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from www.forbes.com -“They want to put me in jail, basically.”
That’s how porn director John Stagliano responds when I ask him what he thinks of the 2012 GOP platform, in particular one newly added sentence:
“Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”
Two years ago, Stagliano was sitting in a Washington, D.C., courtroom, charged with seven counts of distributing obscenity.
Today, he’s a free man, after federal court judge Richard J. Leon “dismissed with prejudice” several of the counts and for the remaining counts “granted the defendants’ motion for judgment of acquittal under Rule 29.”
But an anti-porn crusader says Mitt Romney has vowed if he’s elected president, he’ll ramp up obscenity prosecutions, a task President Obama has shown little interest in pursuing.
According to Patrick Trueman, who ran the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section at the Department of Justice under President Reagan and President George H. W. Bush and who now runs Morality in Media, an anti-porn organization, Romney intends to launch a war on porn.
In a meeting with Alex Wong, Romney’s foreign and legal policy director, Trueman says Wong told him, “Romney is sincere about this. He’s convinced this has now had a terrible effect on society, and he will enforce the law.”
And that means pornographers like Stagliano could become targets once again.
“I don’t really want to go to jail,” Stagliano says. “I’ve got a two-year-old son. And I have a daughter, as well. I don’t think she’d like that either.”
In 2007, Romney swore that if he were elected president, he would put a porn filter on every computer.
As Stagliano, a Libertarian who plans to vote for Gary Johnson, sees it, an administration that seeks to legislate its constituents’ morality is the real threat.
“My morality would be based on, as long as you don’t harm somebody, anything should be permitted,” Stagliano tells me. “The government can’t solve our problems.”
As Trueman sees it, porn is a scourge, and the current status is “pandemic.”
“When I was at the Department of Justice, we were vigorously prosecuting this, and the reason why is because people were demanding it,” he recalls.
Today, porn is ubiquitous, and “The nature of today’s pornographers have changed,” Trueman says. “What you’ve got are the white collar pornographers. These companies know there’s hundreds of millions to be made.”
X-rated content has proved lucrative for big businesses like hotel chains not typically associated with porn. In his bid for the presidential seat, Romney resigned from the board of the Marriott hotel chain, with which he has close ties, and Marriott has announced its intention to phase out adult content.
Trueman believes porn is eroding the very fiber that holds America together: ruining marriages, altering brains, breaking down inhibitions.
“You’ll never do away with all of it, but we have an untreated pandemic of harm, and you have to do something about it,” he pronounces.
Ask Santa Monica-based Roger Diamond what he thinks of devoting more government dollars to obscenity prosecutions, and he’ll tell you, “Oh, that’s really a waste of money.”
For the last five years, Diamond has represented Ira Isaacs, a Los Angeles-based pornographer the Bush administration’s now-disbanded Obscenity Prosecution Task Force at the DoJ indicted for distributing and producing scat and bestiality videos.
Earlier this year, Isaacs was convicted, despite his arguments, through multiple trials, that his eye-popping videos were not obscene, but art.
What it obscene?
Potter Stewart said, “I know it when I see it“; the Miller Test sought to locate it. To be found obscene, and therefore not protected by the First Amendment, a work must appeal to prurient interests according to community standards, depict sexual activity in an offensive way, and be wholly lacking in scientific, artistic, political or literary value.
Some may say Isaacs’ oeuvre is beyond the pale, but that doesn’t mean he should be imprisoned for it, Diamond argues.
“I find it personally offensive,” Diamond confesses when I ask him what he thinks of Isaacs’ movies, “but I think people have the right to produce it and watch it. I think that’s essential to our freedom.”
Not only do obscenity prosecutions squander resources, “It would also put a chill in Southern California,” Diamond says. “The economy in Southern California is based in a large part on the adult film industry. They employ a lot of people.”
When I reach Isaacs, he’s awaiting sentencing.
I interviewed him several years ago. Back then, he was nearly elated at the prospect of a courtroom battle over his right to create what he called “shock art” and which he compared to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Now he sounds defeated, almost broken.
“They wore me down,” he admits.
I ask him how he felt when he was convicted this spring.
“It was very, very surreal obviously,” Isaacs says. “I’ve always likened myself to Josef K. from [Kafka’s] The Trial, and his fate at the end wasn’t so good either. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t shocked. It’s almost not about you anymore. It’s, like, outside you. It’s like a surreal view of myself.”
Guilty on five counts, Isaacs speculates he could be sentenced to five to seven years for each count.
How does he feel about going to prison at 61?
“It’s a big adventure when you do big political things like I did,” he says. “These are the risks you have to take. I have to do the time. I accept the responsibility. And if that means going to prison, I do it. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t scare me.”
As for regrets, “I regret not putting enough Bach music behind the movies,” he announces. “My only regrets are artistic regrets.”
Stagliano estimates he spent around $900,000 defending himself. And Isaacs?
“I’m totally broke,” he laments. “I’m convicted. I’m being evicted. I’ve pretty much run out of money. I have no income, and I can’t seem to get past that. And that’s what’s frustrating. Who’s going to hire a felon who’s going to be in prison in two months?”
Despite the fact that his “2 Girls 1 Cup” defense didn’t work, he’s trying to focus on the bright side.
“Who knows how it turns out,” he says. “I might be writing a book and become the darling of late night TV. I think if I’m in prison, I’ll have plenty of time to write it. I think it would make a good story. There’s sex in it. The media’s in it. I think it has all the things for at least a TV movie.”
Isaacs has spoken with Max Hardcore — real name: Paul Little — who spent two years in prison for distributing his notoriously provocative brand of pornographic content that a Tampa, Florida, jury deemed obscene.
“He was very encouraging,” Isaacs relates. “‘Prison’s not so bad.’ Max is a great guy.”
Isaacs mentions Martha Stewart. “If all these people can get through it,” he decides. “I think I’ll get through it just fine.”
I ask Isaacs if he thinks he went too far.
“I don’t think I went far enough,” he declares.
Until his sentencing, he has plenty of time to ponder an art installation he’d like to do. Visitors to a gallery enter a room, where his explicit videos are playing on the walls. A video camera records the observers’ reactions as they watch, and the footage of their responses is streamed live on the internet and projected onto the front exterior wall of the gallery.
Meanwhile, the industry’s performers are considering their votes carefully.
Lisa Ann is best known for portraying Sarah Palin in an adult video titled “Who’s Nailin’ Palin?”
During the Republican National Convention, she performed her Palin routine at a Tampa, Florida, strip club called Thee DollHouse.
“It was a perfect weekend,” she says. “It’s a very simple costume, but it’s something that everyone enjoys, whether they find it funny or really liked Palin.”
I ask if she’s considered performing as Ann Romney.
“The only two people I’ve done are Sarah Palin and Tina Fey,” she says. “After that point, I was like, I want to leave my parodies right here. I don’t want to beat a dead horse.”
Come November, she’ll be casting her vote for Obama.
“I think Romney wants to take us back about 125 years,” she says. She has faith her audience will prevail at the polls. “That voter who votes also watches porn, and that voter doesn’t want to lose their right watch porn.”
Porn star Sovereign Syre, who’s been in the business about a year and only does girl-girl scenes, is more philosophical about the matter.
I ask if she’s familiar with the 2012 GOP platform.
“Their Mein Kampf?” she asks.
In recent years, the definition of pornographer has changed, and the porn star who used to go to the San Fernando Valley to find XXX fame can become a sex star on the internet from the privacy of her own home with the right web cam girl handle.
Now producing adult content herself, Syre is aware a new regime could make her a target for federal prosecutors.
As part of Darling House, a collective that produces adult content and bills itself as “The Other American Dream,” Syre is part of a new generation of digital pornographers who “find themselves having to navigate” this new porn world.
“When someone like Romney says they’re going to tackle obscenity, that scares me,” Syre confesses. “People go to jail for years. The consequences are very real.”
In her view, the porn industry regulates itself. “We’ve created our own system of checks and balances,” she says. “There’s already self-regulation in place.”
That said, not all is well in Porn Valley. The proliferation of free, pirated adult content on the web, the recession, and a series of debates over condom usage and STDs in the industry have hurt porn’s bottom line.
“Porn is an industry that’s seriously in trouble,” she says. “It’s going through a massive restructuring. A new business model has to emerge, but no one knows what that’s going to be.”
Syre is convinced that “trying to legislate porn when [people are] posting naked photos of themselves on Twitter” is a waste of time and resources that’s woefully out of sync with our times. “Caligula would blush at what you can download for free on your computer.”
In the end, she says, porn people are like everyone else and working in porn is just another job.
“We’re not alien mutant creatures,” she tells me. “We’re normal people, and this is a job. As much as people want to rally against porn, nearly everyone I’ve met in my life has consumed it at least once.”
Prosecutions, she says, could drive porn underground, and the outcome would be dire.
“If it all goes underground, performers are putting their health at risk, and, just like any industry, you’re going to have outlaws there,” she warns. “The product is going to get more degrading and weird because no one will self-regulate.”
Porn will never die, Syre says, “it’s just going to become increasingly dangerous” if Romney gets elected and his administration heads to the Valley and starts hunting pornographers.