To the naked eye, the town of Chatsworth is the epitome of a faceless, anonymous Los Angeles suburb. This is a landscape of sub-bleached cinderblock apartment complexes, of strip malls and industrial parks, Armenian auto body shops and Michoacan taco stands. Nothing marks Chatsworth as the capital of sin, the ground zero of a place that has come to be known as Silicone Valley.
Yet it is here, behind the doors of bland-looking warehouses and sound stages that border on junkyards, where a handful of people generate product that brings in close to eight billion dollars a year.
The product isn’t microchips or space-age weaponry. It’s porn, America’s most prosperous industry, which generates more revenue than Hollywood and professional sports put together. Not bad for an industry that 25 years ago made silent 8 mm loops and lived in constant fear of the law.
In the last several years, thanks in large part to the emergence of the internet, porn has gone mainstream. The boundary between the worlds of jizz biz and legitimate entertainment has become so blurred as to be virtually nonexistent.
Porn divas like Jenna Jameson and Traci Lords host prime-time talk shows and star in A-list films. Meanwhile mainstream celebs like Pam Anderson and Paris Hilton have become inadvertent porn stars after explicit video tapes of their private frolic have scored an instant hit in cyberspace.
Beltway politicians decry the moral decline of the new generation weened on internet porn while profiting handsomely from porn video rentals in major hotel chains across America.
And the Oscar-winning producer of A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, Brian Grazer, has spent two million dollars of his own money to make a documentary called Inside Deep Throat, about the most successful and scandalous adult film of all time.
Nothing exemplifies the contradictions of American culture like porn. Sex is the most powerful weapon in the hands of the advertising industry yet human nakedness is still largely taboo on national TV.
It is ironic that a country that produces close to thirty thousand porn films a year would be so shocked and outraged by the accidental unveiling of Janet Jackson’s nipple during the half-time show of last year’s Superbowl. The same ambivalence typifies people’s attitudes toward porn stars. To many, they’re moral degenerates and social pariahs that we secretly welcome in our bedrooms but would never bring home to meet the family.
Porn in the first decade of the 21st century is what rock and roll was in the early 1960s – a rebel subculture, energetic, challenging to authority, and willing to push the boundaries of propriety and good taste. Rock became integrated into the mainstream when its enormous popularity made it big business.
The same thing is now happening with porn. And for many a poor boy or girl, porn, like rock, has become a pathway to the American dream. Nikita Denise, the 2002 AVN Perfomer of the year, grew up in extreme poverty in the Czech Republic. Today she makes between $15,000 and $20,000 a month and works just three, four days a week.
A year ago, Kurt Lockwood, a struggling musician and actor with a drama degree from University of Maryland, was subsisting on ramen noodles and cheese crackers. Today, four hundred films later, he drives a brand new Seven Series BMW and has a condo in Hollywood Hills. Porn has given them and many others like them a chance to prosper, and has reaped a handsome profit off their sweat and seed in return.
To the outsider, all porn stars are the same. On closer look, however, they’re likely to surprise us. Many are married and have children of their own. The younger girls attend college and often major in surprisingly serious subjects. Jassie James, a Penthouse Pet in 2002, is working on a degree in criminology.
Otto Bauer, nominated for this year’s AVN Newcomer of the Year award, has a Master’s degree in philosophy and held a teaching post at Queens College in New York before becoming an adult film star. The veteran of 1800 porn flicks, Ron Jeremy, was a special ed teacher in New York while Roy Karch, a hall of fame director who shot the first porn video, was a phys-ed teacher in Brooklyn.
All of these people are amazingly articulate, have great self-awareness, are politically savvy, and find a way to live two completely different lives at the same time. To them, what they do is a job. Most never bother to watch their own movies. And in life, they prefer the community of their peers because they know all too well that to the outside world, they would be just about as welcome as lepers.
That’s not to say that the people who inhabit the world of porn are without delusions. Matti Klatt, a photographer with Hustler for 30 years, talks passionately about the role of creativity and originality in his work while producing cookie-cutter adult fare.
Roy Karch, preaches a former Hippie’s gospel about the mystique of erotica and the spiritual side of sex, while directing in-your-face hardcore that leaves nothing to the imagination. The pornographer, like the rest of us, seeks meaning in their work and swears by it, no matter how ludicrous it may seem to the rest of us.
The point ultimately is not to condone or condemn what these people do but to try to understand the growing prominence and relative respectability of porn within the larger context of contemporary American society.
Porn, then, becomes a kind of mirror or a prism, which reflects our profile as a culture and sheds light on some of our clandestine prevailing tendencies. After all, porn is a demand-driven business, and the demand now is greater than ever. And since the business of America, in the immortal words of Teddy Roosevelt, is business, questions of morality take a distant backseat to the profit imperative. As Kurt Lockwood put it in a recent interview, a hundred dollar bills wipes away a lot of tears.
A completely unexpected paradox emerges when the purveyors of porn are forced to defend their work in the enduring and highly vocal national debate about decency.
People like Larry Flynt emerge as defenders of the Constitution while it is the politicians, the so-called guardians of public morality, are revealed to be adulterous hypocrites. The politicians are caught in the tangle of double-standards.
One man’s art is another man’s pornography and there seems to be no way to legislate obscenity since there are no real community standards in a world where everyone’s secretly indulges his vices. It was Flynt who successfully outed Jerry Falwell and shared with the world the dirty little secrets about the preacher’s personal life.
The landmark Supreme Court case paved the way for legitimate criticism of public figures in the media and extended the boundaries of protection accorded free speech under the constitution. Not bad for a former moonshine peddler and strip club operator who became the first porn millionaire.
The porn industry has become rich fodder for social theorists like Camille Paglia and Susie Bright who approach the subject with the same academic rigor reserved for topics like Renaissance art and French Deconstruction.
But perhaps the most unlikely and enlightened perspective when it comes to dealing with this subject comes from a rabbinical scholar and an Orthodox Jew from Oxford named Schmuel Boteach who wrote the popular and controversial best-seller, “Kosher Sex.”
The lively, witty Boteach is equally at home in the synagogue as he is on the Howard Stern show debating Larry Flynt. Boteach removes sex from under the proverbial covers and makes it a kosher subject for discussion because, as he contends, there is a divine spark in this very human activity.
The pursuit of pleasure is not an amoral thing, he suggests, because there is a spiritual dimension to it, as old as the Torah and just as sacred. It may be a while before we see a porn version of Boteach’s best seller; yet the implications of his work are no laughing matter.
With scholars and religious leaders rethinking our cultural attitudes toward carnality, the time may be ripe for the rest of us to redefine our attitudes toward this taboo subject as it redefines our culture.
If repression of the sexual drive produces violence, sex offenders and pedophilic priests, a more sophisticated understanding of the sexual impulse is likely to result in a healthier society and happier populace. In the 21st century, porn may well become the new opium for the masses.