column from author/activist
The Royal Treatment
Banning Porn in the 21st Century
I'm often asked why it's so hard to find certain kinds of porn in the United States. People go to Amsterdam on vacation and see all sorts of videos on display that they've never seen before. Then, back at home, they innocently go into their little neighborhood porn store and ask for a doggy video or something with piss in it, and they get treated like weirdos or worse. We may live in the very best country in the world, but everything is relative. We don't have the lowest infant mortality rate, and our porn selection can't hold a candle to some countries.
Fisting is one of the acts that is informally banned in the US, and mainstream porn purveyors have been avoiding scenes with fisting for over two decades. When the Meese Commission heated up porn prosecutions in the US, things really slowed down. By that time, the only people doing fisting in videos were tiny lesbian companies and, of course, the Germans.
Depictions of fisting, piss, scat, animal porn, and SM that includes penetration are widely thought to be illegal in the United States. In fact, nothing is illegal in the US per se, except child porn. Everything else, including things not on this list, may be deemed illegal by a jury in any relatively conservative locale. (Interracial flicks are notorious for being busted, for example, in the South.) The Miller case, which changed the rules for obscenity prosecution in America, specifies that, to be judged illegal, material must offend "community standards." And anyone who thinks our community standards here in the Bay Area are the same as those in, say, the Central Valley well, let's just assume they haven't been on any car trips lately.
However, it isn't just successful prosecution that keeps porn off the shelves. It's sometimes prior restraint, and I'm not using the term in the legal sense here, but in a more generalized way that is, producers don't make the stuff to being with, because they're afraid. Word on the street has it that cops and prosecutors in Los Angeles warned porn producers in the '70s to lay off the fisting, piss, etc. or else they'd prosecute. All the "normal" stuff was fair game. Suddenly the notorious Lovelace loops were off the shelves, and so was high-quality porn like the one-of-a-kind Waterpower, with Jamie Gillis depicting a real-life enema rapist. (Hey, it was practically a documentary. And have you noticed how much better Jamie Gillis is when he gets to be really fucking nasty? Hey, the man has a gift, and he ought to be allowed to use it.)
In other words the cops said jump, and most mainstream porn producers did.
"[This] arrangement is certainly outmoded in 2002 America," says Mark Kernes, noted free speech activist and commentator for Adult Video News. "And sources (which I'm not at liberty to reveal) tell me the LA city attorney's office is about to figure that out."
Indeed, the first blow for freedom of kinky expression may have been struck earlier this year, when a pending obscenity case in Los Angeles was settled before trial. A plea bargain does not ordinarily represent an unvarnished victory, but this case is unusual. A Seymour Butts video called The Fist, the Whole Fist, and Nothing But the Fist was busted. I was in fact called as a possible expert witness, but the early ending of the case meant that I wasn't called into court. It pled out in part because, says word on the street, the LA prosecutors realized that in fact people do fist -- that it is the subject of classes and books, some sex educators teach it, people sign up to learn it. This is in fact the role I might have played in court to say, "Yes, I teach this, and people sign up for my classes because they want to do it at home."
In other words, fisting is an actual sex act -- something the cops seem not to have truly considered. It took some of the "obscenity" out of the act for them, understanding that it's something folks might want to try for their own erotic interest and fulfillment, not just something done in pictures and videos (especially by Germans) to shock and horrify.
I think the dyke perspective on this issue is worth mentioning. Dyke videographers often assume fisting can't be depicted because it would give straight men, ahem, "fist envy." And perhaps this is true of the LA boys in blue.
Bottom line: Butts did not go directly to jail, as many other porn producers and distributors have. Because the Clinton years of light prosecution are over, the industry had looked at this case with real concern. It's not like fisting was vindicated, but as Kernes notes: "Since so-called obscenity&Mac226; is always a function of community standards&Mac226; any prosecution for obscenity is always a crapshoot for both the prosecution and the defense. Apparently, the LA city attorney's office blinked, at least partly for the reasons you ascribe."
Does this mean California's community standards now include fisting? Can we raise our fists on high and sing "Ding dong, the anti-fisting cop is dead?" Kernes again: "[That's] too optimistic, but porn being what it is, that envelope will be pushed a bit more now than before [the] victory. Recall that there are many areas of California not nearly as liberal as LA and SF." And the rest of the US isn't about to fall in line with the fist-happy size queens among us. But in conservative times (as these certainly are, at least in law enforcement and judicial terms), this case is close enough to a victory to celebrate.
Meanwhile, On the Other Side of the World
However, she wasn't quite ready for the response she got when entering their film Sugar High Glitter City in a queer film festival in New Zealand. "We're an alternative dyke-owned company who likes to show ourselves and our friends&Mac226; sexuality, which means that we like to enjoy some stereotypical, or archetypal, scenes -- like a pool table gang-bang but with a twist -- the girl&Mac226; (femme) is the one who comes five times and sprays the walls instead of the guys."
The video was accepted into the festival, provided they agreed to "take out seven seconds of the offensive urine." The national film review board had found this seven seconds of Sugar High Glitter City unacceptable. Shar called them up: What urine? It turns out they meant a G-spot orgasm on the pool table, but apparently New Zealanders are a little behind the curve on this issue. (I have heard similar recent reports about the United Kingdom, too, and was recently asked to whip off a letter to Parliament or somebody explaining the phenomenon of female ejaculation.)
There ensued a surreal transatlantic phone conversation. "The gal really went down the wrong avenue for me when I asked, 'Why do we care what they think? Why don't you just show it?&Mac226;'" reports Shar. The film festival's representative answered, "Because actually a lot of lesbians work at the review board, so they'll know we broke the rules."
"I'm speechless for a minute," says Shar. Then she asked, "So these lesbians, and men as well, not only got to see our movie, but they got paid to do so?"
"Oh, but I'm sure they censor men spraying the wall as well. I mean, it's not a sexist prejudice."
"Well, actually, no, the men do get to..." Shar noted (probably with a bit of satisfaction) that the film festival representative couldn't even bring herself to say what the men did. Shar helped her out: "The men get to spray the walls with their orgasms but the women do not."
"Right. It is the legislature, after all, who makes the rules, not the review board, and we can't do anything about the government -- they will never change."
"That was the wrong thing to say to me so I just politely shut up before I went off on her," says Shar. "I simply said, 'No, I don't know that at all. And I don't understand your determination to follow the rules.' I mean, I suddenly felt very American, very Wild West. We rule the government -- they are our employees! And like any corporation things get out of control because it's so big, but it's our job to work hard and change it. For all my complaining, we actually do change it. And Americans whose values I don't agree with change it. But it's ours. And when we don't like it we don't sit around asking permission.
"I certainly am not going to tell one of my actresses how to come. Except you, Carol, but with you I just tell you when."
Land of the Free?
And do we hold these politicians&Mac226; feet to the fire? As a nation, no, we do not. If porn consumers stood up and became a political force to be counted, perhaps we would see some change. But as Mark Kernes notes, we're still engaged in a culture clash over pornography and obscenity.
"There's a war coming in this country between the people who want to control what other people do in their private lives, be it sexually or anything else, and those who feel no such urge. On our side, we've got reason, the Constitution and the ideas of the Founding Fathers (and occasionally their explicit words), while on their side they've got 'God', hellfire-promising preachers (and other commentators) and the (very human) fear of death and damnation among a not-overly-well-educated citizenry. Currently, that war is being fought in the courts; hence the jockeying for who gets to be Supreme Court and federal Appeals Court judges. Seems to me, if the (religious) control freaks sense that they are losing in that forum, they'll start taking to the streets, much in the same way some of them have assassinated abortion providers.
"Porn producers are torn between a recognition -- though, sadly, not always a conscious one -- that they should be able to market whatever adult sexual product the marketplace is willing to support, and the fear that they will go to jail for doing so. The balance between that recognition and that fear is always a function of both their feel for what the marketplace will accept and their feel for the power of the preacher-types over the citizenry, and that evaluation system has been in force since at least the time the adult industry was created.
"Porn producers are among the last bastion of First Amendment defenders. When/if we fall, the rest of the Constitution will soon follow."
If suddenly your right to view fisting, not to mention female ejaculation, seems more precious than it did before Mark's stirring speech, do something about it. Speak up whenever you get the chance or maybe Ashcroft will hire some folks from New Zealand to come over and tell us what we can watch.