PORN part IV: The Rules of Sex

The multi-billion dollar pornography industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade. It is now possible to buy hardcore pornography everywhere from the hustle of a Manhattan newsstand to the solitude of a Holiday Inn in Wichita, Kan. Porn stars have become recognizable personalities – is there anyone under 30 who doesn’t know who Jenna Jameson is? General Motors, AT&T and many other Fortune 500 companies have cashed in on America’s appetite for porn, making hundreds of millions of dollars by selling X-rated movies to customers.

But even as porn penetrates pop culture and big business, many pornographers operate the crosshairs of elected leaders and prosecutors.

“Anti-pornography is a great campaign slogan,” says Mark Kernes, the senior editor of Adult Video News, the porn industry’s trade magazine. “The authorities will constantly try to suppress (porn).”

The industry has reason to worry. Throughout its existence, it has been subject to virtually unprecedented political opposition leading to countless arrests, raids and prosecutions. While most legal action against the industry subsided in the 1990s, many in the porn business are bracing again, especially since the Bush administration has moved in to the White House.

“There are no rules”

Virtually all porn busts since 1988 have stemmed from obscenity charges. But obscenity laws are notoriously ambiguous – just what is obscene and what is good, fun porn? Under the current law, anything violating “community standards” is considered obscene and is illegal. Different community standards further complicate obscenity laws.

Under presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the Justice Department often enticed conservative locales to prosecute porn on the local level. Russell Hampshire, who owns VCA Pictures, the second largest porn studio in the country, found this out the hard way. He spent nine months in jail and paid nearly $2 million in fines for shipping porn videos to Alabama in 1988.

“Southern juries would find a little boy/girl movie obscene,” porn icon Ron Jeremy says. “(Federal prosecutors) go to Presbyterian juries who find that stuff obscene knowing full well that they couldn’t get a conviction in L.A., or Chicago, New York.”

When the Clinton administration came to power, federal prosecution and enticement of local prosecution stopped. Janet Reno publicly stated that porn was not one of her “priorities.” Although the current Bush administration finds few supporters in Porn Valley, the general consensus among the politically aware in the industry is that the administration’s focus on terrorism has saved porn from a lot of legal and political flak.

“We were worried when Bush came to office,” says VCA’s Jane Hamilton. “But very strangely, our national tragedy has diverted some of their attention from us.”

But that’s not to say the industry believes it has been given a permanent reprieve.

“(Attorney General John) Ashcroft has made it very clear that the federal government plans on going after the adult industry,” Adult Video News’ Kernes says. “He thinks pornography and obscenity are the same thing.”

Despite the feeling that the industry may have dodged a bullet, several recent, high-profile prosecutions show the Bush presidency may mark a turning point in porn’s political struggle.

Recent prosecutions have targeted the most extreme segment of the industry and are not federal, but local prosecutions in L.A. County – the epicenter of porn.

The case that has received the most attention is that of Adam Glasser (known in the industry as Seymore Butts), whose company put out a film that depicted fisting (the act of putting an entire fist in a woman’s vagina). Glasser settled the case last year, agreeing to pay a $1,000 fine and offer an edited version of the video.

So far only L.A. County prosecutors have targeted the most extreme companies. But does this rash of prosecutions threaten the more mainstream porn industry?

“Absolutely not,” says VCA’s Hamilton. “We play within the rules.”

And what are the rules?

“There are no rules or laws in the adult business. The rules are made after someone breaks them,” says Mara Epstein of Private, a major adult studio.

To cope with the ambiguity of porn laws and the perception that prosecutions could start again under the Bush administration, most major studios have adopted some form of self-censorship to avoid egging on prosecution. Hamilton says VCA won’t depict fisting, urination or implied sex with minors in its movies – all of which were cited as reasons behind the recent slate of L.A. County prosecutions.

“A product of democracy”

Despite dire predictions by many in the business, the porn industry today enjoys much more protection under the law than it has for most of its history. Filming pornography was illegal in the state of California until August 1988.

“I was busted twice on (California) pandering charges,” Ron Jeremy tells me. Before Freeman v. California, the California State Supreme Court decision in 1988, filming pornography in California was considered to be the same as prostitution. Porn sets in Los Angeles were routinely busted, and directors and performers were arrested and often charged with a litany of prostitution-related offenses.

Bill Margold, an industry spokesman who was a performer in the 1980s, says he would often face multiple charges from a bust.

“I’ve been charged with everything – prostitution, oral copulation, living in a house of ill repute,” he says.

Directors would be charged as panderers. Jeremy disputes this logic: “If I’m a panderer and I pay an actress for sex, anyone who rents the tape is a john,” he says.

Because the Los Angeles police were notorious for busting sets, the mass migration of the porn industry to Southern California didn’t begin until after the Freeman decision in 1988, which legalized the filming of pornography in California.

Throughout the 1970s, the porn industry was based squarely in New York.

“In New York the mob owned all the (adult) movie theaters so they controlled all the product,” veteran performer Sharon Mitchell said.

In the 1970s, the staples of the adult movie industry were films that were shown in adult movie theaters and 8 millimeter loops. AVN’s Kernes says, “In the old days, you had to distribute (adult movies) through organized crime because no one else would touch them.”

Organized crime’s influence waned in the early 1980s when the Sony Betacam hit the market and the industry moved west to San Francisco. Many of the performers lived in Los Angeles and trekked up the coast to film movies because the liberal San Francisco lifestyle meant no busts at porn sets.

“It’s San Francisco,” Mitchell says “People there don’t care what the fuck you do.”

An underground always existed in Los Angeles, and with the advent of the videocassette in the mid-‘80s the industry gradually crept south.

For all the legal trouble the industry faces, nearly everyone in the industry sees porn as a representation of what is right with America.

“Porn is a product of democracy,” says Ron Jeremy. “Under fascism or communism there’s no porn.”

But the most common sentiment in the industry is that the country has more pressing problems than porn. Industry spokesman Bill Margold sums up the argument saying, “In a society that is drug infested, violence wracked and polluted by chemical greed, no one’s ever died from an overdose of pornography. Unless you shove your dick in the VCR, very little bad is going to happen to you from watching what we do.”

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