The Baltimore sky was still dark when Dawn Hawkins boarded her flight on the morning of Feb. 17. As executive director of Morality in Media — one of the preeminent leaders in the fight against illegal pornography — Hawkins was traveling to Texas to speak at a conference about the links between pornography and sex trafficking.
Shortly after the plane lifted off, Hawkins noticed a man seated in front of her was viewing images on his iPad of young, possibly underage Asian females whipping each other. Appalled, Hawkins requested that a flight attendant intervene to stop the male passenger from looking at pornography — and potentially even child pornography — within the close confines of the plane's cabin.
But the flight attendant did nothing, so Hawkins changed tactics and tried to personally persuade the man to put away his porn. Eventually, though, a middle-aged woman stood up and bluntly addressed Hawkins: "Be quiet. No one cares."
As Morality in Media marks its 50th birthday this year, Hawkins' airplane incident provides a microcosm for the opposition anti-porn crusaders regularly face. For while galvanized activist groups often go to great lengths to make sure their voice of warning is heard, a lot of people on the other side of the issue couldn't care less who consumes adult pornography.
Fighting on the front lines
Morality in Media bills itself as the "leading national organization opposing pornography and indecency through public education and the application of the law." In practical terms, it is best known for heading the War on Illegal Pornography Coalition and operating its accompanying website, PornHarms.com. One hundred twenty-five national and state organizations belong to the coalition, including powerful groups such as the American Family Association, a faith-based group that reaches millions of people every month while also operating nearly 200 radio stations across the county, and the public-policy think tank Family Research Council.
Essentially, Morality in Media functions on two levels: it acts as a watchdog for governmental policy about pornography and obscenity while also aiding people at the grass-roots level with practical measures like installing effective Internet filters on public library computers.
One of the biggest issues catalyzing Morality in Media into action in recent years is the federal government's failure to enforce on-the-books obscenity laws. Indeed, under President Barack Obama the Department of Justice has yet to initiate a single obscenity prosecution against a pornographer. (By way of comparison, at one point in 2008, President George W. Bush's administration was pursuing 54 federal obscenity prosecutions. Although the Obama administration continued prosecuting all of the Bush-era obscenity cases that were still ongoing at the time the presidency changed hands, Team Obama has not launched any of its own obscenity cases.)
Against that backdrop, last year Morality in Media began offering Republican presidential candidates the chance to sign a pledge committing to enforce existing obscenity laws if elected to the White House. The three leading candidates — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — all signed the pledge in January.
The president and CEO of Morality in Media, Patrick Trueman, is a man who knows a thing or two about successful obscenity prosecutions. As an attorney, he headed the U.S. Department of Justice's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section from 1988-93.
"Pat Trueman is a person with a lot of experience prosecuting porn cases while working in the Justice Department," said Chris Gacek, senior fellow at the Family Research Council. "That's invaluable experience. … When he is pursuing this idea of getting prosecutions of adult pornography, one of the things that's going on is that he knows it's been done before. If somebody were to tell him, 'We've never done that before,' he would know that's a snow job."
Morality in Media is also involved in circulating a letter addressed to two influential Republican committee leaders in the House, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Michigan's Rep. Fred Upton, that asks for "a (Congressional) hearing on the pandemic of harm from pornography." That initiative nicely embodies Morality in Media's strategy of attacking problems from both practical- and policy-based paradigms, because the letter has already attracted more than 5,000 grass-roots signees as well as nearly 200 signatures from national luminaries — including Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board member Robert P. George.
Morality in Media at 50
In 2012 Morality in Media celebrates its 50th birthday. Even after so many years of building its base, in 2011 the organization experienced unprecedented levels of outreach and influence as indicated by the substantial increases in its charitable donations (50 percent), email list (500 percent) and mailing list (400 percent).
For Hawkins, undergirding that growth is a rather simple principle: people are now better informed about pornography than ever before.
"It seems like people are really coming together because they know that pornography is harmful," she said. "And so today it's not such a taboo topic. When we say 'pornography is harmful,' it's not like we're trying to convince people anymore — they already know."
As for Hawkins, following her in-flight run-in with pornography she posted a YouTube video in which she retells the encounter in rich detail. The video went viral and quickly exceeded 200,000 views. As a reward for speaking her mind about pornography on a commercial flight, Hawkins became the recipient of an ugly brand of persecution including profane YouTube response videos, the posting of her personal contact information on several Internet sites and harassing phone calls to her parents in Colorado.
But much like Morality in Media, the organization for which she works, Hawkins remains undeterred in her determination to continue fighting illegal pornography.
"If the (obscenity) laws continue to not be enforced, then it will become much more accepted to sexualize children," Hawkins said. "We can already see the breakdown of marriage and the porn-ification of children. … I can't even think about that right now — it makes me cry."
Morality in Media, by the numbers
0: number of federal obscenity prosecutions initiated under Pres. Obama
50: percentage growth in MIM fundraising, 2010-11
50: age of Morality in Media16 comments on this story
125: number of state and national groups that are part of the War on Illegal Pornography Coalition
400: percentage growth In MIM mailing list, 2010-11
500: percentage growth in MIM email list, 2010-11