In the Empire of the Obscene

Eric Schlosser's first book, "Fast Food Nation," split the to-go industry wide open, exposing everything from how the taste of french fries is designed to mask the fecal matter in the kitchen sink. En route to the New York Times bestseller list, the book became a minor miracle of viral marketing: what was essentially a 400-page investigative report became a fixture on every 25-year-old's reading list. His new book, "Reefer Madness," is less exhaustive but equally essential reading. In three pieces originally written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic, Schlosser takes a similarly deconstructive look at three products of the American black market: pot, porn and migrant labor. The titular section on marijuana is drawn from two Atlantic articles that won the National Magazine Award, and it's easy to see why: In prose that's pointed but immaculately researched, Schlosser scores a massive takedown with nothing blunter than the facts, outlining the absurdity of mandatory minimum sentences and offering surprising facts about suppliers (specifically, who they are).

In "An Empire of the Obscene," which recently appeared in The New Yorker, Schlosser traces the American porn industry back to one man unknown to most of us. At one point in the '60s, Reuben Sturman was the largest distributor of pornography in the United States, responsible for bringing dirty mags into Shop 'N' Go and obscenity law to the national stage. (His tactic, shocking for the time: When the government tried to bust him on obscenity charges, Sturman actually fought back). As portrayed by Schlosser, he's a trailblazing entrepreneur of ambiguous character -- part freedom fighter, part tax cheat who shipped hundreds of thousands of dollars overseas to avoid government detection. (Sturman's lawsuit against J. Edgar Hoover led to his ultimate apprehension on tax charges.) In presenting the story of Sturman and the FBI agent who worked for 15 years to bring him down, Schlosser cracks open the kaleidoscopic history of obscenity law (which was, amazingly, almost overturned by the Warren Court of the '70s), and comes up with some shocking and surprising conclusions about the past, present and future of porn, and our place in it.

As an investigative reporter delving into issues like porn and pot and ultimately coming up critical of predominant institutions, to what extent do you consider yourself an activist?

You know, I try not to be in my writing. It's a weird thing. I definitely start out with a basic foundation of being concerned about social issues, period, and trying to be socially aware. That's just how I try to be as a person. There are doctors, lawyers, bus drivers who are that way. But I'm really not trying to write agitprop, and I'm not trying to mold my writing into preconceived views that I have. With all these subjects -- prisons, pot -- I honestly start off from a place of incredible ignorance. One of the great pleasures of the work is trying to figure out what's going on, and immersing myself in the material. And as I'm researching and reading and reporting, then I start figuring out what I think about it. And I try to write it in a way that's complex, that isn't simplistic and schematic, that isn't dogmatically, you know, calling people names. I'm trying to make people think about these issues rather than give them my perceived wisdom on it.

I think in this book, I rant a little more. As an investigative journalist, I'm trying to let the facts speak for themselves. But when I'm not going to write about a subject anymore, yeah, then I become an activist. There are certain issues in "Fast Food Nation" that I really care about, that I don't plan to write about, and I'm trying to work as an activist on. And I think out of "Reefer Madness," I'll speak out and be more of an activist about farmworker issues and maybe, to a lesser extent, the decriminalization of marijuana. But as a writer? I feel like, for me, I'd rather be intellectually honest, complex and allow people to come to their own conclusions than write a manifesto.

I'm trying to get people to wake up. The epigram that starts "Reefer Madness" may be kind of pretentious -- it's from Horace -- but my translation is, "Dare to know." Another translation of the same quote is, "Dare to think for yourself." That's my own philosophy, and that's what I'm trying to do with my writing. I don't feel like I have all the answers, but if I can just get people to think about things and make them aware it's even happening, then that's the achievement for me. But I do think that, in this book, my own passion or anger maybe slipped out more than in the last one.

You seem drawn to subjects that seem to think for themselves: marijuana growers, Reuben Sturman.

Well, Nina Hartley fits that category too. She's so insightful about her work that I thought, this woman's voice should be heard. It's heard on film, but not in the articulate, complete sentences she speaks in. She has a very formidable mind.

What was your experience with porn before you started researching the article: were you a connoisseur?

Well, I like to think I'm not a prude, but I wasn't a porn-hound either. My own aesthetic sense couldn't really connect to 99.9 percent of the mainstream porn I'd seen. Most porn to me is the sexual equivalent of watching wrestling on TV.

That's kind of a great metaphor.

It's a caricature, these exaggerated bodies. It's fake in the same way that TV wrestling is fake. It's bad acting . . . it's just bad. I had seen porn before, because I was a teenager in the '70s. I'm not putting it down at all. For people who really like it, to each his own. But to me, the simulated experience just wasn't as interesting as the real experience. It's like, some people like to watch baseball; some think it's fun to play baseball. I wasn't opposed to it, but in the realm of things that occupied a lot of my time and energy, it just wasn't high on my list.

Did you know how the industry worked?

I didn't know much about the industry at all. I don't know which statistic I'd heard, but somebody said something about porn being a multibillion-dollar industry, and I just thought, "Where's all the money?" I've heard of Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox, but where did this industry come from? We're in a time of a free market and a very moralistic government, so I thought there was something subversive in looking at porn just as a commodity, as a business, and not even going near the debates over its ethics or from the feminist point of view. I wanted to look at the industry as an expression of the free market, yet something the free marketers despise.

How did you reconcile hating the product with celebrating the free market?

I don't want to put myself up there as a porn snob and put down things that other people love. But I visited a porn set, and I couldn't think of anything less erotic than that. For me, the most interesting porn I saw was some of the really old stuff. There were moments when it really felt like something deeply taboo was being shattered. Maybe the people doing it were really sad and desperate people, but maybe some of them were really rebellious. And I mean "rebellious" beyond what it is to be in porn today. There wasn't the money, there wasn't the fame and the demimonde. There were no dates with rock stars. Some moments of black-and-white porn were interesting, and, I think that in some contemporary porn that isn't totally scripted and clinically lit like it could be a sex-education video, there are moments of passion that somehow slip through. But most of the porn that's being made and produced is just incredibly bad and misogynistic and not subversive at all.

But writing about porn as a commodity, and believing in the freedom of adults to do what they want behind closed doors, is not to be celebrating the mainstream porn industry by any means. I try to make that distinction.

Does porn create economic good?

Well, it's a business. It employs a lot of editors and cameramen who are between gigs. Some women -- a very small number of women -- are able to better themselves financially. But I'm not going to defend it from an economic point of view. Nina Hartley is Nina Hartley, but the sex workers I've met, by and large, were women with substance-abuse issues who had, you know, damaged childhoods. They're the standard for me. I'm not saying they shouldn't be doing it. I'm not going to judge them. But I just don't know if most women who are in porn are going to look back and be proud of it, and not be even more damaged by it. So I'm not going to celebrate it as an economic activity.

I don't think it should be banned or forbidden, and there are definitely strong, independent women who are in control of their bodies and their behavior and their bank accounts who are doing very well and will be okay. But there are also 19-year-old chicks who have just done too much blow, and the industry will churn them up. I think 18 is too young to do porn. Maybe I'm getting too old -- I'm 43 -- but I make that point in the book. As an 18-year-old woman in California, you can't buy beer, but you can have sex with 15 men onscreen. So . . . I don't know. These are complicated issues, and ultimately women have to decide for themselves what they're going to do with their bodies and with whom.

You write that at various times, various agencies and commissions have recommended that obscenity laws be thrown out, and that conservative governments have repeatedly moved to stifle their findings. I thought it was interesting that obscenity laws were originally designed to protect conservative areas of the country from more liberal ones, but it turned out that conservative communities are trying to impose their views on the rest of the nation.

Yeah, that was one of the original Supreme Court interpretations of it. The Court was on the verge of overturning the obscenity laws under Chief Justice Warren. In Stanley v. Georgia, they said it was legal to possess it. The next step was that it was legal to produce and distribute it. But obscenity -- how do you define it? It's impossible to define, and that's why it shouldn't be a crime. You've got to be very specific about what's out of bounds.

You explored the obscenity trial of Phil Harvey, the president of Adam & Eve. Ultimately, the jury -- these very conservative North Carolinians, some of them churchgoers -- voted to acquit him. They said, the "government is trying to dictate too much of what we see."

Most Americans would have no problem with hardcore pornography, as long as it's not shoved in their faces. And I think that's a very grown-up attitude. There's a small group of very well-motivated, very well-funded people who want to ban it for everyone else. In order to do that during the last pornography crackdown, they had to come up with all these creative means to put these companies out of business, because they couldn't get juries to convict them.

I found it weird and sort of great that Larry Flynt might be the voice of reason in all of this. His theory is that if pornography were legalized, the porn industry would shrink. You discuss how that actually happened in Denmark. Do you really think that could translate to the U.S.?

If you go to Scandinavia, Denmark, the Netherlands, they're just more grown up about these things. There's porn, but it's just part of life. Sexuality is just part of life. They have much lower rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. You have to keep in mind that America was founded by Puritans, but we were also founded by nonconformists and rebels and dissidents from all throughout Europe -- the people who didn't fit in came here. So you've got this Puritan tradition, and you've got this rebellious tradition. You've got a lot of Founding Fathers who were rebellious in their personal lives and their political views. It was amazingly rebellious to oppose kings. And those two parts of America are just constantly at odds with one another. And they're often at odds within one person. Thank you, Bill Bennett.

What's interesting is that the old-time government porn crackdowns that you described -- the raids -- are continuing. Police are rounding up distributors and seizing material. Adam "Seymour Butts" Glasser was involved in a lengthy trial; another smaller porn distributor was raided in California a few months ago. Do you think the government will ever be successful, on a wide scale, in enforcing obscenity laws and shutting down producers on specific, obscenity-related charges?

I think it's unlikely now that AOL Time Warner, Marriott, Hilton, Comcast and other very big companies are making many millions of dollars from porn. Taking them on is very different than taking on Adam Glasser. The government will crack down on the margins, and they'll crack down on material they think is "pushing it" in terms of content, but mainstream, Vivid-style, world-wrestling-type porn, I think, is here to stay. It's a huge corporate commodity. It's very different from hounding one man. But we'll see. Ashcroft would love to do it: he covered up the statue of justice. I've always wondered why he did it -- I guess he saw this topless chick with a blindfold on and didn't know what that was about.

If you had ultimate power, what would you do?

I don't know; my own views on porn are not totally libertarian. In the book, I suggest that the Nixon Commission on obscenity and pornography really had the best solution. The current solution is not a good one. Even Larry Flynt will say that he wouldn't publish some of the stuff on the internet. Controlling access to children is a real problem. I've got kids, and I don't think intense stuff should be easily viewed by children. But what the Nixon commission wanted to do was basically overturn the obscenity laws and say, "Okay, we're going to get rid of the idea of obscene. There's no notion of obscenity; we're not going to restrict what's bought and sold. Adults can have it, but children can't, and people who are offended by it shouldn't have it forced on them." So if I had total power, I would get rid of the obscenity laws. I would strictly prohibit a small group of things like child pornography, violent pornography, porno involving bestiality -- because we don't know if animals are consenting to that, and it's really disgusting -- and then limit how it's sold. I'd let anyone post on the internet, but have them put a code in there, so parents can buy a filter and their kids aren't downloading pictures of sex with barnyard animals.

Things would have been so much better if the anti-pornography zealots had just allowed that commission's recommendations to be carried out. We would have had a much more rational, civilized way of dealing with porn. For example, a newsagent here in New York City has hardcore films right behind the counter. I'm not crazy about bringing my kids in there. So I would say cover it up, but if an adult wants to buy that stuff, I say buy six. We've wound up in a really weird gray area, and I think the obscenity laws should just be taken off the books.

The FBI investigation led by Rosfelder -- the agent who spent 15 years trying to bring down Reuben Sturman -- seemed to be a tremendous waste of resources, no?

I felt otherwise. Rosfelder was a good guy, and not an antiporn zealot. I mean he's not a big porn fan, but he was motivated by a very All-American dislike of rich people not paying their taxes. He was a criminal investigator for the IRS going after tax cheats, and he managed to nail the biggest tax cheat in American history. Reuben should have paid his taxes, and he didn't, he should have been a lot more clever about it and not tried to extort money from anyone. I think the interesting thing about Sturman as a figure is that he started out as an upper-middle-class businessman who had his eyes opened to obscenity law and wanted to fight the good fight. But I think the power he accumulated became a corrosive thing. By the end, it's almost like the guy from Scarface -- without killing anybody, he had done things evocative of an organized-crime leader. It was more the FBI-obscenity part of it that I think was a waste of money.

I came away liking Sturman. If the government hadn't tried to shut him down almost from day one, he wouldn't have needed to be secretive about his books and finances.

Well, Sturman created the seeds of his own downfall when he tried to sue J. Edgar Hoover in 1954. He became a top priority of the FBI from that point on. You've got to keep in mind the hubris of doing that. That was the height of J. Edgar Hoover's power. This was the most powerful man in America, and he sued him! What's amazing is how close Reuben Sturman came to beating the federal government. I mean, the federal government is huge and massive and powerful. It's amazing how long he successfully fought them off.

Do you really think that porn will eat itself? Will the brave new world of porn really reduce the need for professionals who produce it?

I think the porn industry is shrinking right now. I think the industry is in trouble. The mainstream porn companies have a big problem, they really do. Look what's happened to Playboy and Penthouse and Hustler. It's tough to make money now because of the internet. In terms of dollar value, I don't think the industry is going to grow hugely, although more people will have access to the material.

Of course: now everyone can download and even produce sexual content of themselves, often for free, and amateur stuff is incredibly popular. The individual is the new pornographer.

Let me give you the pessimistic view of porn, and perhaps the optimistic view. I think that in terms of annual revenues, the porn industry is going to decline, just because it's going to be harder and harder to figure out how to make money off of porn. And maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I think that as the screws loosen, the porn is going to get a lot better. It'll be much more interesting.

In the '70s, Hollywood was moving in that direction and got terrified of it. But I think more interesting filmmakers are going to feel more comfortable doing more sexually explicit stuff, and so maybe you'll have less porn but better porn, in a weird way. To me, it's like fast food. Mainstream porn is to sex as fast food is to real food.

Do you see a connection between migrant labor and porn performers?

Well, I see the connection, and then I'll make the distinction. At the very end of the porn piece, I talk about Roman entertainment and how the destruction of the performers was just part of the show. I think that when you're watching mainstream porn, you are watching some people self-destruct on screen. It's the same way that when you're eating fresh produce, you're often eating food that has involved someone's exploitation. The difference is that 99.999% of porn performers have other options. They're more willingly putting themselves into that position than a lot of farmworkers, who are extraordinarily limited in how they can put food on the table. These porn workers -- you know, there's a lot of dignity to being a good waitress.

Of course, the distinction is huge. But a fairly recent L.A. Times article found that there are more regulations protecting animals on film sets than porn stars. I'm curious why you concentrated on the head honchos of porn, and not the efforts of sex workers to unionize and the hazards they face. It would be like writing the migrant-worker article and focusing on the industrialists.

That's a good point. For me, the story of Sturman, and the structure and the history of the underlying economics of the porn industry really hadn't been told. There had been a lot more written on porn stars; in fact, a really good book was written by a guy named Ian Gittler called "Pornstar." And, so, looking at it, I just felt that this was the institutional history of an industry. But, look, I think someone could write a great book on the performers and their efforts to build a better life.

Michael Martin is the editor-in-chief of Nerve.com.

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