Can David Beat Goliath in the Battle of Obscenity?
By Judd Handler
Ynot News, January 2, 2002
Last week's editorial featured an interview with John Wirenius, lead counsel for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and Barbara Nitke, an adult content photographer. Wirenius, on behalf of the NCSF and Nitke, filed a lawsuit on December 11 against Attorney General John Ashcroft seeking to overturn Internet obscenity laws as they relate to the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a statute, which is littered with extremely vague and archaic obscenity provisions.
For this week's editorial, I spoke with Susan Wright, spokeswoman for the NCSF, and Nitke, who began her professional adult photography work on the sets of hardcore films in New York City during the 1980s. When exploring the members of the NCSF's individual websites as well as Nitke's, it seems that most of the content is less risque© than most other hardcore porn sites. I spoke with Wright and Nitke to see why they decided to legally challenge the federal government and why they view the CDA as a threat to the online adult industry.
The NCSF is a Washington, DC-based political advocacy-lobbying group, comprised of educational and social organizations. Established in 1997, this cohesive group consists mostly of S&M and fetish groups. Mainstream online adult webmasters could learn how to effectively form a lobbying group like the NCSF has done. While it may not seem necessary to some webmasters to become politically cohesive, for the NCSF members, it is a matter of life or ... a life that might as well be a dead, meaningless one. Many live in fear because of the moral minority's attacks on alternative lifestyles, and the lack of vocal and political support from those that approve of or actually engage in alternative sexual expression.
According to Wright, the Kinsey Institute in 1990 conducted a study, which concluded that five to ten percent of adults (up to 25 million people!) engage in alternative sexual expression such as bondage, cross-dressing, S&M and other fetishes. "That's a lot of people," says Wright. "Millions of adults in the U.S. engage in fetishes ... They are your teachers, bus drivers, doctors, professionals and blue collar workers." Adds Wright, "These people don't talk about what they do and they don't come out about it; yet they're everywhere."
Because of the lack of support, says Wright, the NCSF's members may lose their jobs and child custody. "Our sexuality is used against us, we are subject to hate crimes, persecution, harassment ... we are targets because we are a sexual minority."
The NCSF is comprised of 20 board member organizations, 35 supporting members and groups, including businesses and websites; and several thousand individual members. All together, Wright estimates that approximately 10,000 people belong to the NCSF.
Despite the fact that the National Opinion Research Center in 1998 found that over 60% of respondents were in favor of porn for adults, the NCSF and groups like it are extremely concerned with the current political climate. The NCSF knew it had to act quickly considering that this past summer, John Ashcroft met with radical right groups like the Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America. Wright says about Ashcroft during this past summer that "He made it clear to them the Justice Department is ready to prosecute individuals under obscenity laws. These groups then sent press releases out claiming victory, so the NCSF knew they had to file quickly."
Wright and the NCSF to their credit realized that if individuals don't argue for their rights, the federal government could conceivably take those rights away. Says Wright, "We didn't want Ashcroft to pick the individuals to censor. We wanted to fight on behalf of educational groups, social groups, and individuals who are just trying to exchange information on sexuality. We want them to be protected. Many of our members have come to us for guidance as to what type of content they can legally post on their site but because the CDA is so broad we don't know what to tell them. This is becoming more and more of a problem, and because Ashcroft is ready to prosecute, we felt like we had to move."
When asked if she thinks her organization will emerge victorious, Wright answers, "Based on previous legal rulings in this area, I'm confident the court will find the CDA statute to be unconstitutional." (A provision calls for direct Supreme Court review.) The provisions of the CDA are so broad, that the indecency portion of CDA (struck down by the Supreme Court) would have cut off access to Planned Parenthood.
It's very unsettling when a very small minority has unchecked political power. For the NCSF, the objective is to fight it out so the public consciousness will be raised (truly a noble cause). As Wright points out, these issues deal with the rights to pursue happiness in a pluralist society. She also mentions that there is real demand and money for alternative sexual lifestyles, thus "We as a free pluralist society shouldn't allow anybody from the religious right to eliminate educational sites."
"When I was building my website, I was concerned about indecency and obscenity laws," says Nitke, from New York City. When asked why she's so concerned about her content when there is tons of questionable content on the web, she replies, "I may not be the first target but I will be greatly affected by how these laws can be interpreted." And this is why Nitke teamed up with the NCSF. Nitke echoes the sentiments of other S&M photographers and webmasters, saying, "It's really frightening ... let's say porn is the first target. As a result, sexual expression is the real target of some of these right-wing radical groups."
Nitke, like all other ethically conscious webmasters has a warning page on her site. I ask her, "You know very well a 12-year-old can enter your site even with a warning page. Can you see why the government is concerned?" Nitke answers, "The problem is we have to balance protecting children with protecting adults. My main concern on a personal level is that I feel that adults who want to see my work should be able to see it. I'm upset that adults may lose that right and I may lose the right to show my work."
I then ask Nitke a question I often ask other adult webmasters who engage in questionable hardcore content: "How could you defend the bound and gagged S&M lifestyle to an ignorant and close-minded jury?"
"I asked myself, Can S&M be a healthy activity that can contribute to the love life of adults? Yes it can. It's life enhancing," says Nitke. "If two adults agree on what they're going to do in advance and find a couple of minutes of happiness, I can't imagine why anyone would begrudge them."
The fact that porn rentals are a multi-billion dollar per year industry (see this week's Industry News column by Dave Cummings) unfortunately does not represent a squeaky wheel; the loudest squeak is coming from the minority-fringe right-leaning family advocacy groups. Webmasters who specialize in bondage and S&M should have a disclaimer on their site reading: This website is for consenting adults. Nobody was unwillingly harmed in the making of this content.
Adult webmasters may one day realize that they have to mobilize vocal support in such a way that it their beef is heard on Capitol Hill and not only in webmaster chat rooms. Webmasters should encourage their surfers to write letters to their government representatives, demanding that their rights to enjoy legal adult online entertainment are not taken away because of theocratic dogma. Adult webmasters should also take time to personally thank the NCSF and Barbara Nitke for having a giant set of balls and not being afraid to fight for their rights to express their sexuality.
This week's edition is a double issue. We will be back the second week of January with comprehensive Internext convention coverage. On a personal note, this issue marks my one-year anniversary serving as the editor for YNOT News. Party! See you next year...