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What pornography is can endlessly be debated. One rough definition: explicit books, films and other materials (including, by extension, performances) designed chiefly for sexual arousal. By any definition, porn has mushroomed in the past decade, from a marginal underground cottage industry into an open, aggressive $2 billion-a-year, crime-ridden growth enterprise. Its once powerful foes—the churches and their antivice allies—are now in retreat if not totally routed. Despite flurries of police busts, sporadic prosecutions and a growing sense of unease among many Americans about the gross new world in which they find themselves, most of the traditional barriers to porn are now down. The laws against pornography are uncertain, full of loopholes; harassed law-enforcement officials usually have neither the will, the funds nor the community backing to wage an effective war on pornography; juries will often not convict. Pornography, says Raunch King Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine, is becoming "part of the mainstream of American life."
One startling aspect of porn is its new social acceptability. Prodigious Linda (Deep Throat) Lovelace is an ordinary topic of surburban conversation and a cover subject for Esquire. Superstud Harry Reems, at 28 a veteran of 400 porn movies, has had to dodge his fans on the street. Porn Star Johnny Holmes has 37 fan clubs, and Writer Gay Talese says an esoteric cult has grown up around Leather Princess Bettie Page, whose photos "are collected and traded across the country like you and I did with baseball cards." Prestigious Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., honored Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione at one of its fund-raising dinners after he made a pledge to the school's scholarship fund.
American anxiety over porn is little more than a century old. Early America had few obscenity laws. The new nation's first recorded court decision did not come until 1815, when six hapless Philadelphians were convicted of showing for profit an indecent painting. The first federal restriction came in 1842 with the passage of a law that forbade importing obscene pictures. In 1865, in response to fears that smut had been corrupting the Union's soldiers, such things were barred from the mails.
After the Civil War young men flocked to the cities, and a porn business grew up to provide for this new market. Shocked by what he saw around him, a New York City clerk, Anthony Comstock, launched a national crusade. The results: stiffer laws, more prosecutions and a firm antiporn stance became the official American posture for nearly a century.
In the 1920s, when not only classics but such modern books as James Joyce's Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover were banned, an anticensorship movement arose to defend frankness in works of art. Ulysses was declared nonpornographic by District Court Judge John Woolsey in 1933. Another major barrier fell when Lady Chatterley's Lover was allowed to circulate in the U.S. in 1959. But the key constitutional case had come two years before in the Roth decision of 1957.
The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of New Yorker Samuel Roth, a purveyor of soft-core magazines and books, but drew a