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Porn’s highs and lows

Mainstream as it might be, it still has dirty little secrets

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It girl porn actress Sasha Grey strikes a pose at AEE.
Photo: Sarah Feldberg

Scan the newspaper headlines, and you might think these are boom times for porn stars. Sasha Grey, whom Rolling Stone certified as “the dirtiest girl in the world,” is moonlighting as a serious actor in Steven Soderbergh’s art-house meditation on our hyper-commodified culture, The Girlfriend Experience. Stormy Daniels, star of Tit Happens, Young and Anal and dozens more adult videos, is contemplating a 2010 Senate run in Louisiana and is currently engaged in a “listening tour” in the state.

Alas, it’s not all hip Hollywood premieres and political temperature-taking for the nation’s carnal professionals. On July 1, a federal judge is scheduled to sentence porn producers Robert Zicari and Janet Romano for conspiracy to distribute obscene material through the mail and over the Internet. Each faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

Sasha Grey on her First Time

Ironically, they got into this mess by not focusing on sex enough. In the 1990s, porn was changing. In the same way that low-cost video equipment had democratized porn production a decade earlier, the Internet was democratizing porn distribution. You no longer had to be a part of the industry to get your stuff to potential customers; you just had to set up a website. Suddenly, the kind of fringe stuff that the commercial porn industry had tended to avoid in the hope of discouraging obscenity prosecutions—urination, sadomasochism coupled with explicit sexual acts, themes of incest and rape—started showing up online.

And if you could find that kind of stuff online, some producers in the commercial porn industry wondered, why couldn’t you get it at your local adult video store too? Especially since, under the auspices of the Clinton administration, the Department of Justice was showing little interest in policing pornography unless it involved children?

Of course, it wasn’t just porn that was growing more extreme then; all pop culture was. It was the heyday of Marilyn Manson and Eminem, South Park, professional wrestling, Jackass, Fear Factor, World’s Wildest Police Videos, Girls Gone Wild, Tom Green and most of all, the Internet, where websites like Rotten.com and Stileproject.com were assembling vast visual libraries of any taboo or depravity that could be digitized: gruesome crime and accident scene photos, animal snuff, people disfigured by bizarre medical conditions.

It was, in short, a time when everyone from NBC executives to computer nerds living in their parents’ basements seemed determined to shock and provoke. Zicari and Romano entered the fray by pushing the boundaries of porn. Hollywood slasher films chopped nubile teens into pieces, so why couldn’t they simulate similar antics in their own efforts? Hollywood reality shows featured contestants eating pig rectums for money, so why couldn’t they engage in their own gross-out stunts?

In their movies, female performers (and the occasional male one) were slapped, spit on and verbally degraded. Rapes and murders were depicted. Vomit was vomited, then consumed again along with other bodily fluids. And of course, there was explicit hardcore sex. Had Zicari and Romano stuck just to rape and murder, with some titillating nudity to complement artful scenes of mutilation and dismemberment, as Hollywood does in movies like Hostel and House of 1000 Corpses, they could’ve avoided a lot of trouble. Likewise, had they just stuck with the hardcore sex and kept the violence and puke out of it.

By mixing these various elements, however, they earned a 10-count indictment on obscenity charges in 2003. In 2005, a federal judge dismissed the case against them, but the Department of Justice appealed and got it reinstated. A new trial was scheduled for March of this year, but when the government offered to reduce its case against them to a single count of conspiracy to distribute obscene material, Zicari and Romano pleaded guilty. They’d already spent seven years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the charges against them. A chance to finally settle the case with a relatively light sentence—the original 10-count indictment exposed them to a potential 50 years in prison—was apparently too good to pass up.

It should be noted that all the actors who appeared in the videos the government built its case around were professional adult actors, performing with their full consent, and that the federal government has never said otherwise. Instead, it simply spent the last seven years, thousands of man-hours, and who knows how many taxpayer dollars to essentially convict Zicari and Romano of bad taste. That may not be obscene, but it certainly is a little stomach-churning.

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