, declared the ban would lead to "deriding the law and the dignity of the courts." He was promptly labeled a "defender of pornography" by right-wing delegates. But it is rumored that President Aleksander Kwasniewski, known for his liberal social views, is also against the ban and may refuse to sign it.
Distributors, meanwhile, seem surprisingly unconcerned, perhaps because enforcement of existing laws has been lax. According to the Justice Ministry, only five people were prosecuted for distribution of pornography in 1997. In the first eight months of 1998, only two individuals were prosecuted.
"The law is not very effective," says Pawel Siarkiewicz, owner of the International Fun Center, a leading Polish distributor of erotic lingerie, publications, videos, and sex toys. Mr. Siarkiewicz says he has been charged with violating pornography laws nine times, but never sentenced. He also claims his business has grown by 25 percent every year for several years.
But the new law may make porn less visible to most of the public, and that may be enough for its backers. There seems little doubt that the trade will continue to thrive underground. Asked how he would sell X-rated videos if they were outlawed, one Warsaw sex-shop owner grinned, held up a tape, and placed it under the counter.
"Prices will be higher, but everything will still be available," he says. "It will be just like under the Communists in the past, only now it's the church that is pushing us around."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society