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Portable Porn -- Can You Avoid It?


It seems common sense is in just as short of supply as jobs and money lately. Browsing through an edition of the Washington Post the other day, I came across an item written on November 12 2009 that details a situation that seems to defy all sense of courteous human behavior.

The article opens with an interview with a woman, an English professor, who had travelled on a plane across the country with her four children. Leaving from Los Angeles, she had a nice conversation with the man sitting next to her. He was an Ivy League student and was returning from a math conference. Once they were in the air, he opened his laptop computer and started watching a “cartoon.” But moments later the characters on his screen were engaged in highly explicit sexual acts and doing “naked, noisy things.”

Trying to keep her kids looking in the other direction, she finally asked if her seatmate would mind watching something else. In the end, he agreed to wear headphones and turned the computer, but he still continued watching his porntoon.

It turns out this occurrence happens often enough that airlines offering Internet access are looking at ways of filtering the sites people are able to visit. However, the article notes that doesn’t stop people from watching material on their hard disk or a DVD.

The report continues to interview other DC area people who have had public porn experiences. One man reports a guy at a Wizards basketball game who was viewing an explicit movie on his iPhone and watching the game at the same time. Another woman riding the DC Metro was stuck beside a man during morning rush when he pops open his laptop and begins viewing a porn film with the sound blaring.

Then there’s the problem of “drive-by porn.” That’s when people have pornography playing on screens in their cars, vans and SUVs. Yet another DC area resident reports having to sit on the Beltway in bumper-to-bumper traffic while the guy in front of her is watching adult videos on his SUVs movie screen.

It turns out that drive-by porn has been an issue for a few years.  According to a 2004 New York Times article, states like Louisiana and Tennessee passed laws at that time that prohibited the showing of adult materials in public places. (In addition, 38 states had laws by 2004 prohibiting video screens in vehicles where drivers could view the screen.)

On the other side of the world, this summer a library in Australia finally had to face the reality of allowing unrestricted Internet content on public computer terminals after library staff and patrons grew tired of finding men sexually stimulating themselves while viewing pornography. A petition with thousands of names on it was presented to the library board requesting that something had to be done, especially to protect children who were being exposed to hard-core porn and men engaging in lewd behavior in a public library.

Some of these noted reports touch on the major issues lawmakers are being forced to deal with in this issue. What is obscene? What is offensive? Who decides? And what about the rights to be able to view what we want when we want?

Frankly, these arguments are growing thin. As move into an age where soon there will be Internet signals blanketing the globe and a viewing screen attached to every surface available, is there any sense of decency left? Do we really need a judge to tell us that a porn movie isn’t suitable for public display on a freeway? Or in a public library where it’s easily seen on the way to finding a Curious George book?

For decades I have been writing about various media issues, always with the attitude that parents need to do everything they can to take control of media in their homes. The pundits all say, “Parents need to shut up and just turn off the tube.” But how do we do that when it’s in the car ahead of us? Or on the private laptop being used by the guy sitting next to us on the train?

I think it’s imperative that we try and maintain some sense of civility in our public places. Advertisers and content producers have been pushing this limit for years. If we become tolerant of outright pornography playing in locations where we would have reason to expect a level of common decency, we will enter into an era where parents’ opportunities to monitor what their children see and hear will all but vanish.


Rod Gustafson



Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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