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Kinder, Gentler Porn

The new Bush Administration is scaring the pants back onto the porn industry. Fearful of an anti-porno jihad by the conservative president, major smut producers are self-imposing a ban on a host of sexual acts in their videos and magazines.
 
 
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It's early Saturday morning and I am standing in the living room of a home that's been converted, for the day, into a porn set. Heavy light rigging, cables, crates of colored gels and video monitors now dominate what had been just another unassuming suburban home at the end of a cul-de-sac.

In addition to worrying about all the usual concerns confronting a porn shoot -- will the talent show up, will they be hung over, will they have all their paperwork in order, will some boyfriend or agent decide he's the director -- I now have other matters to consider.

While I am safely nestled in the California hills, 3,000 miles to the east George W. Bush is in the White House. When he layed his hand on that Bible held by the very Chief Justice who helped install him into office, the power players in LA's fabled Porn Valley heard thunderclaps in the distance. The Perfect Storm had broken in the Beltway, they believed, and life preservers now need to be passed out.

I know this because I'm a pornographer. Well, sort of. I originated and for the past several years have moonlighted as a producer on the Jail Babes video series, which launched Larry Flynt into the booming adult-video business. I have in that time been treated to the inner workings of a business that continues to fascinate libido-driven Americans. And recently Flynt's producers and our peers at other companies have been briefed in meetings and memos as to just how we are to react, given the new President and Attorney General.

Fourteen years ago, of course, Reagan's Attorney General Ed Meese launched a celebrated (and reviled) antiporn crusade that included a bevy of busts; but since then the LA-based industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar business reaching into nearly every corner of America, culturally, politically and even economically.

Consider that an estimated 25,000 video outlets across the nation stock adult material and that more than 10,000 new adult-video titles are released each year; last year there were 711 million rentals of hard-core sex films. Porn is a $10 billion industry -- $4 billion of that in explicit video sales -- that even has links to corporate parents like General Motors and AT&T. (Whatever collective pain and persecution the industry suffered during the Reagan and Bush the Elder years, when Bill Clinton rolled into the White House with a social agenda that did not call for the outright destruction of smut, pornographers in the San Fernando Valley -- Wicked Pictures, Vivid Video, VCA and Hustler Video are the biggies -- saw eight years of relative green lights and blue skies.)

In an effort to head off any potential anti-porno jihad by the Bush Administration, some of the major porn outfits have reached a common conclusion and issued sweeping new guidelines to producers and directors -- rules that are supposed to make even the most eager prosecutor think twice before filing charges. Anxious to sanitize their product to the point where it passes muster with compassionate conservatives everywhere, especially those living on Pennsylvania Avenue, major producers in the industry are proposing to discard or ban a host of sexual acts and scenarios that have in some instances become staples of the genre.

Welcome to the era of kinder, gentler smut.

"Everyone has grave concerns," says Jeffrey Douglas, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues and has represented the adult industry since the early 1980s. "Most of us on the legal side have advised those in the industry to assume, no matter who got elected, that the environment [read Justice Department] will be less sensitive to First Amendment issues."

While the focus on Attorney General John Ashcroft has to date been on his positions on civil rights and abortion, little attention has been paid until now as to how -- and how effectively -- the former senator from Missouri might weigh in on the culture wars surrounding the First Amendment.

Porn sage William Margold, who now runs a support organization for porn performers, says Ashcroft "casts a shadow" across sexual expression and that the industry may be in for some "radical attempts to clean us up." In fact, Bush asserted during the campaign that "porn has no place in a decent society" and vowed to "insist on vigorously enforcing" antipornography laws. Bush's comments should offer cold comfort to liberals who oppose commercial porn based on the exploitation that can and does occur in the industry (just as it does in many other industries, not slated for demolition). "Most people only deal with bad news when it is knocking at their door," muses Douglas. "George Bush and John Ashcroft are a really loud knock on the door."

Anticipation that the knock will be followed with a shout of "We have a warrant!" is what has led the porn companies to issue what at least in Hustler's case proved to be a twenty-four-point set of guidelines. We producers have been provided with what might better be described as a Just Say No List, for every line starts with a No (it can be viewed online at Inside.com). The list, which reads like material generated for a classic Lenny Bruce or Dick Gregory routine, discards everything from fetish rituals found on the fringe to some of porn's most signature sex acts.

First and foremost, producers and directors are no longer to shoot any material that depicts a female model who appears to be suffering "unhappiness or pain." Ditto for "degradation."

Food can no longer be used as a sexual object, obviously sparing carrots, cucumbers and bananas from further degradation and heading off a full-scale investigation from the Department of Agriculture.

Blindfolds are also out.

So is wax-dripping.

So is sex in a coffin.

So is urinating on camera, unless it is done "in a natural setting" such as a field or roadside.

No male/male penetration can be shown.

Bisexual encounters are also out, as are scenes involving transsexuals.

Other verboten activities include fisting (an act sometimes featured in Penthouse), "menstruation topics" or spitting or saliva passing mouth to mouth.

A self-imposed ban from the late-1980s on subjects of adult-age incest (i.e., college-aged guy is seduced by middle-aged mom) will continue during the Bush Administration, despite the fact that mainstream theaters project the topic with such films as Spanking the Monkey. Ironically, this forbidden fruit is the subject of the 1980 film Taboo, which the industry trade publication Adult Video News recently reported as one of the all-time bestselling adult videos, with sales topping a million copies.

The new guidelines also state: "No black men, white women themes." Perhaps in a tip of the hat to Thomas Jefferson, producers can continue to feature white men having sex with black women. (In other words, maybe the new Administration won't view scenes of white men screwing blacks as out of the ordinary.)

Perhaps the most surprising item on the list is a prohibition of the until-now obligatory facial "money shot," in which a male performer ejaculates on the face of the female performer, a staple long before Deep Throat brought porn out of the basement. This brought a howl from Margold when he read it. "Facials are the crowning achievement of this industry," he proclaimed, only half-joking. "It's what we built this industry on!"

The new rules do allow a male model to ejaculate on a female model, with the caveat that the "shot is not nasty." Lawyers will now be able to jack up billable hours to determine if the semen on a left breast is "nasty" but the semen on a right elbow is to be approved. Douglas is equally derisive in his assessment of the new guidelines: "That list is complete horseshit," he says. "It's probably a third generation of someone's interpretation of what a lawyer suggested."

For all of Margold's humorous dismissal and Douglas's disdain, the new guidelines are no laughing matter for the major porn companies. For these firms and those who run them, the adult-entertainment business is no longer about making an artistic statement for sexual freedom. It is about making money. Getting busted is not in the business plan. While there is a consensus that trouble is brewing, there is disagreement about just how effective renewed prosecutions will be and even whether attempts at self-censorship will do anything to stop them.

Roger Jon Diamond, a Santa Monica-based lawyer who has been defending adult material since the late 1960s, and whose cases have gone to the Supreme Court, feels some of the worry may be overblown. "I don't think Bush or Ashcroft can successfully bring us 'Meese II,'" he says. "Too much material is already out there in too many places. How are they going to prove community standards [a central requirement of the 'Miller standard' the Supreme Court set in determining obscenity] now? You can't unring the bell."

While Douglas notes that the chances of the Bush Administration killing off an industry that has survived every President (and Attorney General) since Nixon are slim, he warns that the government would be just as happy to inflict some serious pain on it. And here, Diamond notes that the industry's will to draw a line in the sand and fight prosecutions may well determine how much damage is inflicted. "It's like soldiers landing on the beaches. You know you are going to take the beach, but some guys up front are going to have to take some bullets for everyone else. So the question becomes, who is willing to take some bullets?"