Steve Chapman

Based on the evidence, it would be easier to make the case that adult entertainment is beneficial than that it's harmful. Harvard economist Benjamin Edelman even found that in places where porn subscriptions are most popular, you find more people "donating blood, engaging in volunteer activities or participating in community projects."

The absence of any visible damage caused by adult sites won't deter the crusading senators, whose true objection to sexual fare is not that it's harmful but that it's sexual. Moral disapproval, however, is no more grounds for prosecuting obscenity than it is for banning Charlie Sheen from TV.

What must particularly annoy Hatch and Co. is that most Americans see no need to censor websites that feature naked bodies. Nor is it easy to understand why the constitutional guarantee of free expression should exclude depictions of erotic activity.

The Supreme Court, it's true, has yet to abandon its position that obscenity has no First Amendment protection. But given the evolution of sexual standards in America, there's not a lot that clearly qualifies as obscene anymore, which makes prosecutions difficult.

In any case, what business is it of Hatch or Holder what adults choose to view on their home computers? If we can tolerate racist literature, slasher videos and the Westboro Baptist Church, we can put up with Jenna Jameson at her most indiscreet.

Besides, it's not like we have a choice. The nature of the Internet makes it next to impossible to keep out porn, short of draconian government controls. U.S.-based suppliers may be prosecuted, but there are plenty of other countries where smut peddlers can set up shop and stream live shower cams all night long.

The government could squander both money and personal freedom by trying to stamp out pornography. Or it could try the policy attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I have no objection to anyone's sex life as long as they don't practice it in the street and frighten the horses." That would work fine, even in Utah.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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