Kerby Anderson is the president of Probe Ministries International. He received his B.S. from Oregon State University, M.F.S. from Yale University, and M.A. from Georgetown University. He is the author of several books, including Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Living Ethically in the 90s, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope, and Moral Dilemmas. He also served as general editor for Marriage, Family and Sexuality.
He is a nationally syndicated columnist whose editorials have appeared in the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.
He is the host of "Probe," and frequently serves as guest host on "Point of View" (USA Radio Network).
With sex nearly everywhere these days, it isn't so surprising that porn is coming to a computer screen near you. The combination of sex and the computer was inevitable but the raunchiness of what can be viewed has shocked even the jaded.
The electronic revolution has made pornography more accessible, bringing decadent and hard-to-get images into the home. In the past, those who wanted to obtain hard-core pornography had to leave their home and go to a seedy side of town and buy a magazine or watch a movie. That is no longer the case. First came cable TV broadcasting visual images stronger than what you would see in movie theaters two decades ago. Then came videos which could be rented at your local, respectable video store.
But the expansion of computer databases on the Internet has provided the greatest access yet to sexually explicit images access by both adults and children. These are images, movies, and online chat that used to be only available on the bad side of town but which can now be obtained in the privacy of one's home. Home computers have become the "ultimate brown wrapper" for pornography.
Parents especially have a legitimate concern about what their children will be exposed to and the damage that can be done. One ten-year-old student spent time talking to other kids by computer in the Treehouse chat room on America Online. One day he received E-mail from a stranger that contained a mysterious file with instructions on how to download it. He followed the instructions, and then called his mom. When his mom opened the file, the computer screen filled with thumbnail size images of "couples engaged in various acts of sodomy, heterosexual intercourse and lesbian sex."
Parents are also concerned about the possibility of having their children lured away by a potential molester. Los Angeles Detective Bill Dworn warns: "The pervert can get on any bulletin board and chat with kids all night long. He lies about his age and makes friends. As soon as he can get a telephone number or address, he's likely to look up the kid and molest him or her."
Critics argue that such a possibility is overblown and not likely to occur. But tell that to the parents of a 13-year-old Kentucky girl found in Los Angeles after supposedly being lured by a grown- up cyberpal. Already there are approximately a dozen high-profile cases of children who have been seduced or lured into situations where they were victimized.
One mother was shocked to find that her 12-year-old daughter had been surfing the dark side of the Net. "It seems my sweet and innocent baby, my A-student, piano-playing teacher's favorite, and her buddies had been sending messages such as 'Anyone out there want to talk to a hot babe?' and 'Sizzling F wants to talk to sexy M.'" When she and her husband downloaded some of their daughter's E-mail, they found descriptions and pictures most parents would find offensive and overwhelming.
A recent study by Carnegie Mellon, entitled Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway, provides the best documented evidence so far of the growing interest in cyberporn. Though the study has its critics and is not without its flaws, it nevertheless lays to rest the argument that this is a minor problem. The researchers pulled together elaborate computer records of online activity and reached the following startling conclusions:
There's a lot of pornography online. During their 18- month study, Carnegie Mellon researchers found 917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, stories, and clips. On the Usenet newsgroups where these digitized images are stored, they found that 83.5% of the pictures were pornographic.
Online pornography is popular. Sexually explicit forums are the most popular areas on computer online services. At one university, 13 of the 40 most frequently visited news groups had names like alt.sex.stories, rec.arts.erotica, and alt.sex.bondage.
Online porn is big business. Nearly three fourths (71%) of the sexually explicit images surveyed originate from adult bulletin- board systems (BBS) attempting to lure customers to additional collections of cyberporn. There they can charge monthly fees and take credit card numbers for individual images. The five largest adult BBS systems have annual revenues in excess of $1 million.
Online porn is everywhere. Carnegie Mellon researchers obtained records of Internet users and BBS operators. They found individual consumers in at least 2000 cities, in all 50 states, and in 40 countries around the world. Cyberporn is ubiquitous.
Most consumers are male. Researchers have found that 98.9% of the consumers of porn are men. Women do participate in "chat" rooms and other bulletin boards. But most of the consumers of cyberporn images are male.
Cyberporn is more than naked women. Demand for images goes far beyond what can be found in a bookstore magazine rack. Pedophilia, bestiality, bondage, and sadomasochism make up a majority of the images. Many of the images are too offensive to even describe here.
The impact of some of these images on public policy has been significant. In the summer of 1995, Senators James Exon (D-NE) and Dan Coats (R-IN) proposed a revision to the Communications Decency Act. The bill would have extended existing dial-a-porn regulations to computer networks and outlaw obscene material and impose fines of up to $100,000 and prison terms of up to two years on anyone who knowingly makes "indecent" material available to children under 18.
At the time, the bill was considered dead a few weeks ago until Senator Exon produced his "blue book." Inside were some shocking images he had a friend download from some of the forums. "I knew it was bad," Senator Exon said. "But then when I got on there, it made Playboy and Hustler look like Sunday-school stuff." He printed the images out and stuffed them in a blue folder. Exon asked colleagues to stop by his desk on the Senate floor to see them. When the floor debate was over, the bill passed 84 to 16. Unfortunately the bill did not fare so well in the House of Representatives due to concerns about First Amendment rights.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative Ron Klink (D-PA) introduced legislation which would order the Justice Department to study the problem of pornography on the Internet and propose solutions to Congress. Given the Attorney General's previous track record on pornography, most assume that this bill will do little to curb porn on the Internet. The argument for governmental regulation of cyberporn is a simple one. Currently the federal government regulates dial-a-porn calls that take place over interstate phone lines. If it is constitutional for federal regulation of audio sex transmitted over interstate phone lines, isn't it also constitutional for federal regulation of video sex transmitted over those same interstate phone lines connected to modems and computers? The constitutional argument is sound.
The Internet is a wonderful marketplace of ideas, so most parents don't want to pull the plug on computer services. But parents do want to protect their kids from the seamier side of the Net. Here are a few suggestions for parents.
1. Use online service blocking features. Many commercial services (e.g., CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy) have mechanisms to restrict access to areas inappropriate for children. Check into these when you register with these services.
2. Block cyberporn with software. There is also special software that can screen and block areas that children may try to investigate. SurfWatch is a software program that automatically blocks access to the approximately 1000 sexual hot spots on the Internet. Net Nanny is a program that allows a parent or guardian to monitor everything that passes through the computer. If it detects an offending phrase in an online chat room, the program automatically disconnects the computer.
3. Create a children's checklist. Make sure your child knows the do's and don'ts of online computing. Never give out personal information (address, phone number). Never arrange a face-to-face meeting. Always remember that the person online may not be what he or she claims to be.
4. Watch your kids. Hover around your kids when they are online. Ask them to teach you some things about online computing. Keep the family computer in the den so you have a better opportunity to see what they are doing and communicating. Notice when they are on the computer. Excessive use late at night might be an indication of a problem.
Ultimately Congress is going to have to pass legislation to curb cyberporn on the Internet. This nearly invisible, subterranean, electronic river of pornographic slime flows beneath our homes and communities with little regulation. Parents can only do so much, and Congress cannot shirk its responsibility to regulate this menace.
Until then, however, parents must do what they can to prevent these explicit images from invading their homes and perverting their children. We must stand for purity and righteousness and protect our children by fighting the insidious influence of cyberporn in our society.
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