Have You No Decency?

A Chesterfield media-watch group undertakes a smut-smiting campaign

For members of the watchdog group Families for Decency in Media, no place is safe from today's onslaught of pornography -- not even the supermarket checkout lane. In fact, it is this brand of smut, splashed across the pages of women's magazines like Glamour, Cosmopolitan and Shape, that irks the Chesterfield-based group the most.

Just look at the magazines' covers, says Families for Decency leader James Melka, with female models provocatively posed and wearing next to nothing.

Melka took over Families for Decency in the Media twelve years ago at the Catholic Church of the Incarnate Word in Chesterfield. He and his fellow group members claim that, over the past four years, Families for Decency has sent hundreds of letters and petitions to Schnucks and Dierbergs supermarkets, urging them to stop placing women's magazines in the checkout lanes of their Chesterfield stores.

"They can put them back where they keep all their other magazines, but don't push the material in our face while we're waiting in line," says Melka.

Upset with the supermarkets' lack of response, Families for Decency, with 23 official members and an e-mail list of 250 people, brought the issue before the Chesterfield city council last May. Incited by such events as Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl and a new state law limiting billboards that advertise strip joints, Melka and more than 100 other members in attendance implored the council to prohibit the sale of "sexually oriented" magazines at checkout counters.

Nine months later, Families for Decency may have its way. On February 7, the city council is expected to pass two ordinances concerning sexually explicit materials and their distribution to minors. While the language in the ordinances is subject to interpretation, Families for Decency view the laws as banning women's magazines from checkout lanes, and they don't plan to stop there. The group also wants to remove the risqué advertisements for Victoria's Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch stores at Westfield Shoppingtown Chesterfield.

Doug Beach, city attorney for Chesterfield, says he drafted the ordinances as part of a slate of legislation designed to limit adult bookstores in the west-county suburb -- not because of pressure from Families for Decency. Furthermore, Beach says, the ordinances follow state and St. Louis county laws regarding sexually explicit material.

"The ordinance takes into consideration community standards as a whole. It's not just Chesterfield standing by itself," Beach maintains. "Ultimately it's going to be up to the prosecuting attorney to decide what is sexually explicit, but as women's magazines are sold at supermarket checkout lanes throughout the country, it's probably unlikely they'll be removed."

For their part, Schnucks and Dierbergs don't see the laws as impacting their store operations. While they admit they have heard complaints from time to time regarding magazines, neither supermarket chain has plans to remove the women's publications from the checkout lanes.

"We do monitor the issue," says Schnucks spokeswoman Lori Willis. "But it's hard to distinguish what might be offensive to one individual and not to others."

That's cold comfort for Melka, who says the women's magazines perpetuate a cultural obsession with sex. To his detractors, he warns: "I would tell them to read some of the confessions of serial killers and rapists. They don't distinguish between hard-core and soft-core porn; they're addicted to it both."

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