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Torture's cool, pornography's not

The upside-down values that spurred our government to misplace its priorities

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Two weeks ago, on Oct. 3, a judge in Tampa, Fla., sentenced porn director Paul Little to 46 months in prison.

I first mentioned Little, aka "Max Hardcore," in a column three years ago about a new federal squad of porn busters created by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. Little's website, MaxHardcore.com, was among the early targets of the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force.

The feds seized the site's web servers in 2005 and returned them a few days later. But they continued their investigation and brought formal charges against Little in 2007. He was convicted in June of 20 counts of distributing obscene materials through the Internet and the U.S. mail. Now, if you go to the MaxHardcore.com site, you'll see only a notice that it has been "forfeited" to the U.S. government.

Little actually lives in California but was prosecuted in Tampa, because Florida's "community standards" law would make conviction likelier. Technically, the feds had every right to do so, because MaxHardcore.com used web servers in Florida and shipped videos to customers in Tampa.

The case is the flashiest that the OPTF has prosecuted successfully. As blogger and porn critic Susannah Breslin (ReverseCowgirlBlog.blogspot.com) notes, the task force encountered an unexpected problem in its first efforts to crack down on porn: Quite a few U.S. attorneys refused to devote their overtaxed resources to the effort. That in turn led to some of the firings in last year's U.S. attorneys scandal, which in turn led to Gonzales' resignation.

In my column, I also noted a particularly odd case against the website, NowThatsFuckedUp.com, operated by Chris Wilson, 27, of Lakeland, Fla. The site mainly featured amateur porn but it also became a place where soldiers in Iraq posted grotesque pictures of the dead.

Since I wrote my column, Wilson has been to court for 301 violations of Florida's obscenity laws. The American Civil Liberties Union worked out a plea bargain whereby Little did not have to serve any time in prison.

But here's the odd part: The government didn't concern itself with the pictures of smiling soldiers with trophy corpses – a likely violation of international law. Indeed, after Wilson's site was shut down, he posted all the Iraq pictures on a new site, DocumentingReality.com, without any objection from government agents. The sight of women engaged in sex is more disturbing than displaying a human kill.

Glenn Greenwald (Salon.com) last week noted a similar irony with the prosecution of Paul Little. Little invoked basically the same argument that Justice Department attorneys used to excuse the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib that the acts didn't cause severe pain or permanent injury, and therefore weren't illegal because they couldn't be termed "torture."

When Little's attorneys made the point in court that his videos were made by consenting adults who didn't find their experience painful, the judge replied that they were nonetheless "degrading" and "clearly humiliating." And that was sufficient under Florida's obscenity laws to sentence Little to prison. Meanwhile, no matter how obviously painful, humiliating and degrading our treatment of detainees is, government officials are protected from prosecution as war criminals.

In fairness, it is absolutely true that Little's pornographic videos are shocking. Susannah Breslin, a liberal by most standards, took Greenwald to task for supporting Little without actually seeing his videos. They typically involve sadomasochistic behavior like anointing women with bodily fluids, including vomit. Little's attorneys made no pretense that the videos don't exceed usual norms of taste in the States but insisted that the most outré were directed to kinkier Europeans.

But taste is not really the issue here. Nobody would argue that the acts depicted at Abu Ghraib or in Little's films are tasteful. What is relevant is the consistent effort by government officials over the last eight years to control the bodies of the citizens.

Whether the context is pornography, reproductive rights, marijuana (to ease the pain of cancer), marriage rights, habeas corpus or the scapegoats savaged at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we've all been subjected to a level of bodily control rarely seen – outside fascist governments.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For his blog and information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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