"American Porn"

A "Frontline" report on one of the biggest businesses in the U.S. is an expos

By Charles Taylor

Published February 11, 2002 8:34PM (EST)

Most mainstream reporting on pornography makes me cringe. For too long, reporters and broadcasters have seized on porn as a chance to display predictable shock, to treat the porn world as if it's the modern equivalent of those ancient stories of girls being sold into the "white slave trade," to describe porn in terms usually reserved for disease, a scourge creeping unchecked into our nice, clean suburban communities. Frank Rich's piece on porn that ran in the New York Times Magazine last year was a notable exception; and Rich took to task writers like Martin Amis and David Foster Wallace for using it to score some easy moral indignation.

The PBS "Frontline" documentary "American Porn" (which aired in many cities Thursday night), produced and directed by Michael Kirk, and written by Kirk and Peter J. Boyer, didn't exactly fall into the usual porn-exposé clichés, and it even contained some real information on what the state of porn prosecution might be under a new conservative Republican administration. It made distinctions between the softcore porn of Internet entrepreneur Danni Ashe, the upscale "couples" porn produced by Vivid Video and the no-taboos-unviolated porn produced at Extreme Associates by Rob Black and his wife, Lizzie Borden. Just the fact that Kirk and Boyer made those distinctions is unusual compared with most media coverage of porn, but it wasn't enough to stop the show from being earnest and dull.

PBS has always prided itself, has always sold itself, as being separate from American culture, as being the best shot Americans have at becoming Europeans. The most priceless PBS moment ever came in the summer of 1976 when the network covered Queen Elizabeth's visit to the White House for a state dinner. The camera showed the Queen and President Ford in the receiving line while the anchors did their best to explain who Her Majesty was greeting. Last in line were a young woman and her escort and Robert MacNeil said, "Finally, a young couple meeting the queen, looking very thrilled indeed." Except that the young woman was Dorothy Hamill, who had taken the Olympic gold medal in figure skating a few months before and become America's latest sweetheart. Here was a woman whom millions of Americans had watched in Innsbruck, Austria, just a few months before, whose haircut young girls were aping all over the country, and PBS's news anchor had no idea who she was.

"American Porn" was squarely (in every sense of the word) in that tradition, with an arm's-length disdain passing for objectivity. They did a good job of explaining how porn has entered the mainstream, with the usual recitation of industry grosses, and they detailed how companies like GM (through its ownership of Direct TV, which offers porn channels) and AT&T (whose Broadband TV service offers the Hot Network) profit from porn. But "American Porn" steadfastly refused to consider what the mainstream acceptance of porn might say about America's sexual habits or its changing attitude toward censorship.

Kirk and Boyer simply took the Proper Journalistic Attitude of treating porn as a sociological phenomenon, just not one that is part of any culture that they -- or by implication any cultured PBS viewers -- feel part of. Vivid videos or peeking at Danni Ashe (the most delightful pinup model since Bettie Page) or even a bukkake tape might be for some people, the show seemed to say, but not those who enjoy settling down to watch Russell Baker introduce a Nancy Mitford adaptation on "Masterpiece Theatre." Did it never occur to Kirk and Boyer that a lot of people might enjoy a dramatization of an English novel and porn?

The unanswered question raised by most mainstream porn reporting is, "Who is this news to?" The porn industry's yearly grosses are in the billions; Frank Rich's Times article offered figures that the industry makes more than several professional sports leagues. So if porn is mainstream -- something you can buy at Tower Records, order in your hotel room or on your cable or Internet service -- how can the media still affect the charade that most Americans need to be told about this stuff?

The answer lies in the gap between what Americans do or watch and what they will acknowledge they do or watch. Even those of us who watch porn might still be embarrassed if we were to see someone we know when we're buying a porn magazine or renting a video. But "American Porn" implicitly allowed its audience the comfort of not probing that shame. At times it even fell into the "creeping scourge" syndrome, referring to porn being "swept into our living rooms" or, speaking of cable porn, "This is how it's channeled into millions of American homes," or that VCRs "allowed porn to come right into the home." This is the passive language that people adopt to talk about books or movies or broadcasts they don't like. It's the language of Little Nells subjected against their will to the cruelties of a caddish world: "I tried locking the doors, Margaret, but them gol-durn pornographers threw them dirty movies in through the transom!" Porn isn't swept or channeled into anybody's home unless they choose to bring it there. It wasn't VCRs that allowed porn to come "right into the home"; it was people deciding to rent or buy porn videos. As a video box shown in the program says, "If you like anal sex, take this tape home." And if you don't, don't.

Sensible voices, like the Hilton hotels vice president who said that in-room porn channels are a service offered to guests (and so, one they can choose not to avail themselves of), got lost in the mounting rhetoric. In that context, figures like the number of adult Web sites or the phenomenal profitability of porn tapes are divorced from personal choice and become a tumescent tide forcing those of us who don't want to see it to fight for our honor.

And it's just the question of public choice that needed to be addressed in the section on the once-again growing legal challenges to the pornography industry. "American Porn" explained (a tad snidely, I thought) that, under the Clinton administration, federal obscenity prosecution waned. Interviewed, former Attorney General Janet Reno said that she thought national security and stemming the tide of violence were more pressing issues.

The show revealed that in early September, Attorney General John Ashcroft met with anti-porn activists as the prelude to a new crusade that was put aside in the wake of Sept. 11. (What can you expect from a man who recently ordered a statue with a bare breast draped, at a cost of $8,000 to taxpayers. I think it's more interesting in the light of Ashcroft's professed practice of anointing himself with Crisco before taking various oaths of office. Biblical tradition, my ass.)

"American Porn" mentioned that there are two pending obscenity cases before the Supreme Court (without giving any details of either case). It provided a little more information on the current case in Los Angeles against Adam Glasser (the porn producer known as Seymore Butts -- a fact the show reported with characteristic humorlessness), who is being prosecuted for obscenity because his video "Tampa Tushy Fest" shows female fisting. Deputy L.A. prosecutor Deborah Sanchez, a prime example of someone whose idea of duty is wasting tax dollars being a busybody, is going after Glasser saying that fisting violates "community standards." (I'd advise her to talk to L.A.'s lesbian and gay communities about that.) "Community standards" was the yardstick set to determine what constitutes obscenity in the Supreme Court's 1973 Miller vs. State of California ruling. But what needed to be addressed here is the question of how the courts can claim to be protecting an individual's right to free speech and still insist that it conform to community standards.

Not everything Sanchez said is crazy. She said her office will go after child porn -- which always has been illegal and which the adult industry does not produce -- and bestiality, which some fringe segments of the industry do produce and which seems to me just as abusive as child porn. And a segment on producer Rob Black and his wife, Lizzie Borden, raised legitimate questions about the limits of free speech. Black and Borden, claiming boredom with traditional porn, consciously set out to violate even the taboos porn will not break.

Borden was shown making a video in which the scenario is a young woman who is kidnapped, raped and murdered. It's not the subject that raises questions about the tape's legality, or even the fact that sexual violence is depicted for the viewer's erotic delectation. Repellent as it is, that still seems to me protected free speech. What raised questions is that the actress is really beaten in the course of the making of the film, consensually, but still beaten. It was too much for the show's producers, who left in the middle of taping the shoot (and you can hardly blame them). But even here, a distinction needs to be made. If Borden and Black -- and the actors playing the assailants -- could be prosecuted for anything it would be for assault, not obscenity. And they should be. We're not talking about S/M here. We're talking about a beating that, consensual or not, is a crime.

Just because porn has become mainstream, and just because "American Porn" took a cold, superior attitude toward it, that doesn't mean that nothing in porn is alarming. Fetish is the industry's growth area, now accounting for 25 to 30 percent of the yearly profit. We've gone far from the days of the first porn videos, which advertised "X-rated nonviolent action," and that cut rape scenes and often S/M scenes from older tapes. The rise of gonzo porn, sex scenes with no story, porn's acknowledgement of the power of the fast-forward button, led the way for niche porn -- tapes catering to all predilections and fetishes.

It was inevitable that, as porn became mainstream, there would be an underground reaction to offer something nobody had done before. That's how we got the vogue for gang-bang tapes with increasing numbers of participants. But while fetish can include bestiality or Rob Black's brutalities, it can also mean tapes catering to foot fetishists or big-breast fetishists, tapes featuring interracial sex or anal sex or even something as harmlessly infantile as the current bukkake craze. Clearly, if the war against porn that the show predicted comes to pass, the depiction of some harmless sexual practices are going to be under siege.

"American Porn" featured interviews with Larry Flynt, who believes that, under the Bush administration, it's only a matter of time before the government strikes back at porn. Ashcroft's openness to anti-porn activists, who include Bruce Taylor, a prosecutor who went after Larry Flynt and is now the president of something called the National Law Center and is still clearly miffed that Flynt isn't in jail, is not a good sign. With friends once more in high places, the bluestockings are coming out of the closet. The Roman Catholic cardinal of Baltimore, William Keeler, is leading a movement to get AT&T to divest itself of porn profits. (But the Catholic Church hardly seems in the position to preach about sexual mores, as it publicly grapples with how to make restitution to the scores of young people sexually abused by priests over the last decade -- priests who were often protected by the Church.)

And the porn industry looks to be knuckling under. The industry's chief lawyer, Paul Cambria, has drawn up a list of things magazines shouldn't risk showing, including peeing, come shots, the use of blindfolds or the inclusion of any religious imagery. Cambria feels they might be enough to tempt prosecution. You can see the reaction even in porn's mainstream. Penthouse, which is hardcore, has stopped featuring come shots.

The best defense against prosecution may still be the Internet, which, "American Porn" pointed out, makes the establishment of community standards impossible. But by depicting obscenity prosecutions as solely the problem of the porn industry, "American Porn" again showed its distance from its subject, from even questioning the meaning (or constitutionality) of "community standards" in the face of the mainstream acceptance of porn. The question that renewed government prosecution of the porn industry raises is, will Americans be able to publicly identify themselves as porn consumers in order to tell the government to mind its own damn business? Or will we fall back on the public stance of applauding "decency" and treat porn as if it were an aberration we have nothing to do with? That's the pose the mainstream media has long ago taken. "American Porn" is an exposé that actually offers its audience a chance to cover up, a chance to divorce itself from its own sexual tastes.

"American Porn" isn't badly researched or preachy or one-sided. But good journalism can't encourage society to lie about itself; it can't take a mass cultural phenomenon and then act as if its audience isn't part of that phenomenon. The gap between private desires and public behavior doesn't bode well for free speech. Unless America is willing to admit to jerking off to Jenna, it may soon find itself sleeping with the enemy.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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