During our yearlong national fainting spell over thongs in the White House, I kept waiting for some intelligent Washington reporter (oxymoron?) to cite an old but reliable study. The study, conducted by the U.S. Senate's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, found that porn fighters and their political allies do more harm than the evil they attack.

The commission released its surprising findings in the late '60s, at the height of the religious right's first big rabbit hunt after corrupters of our youth. The clearest evidence came in a scientific study of sex criminals in prison for rape or child molestation. Compared with a matched sample of normal men, these rapists and pederasts had undergone one significant deprivation in their teenage years: They had been deprived of porn.

Porn chasers can't get their minds around any hint that their preaching often nourishes the targeted conduct.

"Rapists were significantly less likely than normals to have seen representations of fully nude women, of normal intercourse, of mouth-genital contact, or of sadomasochistic activity," the study found. "The child molesters had seen less pornography of every kind than our normal group did. Only 62% of these sex offenders who prefer immature partners had seen representations of heterosexual intercourse, while 85% of the control group (normals) had encountered this kind of pornography as teenagers." So wrote Michael J. Goldstein, psychology Ph.D., and Harold S. Kant, part of a rigorous research team.

Even back in 1970, when I was the editor of Psychology Today and of an article based on the commission's11-volume report, I had a sinking feeling that these valuable data might get shoved right back down into the repressed corners of our collective memory. President Richard Nixon set the pattern by rejecting the report the day it was delivered to him.

It did briefly become a best-seller, but it soon vanished from our consciousness, and the press corps returned to its routine of instant panic reporting. Just as Washington liberals tend to forget how many of their well-intended programs fail to work, finger-waggers can't get their minds around any hint that their preaching often nourishes the targeted conduct. Confessing the sins of others doesn't always promote the Golden Rule.

When the data hit home, I, like other parents, got caught between the devil and a hard place. With three teenage sons, I worried about the soft porn that was suddenly turning up on hotel television sets. The first time it happened, in the tower of the Sheraton in New York, I went off to bed leaving three pairs of innocent, widened eyes staring at their first public porn. The commission's findings were compelling and still fresh in my edit memory, but they were so counterintuitive that I could only fall into a guilty doze. I couldn't help myself, so I barged right back into the boys' room and found them still mesmerized before the tube--watching "Star Trek."

"What happened--why'd you leave that other channel?" I asked in transparent relief. "Well, Dad," the youngest said, with the moral rectitude that would later make him an investigative reporter, "the lady just kept doing the same thing over and over."

The porn chasers erect a Berlin Wall between sexuality and the rest of life, and porn is a flagrant no-no. But even in the good old days, an inoculation could save us. In the Bible Belt, where I grew up, porn versions of comic books (we called them "big little" books) made it through the moral firewall to educate us boys and girls on possibilities like orgies and to save us from abnormal modesty. And farm boys like me observed the cows and horses like genuine scholars.

But deviants, according to the study, tend to have been more strictly sheltered. Sex was never discussed in the homes of future rapists, and parents were careful never, ever to be caught nude. Rapists-to-be were instantly punished if caught with porn, and only 18% ever were. Among normals, 37% had parents who knew they read erotic stuff, and only 7% were ever punished. Some parents of normals, but never of deviants, used the gotcha moment as an opportunity for sex-and-love conversations.

Rapists tend to be the most morally rigid and ignorant of deviants. They tend to oppose premarital sex, to have learned about sex late from wives, and to be woefully underexposed to porn and other sources of sexual knowledge. They report low enjoyment from sex.

When first locked up, a researcher reminded me today, one rapist in the commission report had no idea where babies came from. Such findings might interest today's parents who catch their young sons cruising the Internet's more athletic nudes.

Child molesters are sad sacks indeed. Those who prey on boys were raised in homes where no nudity or sex talk was tolerated, so they learned what little they knew from male friends. Half had homosexual encounters before age 14, but they rarely built stable love relationships. Child molesters who target girls were more likely to have married later on, but some 31% had their first sexual experience with a prostitute.

So next time the Sunday morning gasbags preach at us from their talk-show pulpits, or Hollywood seems gratuitously raw, consider the public-health benefits of a touch of porn. Without it, my grandchildren might end up in jail.

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