Engaging the Full-Court Press

Ernest Greene
On top of all our other troubles, the X-rated video industry has a worse image problem than a 10-year-old VHS tape. We have lots of enemies and very few friends, and while some of that is inevitable given what we do, we have ourselves to blame for failing to address the situation proactively.

With a few notable exceptions, few companies in the industry have given any thought to mainstream media relations — or the cost of not doing so.

While the religious right may be in a period of retrenchment, hostility toward porn is on the rise, in part because of a well-run ground game by feminist "abolitionists" who have managed to forge op-ed page alliances on both sides of the fold. It's an ominous warning that shouldn't be ignored when The New York Times runs anti-sex-commerce commentaries by both conservative Nicholas Kristof and liberal Bob Herbert in the same month.

While the religious right and the politicians who pander to it will always run against sin in general, which includes pornography, along with abortion and gay marriage, as merely another instrument of Satan to be repressed wherever possible, they have other priorities — and their influence seems to be on the wane.

It's the secular, moderate center-left whose somewhat grudging support we've enjoyed on First Amendment grounds that we may be losing to social-harm-based arguments vigorously advanced by a small industry of professional "pornography experts," who are turning a healthy buck from portraying us as brutal pimps and cold-blooded human traffickers. The inherently political nature of sexually explicit entertainment requires us to consider the damage the loss of that grudging support could do.

And whom do we send forth against those who make their livings by telling vicious lies about who we are and what we do? Don't get me wrong. I like and admire Ron Jeremy, and I think he holds his own in debates with the unctuous Elmer Gantrys of the XXX Church, but Ron is basically a comic, and public relations is a serious trade in which we as an industry have invested far too little. Going all the way back to the Meese hearings, virtually anyone who cared to step forward as a "spokesperson" for the porn business has been allowed to do so with barely a shrug by those who stand to lose the most from every ill-spoken word.

While we did enjoy a short period of "porno chic" on late-night cable television, with shows like "Pornucopia — Going Down in the Valley" and "Family Business," in some sense, we allowed ourselves to be defined equally inaccurately by "mockcumentary" producers who simply dodged all the difficult questions by making it all seem like a harmless romp, an insult to the intelligence of even the most casual observer and a possible contributing factor to the backlash we're beginning to experience now.

It doesn't help that "we" aren't even certain who "we" are, much less have possession of a common set of talking points and an organized effort to put them in play.

While The Free Speech Coalition has done an admirable job on a limited mission, focusing mainly on legal defense against obscenity prosecutions, it has neither the means nor the mandate to represent the industry at large in the arena of public opinion, and no one else will until the largest players in the game set aside their differences.

This cost of doing business is one of those things economists call the diseconomies of scale. Reach a certain size, and you get on the radar. You become a target and must deploy active defenses.

When all else fails, call in the lawyers, but that may not be necessary if you step up to your organized opposition with equally capable and determined measures of your own.

Surely no group of individuals are more bitterly competitive than the owners of the major Hollywood studios, but they have successfully fended off numerous offensives by headline-seeking politicians and pious pundits for years, in part through the potent advocacy of the Motion Picture Producers' Association. Jack Valenti may not have been the most popular figure either in Los Angeles or Washington, but he was heard loudly and clearly in both localities when the popcorn trade's interests were endangered. We may not need, or want, so heavy-handed a trade organization of our own, much less a publicity czar of Valenti's magnitude, but we do need some established entity through which we can both listen and speak.

Let's suppose for a moment that we're in this game to stay, and that we're real executives with a lot to lose. Beyond the narrow agenda of opposing censorship, can we not agree that piracy, clumsy and oppressive regulation (on the order of 2257 in its Bush-era incarnation or worse) and the constant stream of sensational negative coverage by mainstream news organizations represent threats to our continued well-being?

If we can go so far as to unite around some simple, shared concerns and empower a responsible body of professionals to mind those concerns 24/7, we can start to push back against the tide currently running against us. If we believe, as I do, that making sex pictures and selling them is a legitimate trade that deserves a measure of respect, we need to answer back when we are characterized otherwise. Our opponents fund "research" and "surveys" to beef up their arguments. So can we. They have lobbyists in Washington full-time. So should we. They do not allow themselves to be attacked without responding. Neither should we. We need to meet them press release for press release, talk-show spot for talk-show spot.

Right now, what the secular anti-porn crowd is working on is what they term "the suppression of demand" for our products, i.e., making consumers feel guilty for buying those products. They're doing their best to make porn "un-cool," and while we may never be able to exactly make it the opposite (most porn lacks irony, the essential element of hipness), we can unmask the preposterous charges made against it, making them look just as ridiculous as the facts would show them to be.

But first, we've got to get organized around doing this, and heaven forbid, invest a few bucks at a time when bucks don't come easy in getting it done. This is a job that urgently needs doing, and it can't be left to performers or directors, or for that matter, anyone who is too busy actually making porn, to take on its detractors. Nope, for this we need pros from Madison Avenue and K Street to hit the deck every time Diane Sawyer or Sam Brownback or The Gray Lady comes after us.

If we fail to do this, we may soon find ourselves with neither defenders nor customers, at the very moment when we need as many as possible of both.