Steven Toushin

John Stuart
Steven Toushin, president of Bijou Video, has been involved in adult entertainment for nearly four decades. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native was passing through Chicago in 1968 when he joined the avant-garde Aardvark Theater group, sparking a career in adult that has spanned over the course of 8mm film, the release of hardcore content in movie theaters and adult on VHS and DVD and the Internet.

His latest book, "The Destruction of the Moral Fabric of America," incorporates his experiences in the industry and his frequent battles with law enforcement and the court system.

Throughout his career, Toushin has been arrested 35 times, which have led to five federal trials, three federal appeals and countless state and local trials. Not many individuals are more acquainted with obscenity law and its application, and XBIZ decided to talk to Toushin about the topics he's come to know so well in his long and colorful adult career.

XBIZ: What do all of your years in adult give you that others in the business may lack?

Stephen Toushin: Most people in the adult industry have just made films. Nothing else. They make 10 films, 20 films, 30 films — they're in the business five to 15 years, and that's all they do. They don't know anything outside of making a film and finding a new star. They know really nothing about sexuality, about how things are sold and about what people do during the day to have sex. They couldn't possibly tell you how the films of the '70s and early '80s changed in the late '80s. Most of them got into it after 1996 when the Internet opened up, and it's been a great ride so they don't have to know about the bad times.

Hardcore came in 1970. When I got started in 1968, there were no porn theaters. There were T&A theaters in New York that showed Russ Meyer films. When I got to Chicago, we showed gay films like "Leather Boys," but it wasn't even softcore.

XBIZ: What do you recall about your first arrest?

Toushin: My first arrest was for Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures." Now it's shown in film schools as an underground classic. How times change. My second bust was for "I Am Curious (Yellow)" in Indianapolis because it showed nudity. About five months later, hardcore came about with "Wide Open Copenhagen," and life changed drastically. All of a sudden the porn theater came alive.

I've had 35 arrests. My companies have had more than 200. I can't remember most of them. I can't even remember most of my trials. I have no idea what happened during my first two obscenity arrests. I was there. I have all the documents. I don't remember them.

XBIZ: What's the weirdest episode you've had with the law?

Toushin: Years ago, the government tried to use a Mafia hit man to eliminate me. There was a guy next door to me who had a bookstore, and he was a government informant. He got involved with the Chicago outfit and they started shaking him down for money. The government was taping all this, but instead of arresting him they concocted a plan where he should take over my business. The way to do that was to eliminate me. I have all the documents and records. I was involved in the trial and it was one of the most absurd things in the entire world. Right now in Chicago there are about 13 or 14 men on trial for about 18 murders. One of them was the hit man. They're all old men now, but they're in this "outfit" trial in Chicago. I'm writing a fictionalized version of it in my next book.

XBIZ: How do you view the current atmosphere regarding obscenity prosecutions?

Toushin: I've lived through so many different local, state and federal administrations and watched how people campaigned, and I know the easiest campaign platform is morality. That's what Bush is doing right now. He created a war, but on the other hand he has created 2257 to be enforced by the FBI, which doesn't have the manpower to safeguard the borders and take care of airports. That is a political move. It's all about priority, and I think a change in administration also will bring a change from the politics of morality to the politics of a better society, improving life and providing health care.

As to the obscenity laws, they don't change. They go back to Miller 1973, so they're archaic but you have to deal with that. Trying to get convictions today is more difficult because sexuality has become so ingrained in America. You have to take somebody to a really obscure jurisdiction. So they can only do what they now call "forum shopping." But that takes a lot of time and effort, so I don't see that happening anymore — not on the scale that had taken place before.

XBIZ: Do you foresee things getting better?

Toushin: There will never be another reign of terror like the Meese Commission. That's over, and the Internet and communication has made sure of that. Things sexual are so absolutely ingrained in almost all societies, and that's a good thing. But there's always the possibility that another conservative administration could come in with a moral agenda. This is aimed at a religious grouping that represents about 30 percent of this country that will give money and votes. If that should happen, the government will find easier ways to attack, and I think one of the easier ways is through bookkeeping. They will find ways to do things through secondary producers, so if a store was selling my product, they could go after the store for record keeping. That terrifies outlets into not wanting to carry adult product. So you can scare people out of the business.

XBIZ: Why don't we hear more about the Meese Commission days?

Toushin: The Meese Commission is something the adult industry doesn't want to talk about. It was literally a reign of terror in which 80 or 90 companies got busted, including hundreds of people. They started their investigations in 1985 and started making their arrests in 1987. It didn't stop until 1992. Like I said before, they went "forum shopping," going to areas. My films were pretty disgusting, so they brought them to different parts of the country where they probably never would have gone otherwise. When you look at the records, you see the only ones who ordered them were the government. That's part of the sting operation; they order a product into an area where they want to bring charges against you, like, say, Salt Lake City. They simply pick an area where they can get a conviction. It's also called "forum shopping for selective prosecution."

Keep in mind that they did this for adult, but were not allowed to do it for drugs or Mafia murders. For drugs, they can arrest someone or charge someone in three or four different jurisdictions. Then they pick the one jurisdiction for which they know they can get the harshest penalties for a conviction. What they did with adult was the opposite. When I went to trial, for example, if I won my trial in Tennessee, they were going to take me to every other jurisdiction until I lost. I would have four trials, and financially I could not afford $1 million for each trial, and by that time I was in prison. I was bankrupt and emotionally out of my head. The object was to break you financially and emotionally, and also to take your life away while they get a conviction.

But they weren't allowed to do this according to their own guidelines, so Harvey of Adam & Eve went after them and got an injunction against the federal government. The courts stopped that kind of prosecution. Keep in mind that this reign of terror was created by just four or five people in the U.S. government. They wanted to decide what 200 million people were going to see and not see. This is a corruption of what America stands for.

XBIZ: How much of a role does zoning play in obscenity busts?

Toushin: It's all about zoning. You could always catch a bust on obscenity, but it was easier for authorities to circumvent things by going through zoning. Why deal with constitutional questions and issues in a trial when you can go through something like health violations? So there is always more than one way to skin a cat, and zoning became the hammer of choice for a long while. It's still in existence for many places.

XBIZ: What's your take on 2257?

Toushin: I think it's a double- edged sword. They're not really going to close people down with it. The government put that in there so if they want to hassle somebody, they don't have to take them to trial. There's too much aggravation, cost and time to take you to trial for obscenity.

They can now hassle companies on record keeping — there's really no trial, just administrative hearings. Most rules and regulations that come out of Washington normally do not have penalties and punishments written into them for every little infraction. Only 2257 has that. That has to indicate something. In 2257, if your records aren't right, you can get a $5,000 fine and two years in prison. You don't have that written into other laws.

XBIZ: Don't you think 2257 might be helping the industry by weeding out producers who want to use underage performers?

Toushin: There are no producers who want to use underage people. That's a fallacy and always has been. Every once in a while an underage person gets involved, just like there are times when a kid under [21] gets into a bar. They use a false I.D. But the money to be made with underage kids is nothing, so using young kids is dangerous and stupid. Years ago there was a bust involving Traci Lords.

As far as I'm concerned, she should have gone to prison because she lied about her age. But the government needed to use her to go after a big-money distributor. Most people who had her films got rid of them, because they didn't want to be involved with child pornography. They had too much to lose. Why would you risk a $5 million company for $10,000 worth of sales? But Traci Lords got a lot of people in trouble, and she should have been prosecuted for lying about her age. The government wasn't interested in its sword cutting two ways because they were interested in their agenda, which is money, self-interest and votes. The case finally went to the Supreme Court.

XBIZ: In what ways do you think adult entertainment is hurting itself right now?

Toushin: Like anything else, there's good pornography and bad pornography. Bad, to me, are people who flood you with spam. Years ago, if I solicited people through unwarranted mail, I could have been busted. And I agree with that.

Why send a mass mailing of adult material where kids can pick it up. That's stupid. Spam is exactly the same thing. I like my industry. I believe there should be some smarts. Deal with adults and don't upset the natives. But you have people in adult just for the money; quick in and out. They don't want to spend four decades doing this. They don't even tell their friends and neighbors what they do.

XBIZ: When did you open Bijou Theatre?

Toushin: I opened Bijou in 1970 and it was kind of a shock to the Midwest. It was after the Nob Hill and the Adonis theaters opened in New York. The Nob Hill was a difficult place because you couldn't really have sex there because it was too small. You could have sex in the theater but couldn't have it anyplace else. Customers went to these things to have sex. Gay movie theaters were places for people to meet. They went to see films, and they've always been cruising places. There's always been a double standard for the gay community, which always had bathhouses where they could meet and have sex. You don't have that in the straight community. So gay movie theaters were for people to meet, watch porn and go into the bathrooms to have sex. Sometimes they'd have sex in the theaters themselves. In the Bijou, I built a whole area where people could go and play.

XBIZ: In your book, you say that BDSM is the last sexual frontier. Why?

Toushin: Because I'm nutty as a fruitcake. I've been involved in rough sex all my life. Beating people up is taboo because it means abuse. But people in BDSM are consensual — people who want to be abused.

I write that BDSM is the sexual future because if you're going to allow someone to have control over you, you have to start with communication and trust. You have to trust that person to do these things and you have to communicate what you want. Most people don't get that in their regular lives with their spouses.