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Legal leverage: Laws to fight pornography aren't being used, anti-porn activists say

Published: Tuesday, July 9 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Raymond Robertson, the commonwealth’s attorney for Staunton, Va., successfully prosecuted an obscenity case in 2008 against an adult video store that set up shop in his town.

Provided by Raymond Robertson

Editor's note: The following story deals with sexually-themed subject matter that will not be appropriate for some readers. Discretion is advised.

This is part three in a four-part series. Read part one: "Ubiquitous assailant: The dangerous unasked questions surrounding pornography." Read part two: "Second-hand porn: the spreading circle of damage." Read part four: "How couples break the cycle of addiction."

As she flips through the sex offense cases for the Metropolitan Police in Reykjavik, Iceland, assistant prosecutor Sigridur Hjaltested shakes her head.

A 15-year-old girl pressured into having sex with three boys.

One of the boys was 15. The other two were even younger.

Recently, Hjaltested filed charges in the case of a woman in her 20s who was expecting a sexual encounter with a man in his 30s, yet suddenly the man's friend showed up and demanded to take part.

The charge was rape using violence and unlawful pressure.

There's nothing new about sex crimes, but over the last five years, the sexual offenses division in Reykjavik has seen crimes that are more graphic, violent, and perpetrated by younger and younger individuals.

"The sexual offense cases we get bear more (resemblance) to hard-core sex and a sex culture that is rapidly changing," Hjaltested said. "I do not think that is a good development."

Distribution of pornography has been illegal in the liberal, socially progressive Nordic country since it was codified in 1940, but "porn" wasn't defined and enforcement has been sporadic due to a lack of resources. Because the majority of today's pornography is accessed online, Iceland’s former minister of the interior proposed a bill that would legally define pornography with references to violence and humiliation rather than nudity and sexually explicitness — thus making most of today’s mainstream violent Internet porn illegal.

"There are great concerns that violent porn has blurred the line between sex and violence," said Ögmundur Jónasson, who sponsored the proposal during his tenure as minister of the interior, which ended with the country’s April elections. "A broad consensus has developed in Iceland where we agree that the current situation is not acceptable." Jónasson had organized a committee that was considering making it illegal to buy porn using Icelandic credit cards, or creating a national blacklist of pornographic websites — but opponents pointed out problems ranging from technological hurdles and false labeling of good websites to concerns over censorship. It’s unknown whether the new government will pursue the bill.

Any country wishing to prevent the spread of pornography faces similar questions now that pornography has exploded from brick-and-mortar products to ever-accessible Internet offerings.

Like Iceland, the United States also has laws that ban obscenity — a legally defined, albeit contested, subset of pornography — but they're not being enforced, experts say.

"In theory it's possible for the government to enforce them," says Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at UCLA School of Law. "It's just that there's been very little political appetite to do that, with changing social mores … coupled with a sense that it's extremely unlikely that this is going to do any good."

Experts like Volokh point out that prosecutions may be decreasing because the laws intended to prosecute obscenity were a bit vague to begin with and are even more muddled now that offenders are predominantly online.

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