Special Report: The Sound and Fury

Jett Lynn
LOS ANGELES — The debate pitting social responsibility against commercial viability vis-à-vis sexually explicit content seems never louder than when someone tosses a mention of so-called "extreme" content into the middle of it. While it's not exactly a hot-button issue in the adult-entertainment industry, the "extreme" topic is one people never seem to tire of discussing.

For the religious right, it serves as a banner under which generals can rally soldiers in moral crusades. For the American courts — currently more closely aligned with the church than perhaps at any time since the era of the Salem witch trials — it seems to be an irritant, but one that must be addressed whenever some ambitious prosecutor demands his or her moment in the sun.

Within the adult industry, extreme content has its supporters and detractors, although most industry denizens seem to have adopted a laissez faire attitude about the kinds of materials their colleagues produce: "You make what you like and I'll make what I like, OK [you deviant/wimp]?"

While it may come as no surprise, the debate about the relative merits of extreme content is almost frivolous. Whether within or without the adult industry, pro or con, it's not the debaters who are framing the issue: It's porn consumers. They're doing it without much noise, but make no mistake: Consumers are the final arbiters of profitability, and money is what drives any industry's conscience.

Obscenity indictments and trials always grab headlines in the adult-industry press. They should: The outcome of cases against companies and individuals like Max Hardcore, Extreme Associates and JM Productions/Five Star Video can give other producers a sort of "heads-up" about where they stand in relation to contemporary prosecutorial fervor. Recent high-profile cases have generated chatter ranging from "the government is so totally clueless about free speech" to "those guys knew they crossed a line when they produced that [excrement], and they deserved to get popped."

Humans' seemingly genetic quest for any reason to feel smugly self-satisfied aside, people who work in any high-risk field need to be aware of prevailing legal trends and theories — especially when blissful ignorance could lead to a lengthy vacation as a guest of the state. While attorneys generally agree very little in the fields of art and expression should be banned outright (literal child pornography being a notable exception because it requires actual harm to individuals who are unable protect themselves), they also admit some types of content bear more inherent risk than others.

Surprisingly, the list of riskiest subject matter these days is quite brief. Unlike the so-called "Cambria list" of a decade ago — which advised adult-content producers to avoid including in their work scenes that depicted actual pain or degradation, facials, bukkake, spitting or saliva mouth-to-mouth, coffins, blindfolds, double oral penetration, gaping, fisting, squirting, some toys, male-male penetration, bisexuality, degrading dialogue, forcible sex, interracial sex, transsexual sex, menstruation and incest — today's list includes only one major caveat: actual, non-consensual degradation or abuse.

According to noted First Amendment attorney Jeffrey Douglas, the government's current anti-obscenity efforts represent a clear bias against material that is "demeaning to women." In his opening arguments during the JM/Five Star trial, the prosecutor cited "the sacred place of mothers in society" as a way of winning the jury's sympathy for his side, Douglas said. That, combined with the absence of web-based companies among the defendants in the current crop of court cases, has convinced Douglas it's not the "extremity" of the material itself but the implications behind the depicted behavior that draw the legal system's self-righteous indignation.

"One person's extreme content is someone else's white-bread content," he said. "We're not talking bright lines here. [For example,] there haven't been any prosecutions of gay material in many, many years, and there's yet to be a prosecution where the primary focus is the web — [and it's self-evident] the most extreme material is online. Over-the-counter content tends to be more circumspect."

Prominent attorney J.D. Obenberger sometimes disagrees with Douglas where legal theories and methods are concerned, but he tends to agree with him about the current climate. "The number one thing that is going to get [producers] in trouble is hurting other people. The more people you hurt, the more likely it is you're going to get in trouble," Obenberger said. He added that he's a political libertarian who doesn't believe the government should meddle in content matters at all, but since it seems determined to do so, at least the issue of harm is socially, morally and ethically palatable to most content producers as well.

According to both men, DVD extras and behind-the-scenes footage are increasingly important for both online and brick-and-mortar product. In addition to incorporating indisputable art or social, scientific or political material in "the work, taken as a whole," behind-the-scenes material, outtakes and cast-and-crew interviews can demonstrate any performers who appeared in roles that simulated abuse or degradation did so willingly and enjoyed the experience. In fact, according to Douglas, "the extras caused acquittals [in the JM/Five Star case] where they were particularly revealing about the material deemed 'obscene' by prosecutors."

Obenberger said the same likely would be true for the sorts of "freaky" or "shocking" material that for a while online producers couldn't seem to make enough of. However, he cautioned, while content with "gratuitous shock value" is as defensible and deserving of defense as any other material protected by the First Amendment, a business model based solely on that type of content might not be quite as successful as a producer would like — and for essentially the same reason prosecutors are discovering obscenity prosecutions aren't cakewalks: To a certain extent, the easy availability of hardcore pornography online has jaded society to sexual practices once deemed outlandish. "It's a mistake to develop a business plan based on shock," Obenberger said, "because revenues won't last."

According to producers of shocking content, they've already discovered that. TheBossXXX, head of content production and affiliate management for Incredible Dollars, said his company produced ultra-hardcore, "kinky-niche" content during its first six months because it felt it needed to in order to be competitive in the marketplace.

But websites like ArabStreetHookers.com, CumBrushers.com, MidgetCum.com, HumanToiletBowls.com and TheAmputee.com, although profitable, didn't hold their value like more "vanilla" porn sites did. Incredible Dollars quickly discovered surfers' curiosity was neither insatiable nor enduring: They'd sign up for a one-month membership at a "shock" site, but they wouldn't renew.

Going forward, Incredible Dollars plans to focus on more vanilla content, for which TheBossXXX said consumers have indicated an enduring fondness. "The most exciting content on Incredible Dollars' radar right now is the niches that are not being served properly at this time, such as [big, beautiful women], shemale, hairy and pregnant," he revealed. "We feel these niches would be great additions to our program and would create a great deal of joins for affiliates."

He also said BigTitsCurvyAsses.com, MomsACheater.com, LatinBootyGirls.com and WhiteDicksInBlackChicks.co m represent fairly "mainstream" sexual tastes and are among the company's best converters.

Ultimately, he said, surfers may want to satisfy their curiosity about "bizarre" fetishes, but what really turns them on and parts them from their money is fantasy sex that is not so "far out" as to be mostly unattainable. In addition, consumers want to see "our female talent having orgasms and enjoying themselves in our scenes, not being humiliated in any way, shape or form."

PR Don, marketing director for PimpRoll, Adult Elite and Porn.com, agreed. "We just don't pay much attention to the game of people trying to out-freak each other," he said after factiously venturing a prediction that "transsexual Goth squirting midgets doing anal" would be the next big thing. "Our own FoodBangers.com got a lot of attention, but I think [sites like that] have a limited shelf life. People always seem to go back to the old 'in-and-out.'

"I think that when it comes to users paying for content, a few scenes of freakiness isn't going to be enough to keep them as members," he continued. "They still want access to tens of thousands of scenes of the good 'meat-and-potatoes' stuff. In-your-face stuff is interesting, but most users understand it's staged and once their curiosity has been satisfied, they're over it."

So in what direction do 'extreme' producers plan to head for the future? "I kinda think we're going to go back to big-budget," TheBossXXX said. "I see the industry going bigger with more elaborate sets, better scripts, etcetera; maybe bringing back the days of true big-budget porn films that demand actors who can deliver lines is on the horizon. I think users appreciate the effort put into producing good porn. I could be wrong, and I doubt people have the patience for a whole film per se, but bigger-budget scenes with good costumes, better locations and solid acting. I see it making a comeback. People appreciate well-made art, whatever the content."

That's probably true, according to Jason Tucker, president of Falcon Enterprises. He and his wife and business partner, Gail Harris, have served as consultants to a number of adult studios that are trying to find their way among the confusing jumble the adult industry seems to have become in recent months. "Production values always count," Tucker said. "What we're seeing is that people want real movies with sex in them, not just sex with a bit of dialog. People want intelligent adult entertainment."

Tucker's impression is there's a significant opportunity for producers to attract loyal buyers if they hit the sweet spot. "People are savvier," he said. "If you want to make them 'stick' and you want to prevent them from being distracted, then you want to service them on multiple levels."