I walked into the living room Friday night to find my wife had left the teevee on, gone upstairs, and forgotten all about it. It was NBC's Dateline, with the tale of a teenaged girl undergoing aversion therapy for her fear of spiders, which might have been what drove my mildly arachnophobic spouse from the field in the first place. I kept watching, mostly because they kept referring to aversion therapy as "controversial" and I wanted to hear the explanation for that. Because it seems to me first that any psychological regimen can be described as "controversial", same as any economic theory can be, but never is, and second, because aversion therapy has been around since at least thirty years ago, when I heard about it in freshman psychology, shortly before Dr. Bob Hartley took his fear of flying group on a plane trip. Naturally there was no answer and I was left once again to suspect that teevee news may occasionally use words just to sensationalize a story, as much as I hate to think so.
The next story concerned John Hockenberry tracking down a real live porn spammer, so I stayed tuned. Again, call me cynical, but there was a tiny voice in my head, among all those others, suggesting that it just might be that the interest here was in the porn, rather than the spam. "Hey, tiny voice," I heard another voice say, "let's at least hear the story first."
It turned out there wasn't any need, because right off the bat they're comparing porn spam to someone delivering "X-rated leaflets" unbidden to your front door. Only the picture they choose to illustrate this hypothetical homeowner hell is a shot of a Penthouse-type magazine. It takes about ninety seconds more before Penthouse and Hustler are actually named; after the first break we'll get a picture of Larry Flynt splashed across the screen for good measure. To the best of my knowledge Mr. Flynt does not engage in pornographic spamming. I hope his lawyers were watching and he's feeling litigious this week.
Incidentally, whatever you may think of Mr. Hockenberry, he is, or seems to be, smarter than your average CNN hairdo, and I find it difficult to believe that the glaring omissions in the story are accidental.
In the meantime we've had our little "controversial therapy" moment. "It's perfectly legal" Hockenberry assures us. Well, no it ain't, as even his own story will admit momentarily. But investigating the truth of the matter might shed some light, so instead let's go straight to the anecdotes.
Parent A--our two complainants are both capital-P Parents, naturally, to explain their status as Particularly Aggrieved--resides in Kansas and received "the vilest stuff imaginable" via email one day. Okay, imaginations vary, but I had barely begun to ponder this when Parent B, from "suburban Texas" wherever that is, appeared with the topper: she was sent an ad for a website which showed sex with animals. She, we were informed, has had enough, implying a level of tolerance just recently breeched which I found somewhat surprising, not to mention impossible to believe.
One of these mothers--I lost track of which--claims she opened the offending email because the subject line promised beagles for sale, which is apparently one of her turn-ons. I know you're way ahead of me on this but it is 2005 and anybody foolish enough to open unsolicited email probably ought to consider themselves lucky if the penalty is an unwanted glimpse of Sin and not a hard drive dissolving instantaneously into a puddle of noxious goo. But that doesn't excuse porn spamming, let us agree.
The rest of the segment involved the search for the actual spammer (of course we were seeking the bestiality site, because a simple thing like a shot of Janet Jackson's breast ornamentation wouldn't raise any reasonable mother's ire). I'll only take the time for a couple of observations. One, that the search involved filming people surreptitiously, which for me is not really so morally elevated over spamming porn. The second is that the name of the site in question was "Spunkfarm" a term so offensive that Hockenberry mentioned it only twenty-three times in the report, according to the transcript. Twenty-three times.
What's the truth here? Well, first, as the story later tried to slip by us, under the CAN-SPAM act of 2004 such emails have to be labelled "sexually explicit". So an ad for an agricultural sploogefest which was entitled "Free puppies to a good home" is something less than "perfectly legal". And the fact that the law is basically nothing more than the sort of photo opportunity much beloved of our legislators, while legislation which has at least some teeth has stalled, can be laid directly at the feet of the party which controls Congress and has been promising to "protect families" and legislate morality for twenty-five years now. But Hockenberry never so much as mentioned the law.
It's irritating enough that practically every story which ever touches upon sexually explicit material simply ignores the practical impossibility of legally defining "obscenity", thereby reinforcing the right-wing mythos of a country held hostage by judges gone wild. Maybe they could sneak a camera into a reasonably intelligent attorney's office some day. I'm willing to bet that you could sit down with Missus Kansas and the Lone Star Suburbanite and tie their personal prejudices in knots in two minutes flat. But ignoring the fact that there's really a simple solution--if not an actual solution, at least a major legal correction--available which would have a broad-based support is even worse. Ban spam. Put some real criminal penalties on the books, and invest federal resources in tracking it down. Sure it can easily move overseas, but make it illegal and extremely risky to engage in commercial spamming in this country. After that we can worry about the rest of the world. But I suppose telling the story that way might irritate the wrong people, huh? Besides, anti-porn crusades are just so sexy.