Xtreme Measures

Washington's new crackdown on pornography.

Only the man himself can say for certain, but I'm pretty sure that Attorney General John Ashcroft would disapprove of the Realdoll, a life-size $5,999 sex dummy that boasts "a completely articulated skeleton which allows for anatomically correct positioning." Nor, I imagine, would he have any kind words for the Extreme Bonk'er™ sex trapeze, the mango-scented Cum-Kleen personal wipes, or the thousands of hardcore videotapes and DVDs that are for sale here at the Adult Entertainment Expo, a bustling trade show for sexual entrepreneurs sponsored by the adult video trade magazine AVN in January at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

Perhaps what Ashcroft would find most distressing about the event, however, is the crowd it has attracted. Elsewhere at the Venetian, in the casino's own Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum, where Picassos and Manets adorn walls designed by prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas, admission is only $15, but there are few takers. At the Adult Entertainment Expo, it's a different story. The show is open to fans as well as those in the business, and by noon hundreds of people are standing in line for tickets, ready to hand over $40 for a chance to meet the stars of Weapons of Ass Destruction 2, The Incredible Gulp, and other X-rated fare.

Ultimately, nearly 16,000 fans will attend the four-day show. Those in line today attest to the democratizing power of double-penetration videos: Businessmen toting expensive digital cameras stand next to leather-clad bikers, who stand next to frat dudes in baseball caps and sports jerseys. There are whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos here, and many of them are female. There are people in wheelchairs, aging hippies, bespectacled lesbian hipsters, curious tourists, a member of the Backstreet Boys, and Mike Tyson. The only other place where such diversity flourishes is at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Inside the show, it's one giant gang hug as packs of happy fans pose for snapshots with half-dressed porn stars. The biggest draw, though, is Larry Flynt, arch-nemesis of Jerry Falwell, numerous federal prosecutors, and propriety in general. Dressed in a crisp navy blazer, his head as big and waxy as any senator's, Flynt signs copies of Hustler for an endless procession of admirers with efficient magnanimity. For a man who claims to have lost his virginity to a chicken, he looks remarkably statesmanlike.

A few dozen yards away, in a small, no-frills exhibition booth, a pair of less beloved pornographers holds court. Robert Zicari, known in the industry as Rob Black, is a stocky 30-year-old who looks like he could play the role of, say, Wiseguy No. 3 on The Sopranos. He wears a black velour tracksuit with white piping and white high-top sneakers, and his dark, auburn-tinged hair is cut short on the sides and longer and somewhat spiky on top. He has a trim goatee, a wide face, and an air of restless, Barnumesque intelligence, always figuring angles and always looking for opportunities to stir things up.

His wife Janet, known in the industry as Lizzy Borden, has long, bleached blonde hair and the enigmatic smile of a slutty Mona Lisa. At 26, she's already a six-year porn veteran, starting out as a performer in the late 1990s, then switching to directing after she started to date Zicari. Under the banner of their company, Extreme Associates, the pair are known for producing material that even fellow pornographers find objectionable. Their videos are products of a jaded, hypermediated era: explicit porn coupled with the over-the-top gore of slasher movies and the stunts and gross-out spectacles of reality TV. In the Extreme universe, women drink viscous cocktails of semen, spit, and other bodily fluids. Dead fish are considered sex toys. U.S. Marines save a female reporter from Osama bin Laden, then rape her themselves after cutting off Bin Laden's head. Jesus comes down off the cross and rapes an angel.

God has yet to render judgment on that particular blasphemy, but others are showing less patience. Decorating the Extreme Associates booth at the Adult Expo is a poster of Janet Zicari posing inside a boxing ring, ready to battle in fishnet stockings, a skimpy, cut-off T-shirt, and fists swathed in Everlast hand-wraps. "Fight for your right to watch porn," the poster urges in bold red print. In smaller print, on a ring card announcing the next bout in the never-ending Culture Wars, the text reads "Lizzy Borden vs. Mary Beth."

"Mary Beth" is Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. On August 7, 2003, Buchanan announced that a Pittsburgh federal grand jury had indicted the Zicaris on 10 counts of violating federal obscenity laws. Social conservatives hope and civil libertarians fear that this case marks a new stage in Washington's crackdown on pornography, a sign that Ashcroft's Department of Justice is -- take your pick -- a champion of traditional values or a threat to free expression.

The Zicaris face a more concrete threat: They each face maximum sentences of 50 years in prison and $2.5 million fines. By comparison, the maximum sentence for actual rape in Pennsylvania is 20 years.

Destroying Civilization...Again

Although the First Amendment promises that Congress "shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech," obscenity prosecutions are almost as old as the nation itself. In 1815 six citizens of Pennsylvania were tried and convicted for privately exhibiting, for money, "a certain lewd, wicked, scandalous, infamous and obscene painting, representing a man in an obscene, impudent and indecent posture with a woman." In 1842 the first federal law against obscenity was passed, and in subsequent decades several more were added to the books.

But what was it, exactly, that qualified certain books and pictures as obscene? In 1868 an English case, Regina v. Hicklin, established a test that was ultimately adopted in the United States as well: If a work had the power to "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences," it was obscene and therefore illegal. This definition evolved over time until 1973, when, in the course of ruling on the case Miller v. California (which reaffirmed that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity), Chief Justice Warren Burger established a three-part test for determining obscenity that was so jurisprudentially limber that it has managed to survive for more than 30 years. To be considered obscene, Burger wrote, a work had to appeal to the prurient interest as determined by "the average person, applying contemporary community standards"; it had to depict or describe sexual conduct in a "patently offensive" way; and, taken as a whole, it had to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

While Burger also offered some advice on what general types of material might qualify as obscene, he ultimately left final determinations in the hands of jurors, so that individual communities could apply their own local standards on a case-by-case basis. In effect, then, the Miller test permits everything and nothing. A jury in California might decide a specific work is perfectly legal, while a jury in another state might say the same work is obscene.

In an age of suicide jets and anthrax spam, obscenity cases feel faintly anachronistic, the comfort crimes of the legal system. If prosecutors still have time to punish Americans for thoughtcrime, bad taste, or simply a robust instinct for overexposure, the world can't be that close to Armageddon.

Those who take it upon themselves to ensure the nation's moral fitness have a different perspective, of course. They blame pornography for divorce, the dissolution of families, the debasement of sex, and general spiritual dissolution. If left unchecked, they suggest, it's a cultural virus that has the same capacity to destroy America as a thousand suitcase nukes.

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  • Debra||

    Please do something about the Porn in America it is on the TV,and magizines even in childrens shows we have to see skin.Please,Please help us wives and children and grandmothers,in the US.We all deserve better from what we have all struggled to achieve and become ,good wives,mothers ,daughters,business owners and to have to face this is unexceptable.Not to be able to watch a normal show on normal TV without butts or boobs or some act of sex,would be so extremely appreciated by us all.Help our tomarrows children and give them,a sex free on TV and porn free world to suceed and have famlies therselves.Please help us.

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