SEX IN THE CROSSHAIRS: THE DANGEROUS STATE OF SMUT

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LIP SERVICE WEB MAGAZINE

In recent months, the professional world of sin and debauchery has seen major challenges from its not-so-naughty counterparts in the mainstream. As our culture moves toward a more free-wheeling online Wild West of sex, the aspiring censors of all things fun have lined up to charge in with guns blazing in a misguided attempt to ‘clean up Dodge’ and make all we see ‘safe’ (or at least SFW). On several fronts, creators of erotic works now face the possibility of rather dire consequences in their legal, professional, and economic lives.

The situation which has gotten the most attention, at least here in L.A., is the new regulations for porn production jammed through by the City Council.  In sum, the law requires porn productions working under a shooting permit to use condoms during all sex scenes. Since Los Angeles is estimated to host about 90 percent of porn shot in the U.S., how this situation plays out is considered to have significant long-term ramifications for the future of adult entertainment.

No matter which side of the condom fence you’re on, the reality is the regulations, as written, are flawed law with even more flawed logic and execution. So, even if you’re all for required condoms on all porn sets, the new requirements do virtually nothing to make that happen. A huge logic gap looms which makes the law all but useless, as well as patently unfair, built into the mechanism that sets the wheels in motion. For the law to apply, a production would need to have filed for a shooting permit.

Here are some numbers to put perspective on how ineffectual the basis for the law is … though up to 50,000 dirty movies are made in L.A. and the San Fernando Valley each year, Los Angeles only issues about 200 permits for porn shoots per month, less than 5 percent of production. A lot of porn is shot either in studios, which don’t require permits for shooting, or, in the case of small/indie shoots, can often be done guerilla style. Let’s be realistic, most porn shoots are not major technical and logistical undertakings like a mainstream location set might be. One can generally shoot on the fly in any random house without ever alerting or disrupting the neighbors–and that’s precisely what the law is encouraging to happen even more than it presently does. Large to mid-sized productions can afford to rent studio space and even larger ones can have their own studios, so they skate on the law, too, albeit legally. The permit requirement to trigger the condom law amounts to quite a big loophole for porn to slip through, even under the best circumstances.

Ask yourself, if one can either afford a studio or get away with guerilla shooting, why in the name of all that’s dirty would porn producers want to hassle with permits, especially when doing it by-the-book paints a target on their back? The only logical answer is, they don’t and probably won’t.

In all honesty, at this point the law is sketchy at best, anyway. As it crawls into its first months of existence, no decisions have been announced regarding what exactly will be required or how it would be enforced. If condoms are required, will dental dams and other barriers be required, too? Will there be substance requirements for the condoms (as some options are not effective in preventing HIV transmission) and, if latex were to be required, wouldn’t that effectively ban all performers with allergies from practicing their profession? Once past these issues, there’s the not-so-small matter of precisely how the law will be enforced and who will pay for that enforcement?

Even if all these issues can be sorted, which is a bet with very slim odds, what’s the plan for bringing the rest of the adult industry of Los Angeles in line? Surely, there must be one, if all parties involved are acting in good faith and in line with their public positions. The matter has been presented as a “health and safety” issue, so how can it be perfectly fine for performers working in studios to keep riding bareback? At that stage, would it even matter, since expansion of such regulations would most likely instigate a mass exodus, making the whole thing a moot point? If push indeed comes to shove, why wouldn’t porn simply up and leave L.A., taking their substantial pile of money with them, to a location where it’s easier to do business without undue interference?

Reviewing the situation logically, the whole matter seems little more than a massive boondoggle.

Obviously, somebody (*cough* L.A. City Council *cough*) leaped before looking, didn’t they? All in all, the way the thing has been shaking out, the law has all the threat of a toothless lap dog yapping at you from behind a screen door. Though it’s one of the more publicized issues, it’s probably the least potentially damaging, regardless of how much porn complains. It’s a slap, to be sure, but a principally symbolic one. The story is worth following, to see how it all ends, but the world of smut doesn’t have too much to worry about for the time being.

On the other hand, those who’ve performed in or written adult entertainment have plenty to fear. Just ask former adult performers Tericka Dye (who was in some porn about 15–YES 15!–years ago), Kevin Hogan, Shawn Loftis (who has by time of publishing finally been reinstated–hooray Florida), and an as-yet-to-be-named teacher right here in Southern California. Even with a stage name, former performers have found themselves at the business end of witch hunts and public shaming, not to mention loss of their jobs, when they’ve had the temerity to move on with their lives and choose to give back to their communities through the often-thankless job of teaching. How dare they live and work, like normal people, parading around like they have a right to not face constant ridicule and shunning, right?

If you think producing smut with neither name nor face in the public eye is safe, ask erotic romance writer Judy Buranich. Buranich, a high school teacher of almost 25 years in Middleburg Pennsyvania, was threatened with the loss of her job if she continues to write smutty novels (under the pseudonym of Judy Mays). By all reports, Ms. Buranich is an excellent teacher and never let her saucy side-line intrude on her day job, but that’s apparently not enough for the meddling moms of Middleburg. They went on the warpath, even going so far as to allude to accusations of pedophilia … just because the nice middle-aged lady writes some sweat books. Fortunately, Ms. Buranich has a huge base of support, led by former students, so should come out of this ridiculous episode relatively unharmed (and perhaps with a nice mountain of dirty book sales, too). But, we should all be given pause by the implications of this sort of case. Now, even just imagining wild sex can get you fired … if you’re too good at it.

Speaking of erotic fiction, the erotica category at your book store has come under a bit of fire, as well. The trouble began with Bookstrand. The smallish independent/traditional publishing platform caught itself in the focus of the Eye of (Sauron? No, but equally vile and heartless.) Paypal. Those who live and work inside the wonderful world of smut are no strangers to the Paypal corporate censorship playbook and their most recent shenanigans follow the usual S.O.P. The payment processing giant swooped in, hurling all manner of threats–mainly that they’ll freeze Bookstrand’s accounts and take their money–if their demands–mainly to remove certain erotica niches from their content–weren’t met, immediately. Bookstrand, wanting to keep their own money, caved to every Paypal demand and, as a result, demanded that their independent authors remove any and all books in the erotica category with the now-taboo subjects.

What were they? Most of the no-nos will shock no one, as they’re the usual rogue’s gallery of illegal sex. Bestiality, pedophilia, incest, rape, non-consentual BDSM, blah, blah. The biggest and possibly only surprises were the inclusion of absolutely legal (or at least, in the one case, not actually possible in reality) fetishes: supernatural bestiality (my phrase to describe sex scenes where shape-shifters are getting it on, but not in human form) and pseudo-incest (think Greg and Marcia or, more to the point of the lion’s share of pseudo-incest titles, imagine an all-grown-up Marcia and not-quite-her-Daddy Mike Brady, family in some sense but not actually blood related).

Many authors tried to comply, while others let Bookstrand do the work of pulling their titles. Either way, it was a shock to the system and, when push came to shove, it wasn’t over with erotica. Shortly after Bookstrand announced they would be reopening after the purge, they completely eliminated the entire Independent section. Yes, you read that right. Bookstrand followed up the corporate censorship by Paypal by cutting off all indie authors, erotica and mainstream alike.

Harmless TV show or seething hotbed of future pseudo-incest fantasies? You be the judge!

But Paypal wasn’t done yet, not by a long-shot. After their staggering victory against Bookstrand, the official killers of sexy buzz felt their oats and were ready to aim their next campaign at a larger, more visible target.

Gathering up all their (unofficial) monopoly juice, the merry band of censors turned toward Smashwords. As a publishing platform that doubles as an e-book distributor to other giants like Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, and Kobo, Mark Coker’s brainchild was a major “get”. Paypal pulled out their usual song and dance and, in the first flush, won as usual. But, there’s a little wrinkle, a fly in the smut purge ointment; Mark Coker, the man behind Smashwords, is an independent author himself and has enlisted a veritable Who’s-Who of free-speech heavy hitters to keep the fight against censorship alive and thriving. He may have had to keep his business fluid, so needed to capitulate in the short-term, but it’s obvious Coker is not taking Paypal’s karmic rape laying down.
** See update below! **

Paypal may have finally pushed the wrong button. If you want smooth obeisance to censorship in any form, the last guys you want involved are writers. They take that sort of shit personally … and very vocally. They may have won the skimishes, but Paypal has inspired a continual stream of eloquent calls to arms … against them. All one needs do is search Paypal + Smashwords to find a virtually endless supply.

The war over free expression in commerce is far from over.

Bear in mind, the subjects being sliced and diced out of entire swaths of the online publishing universe might not be your cup of tea. In fact, these niches might squick the hell out of everyone reading this article, but that’s kind of the point. It shouldn’t matter. In a free society, it can’t matter. That’s what Smashwords and its founder believe, and rightly so.

We don’t need to agree with the material being censored but, if we do indeed put our ‘tolerance’ money where our ‘freedoms’ mouth is, we must agree to let it be published and distributed with the other erotica niches, all the same.

What’s ahead for always-embattled sin and debauchery? Time can only tell. As we head into this contentious election year, there’s no telling what chicanery the enemies of sexy fun have up their sleeves. We can only man the barricades and prepare for the siege.

Keep your powder dry, friends, because it looks like we’re going to need it.

** GREAT NEWS! Just after this article was published, Smashwords’ Mark Coker sent an email to their authors to share the exceptional news that THE WRITERS WON! Paypal ceded entirely, prompted by an online media and social network shitstorm of protest against them, and Smashwords’ content guidelines will return to what they were before the whole Paypal debacle. Hence legal acts will no longer be banned from their published content. Congratulations to The Good Guys! **

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