Recognizing pornography when we see it

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to be in Las Vegas with my wife and 11-year-old son.

Friends took us to see some of the tourist sights along the "Strip" - the graceful fountains at the Bellagio, the fake exploding volcano, the pirate ship that founders after a cannonade from one of Her Majesty's galleons, only to be cranked up again for the next performance. This is all part of a campaign to persuade tourists that the gambling mecca is a good destination for families to visit.

But there are other sights, too, that beckon to the baser instincts of some visitors and justify the billboards proudly proclaiming Las Vegas to be "Sin City." In our stroll along the Strip, we were accosted some 30 or 40 times by hawkers trying to thrust into our hands graphic fliers for nude shows and girlie bars.

Families like ours, including wives and children, were not immune. When the fliers were rejected, they often fluttered to the sidewalks, leaving pictures of half-dressed, and undressed, women face up. Our hosts advised our son: "Don't look down."

But lift your gaze upward, and you would be afflicted by huge moving electric signs on the sides of buildings, advertising nude shows with larger-than-life previews of what would be in store for patrons.

At the end of the day, when we retrieved our car and got gas for the journey homeward, eye-level posters importuned us to stay and have topless females visit us in our hotel room.

Thus I was intrigued a few weeks later when controversy erupted in our community in Utah over a proposed cultural field trip to Las Vegas for high school students. The object would be to see Fabergé eggs and other Kremlin art treasures on display at one hotel, and art by Picasso, Chagall, and others at another hotel.

The local school board said "No" to an official school excursion. Parents were divided. Parents who objected to the ban chartered a couple of buses and privately chaperoned a bunch of children from fourth grade through high school off to Las Vegas - accompanied by a platoon of reporters and cameramen.

Scenting much free publicity, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman rolled out the red carpet for the children. One of them told one newspaper: "There's more to Vegas than dirty stuff that you have to search to find." (Obviously there is much more to Las Vegas than the Strip. Just as obviously, you don't have to search far to find the dirty stuff. Could it be we're raising a generation that doesn't recognize pornography when it sees it?) A columnist for the same newspaper wrote that the Strip "is not the sort of place where I would want my teenage children wandering around unsupervised.... It is this blatant sexual propositioning - along with gambling, drugs, murder, and assorted mayhem - that worries any sensible parent when it comes to Vegas and their kids."

All this could be dismissed as a two- or three-day media event were it not for the fact that pornography, and particularly child pornography, has become a multibillion-dollar industry and is, as one therapist puts it, "the hidden illness of the new millennium."

Actually, not so hidden. The Internet is awash in sex - more than 400,000 websites and counting. Celebrities dabbling in child porn are arrested. Families are destroyed. Therapists' caseloads are swamped with cyberporn addicts. And the addiction sometimes goes beyond glassy-eyed computer watching to sexual molestation, bestiality, and even murder.

The forces arrayed against this tidal wave of pornography are dedicated, but stretched thin. Law-enforcement agencies try to track and trap sex offenders, especially those who target children on the Internet, but manpower and resources are often limited. However, the US has just ratified an international treaty making sexual exploitation of children a crime.

Some judges are barring sex offenders from Internet access. Credit-card companies have been meeting with law-enforcement officials in Washington to discuss making the porn sites more difficult to operate.

Even so, some of them are diabolically clever; when my family recently checked out a "small dog" site, likely to lure young viewers, it turned out to be a porn site.

After the visit of Utah schoolchildren to Las Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman went on national television and lauded his city as one where visitors could come to do anything they wanted - provided it was legal.

The question we should be asking is: Even when it's technically legal, is it moral and desirable?

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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