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The public library is no place for Internet porn. There. I said it.

April 14, 2011

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I sure hope Emerson was right when he said a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, because I’m about to say something at variance with my usual freewheeling devotion to the First Amendment: Internet porn should be banned at public libraries.

And I mean banned: No privacy screens. No special rooms. No computers away from areas frequented by children. I mean no porn, ever, at tax-payer expense in a public library. It’s outrageous that the issue is even under question. Quick, someone please tell me when that pendulum is going to swing back in the direction of public decency?

Alas, it is under question, off and on. Most recently the issue arose in Los Angeles, where patrons complained in January about someone accessing pornography on a computer in the Chinatown branch. At a meeting Tuesday, a City Council committee decided it was a First Amendment issue. The solution: privacy screens to shield other patrons from accidentally getting a glimpse of something offensive.

It’s not that the city government wouldn’t prefer to ban or limit porn at its 72 branches, but as UCLA constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh told the committee, the Supreme Court has yet to rule on how far local authorities can go in restricting access to porn.

As a result, cities have to worry (cravenly, if you ask me) about getting sued by creeps who want to watch Internet porn in the same facility where your kid is having Dr. Seuess read to her.

Don’t get me wrong. As a career journalist, I’m usually a free-speech absolutist, up to and including flag burning. I revere librarians (and bookstore owners) for their courage in resisting government’s overreach in seeking to learn what books I read under the guise of “homeland security.”

And I certainly do not want to see pornography banned. If we start drawing moralistic lines about what types of speech or entertainment adults can access, then we set foot on that slippery slope that ends in a jumble of censorship and tyranny at the bottom.

But just because we have to tolerate speech some of us find offensive does not mean that it cannot be regulated. No one has the right to have his or her art promulgated everywhere. While I don’t really believe that nude dancing is an art form, it cannot be banned lest it have a chilling effect on the next Isadora Duncan. But nudie bars ought not be able to operate in easy sight of elementary schools or churches.

Yes, yes, I know that conservatives have used similar arguments to seek the end of federal funding for art they find offensive, likes Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” But a credible argument can be made for redeeming value in even the most provocative art works.

Sasha Grey

That’s not what Internet pornography is. Its fans are not drawn to porn for its aethestics.

In 2005, someone wrote into “The Ethicist” column at The New York Times Magazine, about seeing someone accessing porn on a New York Public Library computer. Randy Cohen, who then wrote the column, got all tut-tutty, advising the alarmed citizen to mind his or her own business.

“A guard monitoring someone’s reading?” Cohen wrote. “That’s not my idea of how a library operates. Libraries should provide for the free exchange of ideas — not just ideas you or I find palatable, not just ideas suitable for 5-year-olds. And librarians should not be forced to censor patrons’ reading, let alone eject them for looking at disturbing images.”

This, of course, is ridiculously high-minded, naive and out of date. Just look at Cohen’s use of the word “reading,” as though he is defending our right to read James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. Evidently, Cohen is the only adult male in America who has not looked at porn on his computer.

Because I defy anyone to find redeeming value in most what’s out there. It’s like Deadwood, before Seth Bullock got things cleaned up. We’re not talking about The Story of O, or Last Tango in Paris, or even Deep Throat, which at least had the vestige of a narrative, plus an intentional joke or two.

No, we’re talking about Sasha Grey slouching into a room where she takes on ten men in an interminable anal gangbang. If someone can find redeeming artistic value in that, you’ll be doing me a great favor by explaining what it is. You’ll disabuse me of the idea that the real appeal of such work lies in misogynistic male fantasies of dominance over women.

Should such spectacles be legal? Yes. Should it be easily available to consenting adults? Yes. Should I be able to view it at the public library? Hell no.

Here’s one proposed solution for municipalities unwilling to take on the cost of litigation: Rather than putting privacy screens on the computers, or moving the creeps to a more private location, I suggest putting the computers in the middle of the room, where everyone can see what everyone else is looking at.

I guarantee you, the fathers and mothers in the place will take care of the probem, toot suite.

 

 

 

 

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Clare MacQueen permalink
    April 14, 2011 1:21 pm

    Well said, Chauncey. Thank you! And if more folks, not just mothers and fathers, actually speak out in public, as in “Good grief, that’s disgusting and inappropriate to watch in public!” — maybe the viewers will get the message and stop their rude behavior. Like you, I support a person’s right to view whatever they want, whether it offends me or not, but most emphatically NOT in a public place. “Silence is the voice of complicity.” And as long as we remain quiet about such behavior, it will continue. I do understand the propensity to keep quiet because we believe so strongly in the individual right to do as one pleases, and/or we simply fear being told, “Mind yer own effing business!” To that I say, and have said in similar confrontations, “But as long as you’re in a public place, it IS my business!”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 14, 2011 1:47 pm

      Well said, your own self. I don’t understand where the idea came from that freedom and decency are mutually exclusive. Actually, I have some ideas about how the wrong strand of the Sixties survived — the one that was all about decadence and license — while the best one — about protesting injustice– kind of died on the vine.

      • Clare MacQueen permalink
        April 14, 2011 3:19 pm

        Do those ideas have something to do with the way that many Boomers were a teensy bit too liberal and permissive with their children? If so, then I’m just as guilty of helping to raise the “me-first, fuck-you” generation. (Please pardon my French.)

        Please tell us more… (That is, if you have the time! I’m astonished that you write as much and as often as you do, and manage such eloquence. Marvelous!)

      • Clare MacQueen permalink
        April 14, 2011 4:10 pm

        Eeeek, I didn’t mean to sound snarky! My apologies. I meant that I truly am in awe of your writing (and thinking) prowess, and I felt guilty at imposing further upon your time by asking you to share your theories.

  2. April 14, 2011 2:11 pm

    Chauncey, I’ve little to add to your eloquent, passionate and, frankly, sane reflections or Clare’s sympathetic, ethical comments. Here’s a poem I wrote upon first moving to FL and experiencing this ‘freedom’ exercised. I will admit, I did not report anything to the librarians, but I did hand them print and electronic copies of the poem below, just so they know

    e-cafe

    an uncanny sea of disembodied heads

    bob before life support machines

    transmit and receive

    rays of simulated reality

    eyes glazed and opaque

    staring out soul-less windows

    will suddenly blink into feeling

    registering unfathomable frequencies

    sometimes making gentle clucking sounds

    or abruptly ducking imaginary kicks

    sometimes a fluttering hand will land

    on head, chin, or slightly parted lips

    a gallery of caricatures drawn inches apart

    hurried professor by harried housewife

    nature enthusiast by flamboyantly defiant youth

    loners, poseurs, punks and faux thugs

    download bleak or enlivening news

    their own or the worlds, and playing games

    with virtual combatants or unreal lovers

    mating online, an illusion within an illusion

    for an hour at a time, wholly alone, together

    each utterly engaged in their life’s minutiae

    lost in private concerns, pleasure or pain

    and the kaleidoscope of emotion in between

    pensive, sly, delicate, expectant, impatient, forlorn

    necks craning forward, scowling in consternation

    chuckling, or glancing furtively over their shoulder

    bodies undulating, and stealthily masturbating

    traveling side by side, like passengers on a plane

    though each in parallel planes of thought

    racing in separate lanes, never touching

    with nothing and everything in common

    until the time is up and they hastily disembark

    with petulant or quickening step, disoriented

    leaving hopes and secrets behind

    in those inscrutable black boxes.

    • Clare MacQueen permalink
      April 14, 2011 3:11 pm

      Thank you for your kind words, Yahia! And for including the poem, which is soooo apt. I don’t know how those librarians responded to your poem, but it’s been my experience these past few years that librarians turn the proverbial blind eye and ear to all sorts of rude (bordering on crude) and selfish behavior — in fact, one told me that libraries are no longer libraries, but have evolved into community centers.

      Devolve, I think she shoulda said, libraries filled as they are with raucous, disdainful adolescents; screaming toddlers whose moms seem to have no clue how much pain and distress they’re inflicting on other patrons; grown men playing war-games on their computers, the volume so loud that grunts and screams leak from their headphones up to a hundred paces away; twenty-somethings fuming over their cell phones with language that absolutely singes my ears–my goodness!

      I think this subject has got me wound up a bit, wouldn’t you say? 😉

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 14, 2011 5:44 pm

      Thanks, Yahia, and thanks for the fine poem — which, I’m guessing, was a tad too subtle in its effects to get much of a response from the library staff regarding the creeps looking at porn…

  3. April 14, 2011 3:41 pm

    I do appreciate that vivid response, Clare, and am glad my poem resonated with you. The librarians’ response was kind and mild. Like persons whose hands were tied…

    Yes, the library has (d)evolved as you say, into something else. It is no longer (secular) space for worship, but perhaps a community center as you suggest. Which is not all bad, though a trifle sad, since they are willing to put up with all sorts of nonsense, in the hopes that people might actually stoop to pick up a book on the way out.

    • Clare MacQueen permalink
      April 14, 2011 5:05 pm

      Oh my goodness, Yahia, yes! YES, that’s it–public libraries are no longer the sanctuaries they once were, no longer the hushed halls where one could worship the word in profound reverence and gratitude. I have set foot in only one such library in 30 years: the graduate library at the University of Washington, where I felt a stillness and peace which I simply cannot describe.

      Not bad, as you point out, but something to lament in a wistful way. Or am I simply idealizing the libraries of my childhood? I spent hours at the public library in Omaha, Nebraska (where I lived a few months as a teen), as much to revel in the architecture and ambiance as to adore the books.

      Which makes me realize that architecture may contribute to the problem. Branch libraries of my experience are typically built like community centers, low-slung and practical, rather than like city libraries that remind me of cathedrals.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        April 14, 2011 5:46 pm

        Libraries remain, at least in certain corners, temples of culture, and we are fortunate they remain open, even if they’ve broadened and coarsened their mission. The might come when they go dark.

  4. Sean Piccoli permalink
    April 14, 2011 6:04 pm

    I’m surprised at Randy Cohen, who’s usually smarter than that. It doesn’t take “reading” or “monitoring” to spot porn on a public computer screen. A glance is enough.

    The conflating of porn with “disturbing images” is also disingenuous, like we’re not supposed to be able or allowed to make distinctions between different kinds of unpleasantness. If I see somebody viewing war dead or autopsy photos, I’ll wince but keep walking since it could be research – and even if it isn’t research, and it’s just idle or morbid curiosity, or worse (see: “Crash”), there’s enough ambiguity and different, overlapping possibilities of intent that reporting it to the library staff is a bad idea.

    If they’re watching Web porn, the odds are it’s for personal gratification of sexual desire, something most of us agree ought to be addressed privately. In this case, viewing porn at the library is no less obnoxious than having sex on the commuter train. You should expect that if you’re caught you’ll be asked to disembark, and that you might get arrested for your exhibitionism.

    And even if it’s for some research project I can’t fathom (“Semiotics of Adult Cinema”), it’s a problem. We have prevailing community standards on where we’ll accept porn being shown, and even good-faith research material, if it’s porn, ought not to be aired on a public library computer screen. Do that work at home.

    I’m conflicted about passing laws, though, for all the usual reasons. Plus we may already have the laws we need under the general disturbing-the-peace category. I think I prefer a collective, voluntary responsibility for library conduct in which people don’t go looking for outrages, but if they spot one, they feel it’s appropriate to tell the perpetrator to stop, or they can go to the librarian and ask for backup. As you point out, shame can be a powerful disincentive.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 14, 2011 9:16 pm

      Beautifully said, Sean, and you make some points the rest of us missed. I only disagree about the inadvisability of passing laws. A City Council vote to ban porn at the library would be more akin to zoning regulations than censorship. No one’s saying you can’t view porn to your heart’s content, just not in the library (I love you analogy about having sex on the train). Most municipalities already have zoning laws prohibiting bars and other types of business from proximity to schools and churches. Don’t they? At least they did when I was a city hall reporter, back in the time of teased hair and shoulder pads. You can still get drunk, in most places while watching the gyrations of completely nekkid young women. You just can’t do it in sight of a school or house of worship.

      • Sean Piccoli permalink
        April 15, 2011 1:42 pm

        Zoning is a good approach! I can totally live with that.

        BTW – and here’s where I admit to Googling “Sasha Grey” (which sounds vulgar) – Grey in her current post-porn incarnation and aspirations might agree with you.

        Yes, she’s got a book.

        http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/139413-sasha-grey/

  5. Clare MacQueen permalink
    April 14, 2011 6:09 pm

    A thousand thanks for the reminder! Despite the whine-fest, I am deeply grateful for such easy access to all sorts of books and magazines and reference materials — especially in a library system that can acquire these on loan from just about anywhere in the nation. We are blessed indeed.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 15, 2011 5:50 pm

      Sean — Nope, afraid not. I think once a performer has gone the porn route, he or she is ineligible for mainstream acceptance. I mean, Sasha Grey trying to become a legitimate actress is like an exotic dancer hoping to catch on with the Miami Ballet or something. Some taints can never be washed away, not without completely jumping the tracks into another endeavor. I might accept her aspirations to being an art photographer, except that she’s still trading on her porn notoriety — while saying, “Don’t judge me or think you know me!” Come on, Sasha, you can’t have it both ways. Besides — and this is very important — while there is a place for porn in any free society, we must resist the pornification of society at large. Things are vulgar enough already, without letting the sluts and whores and pimps crawl out of the darkness. And if you think I’m being harsh in my choice of words, then I suggest you google Sasha and view some of her porn work — as I said above, it’s some of the ugliest and most misogynistic you’ll find. I mean, once a woman has had sex with ten men in one session, oral, anal, vaginal, on film, for money, I think she sacrifices the right to be heard on anything relating to human sexuality.

      • April 15, 2011 6:00 pm

        “we must resist the pornification of society at large. Things are vulgar enough already…” *Sigh* Yes, and yes.

  6. April 23, 2011 1:42 am

    If you think putting the computers in an open area will solve the problem of porn in the library, think again after you view this. As I know it, the mother snapped a photo of this man viewing porn and was assaulted in the 3rd degree-in front of her son, and threatened.

    http://www.1011now.com/home/headlines/Mother_Catches_Man_Looking_at_Porn_on_Computer_in_Librarys_Childrens_Section_120255874.html

  7. John Citizen permalink
    November 21, 2011 2:43 am

    What? Not one comment in favor of freedom of expression?

    I am saddened to see that anti-sex bigotry is still alive and thriving in the United States.

    How DARE you try to tell me what I should not look at on a computer that was paid for with my taxes.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 21, 2011 12:44 pm

      You’ve got to be kidding, right? Your freedom to watch smut on a computer that my taxes helped pay for trumps my right not to be assaulted by gross sexual images in a public space, also paid for in part by my taxes? I don’t think so. You’re free to do anything you want in a private space, say your own home. But in a public space the rights and sensibilities of other people need to be considered.

  8. January 3, 2013 1:18 am

    Many thanks for using free time to publish “The public library is no
    place for Internet porn. There. I said it. Open Page”.
    Many thanks for a second time -Latanya

  9. March 18, 2013 9:33 pm

    “The public library is no place for Internet porn.
    There. I said it. | Open Page” Solar blinds actually got me
    simply addicted on ur web page! I reallywill probably be back again far more frequently.

    Thank you ,Marianne

  10. July 11, 2013 7:24 pm

    Sasha Grey is bellisima and great artist.She is very sexy and sweet!

Trackbacks

  1. The inexplicable defense of pornography in public libraries, New York version. « Open Page

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