Looking Back at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s Roots
In the fall of 1962, an unidentified individual placed pornographic material outside a school, thus exposing two Yorkville (Manhattan, NY) area grammar school children to the explicit content. The principal of the school reported the incident to her pastor who then informed other ministers and rabbis in the area.
This seemingly small incident is what sparked a community campaign against the distribution of obscene material then known as Operation Yorkville. Powered only by volunteers and with limited funds, that fledgling campaign grew and grew; the organization gained national prominence and changed its name to Morality in Media (MIM). The leaders of this movement found themselves coordinating letter writing campaigns, discussing sexual exploitation on national television and radio, holding community forums and meeting with mayors and town councils, analyzing laws and suggesting legal reforms, walking the halls of the U.S. Congress, serving on presidential commissions, and even sitting in the Cabinet Room with the U.S. President.
An example of an early awareness campaign was distribution of stickers for display on every first-floor window, as well as vestibule doors, doctor’s offices, elevators, stores, and cars. With messages like “S A V E Y O U R C H I L D R E N” and a local phone number.One enthusiastic activist sent letters to taxi cab companies urging them to display the stickers. Twenty-two taxi companies agreed!
Using every “social media” tactic of the era, Morality in Media became the beacon of hope and light for those concerned about the insidious trend toward normalization of sexual exploitation in American culture. It worked relentlessly to educate the public about the harms of pornography and bring about the robust enforcement of federal obscenity laws. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the producers and distributors of pornography across the country found themselves under federal prosecution. Major national figures of the industry such as Reuben Sturman and Harry Mohney were convicted and sentenced to prison. The “glory days” of the sexual exploitation industry seemed numbered.
The Rise of the Internet
The fact that Morality in Media (MIM) had many successes and slowed the upward trajectory of sexual exploitation in America is indisputable. This feisty little organization successfully fought the titans of sexual exploitation, and kept the fires of human dignity burning brightly. But what MIM’s leaders, and most others, could not foresee was the rise of the Internet. Quite simply, the Internet changed everything.
The fact that new technological advances have steadily been making pornography more accessible to more people is not new. For instance, due to his growing alarm at the emergence of pornography on cable television, in 1981 MIM President Father Morton Hill embarked on a 39-city “Town Meeting Tour” to alert the public to the emerging “cableporn” problem. He also used the trip to gather information about the impact of pornography on citizens and communities across the country. The information was used to create the “Voice of Decency” report, which MIM presented to lawmakers. The media covered the story. Father Hill was widely quoted as saying, “Pornography is no longer just downtown, it’s downstairs.”
If he were alive today, perhaps Father Hill would say, “Pornography is no longer just downtown or downstairs, it’s everywhere.” Indeed, porn-free spaces are increasingly hard to find. From television, public libraries, public and private schools, home computers, and handheld devices, the Internet and streaming capabilities have cast the shadow of pornography far and wide.
Today, while the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly MIM) carries on in the tradition of those who pioneered before us, our mission is decidedly larger. Our more than 55-year history has given us a unique, panoramic perspective that has enabled us to see that sexual exploitation is not one issue—it is many issues.
We know that child sexual abuse often predates an individual’s entry into prostitution, and that sexting makes many adolescents vulnerable to revenge porn or sexual extortion. We recognize that strip clubs provide the perfect learning environment for sexually toxic attitudes and behaviors and are common venues for sexual assault and sex trafficking. We see that pornography is linked to sexual violence and is used to groom children for sexual abuse. We know that demand for commercial sex fuels prostitution and, therefore, sex trafficking as well. The connections go on and on.
Our decades’ long battle against pornography, has also shown us that like the tobacco industry, the pornography industry has created a public health crisis. However, despite tobacco’s former widespread use and acceptance in American culture, once its harms became apparent, society took action and adopted dramatic new policies to limit the harmful effects of smoking. Similarly we believe that people need to be protected from pornography exposure and made aware of the risks associated with its use.
For these reasons, NCOSE has worked hard to become the leading national organization shining a light on the links between all forms of sexual exploitation and on the public health crisis of pornography. Our work falls under three broad headings: 1) policy activism to combat corporate and governmental policies that foster sexual exploitation, 2) public education and engagement, and 3) spurring united action by leading the international Coalition of End Sexual Exploitation.
NCOSE’s tactics include grassroots mobilization, thoughtfully designed social media campaigns which give a voice to the concerns of individuals and allied organizations, an aggressive communications strategy, hosting symposia, legislative briefings, and press conferences that give a national stage to our issues, and the development of data rich resources that add heft to our intellectual arguments.
With this potent formula, NCOSE has succeeded in pushing back against the sinister forces of sexual exploitation that have shrouded our country in darkness. NCOSE’s successes are a beacon of hope to all those who felt voiceless and powerless to confront the destructive impacts of sexual exploitation on their lives.
What are these victories that have sparked the hopes of so many? While everyone has their own personal favorite, some of our significant achievements include:
- The hotel industry’s removal of on-demand pornography from the television offerings in guest rooms;
- Major changes to Google ads, GooglePlay, and YouTube;
- Resolutions declaring pornography a public health crisis passed in four states (with more to come);
- Disney’s removal of a sex trafficking scene in its Pirates of the Caribbean rides;
- Stopping a bill in New Hampshire that would have fully decriminalized prostitution;
- Ending the sale of pornography at U.S. Army and Air Force exchanges;
- Walmart’s removal of eroticized child nudity books from its online store;
- Marsh supermarkets removal of Cosmopolitan from checkout lanes in its more than 80 stores;
- Stopping mainstream hotels from hosting a sex industry expos;
- Working with major airlines to improve their policies prohibiting the viewing of pornography on planes.
- See other Recent Victories here
As you can see, NCOSE is the vanguard of a movement seeking to keep the flame of human dignity burning brightly, and to ignite the light in our culture that will restore the embrace of its responsibility to be the beacon for human flourishing and freedom around the world—especially the freedom from sexual exploitation.