Review of World Pornography Conference

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Copyright (c) 1998 David Steinberg

Index subjects: World Pornography Conference; Pornography

It was the third in a series of conferences sponsored by the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge -- all with the same basic concept: bring the academics and press people together with the people they study and write about, so that each can benefit from the other's particular perspective. Last year the topic was prostitution, before that it was transgenderism.

This year, Center directors James Elias and Vern Bullough turned their attention to pornography. With the co-sponsorship of the adult entertainment industry's Free Speech Coalition, they brought to L.A.'s Sheraton Universal Hotel (just down the street from Universal Studios) 650 academics, First Amendment lawyers, porn stars, producers and directors, and a mad gaggle of 130 media bloodhounds hungry for salacious photo opportunities and provocative sound bites. It was the World Pornography Conference: Eroticism and the First Amendment.

The result, despite a few serious organizational glitches, was a delightfully enjoyable celebration of the public presentation of unbounded sexuality, substantially seasoned with serious reflection and valuable information exchange. Workshop topics ranged panoramically from "Visionary Erotic and Pornography" to "Masturbatory Catharsis for the Masses," from "Gender, Feminism, and Sexuality" to "Al Goldstein Presents Al Goldstein on Al Goldstein," from "Victorian Pornography" to "The Scope of the Internet Market," from "The Role of the Expert Witness in Pornography Cases" to "The Gonzo Phenomenon: Porno Veriti in Pursuit of the Truth of Pleasure."

For the assembled clan of some of the adult entertainment industry's more thoughtful and politically-minded people, there was also the valuable experience of being assembled as a community, together in one place, sharing notes, experiences, and -- given the wide span of age between the experienced veterans and the upcoming youngsters (Gloria Leonard noted in one plenary that "I have implants older than most of you here") -- providing a good dose of intergenerational perspective as well. As several of the younger women, men, and transsexuals commented, just being in contact with the older people who had most successfully negotiated the tricky emotional, sexual, and interpersonal terrain of being sexual entertainers, provided a valuable sense of grounding and role modeling. Indeed, industry veterans such as Leonard, Richard Pacheco, Veronica Vera, Annie Sprinkle, Bill Margold, and Candida Royalle were delighted to offer the bright-eyed new generation of performers the kind of parental wisdom and insight that could only come from what Leonard called "the rarefied stratum of people who have brains and also like sex."

The conference keynote address was given by Nadine Strossen, National President of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was, in her terms, a pep talk to the people who have, for decades, been battling for free expression, not only for the benefit of sexual entertainers, but for all the rest of society as well. "People keep asking me," Strossen said, "why I keep defending pornography. I keep defending pornography," she explained simply, "because so many people keep attacking it." Offering a voice of encouragement in difficult times, Strossen reminded the conference that the fight for freedom of expression continues to have important victories. In the recent spate of cases involving attempts to censor Internet communications, for example, she pointed out, all 19 Federal judges who have heard cases have voted to strike down cybersex suppression laws.

Indeed, listening to the lawyers who have argued some of the most significant First Amendment cases over the past forty years, it was good to remember that, again and again, even in the most conservative of times, legal battles to defend free expression have been successful. On a plenary panel on "The War Stories: Some Cases that Shaped Issues of Obscenity," Burt Joseph spoke of his successful defenses of Lenny Bruce, Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer, and Playboy's right to unbiased treatment in the Library of Congress; Louis Sirkin told of his defense of Robert Mapplethorpe's police-raided exhibit in Cincinnati; and Marjorie Hines detailed her recent success in overturning the Communications Decency Act. An awards luncheon provided an opportunity for the conference to honor pioneer First Amendment lawyer Stanley Fleishman for his decades of brilliant First Amendment litigation as well.

Another plenary panel, "Pornography: A World Perspective," documented the growing international liberalization of laws relating to the distribution of sexual material that has accompanied the overthrow of various authoritarian governments. Slawek Starosta noted that there has been substantial liberalization since the 1989 Peaceful Revolution in Poland, where the legal basis for regulation of sexual information has shifted from an attitude of moral rectitude to one of concern for the connection between sexual material and sex crimes. Where all sexual material was once banned, the only pornography now illegal in Poland, he said, is that which involves children, violence, and animals.

Dr. Seregey Agarkov, General Secretary of the Russian Sexological Association, spoke of a similar shift in perspective in Russia, where progress and backsliding has paralleled shifts in power between old line Communists and post-Gorbachev reformers. A broad reform law allowing distribution of all pornography except that involving children has been making its way through the Russian judicial process since 1995, and is expected to finally become law by the end of this year. "Then," Agarkov noted dryly through a translator, "Russia will [at last] be a civilized country" with regard to the distribution and availability of sexual material and information.

Porn actress Christie Lake, reporting on her participation in the recent opening of the first stores to openly sell sexual toys and erotic material in post-Apartheid South Africa, noted that despite vigorous protests from religious groups, the new stores have the support of the government, are thriving, and are significantly helping South African women become more aware of and committed to the right to their own pleasure in sexual relations.

Some of the conference's warmest moments came as industry veterans spoke of their personal histories and feelings about their work. Annie Sprinkle, whose mother attended the conference and was warmly received by the audience, spoke of a long process of trying to explain the importance and validity of her work to her parents, and of how she is finally gaining their understanding by drawing the parallel between her work and the civil rights struggle they have long supported themselves. Howie Gordon received a heartfelt standing ovation when he took the closing session of the conference through a poignant memorial service for his porn film persona, Richard Pacheco, now some 15 years into reluctant retirement.

While many of the 58 concurrent workshops offered predictable preaching to the converted, many provided interesting new information on everything ranging from the nuts and bolts of producing sexual websites in your home, to the history of pornography in both ancient and modern times, to the effects of pornography on sexually dysfunctional men. Eric Schaefer gave a thorough and fascinating description of how early sexploitation films served as a bridge from early, non-sexual porn to the fully explicit films and videos of the late 1970's. Gretchen Soderlund detailed the process through which feminist protests of newspaper ads soliciting clients for prostitutes in Champaign, Illinois, resulted in a police crackdown on prostitution and strip clubs alike. Patti Britton reported her study which showed that porn films directed by women directors were almost identical to those directed by men, as measured by 65 different variables, with the notable exception of films by Candida Royalle's Femme Distribution. Molly Merryman documented that, in contrast to reports in the press, the vast majority of feminists support the free distribution of pornography and oppose the well-publicized attempts by a small feminist fringe to suppress it. She went on to note, however, that throughout its history the feminist movement has repeatedly exiled women who have advocated for women's sexual pleasure, whenever that advocacy has conflicted with other feminist goals, such as electoral enfranchisement or the economic betterment of women.

What was missing from the conference, by accident or design, was any real sense of conflict, debate, or seriously differing points of view. This was acknowledged in the conference program, where the organizing committee noted that "efforts to secure participants from the anti-pornography side were met with refusal and [claims to] prior commitments." This pointedly confirmed Nadine Strossen's stories of anti-pornography spokespeople like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin consistently refusing to debate free speech advocates publicly. Thus, says Strossen, MacKinnon went so far as to retract an essay from an anthology on pornography rather than appear in the same book as Strossen. In another instance, Strossen reported, MacKinnon insisted successfully that Strossen be disinvited from addressing the National Association of Women Judges, insisting that she (MacKinnon) would refuse to appear if Strossen were on the program.

Nevertheless, one has to wonder whether more serious efforts could have been made to include opposing, or at least more diverse, points of view. Critical views of pornography are not necessarily hostile, nor are they limited to the extreme anti-porn activists of the MacKinnon-Dworkin camp. Yet criticism, or even substantial discussion of some of the more problematic aspects of pornography was all but absent from conference sessions. Perhaps, in the end, the organizers preferred a conference that could unambiguously celebrate the virtues of pornography to one embracing more conflicting points of view.

In addition to the workshop sessions, of course, there was also a broad spectrum of performance art of all sorts, from playfully comic to professionally polished. A Thursday night "Pornocopia" by "Players in the Field" gave dozens of performers opportunities to sing, act, strip, show home movies, and talk about why adult entertainment has been important in their lives.

Hosts Candida Royalle and Annie Sprinkle showed films and photos of their early lives and fantasies. Carol Queen's performance piece spoke of what it's like to work at a peep show. Richard Pacheco (assisted by Kelly Nichols) offered a mini-drama of what it was like telling his father that he made sex movies. Nina Hartley spoke warmly of her work and performed a dance that just barely stayed within the evening's prohibition on nudity. Veronica Vera showed film clips of her powerful testimony before the United States Senate. Geoffrey Karen Dior led a group sexual romp on stage. Dr. Susan Block pronounced Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr Pornographer of the Year. Daren Silverman performed "The Porno Stand." And stripper-turned-singer Candye Kane stole the show with her powerful blues/gospel voice and unapologetically bountiful body, brilliantly accompanied by pianist Sue Palmer.

Friday night's "Night of the Stars," a gala $125-a-head, black-tie-optional fund-raiser for the Free Speech Coalition, was its own form of performance art, giving camera buffs from high-tech media crews to gawking amateurs ample opportunity to capture on film dozens of glitzed-out glamor queens in all their over-the-top splendor. Unfortunately, due to severe organizational confusion, Saturday night's scheduled presentation of the winners of the conference Erotic Film Festival, was canceled at the last minute.

Nevertheless, in terms of its goal of providing an opportunity for people with varying perspectives on pornography to assemble and cross-fertilize, the World Pornography Conference was a roaring success. Media coverage, which included the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, MTV, and Reuters -- as well as Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, and yours truly from Spectator -- was, for the most part, respectful. Mike Horner's comment to conference academics at the closing plenary session might just as well have been addressed to the conference itself. "Thank you," he said, "for helping us become more of the mainstream."

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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