Sex sells. That seems to be at the heart of recent business decisions by corporations such as Amazon.com and AT&T to support and promote the pornography industry. It doesn't seem to bother these powerful businesses that, in pursuing their own lust for profits, they are increasingly corrupting the hearts of Americans.

In April, Yahoo!, the popular Internet search engine and portal, announced its plans to get in on the action and deliver pornography directly into American living rooms, offices and bedrooms. Yahoo!, which has been struggling financially for some time, said it would substantially increase its distribution of pornographic videos and DVDs, making itself the first top-tier Internet company to aggressively embrace the pornography industry. The company, whose site is accessed by nearly 200 million people each month, had been offering a limited line of such products for the past two years.

Two days after the announcement, however, in response to a flood of customer complaints, Yahoo! reversed its decision. Its pornography business would never see the light of day after all.

That was encouraging news for promoters of the culture of life, but a closer look reveals that Yahoo!'s hands are only so clean. As it has all along, the company will continue to derive sizeable revenues from premium links to pornographic Web sites—to the tune of $599 per link. Currently, Yahoo provides such links, which allow computer-users to go to the linked site with one click of the mouse, to more than 10,000 pornographic sites.

Yahoo! is not alone in helping pornographers, many of whom have very deep pockets indeed, to mainstream their putrid products—that is, to make such material seem acceptable to mass markets rather than just isolated niches of society. Last year AT&T, facing a sharp decline in its stock prices, made the decision to carry Vivid Entertainment's hardcore Hot Network as part of its cable television lineup. That decision, like Yahoo!'s, brought cries of protest.

Last December a group of eight institutional investors, controlling more than 1.6 million AT&T shares, filed a proxy resolution urging “Ma Bell” to review its role as a pornography distributor. The filers, led by Mennonite Mutual Aid, included Catholic Health East, Christian Brothers Investment Services, the Benedictine Sisters of San Antonio and Praxis Mutual Funds. They are the first group to file a pornography-focused resolution targeting a major U.S. media company.

Sacrificing Society

In the resolution, the group cites AT&T's involvement in pornography on both social and financial grounds and calls upon the company to issue a report by this month—May 2001—reviewing its policies for involvement in the pornography industry and an assessment of the potential financial, legal and public relations liabilities.

“Our approach is to engage the corporation and get their attention,” says Mark A. Regier, research and advocacy coordinator with Mennonite Mutual Aid Financial Services. Collectively, the organizations own more than 2.8 million shares in AT&T, worth at least $92 million. “For decades, AT&T has promoted and conducted itself as a leading corporate citizen in the country. We see their action as flying in the face of their own stated values and objectives. AT&T does not need fewer customers. We want them to see that this is a risk to the company financially that we don't think is worth whatever AT&T imagines they will gain from it.”

In response, at least one organization, the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, divested their AT&T stock. “The Sisters made the decision to sell all of their stock, despite a slight loss,” says Mary Kay Gilbert, communications director. “It was an issue of morality, not money.” According to Gilbert, other individuals associated with the Sisters of Charity have followed suit, including one retired couple who decided to sell their stock even though they were living on the income generated by the stock's dividends.

As the resolution so keenly points out, “the very nature of pornography demands a constant escalation of explicit content to maintain stimulation, as the addition of the Hot Network demonstrates … thus the current pornographic offerings can be presumed to be the first of even more graphic offerings to follow.”

Underscoring the resolution's point, Playboy Enterprises Inc. has announced its plans to release Spice Platinum Network on cable, a service that plans to exhibit racier sex acts not even available on the Hot Network channels.

When public companies invest in pornography, they put the public at risk.

Recent studies by the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have cited causal connections between graphic media content and aggressive behavior. Similar studies show links between pornography and sexual harassment, domestic violence, family disintegration and even serial rape and murder.

Clear and Present Danger

One example that illustrates the gargantuan dimensions of the pornography business is Vivid Entertainment Group, owner of the Hot Network. Launched in 1984, Vivid has taken its cable business from six million homes to 26 million, pocketing $14.3 million last year from that end of its business alone. The company plans to go public within the year in order to use proceeds to produce even more pornography, launch new cable channels and acquire other content companies.

Vivid co-chairman Steve Hirsch told The Wall Street Journal, “We have always been the most mainstream of adult companies, and we did that for a reason, to attract the largest audience.”

Pornography being a $56 billion industry, and still growing, such actions demonstrate the desperation of struggling companies to get a piece of the pie. Clearly, they see such decisions as a painless way to boost cash flow.

Make no mistake. Pornography and its secondary effects cause real harm to real people. So says Kimberly Drake, executive director of the Spokane-based organization Citizens for Community Values. She knows firsthand the dangers of pornography. “I was addicted to pornography,” she told the Register. “What we view and read we eventually become. I was a stripper in a local club, and lived 13 years in an environment where everyone finds their significance in their sexuality.”

The U.S. bishops, in their 1999 video “Renewing the Mind of the Media” compare the pornographer to the drug dealer—"preying on people's weaknesses for their own benefit. It is … one of those categories of crime which are the breeding ground for other types of crime.”

Here's how the Catechism of the Catholic Church characterizes the problem of pornography: “Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials” (No. 2354).

The mainstreaming of pornography—via magazines, mail, cable and the Internet—is a grave offense to mankind indeed.

It exploits women and children, destroys marriages and twists the minds of those who seek it out. When public companies invest in pornography just to make a dollar, they put the public at risk.

Pornography is about more than money; it's about the destruction of individual human lives. When corporations embrace something so fundamentally destructive to society, they should be held accountable for whatever consequences result.

Features correspondent Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.

------- EXCERPT: The mainstreaming of pornography continues despite Yahoo!'s non-entry into the business