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XXX: Is the Porn Industry Doomed?

Like newspapers and other businesses buffeted by the financial crisis, the porn industry is in danger of extinction.
 
 
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We all know that plunging home values and decimated 401(k)s are among the effects of the recession. But what about depleted sex drives? "People are too depressed to be sexually active," Hustler publisher Larry Flynt said in a January statement asking Congress for a $5 billion bailout of the adult industry. "This is very unhealthy as a nation. Americans can do without cars and such, but they cannot do without sex."

Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis, who is more likely to need bail than a bailout, told Hollywood gossip site TMZ that unlike spoiled, private-jet-riding auto executives, he would drive to Congress "in a white Prius" to ask for financial support for the porn industry. He could barely conceal his smirk.

But in a time of economic crisis, lawmakers are more likely to give the porn industry grief than gratitude. Legislators in California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington state recently proposed stemming budget losses through various skin tariffs, ranging from a Magnum-sized 25 percent sales tax on X-rated movies to a $5 "pole tax" on visits to strip clubs.

Thanks to the First Amendment, such measures are usually defeated by little more than gales of laughter. But Diane Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition and the adult industry's only registered national lobbyist, isn't sniggering. "The state of the adult industry is not a joke," Duke tells me. Indeed. Like mainstream-media companies, the producers of pornographic films and magazines are threatened by piracy, and, above all, by free Internet content. In economic terms, porn consumption is "elastic" and thus a poor candidate for raising revenues via taxes: If it costs an extra $5 to rent a smutty DVD, a consumer is likely to stay home and turn off Google's SafeSearch filter.

So what's really behind recession-era finger wagging at porn producers? Probably just plain vanilla politics. Senate Republicans got hot under the collar when President Barack Obama appointed noted litigator David Ogden to the Justice Department's No. 2 post, deputy attorney general. Armed with a briefing prepared by Fidelis, a Catholic "family values" political action committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah decried Ogden's representation, in his private practice, of the American Civil Liberties Union, Playboy Enterprises, Penthouse, and even the scandalous American Library Association.

Guilty as charged. In 1986 and 1990, Ogden successfully required the Library of Congress to translate Playboy articles into Braille. In 2000, he argued against provisions of the Children Internet Protection Act that required libraries to censor pornographic online content. (In case you were wondering, according to Fidelis, Ogden is also a supporter of interpreting the Constitution according to "the latest fad of the intelligentsia." You know, because free speech is just a trend.) At Ogden's confirmation hearing, Hatch spat, "The pornography industry is excited about Mr. Ogden's nomination." That, it seems, is true. Diane Duke describes Ogden, who was confirmed on March 12, as a champion of her industry. "Everyone was calling me asking, 'What do you think about this?!'" Duke says of the Ogden hearings. "If someone [like Ogden] has a genuine respect for the integrity of the Constitution, that's who we should have in government, in all of our offices."

The porn industry used to be represented on Capitol Hill by the Raben Group, a powerful Democratic lobbying firm headed by Robert Raben, a former aide to Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the first openly gay member of Congress. But as Raben took on a glut of new clients in the wake of the Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008, the Free Speech Coalition and Raben Group parted ways. "We've grown up. We're ready to take lobbying on ourselves," Duke says. In the past, the Free Speech Coalition pressured Congress to act against creating a dedicated .xxx Internet address for pornography and in favor of allowing the sale of Penthouse and Playboy on military bases. Both efforts were successful.

A former senior vice president for Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon, Duke is now based in California's San Fernando Valley but plans on coming to Washington, D.C., a few times over the next year to push the Free Speech Coalition's agenda with lawmakers. "I won't be giving you any names!" she jokes. Apparently, this lobbying effort comes wrapped in a brown paper bag.

In the meantime, Duke has her hands full in California, where the state Assembly recently floated a bill that would have required all adult-film actors to don condoms. The issue pitted Duke against her former employer; Planned Parenthood, of course, is all about promoting condom usage to the masses.

Porn is about fantasy, though, so Duke says condoms -- which might remind viewers of unsexy topics like disease and pregnancy -- should be kept out of the picture. Adult-industry performers are regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections and expected to show up on set with paperwork declaring a clean bill of health. (This system hasn't always worked: In 2004, the industry suffered an outbreak of HIV.) Plus, condoms might make filming difficult, Duke says. "I'm very much pro-safe sex and pro-family planning," she swears. "But you've got eight hours of filming, and lights, and heat, so it's a very different atmosphere than it would be for people in general." (Isn't that what Viagra is for?) Not to mention, of course, "a lot of the demand is for films without condoms." If the Golden State ever did require condoms in skin flicks, the porn industry would likely pack up and leave town. And since the adult industry accounts for about 50,000 jobs in California -- only 10 percent of which are acting in the films -- the economic crisis probably precludes the state from such moral posturing.

But while porn's spokespeople defend their business as an economic stimulator, some adult-industry stalwarts are less sympathetic to the travails of other uniquely American industries. A few weeks after demanding a bailout, Flynt admitted the whole thing was a farce. "When we asked for the bailout for the porn industry, I didn't hold my breath, because I knew it wasn't coming," he said in a March 3 interview with MSNBC. Flynt's libertarian point, it seems, was that automakers don't deserve bailouts, either -- those 3 million jobs be damned.

The porn industry's lobbying efforts may not be ideologically consistent, but at least they are consistently amusing. Duke, though, urges readers to stay serious. "Protecting our freedoms and civil rights is all that we ask," she says. "When we stigmatize sex, it becomes such a driving political issue. It's very unfortunate because it ruins something that should be wonderful and beautiful for people."

Reprinted with permission from Dana Goldstein, "The XXX-Files" The American Prospect, Volume 20, Number 4: May 1st, 2009. www.prospect.org, 1710 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, 4th Floor, Washington DC, 20036.