New York Confidential: Tell Giuliani: porn's greatest enemy is boredom

In many respects, the adult video industry resembles Hollywood at an earlier stage in its evolution
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The Independent Culture
PORNOGRAPHERS IN New York City have had a tough time lately. Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that a law passed by the City Council in 1995, preventing X-rated businesses from operating within 500ft of schools, churches or day-care centres, is legally enforceable.

Some owners of adult video shops have been struggling to stay open by replacing the majority of their stock with family fare.

The law defines an X-rated business as one in which more than 40 per cent of its merchandise is sex-related. However, this tactic doesn't appear to be working. A stroll down 42nd Street last week revealed that the vast majority of the city's porn parlours have already been boarded up.

I was shocked the first time I entered an adult video shop on 42nd Street. It was so clean and well-lit. I was used to buying porn videos in London where the good ones were illegal. You had to scuttle up dingy Soho alleyways in the dead of night and negotiate with hatchet-faced shopkeepers who kept these videos under the counter.

You're never quite sure what you're getting, either, since they all look like blank cassettes. I once asked for The Girls of Penthouse. The shopkeeper disappeared into the back and came out a few minutes later with a cassette which had "Penthouse" scrawled on it in black felt-tip pen. It turned out to be a spanking video of such low quality it could have been shot in the basement of the shop.

It cost pounds 25.

Paradoxically, though, I felt much more uncomfortable in "Adult World", or whatever it was called. Transactions which should have been furtive and discreet were taking place in the open, as if purchasing hard-core pornography was no different from buying a loaf of bread.

My attitude toward porn is similar to that of John Sparrow, the late Warden of All Souls who confessed to being a homosexual, but thought he ought to be severely punished if he was ever caught in the act.

It's by no means clear that New York's recent clampdown will have its intended effect. The historical evidence suggests that pornography thrives in repressive social climates and vice versa. After Denmark rescinded its obscenity laws in 1969 there was an initial increase in porn consumption followed by a long, steady decline.

Bern Kutchinsky of the University of Copenhagen, who studied the effects of legalising porn in Denmark for 25 years, reported in one research paper that "the most common immediate reaction to a one-hour pornography stimulation was boredom."

Boredom is certainly the most common reaction among my American friends. To admit to being shocked by porn would reveal a lack of worldliness. Yet I suspect that many of them have a secret stash of videos somewhere in their bedrooms - and thank God they're dishonest about it.

Porn still hovers on the edge of acceptability, stubbornly resisting gentrification. "The day we come out of the gutter is the day we go down the drain," says Bill Margold, a porn industry veteran.

The adult video industry's yearning for respectability is touchingly apparent at every level. This usually - laughably - takes the form of trying to be more like Hollywood. The stars aren't all called things like Linda Lovelace and Candy Samples. There's a Vanessa Del Rio, a Carolyn Monroe, and a Beatrice Valle.

Nora Louise Kuzma, when recording her first adult feature aged 15, chose the name Traci Lords, presumably a nod to the character played by Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story - there's pathos for you. The titles of porn films are often twists on mainstream movie titles - Close Encounters of the Carnal Kind, Frankenpenis, and Bone Alone. (There is even an actress named Lethal Weapons.)

The porn industry has its own Oscars - the Adult Video News Awards - and its own Walk of Fame outside the Pussycat Theatre in West Hollywood.

In many respects, the adult video industry resembles Hollywood at an earlier stage in its evolution. The most successful production companies - Vivid Video, VCA Pictures, Cal Vista - function like the big studios of old, putting their top stars under contract and rolling out product like the Ford Motor Company.

The American porn industry currently faces serious competition from European companies like Private, but in 30 years the world market will probably be dominated by a few corporate behemoths in Los Angeles.

Combing the shelves of places like "Adult World", the porn industry can seem like a model of entrepreneurial capitalism. Most of the 25,000 adult video shops in America are loosely sectionalised according to sexual taste, catering for every perversion. In the shop closest to me in the West Village, there is even a section devoted to pregnant women.

According to US News and World Report, the number of hard-core video rentals rose to 665 million in 1996, bringing the total amount Americans spent on pornography in 1996 to $8bn, considerably more than Hollywood's domestic box office receipts.

In the great tradition of robber-barons, some of the industry's wealthiest tycoons devote a considerable portion of their fortunes to fighting Washington. Reuben Sturman, who invented the automated peep show, was indicted on federal obscenity charges five times between 1964-84, but managed to avoid conviction on every count, on one occasion even suing J. Edgar Hoover (He died in prison last year while serving a 19-year sentence for tax evasion).

Larry Flynt risked his fortune when he appealed the $200,000 he was ordered to pay Jerry Falwell for "emotional distress" all the way up to the Supreme Court. Flynt has pledged himself to rescinding the obscenity laws altogether, yet the Danish experience suggests his efforts may be misdirected.

If the revenues of the American porn industry are to continue to grow it's essential that its products appear at least partially forbidden. As it is, buying adult videos in America is dangerously like having sex with your wife compared to the illicit, adulterous thrill of buying them in Britain. Will the day come when renting Remo: Well-Hung and Dangerous produces no frisson of guilty pleasure?

If the industry's First Amendment zealots have their way, my friends will no longer have to pretend to find porn boring.

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