When Bush took office in 2001, Porn Valleys denizens grew nervous. Rumor had it the newly appointed attorney general, John Ashcroft, was planning on launching a full-scale attack on the adult movie business.
Pornographers had spent the last eight years enjoying Clintons mostly hands-off approach to obscenity prosecutions, the consequence of which was that the industry had, for all intents and purposes, gone what could only be described as totally insane. Porn Valley was the Wild, Wild West, and its purveyors had found their manifest destiny was producing as much porn as humanly possible, generating in excess of 10,000 adult videos every year. Stunt sex, perhaps best embodied in the Worlds Biggest Gangbang series, reared its head, and directors like Greg Dark, Rob Black, and Max Hardcore were pushing porn to new extremes with movies featuring simulated rape, feigned pedophilia, and wholesale degradation. Estimates put the adult movie industrys revenue at $10 to $14 billion annually, a figure Forbes.com has (rightly) dismissed as born out of baseless and wildly inflated numbers created by self-interested pornographers. But one thing was for sure: those were the glory days of porn, and nothing could stop it.
Previously, conservative administrations had stepped in to police the strange business of making sex movies, handing out indictments and imprisoning those perceived to have crossed the infamously blurry I know it when I see it line rumored to lie somewhere between pornography and obscenity. Under Clinton, obscenity indictments came down the pipeline few and far between, and the administrations message was clear: anything goes. Porn ran unchecked; business was booming.
Out of the 1973 case of Marvin Miller v. State of California, the Supreme Court had created the Miller test to determine if a work is obscene. If a) the work, judged by the average American using community standards, appeals to the prurient interest, b) depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and c) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value (aka the SLAPS test), it is obscene, and, therefore, not protected by the First Amendment. Yet, the technology revolution would change everything. What defines community standards in a digital age? If 2 Girls 1 Cup is water cooler talk, what is offensive? Above all else, what is obscene?
In 2000 and 2001, the LAPD had initiated something of a crackdown, targeting a handful of pornographers on obscenity-related charges. Their number included Mike Norton, who runs JM Productions, which has produced many of Powers videos, and Adam Glasser, more widely known as Seymore Butts. Among the potentially obscene videos were Powers American Bukkake 11, in which 83 men masturbate onto the face of a woman named Cotton Candy, and Butts Tampa Tushy-Fest, in which a woman can be seen vaginally and anally fisting another woman and exclaiming, Fuck yeah, thats girl power!
What fresh hell would the Bush administration bring?
The only thing that saved a lot more people from getting indicted and going to jail is 9/11, Powers asserts. Whatever the Bush administration had planned for the jizz bizz was derailed when terrorists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, killing Americans by the thousands. In light of that fact, the government would have a hard time drumming up public support for positing those who videotaped people screwing for a living as the new public enemy number one.
On a local level, deals were struck. Those charged were let off with a slap on the wrist. And Porn Valley did what it does best—it went right back to business as usual.
By 2005, though, Ashcroft was out, and his replacement, Alberto Gonzales, was in. In his first public statement on a legal matter, the new AG declared he would be seeking to reinstate a 10-count federal obscenity indictment against Robert Zicari (aka Rob Black) and Janet Romano (aka Lizzy Borden), a San Fernando Valley couple, and their production company, Extreme Associates.
The company was well known for the extreme nature of its productions. During filming for a Frontline special on obscenity, a PBS crew had walked off the set of an Extreme movie, Forced Entry—a bloody rape-and-murder-themed tale inspired by the life and times of serial killer and serial rapist Richard Ramirez—ostensibly due to the untenably violent nature of what they were witnessing. When the program had aired, Zicari could be seen daring federal prosecutors to bust him. That another Extreme production, Ass Clowns 3, featured one Osama bin Laden leading his henchmen in the gang-raping of an American female reporter probably did not endear him to those in the Bush administration either. In 2003, the Department of Justice had taken Zicari up on his offer. The month before Gonzales had taken office, a federal judge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had dismissed the charges, declaring anti-obscenity laws unconstitutional. Now, the new attorney general was looking to turn the tables.
Later that year, the DoJ announced the formation of the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, which would be dedicated to the pursuit of obscenity prosecutions. Then, the FBI began recruiting for what The Washington Post snickeringly deemed a porn squad, the Adult Obscenity Squad, which would be focused on targeting manufacturers and purveyors of pornography. By years end, the charges against Zicari and Romano had been reinstated. It seemed Bushs much-touted war on porn had begun.
In 2006, JM Productions received its own 18-count federal obscenity indictment for Gag Factor 18, Filthy Things 6, Gag Factor 15, and American Bukkake 13. Powers had directed them all.
It was horrible. I was shocked, he recollects, shaking his head. With the market already in turmoil, this was the last thing he needed. Sales dropped as distributors, fearing busts for carrying potentially obscene product, steered clear of his product. Thanks to his work, his producers legal fees mounted. His once promising porn career wasnt looking so hot.
In 2007, the case went to trial in a Phoenix, Arizona courtroom. Federal agents had purchased the videos from Five Star Video, a Tempe video distributor and retailer, in hopes of trying the case before jurors less liberal-minded than those in, say, LA. This would be no small case: It was the OPTFs first frontline battle.
On the first day, in what amounted to a technicality, prosecutors were unable to prove JM Productions had sold the videos to Five Star Video. Norton walked a free man. If this was Bushs war on porn, it was off to an embarrassing start. In the end, Five Star Video was found guilty of interstate transportation of obscene materials for sending a copy of Gag Factor 18 to a FBI agent in Virginia, and sentenced to two years probation, a hollow victory for the U.S. government, surely.
By that point, Gonzales was gone, having departed in the wake of the scandalous dismissal of seven U.S. attorneys, several of whom had been blacklisted for having exhibited a distinct lack of interest in dedicating their budgets to what OPTF director Brent Ward insisted were good [obscenity] cases. Among those good cases was what would become the failed prosecution of JM.
Regardless, the OPTF soldiered onward. In 2007, Ira Isaacs, a 56-year-old, LA-based producer and distributor of scat and bestiality videos (one hopes Gang Bang Horse (Pony Sex Game) does not ring a bell) was indicted on obscenity charges. But the 2008 trial turned into a media circus when it was revealed presiding Judge Alex Kozinski maintained a publicly accessible website that included explicit content (example: a nude woman painted as a cow). Today, the case languishes in legal limbo. In 2008, John The Buttman Stagliano was indicted on federal obscenity charges. No trial date has been set yet. Late last year, the OPTF finally scored a hard-won win when a Tampa jury found Max Hardcore (aka Paul Little) —a towheaded, cowboy hat-wearing 52-year-old adult director with an unfortunate predilection for having of-age, bepigtailed porn stars claim underage status on camera, women he then penetrates with speculums and upon whom he urinates—guilty on a slew of obscenity-related charges. Currently, Little is serving a 46-month stretch at the Metropolitan Detention Center in scenic downtown Los Angeles. On July 1st, Zicari and Romano, looking to put an end to their unending legal case and legal costs, pled guilty to violating federal obscenity laws and were sentenced to one year and one day each for their respective pornographic transgressions.
Thus far, its not altogether clear how interested the Obama administration is in cracking down on obscenity. The general assessment: not very. If the obscenity trials induced a chilling effect on the Valley, history suggests basking in the warm glow of a liberal president wholly uninterested in obscenity prosecutions will heat things back up in the Valley in no time.
They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They? Words & photos by Susannah Breslin. Logo & design by Chris Bishop. Copyright 2009 HOME CREDITS