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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.