Monthly column from author/activist
Comes Naturally #118
Standing Up to be Counted: Barbara Nitke Challenges John Ashcroft on S/M and Internet Obscenity
"No matter how we're wired to express love, freedom is having the courage to be who we are."
On December 11, Barbara Nitke and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom brought suit in New York City's Federal District Court, seeking to have the last remaining censorship provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) declared overbroad, vague, and therefore unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The suit, which will be heard this spring by a three-judge panel headed by Judge Richard Berman, is a sequel to the 1997 action by the American Civil Liberties Union, Reno v. ACLU, that resulted in the Supreme Court unanimously striking down the provision of CDA that criminalized indecent, "patently offensive" material broadcast over the Internet. The aim of Nitke v. Ashcroft is to have the ruling extended to CDA's criminalization of obscene material as well.
The Communications Decency Act was the first Federal statute attempting to regulate sexual material broadcast over the Internet. CDA makes it a Federal crime to transmit any obscene or indecent "comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication" over the Internet, if such material can be viewed by people under 18. The question of what is obscenity or indecency has always been a complex one.
The current Federal definition of obscenity, the Miller test, stems from a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Miller v. California. Under the Miller test, material is legally obscene only if it is sexually explicit, patently offensive according to "local community standards," and lacks any "serious literary, artistic, social, educational, or scientific value. "Sexually explicit material that does have serious social value, but is still offensive according to local community standards, falls into the legal category of indecency, even though it is not obscene. As a result, it can legally be subjected to some degree of government regulation. The supreme Court has ruled, for example, that the times when indecent material can be broadcast on television can be limited to certain late night hours, when it is presumably less likely to be seen by children.
The community standards provision of the Miller ruling allowed the Supreme Court to acknowledge that material considered obscene or indecent in a small town in rural Kansas may nonetheless be quite acceptable in Manhattan or San Francisco, and to avoid imposing one standard on the entire nation. Indeed, courts have ruled that the local community standards that are applied to questions of obscenity and indecency can vary not only city by city and state by state, but even from one city neighborhood to another.
Under Miller, publishers and distributors of erotic and sexual books, magazines, films, and videos have become accustomed to making complicated decisions about where and how they want to market their products. Many mail-order companies choose not to market products in states like Utah and Alabama that they promote extensively in more sexually progressive parts of the country. Other companies choose not to process mail orders from certain states at all. By restricting their marketing, companies are able to choose which local community standards they want to subject themselves to with regard to potential obscenity or indecency charges. Companies also insure themselves against selling to minors by having potential customers certify that they are over 18 years of age.
On the Internet, however, the possibility of all such geographical and age verification vanishes. When a store, publisher, artist, or writer puts erotic and sexual material up on their website, that material immediately becomes available to people from the most progressive to the most conservative communities in the country and, more broadly, in the world. Furthermore, issues of obscenity and indecency on the Internet extend beyond the sale of products to such simple acts as viewing an artist's work, or reading a writer's short stories. Is there an identifiable Internet community whose "local community values" can be used to define which material is legally obscene and which is not? What might that community be?
The Communications Decency Act says nothing about which community's standards of obscenity are to be applied to the Internet. Because it limited itself to issues of indecency in Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court has so far been silent on this issue as well.
Nitke v. Ashcroft seeks to change all that. The complaint claims that, in the absence of a clear definition of which community standards apply to the Internet, CDA has the effect of chilling all Internet expression since questions of the legal obscenity of Internet material might well be judged by the values of the most restrictive communities in the country. This, says John Wirenius, attorney for Nitke and NCSF, makes the obscenity provision of CDA so far-reaching as to be unconstitutional. His hope is that Nitke v. Ashcroft will prompt the Supreme Court to overturn the CAD's obscenity provision, perhaps overturn the CDA entirely, and hopefully define for the first time which community standards are to be used in judging the potential obscenity of online sexual material.
Barbara Nitke is a brilliant, well-known, and widely respected New York fine art photographer. Much of her work comprises powerful, emotionally complex, visually evocative images that depict couples engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities. Many of her images show couples engaged in various forms of consensual sadomasochism. Her photographs are noteworthy both for their exceptional visual beauty and for the depth of the emotional connections she captures in her subjects.
Her website is the antithesis of the generically garish porn website. It is visually subdued, attractively designed, geared less to selling products (though Nitke's prints are offered for sale) than to providing a showcase for her work.
One image shows a woman looking down tenderly into the eyes of her lover, who lies bound and gagged in her arms. Another shows a woman smilingly listening to instructions from the director on a porn film set, while a man's mouth is hard at work between her thighs. Another shows a woman staring wistfully off into the distance while her woman lover lies helplessly bound and gagged in front of her on the kitchen table. Yet another shows a man concentrating intently as he whips the back of his male lover, who cries out at the pain of the lash.
Other sections of her website provide Nitke with an opportunity to talk about both her work and her personal background. "For many years I shot stills on hardcore porn shoots," she recounts. "I thought it was the most exciting, stomach-turning, heart-warming subject I could ever hope to photograph. I know that sounds crazy. But for me there was a certain feeling of freedom that went with shooting porn which, most of the time, made up for all the other things. [There were moments] when I'd look through the lens into someone's shell-shocked eyes and see a forgotten part of me staring back. That was the shot I wanted for me."
Speaking of her s/m photography, Nitke notes that her goal there is "to capture the bond between [the lovers], and also the intense energy of ritual, passionate s/m. I [want] to photograph deep intimacy and trust, the two main concepts which underlie most s/m practices."
When John Wirenius approached her about being the plaintiff in this lawsuit, Nitke says she knew immediately that she wanted to be part of the effort. "I told John I wanted to sleep on it, but I knew right away that I would do it, which was what I told him the next day." Although she has supported various freedom of expression issues in the past and has been a member of NCSF since the organization was founded, Nitke has never thought of herself as a political activist, not even with regard to free speech issues.
"But you end up being an activist even if you don't want to be," she says pointedly. "If artists as a group don't stand up and do something, the censors are just going to keep going further and further. Most artists don't want to deal with this sort of thing, but we have to."
She recalls a time of showing her work to a gathering of curators and gallery owners in Portland, Oregon, all of whom told her that her photography was excellent, but also said there was no way they could show it, given the current political climate regarding sexual imagery. It was experiences like these, Nitke says, that made her conscious of how impossible it was becoming to show important, sexually controversial work throughout the country.
It wasn't until Nitke decided to put together her own website that she fully realized how heavily the prevailing political climate was weighing on her. Nervous about recent legislation like the Community Decency Act, she called other photographers who were doing erotic and sexual work like hers -- images that were controversial, sometimes sexually explicit, but distinctly artful in intent and style, and distinctly outside the realm of commercial pornography. She also spoke with publishers of erotic magazines equally distant from the production and distribution networks of the porn world. Were these people worried about Ashcroft and how he would apply the laws that Congress was passing related to supposedly obscene material? Did she need to be concerned about being a target for prosecution herself? What kinds of images could she put on her website without risking embroiling herself in legal defenses that could eat up tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention months of time and heartache? And wasn't it horrible that, as a serious artist interested in sexual issues, she had to be distracted by these sorts of issues at all?
"That's why this suit is so important to me," she summarizes. "It's both a practical matter and a matter or principle."
Unlike Barbara Nitke, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) came to Nitke v. Ashcroft directly from an interest in political advocacy of the sexual civil rights of people who find themselves outside the American sexual mainstream. Founded in 1997 "to help change antiquated and unfair sex laws, and to protect free speech and advance privacy rights," NCSF has drawn its primary support from a broad group of S/M activists, initially in New York, but later from other parts of the country as well. It's 21 voting member groups now span the country from New York to Las Vegas, from Greensboro, North Carolina to Blue Island, Illinois. The groups range from long-standing s/m advocacy and support groups, like the Eulenspeigel Society of New York, to newer groups like St. Louis's Leather and Lace, and Cincinnati's Masters and slaves Together. Member groups like the Lesbian Sex Mafia and Gay Male S/M Activists reflect the broad diversity of sexual orientation that is very much a part of the national s/m-leather-fetish subculture.
NCSF has been increasingly effective in speaking up for the basic civil rights and freedom of speech of people involved in safe, sane, consensual s/m. It has successfully fought selective enforcement of zoning and public indecency laws in San Diego, Baltimore, Attleboro (Massachusetts), and Washington, D.C. Its Law Enforcement Outreach Program strives both to educate law enforcement officials about s/m communities, and to educate members of the s/m community about how to minimize their risk as potential targets of selective enforcement of zoning, public indecency, and aggravated assault laws.
NCSF spokesperson Susan Wright notes that the organization has very much wanted to take the initiative in challenging antisexual legislation like the Communications Decency Act, rather than waiting to respond to what it saw as inevitable upcoming attacks on sexual expression from the Bush-Ashcroft Administration.
NCSF is sure that new attacks on sexually-oriented materials and entertainment, particularly material available on the Internet, has been high on the priority list of the Ashcroft Justice Department, even if that agenda has been somewhat delayed by the focus on terrorism that followed the events of September 11. They note that on November 14, Ashcroft appointed Andrew G. Osterbaan to head the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section. Earlier this year, Ashcroft assured various conservative organizations that he intended to vigorously pursue prosecutions under the CDA. On June 9 he also told the House Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department intended to be "especially accommodating to local law enforcement" with regard to helping them put operators of Internet sex sites behind bars.
"Our goal [with the Nitke suit]," says Wright, "is to overturn this unconstitutional provision [of the CDA] before this Administration tries to score political points by attempting to enforce it." Attorney John Wirenius adds that there is much to be gained from seizing the initiative in legal matters, rather than waiting to mount defenses to prosecutions initiated by the Justice Department. "This way we get to choose the test case, not Ashcroft," he emphasizes. "I'd much rather have the obscenity provision of the CDA be decided on the basis of Barbara Nitke's work than on the basis of something like www.bestiality.com."
Wirenius is optimistic about Nitke v. Ashcroft at the Federal District Court level. He notes that Judge Richard Berman, who will preside over the case in Federal District Court this spring, wrote what Wirenius calls a "terrific decision," Swedenburg v. Kelly, in which he ruled that material on the Internet cannot be subjected to geographical community standards in the same way that books or films can. "Judge Berman," says Wirenius, "is a fair-minded judge who understands the posed by the Internet."
Wirenius is also optimistic of the fate of Nitke v. Ashcroft before the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case will ultimately be decided. He sees this case as a logical extension of Reno v. ACLU from issues of indecency to those of obscenity and notes that, despite its general conservative bent, the current Supreme Court has been fairly vigilant on free speech issues.
Whether or not Nitke v. Ashcroft is ultimately successful in overturning the obscenity provision of CDA, the fact that the issue is being raised by NCSF represents a significant new political and legal posture for the s/m community which, until recently, has been more closeted and less inclined to take aggressive political and legal action than more long-standing and well-known sexual minority groups. As NCSF notes, "in the past decade, alternative sexual expression [particularly s/m] has become much more visible to the general public," and people who engage in s/m have therefore become subject to "an increasing number of attacks against our right to freedom of sexual expression." Actions like Nitke v. Ashcroft demonstrate that s/m practitioners have begun to join the ranks of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people in insisting that non-traditional sexual and gender expression not subject them to anything less than full and equal treatment under the law.
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