Exodus to Western Europe?

Alex Henderson
When George W. Bush was re-elected as president of the United States in November, one of the things that concerned adult-oriented entrepreneurs was the strong, enthusiastic support he received from Christian fundamentalists such as Gary Bauer, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Christian Coalition leader Pat Robertson.

The Christian Right has long been a blistering opponent of adult entertainment — even Playboy's softcore erotica — and many adult oriented companies fear that Bush's second term could be very bad for business.

As a result, some adult-oriented webmasters are wondering if a move from the United States to a more socially liberal country in Western Europe might be a good way to protect their interests. So far, the United States hasn't seen a major exodus of adult-oriented webmasters, but an overseas move seems to be something that many of them are at least willing to consider.

"A lot of people who operate sexually oriented websites are toying with the idea of moving their businesses out of the country," said Susan Wright, founder and executive director of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF). "In the last few years, prosecutions have risen to a large degree — and that has had a chilling effect on the adult entertainment industry. A lot of people who provide adult entertainment on the Internet are very worried right now."

When adult-oriented webmasters contemplate moving to Western Europe, the countries that typically come up as possibilities include the Netherlands, Spain and the Scandinavian countries.

Private Media's Take
Stephanie Robesky of Private Media Group — a major adult entertainment company based in Barcelona, Spain — noted: "Pornography is not as taboo in Europe as it is in the States. I can walk down the Ramblas here in Barcelona and see tons and tons of Private magazines and DVDs just sitting out in the open. The same thing goes for Holland and Germany."

Robesky, a California native who has lived in Western Europe for four years, added: "There seems to be a lot of chat on message boards and among adult-oriented webmasters in regards to leaving the United States for countries in Western Europe, but we will have to wait and see how this pans out. There is a big difference between talking about an idea this drastic and actually following through with it."

One country that has a reputation for being less adult industry friendly than other parts of Western Europe is Great Britain. "I think the last place in Western Europe that Larry Flynt should move is England," asserted Dr. Yaman Akdeniz, director of the British organization Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties. "The U.S. has a notoriously puritanical attitude toward sex and sexual expression in contrast to some Western European countries, and the U.K. shares with its former American colony a long history of repressing sexual expression in all media and efforts to carry that tradition into cyberspace."

Akdeniz pointed to the U.K.'s Obscene Publications Act of 1959 (OPA), which he described as "far more restrictive than comparable laws in other West European countries."

In 1994, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act amended OPA to include electronically stored data; and in 1999, London-based adult entertainment provider Graham Waddon was aggressively prosecuted under OPA laws for publishing obscene material on the Internet.

Waddon, in his defense, argued that because he was using an American Internet service provider and his adult content was being stored on servers in the United States, the matter fell outside U.K. jurisdiction. But a London judge disagreed, ruling that because Waddon was based in the U.K., the adult material he transmitted online was subject to U.K. obscenity laws regardless of where the servers were located.

Waddon ended up pleading guilty to the charges and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, though the sentence was suspended for two years because of Waddon's health problems. Akdeniz noted that while "cases such as this one are rare in the U.K.," Waddon's prosecution demonstrates that Britain's long-standing OPA laws can be used against adult-oriented webmasters in the Information Age.

"My experience has been that the U.K. does have some level of liberality to it, but I don't think it is nearly as sophisticated from an adult industry point of view as, say, the Netherlands," said New York City-based attorney Ira J. Levy, of the law firm Goodwin/Procter. "I think that, ultimately, the U.K. runs the risk of being somewhat more restrictive than Continental Europe."

Caution At The Border
Levy cautions that even if adult-oriented webmasters move to Western Europe, they could still be subject to American obscenity laws should they return to the United States at some point. "The Internet has taken a lot of local activities and made them global, and if you're dealing with websites that are directed toward a U.S. audience and are violating the criminal or civil laws of the United States, your absence from the United States for a period of time will not necessarily insulate you from criminal liability once you return to the United States," Levy noted. "The risk of being subject to criminal liability when you want to move home to the United States after a couple of years is a very high price to pay."

Wright has no plans to move to Western Europe and isn't encouraging anyone else to. The NCSF leader firmly believes that rather than going overseas, American adult businesses need to remain in the United States and fight for their civil liberties.

"Instead of moving to another country, I would rather stay in America and challenge American laws," Wright said. "Americans do have a mechanism whereby we can fight for our rights — the U.S. Constitution — so let's fight for them. If people in the adult entertainment industry start leaving this country because they feel it has become too oppressive, that should make everyone afraid. The Religious Right is going after the adult industry now, but what are they going to go after next?"