Research Day: How Are Porn Movies Legal?

A friend of mine works in law enforcement. The other day she and I were discussing the recent election, and I mentioned that I voted for a libertarian for the second time ever. (The last time I voted for a libertarian was in 2000, and it was for the same person for the same position. Jocelyn Langlois says that, if elected as Lt. Governor of Washington, she would do one and only one thing: lobby our legislature to abolish the office of Lt. Governor and save the state $40K a year.) From here we segued into a discussion of libertarianism in general and I mentioned that I thought all acts between consenting adults should be legal, including prostitution. “I mean, porn movies are legal,” I said, “and that’s practically the same thing”

“Wait a minute,” I continued, confused. “That’s exactly the same thing. Are all porn movies made in Nevada or The Netherlands or something?”

“I think most of the are made in California,” my friend said.

“How does that work?” said I. “I can’t legally pay someone to have sex with me, but I can pay someone to have sex with someone else? And film it?”

“You can legally pay someone to have sex with you if you film it,” my friend added. “Because, in that instance, you’re not paying them for the sex, you’re paying them for ‘acting.'”

“Get out.”

“Totally true,” she said. “We even have a prostitute here in Seattle that we can’t prosecute, because whenever we bring her in she steadfastly insists that men don’t pay her for sex, they pay her for her time.”

Thinking that there must be more to it than that, I did a little research. What I found is that that there is no shortage of loopholes to exploit to avoid getting nailed (so to speak) for prostitution. In general, it’s the solicitation that’s criminalized, not the act itself, which means that exchanging sex for money = legal, while proposing to exchange sex for money = busted. (Although it’s probably more accurate to say that the exchange of sex for money isn’t so much “legal” as it is largely unprocecutable — unless the client says “I am now going to compensate you for the carnal acts we are currently committing” and hands over and wad of cash right in the middle of foolin’ around, proving that the sex and the payment are irrefutably part of the same transaction is very tough.) So a creative pimp, prostitute, or john could concoct all sorts of wacky scenarios to evade arrest, like, “what if I started a bar where some of the drinks on the menu cost $200, but I let it be known that, historically, everyone person who has every ordered one has later had sex with the waitress who brought it to him?”

So one hypothesis floating around on the Internet is that porn movies are not legal, per se, and the whole industry is just one of these wacky scenario writ large. Because the participants in the sex acts receive money from the film’s production company (rather than one of them giving it to another), and because at no point is any actor explicitly asked to engage in (just) sex in return for payment, they do an end-run around so-called “pander laws.”

But as this FAQ make clear, there’s usually a little more to it than that — namely, the First Amendment. And there’s a reason why California is the center of the porn movie universe.

In 1988, a California D.A. decided to call the bluff of a pornographer named Freeman, and rang him up on charges of “procurement of persons for the purpose of prostitution.” After Freeman was found guilty in both superior court and on appeal, the decision was reversed by the state’s Supreme Court. They cited two main reasons for their findings. First, the definition of “pandering” in California criminalizes sex-for-money exchanges “for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification of the customer or of the prostitute;” but actors in a porn movie aren’t in it for fun, they’re just a bunch of working, uh, stiffs.

[Honestly, I’m not trying to make all these innuendos. But every phrase sounds dirty when discussing porn — there’s just no way around it. I’ve already written and deleted the phrase “tit-for-tat” twice.]

Secondly, the court ruled that the movies were entitled to First Amendment protection, so long as they were not obscene. Since something can only be deemed officially “obscene” if “taken as a whole, [it] lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” — and since even porn movies meet this incredibly low standard — Freeman was adjudged to be in the clear. When the US Supreme Court declined to review the case (thereby letting the lower court’s decision stand), California became the only state to have such a precedent on the books, and soon became a Mecca for the porn industry.

The curious thing about People v. Freeman, to my mind, is that it didn’t actually legalize porn movies, it just declined to declare them illegal. And it didn’t really delineate the distinction between porn and prostitution, either. After all, the First Amendment protections apply to the making of the film, but not to the original solicitation of sex for money. Also, the implication seems to be that if California just removed the phrase “sexual arousal or gratification of the customer” from California’s pandering law, porn films would become verboten.

So here we have an entire industry operating in an enormous legal gray area, with neither side really wanting to press the courts for clarification as to whether the practice is legal or not. It doesn’t make much sense to me. But what do I know? I don’t even understand why we have a Lt. Governor.

Note: All the links in this piece lead to work-safe webpages, although you may not want some of the URLs in your browser’s history.

My Proposed Constitutional Amendment

Less than a month after the 2004 election, attention has already turned to the 2008 match-up, with Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton the presumptive front-runners for the two parties’ nominations.

Honestly, would it be too much to ask that the requirements for the highest office in the land be at least as stringent as those used by zany morning DJs at radio stations across the nation?

Also, the 101st voter in every county should win a CD Combo Pack and two tickets to an upcoming Avril Lavigne concert.

The Brimstone State

Guys on the elevator:

First Guy On Elevator: How was your trip to Miami?

Second Guy On Elevator: Uggh. I hate that state. It’s unbearably hot and full of stupid people.

First Guy On Elevator: Jeeze, you make Florida sound like the Cliff Notes for Dante’s Inferno.

Movies: The Incredibles

Ask me to name my favorite movies of all time and I will start with the classics in an effort to impress you: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, Casablanca, etc. Then, when I think you’re stopped paying attention, I may slip in The Iron Giant.

The Iron Giant?” you might reply, if my efforts to sneak the title past you fail. “Dude, isn’t that a cartoon movie for little boys?”

Pffffft! No! No, it is totally not a “cartoon movie for little boys!” It’s a, y’know. An animated movie. For the, um. For the young at heart.

Anyway, I was so impressed with The Iron Giant that I found myself anxiously awaiting writer / director Bard Bird’s next film. And waiting, and waiting. Finally, five years later, I heard that he was making a superhero movie with Pixar. Brad Bird and superheroes and Pixar, all in one movie? That’s, like, the goodness trifecta! Of course, with expectations that high, the film would have to be fantastic not to leave me disappointed. And it’s a testament to the quality of The Incredibles that I left the theater feeling exhilarated instead of let-down.

Bob Parr is Mr. Incredible — well, he was, until he married Elastic Girl, retired, and started raising a family. Now he has three kids (older of which have superpowers of their own) and spends his evenings hanging out with Frozone (or, rather, the guy who used to be Frozone, until he, too, retired) reminiscing about the glory days of rescuing kittens and punching out bad guys. Needless to say, Bob eventually finds an excuse to resume his superheroics, and before his adventures are through the whole family is in costume and fighting evil.

Comic book aficionados will recognize that almost no aspect of the plot is original, from the reason behind Mr. Incredible retirement to the the origin of the villain to the superpowers of the characters. (Violet’s special abilities, in particular, seem like a copyright infringement lawsuit waiting to happen.) Surprisingly, this actually works to the film’s advantage, as employing comic book archetypes let’s them skip over the tedious exposition that bogs down so many superhero movies. (It’s never explained, for instance, how Mr. Incredible, Elastic Girl and Frozone got their powers.) And this, in turns, allows them to focus solely on the story.

The story, incidentally, is a bit more sophisticated that you might expect. Yes, this is still a film geared primary for kids, but it makes an obvious effort to steer clear of the typical Disney movie claptrap. (“Everyone is special,” says Elastic Girl to her son at one point. “That’s just another way of saying nobody is special,” he retorts.) And the action sequences and violence, while not overboard, earn the film its PG rating.

The one aspect of the film that I was worried about was the animation, as even Pixar hasn’t quite gotten CG human beings to look right. Thankfully, they don’t try and make the characters look photorealistic, and they don’t shoot for full-on cartoons, either. Instead, they hit a happy medium, making Mr. Incredible and his brood look like they’ve been sculpted out of putty. It’s somewhat ironic that the most advanced animation effects in the world are being used to emulate the primitive art of claymation, but it was a wise choice, and it looks great.

So: a hearty recommendation for The Incredibles, which may very well wind up as my #1 pick for the year. And do yourself a favor: catch the film in a cinema. You might be tempted to wait for the DVD, but seeing the movie in a theater full of kids adds immeasurably to the experience.

Hair Apparent

Have you seen that show Extreme Makeover, where they take a bunch of perfectly normal looking women and do plastic surgery on them until they look like something you’d purchase at a mannequin factor’s “Ding ‘N’ Dent” sale?

I think they should have a spin-off show where they try and make middle-aged men more attractive, and call it Extreme Combover.


The Queen and I hang out with Michelle:

Michelle: What’s your kid up to these days?

Me: Crawling. Like, all over the freakin’ place.

Queen: And he’s losing his monkey toes.

Michelle: His what?

Queen: You know, if you touch the sole of a newborn baby’s foot how his toes will kind of curl up around your finger? Like he’s trying to hang onto a branch or something?

Michelle: Right, right.

Queen: His toes don’t do that as much anymore.

Me: Also, we finally took him in and had his monkeytail amputated. His balance has been all screwed up ever since.

Michelle: You should totally tell him that when he gets older.

Me: Oh, I will. “Yeah, you were running and swinging all over the house when you were three months old. But then we had your tail cut off, and you had to relearn how to walk.” I wonder if I could get an actual tail somewhere, put it in a jar of formaldehyde and keep it as “proof?”

Queen: He’ll probably take it to school for Show and Tell …

Me: Hah! Oh man, that will be great. I love being a parent.

Queen: Other fathers can’t wait until their child is old enough to play sports or hold a conversation; you, you’re just waiting until he’s old enough to hornswoggle.

Me: It’s so true. I guess I could start now, buy a big rubber breast or something.

Michelle: I bet my husband would loan you his.

Great Shot, Kid … That Was One In A Million

While running today, a tiny bug flew directly into my eye. When I opened my mouth to curse, three or four more went straight down my throat.

I don’t want to sound conspiratorial but the whole thing felt like a set-up, like a miniature Rebel Alliance staging a coordinated assault on the Death Star of my head.

On The Election

Despite the scent of trendy cynicism that permeates this blog, I am really an “accentuate the positive” kind of guy. So I spent most of last week trying to write a “look at the bright side!” post regarding the presidential elections. And each time I gave up after 100 words with a hearty “aw, who am I kidding?”

It’s not just that Bush was re-elected — though I look forward to a second term of Dubya as I would of bout of dysentery. No, what really got to me was the realization that I live in a different universe from most of the electorate.

The first salvo in this one-two punch came few days before the election, when I read that three-fourths of all Bush supporters believe that Iraq had WMD or WMD programs before the war. What the point of participatory democracy (thought I), if nearly half of the participants can be so wrong about the most important matter under consideration? It’s just all so capricious. Here, five-eights of us are doing our civil duty, learning about the candidates and issues, and then we have this enormous wildcard, a huge chunk of the voting public operating under seemingly arbitrary assumptions. It’s like competing against the Boggle-Playing Chicken, picking the winner by randomly pecking at a ballot.

(To be fair: I know that there are lots and lots of thoughtful, intelligent and reasonable Bush supporters out there, who are in full command of the facts and voted for their guy because they honestly believe he is the best man for the job. And, if you’re one of them, I’m sorry we couldn’t cough up a candidate you felt you could vote for. Flawed though he is, I think Kerry was still one-bajillion times better than Bush on pretty much every issue, but I understand that someone could come to the opposite conclusion. Maybe you’re right, that Bush will be the better leader of the two. I hope so, though I doubt it.)

Then the other shoe dropped. After the election, we heard that voters said there top concern was moral values, which, as near as I can tell, is a euphemism for “biblical values.” As an agnostic-who-is-for-all-intents-and-purposes-and-atheist, I had something of an epiphany upon hearing this: I don’t just live is a different universe from the Iraq-had-WMDs crowd, I live if a different universe from the 61% of Americans who believe the Bible to be literal fact. These people and I don’t just have an honest difference in opinion on political matters, we have entirely different ideas about the very nature of reality itself.

Of course, I’ve always known this dichotomy existed, but, living in this bastion of secular humanism we call Seattle, it’s easy to forget. The results of this election, however, really drove the point home. I felt like George Taylor at the end of The Planet of The Apes, when he sees the Statue of Liberty and realizes that his hopes of “returning” to Earth are dashed — that, in fact, he’s been on Earth all along. “This isn’t a bad day for America,” I said on election night, when CBS showed a map of the nation almost completely colored red. “This is America!”

(A bit melodramatic, I know. But, in my defense, I had been drinking heavily.)

Anyway, I’ve been mulling things over for a week, and I’ve decided that, yes, some good may yet come from this election. Admittedly it’s less “that cloud has a silver lining” and more “judging from that there cloud, it’s gonna piss down rain so hard that we might finally get motivated to fix our leaky roof.” But, that said, here are some reasons for optimism:

  • Off With Their Heads!: This should, by all rights, herald the end of Terry McAuliffe’s reign at the DNC. I’m not one of those guys who hollers “fire the manager!” after every losing season of my hometown baseball team, but McAuliffe is to Democrats what icebergs are to luxury liners. And Bob Shrum! Enough of the Shrum, people! The man is apparently trying to emulate Bush’s career of failing miserably at every undertaking until he somehow lucks into the White House, but maybe (hopefully) after this election no candidate will touch is “people vs. the powerful” class war claptrap with a ten-foot pole.
  • No Scapegoatery: Bush won this election fair and square — no 537 vote margin in Florida, no Supreme Court coronation. Yes: a convincing Bush win is a good thing! Now democrats can’t just point out that their guy got the popular vote and blame their loss on Nader or the judicial branch of government — now they have to engage in some actual self-reflection.
  • Maybe Voters Will Stop Trying To Game The System: And speaking of self-reflection, perhaps– and I realize this is probably too much to ask, but a guy can hope — Democrats will realize that picking a candidate in the primaries based on his supposed “electibility” ain’t such a bright idea. I guess the idea was that them warmonging yokels down south would be so enraptured by Kerry’s purple hearts that they would march to their polling places in a daze and pull the lever for him zombie-style, but I could have told you back in April that that wasn’t gonna pan out. In the future, how about we stop trying to figure out who some chimeric swing voter would like as president and instead concentrate on who we would like as president, eh? And besides, one of the charges often made against Democratic candidates is that they will adopt any position if it’s politically expedient; it doesn’t help when the whole party is adopting candidates because they are politically expedient.
  • Now Bush Has To Clean Up His Own Mess: Let’s face it: a Kerry win would have been a pyrrhic victory at best. With our military stretched so thin, our deficits at an all-time-high, and anti-American sentiment on the rise, Bush has put America so far in the hole that the presidency was something of a poison pill for Kerry. He probably would have spent his entire first (and, more than likely, only) term just putting out Bush fires. And if the US suffered another terrorist attack on Kerry’s watch — even if it was a result of Bush’s policies that have made American’s less safe — that might have sounded the death knell for the Democratic party. Now, Bush is going to have to reap what he has sown. (This “bright side” is somewhat diminished by the fact that all Americans have to reap what Bush has sown, to be sure, but still …)
  • I Will Shut The Hell Up About Politics For A Spell: Possibly the only unalloyed bit of good news to come out of this election is that it has has me so disgruntled about American politics that I plan to rededicate this site to (a) conversations I’ve heard on the bus, (b) true tales of terrors regarding my infant son’s excretory habits, and (c) pictures of my cats. Thank the non-existent Lord for that!

Of course, the most compelling reason for progressives to be optimist is simply this: they have no choice. If progressivism has any defining feature, it’s that its proponents have the imagination to envision a better nation and the courage to work towards it. And in this race, rejecting the Republican’s campaign of fear and smear and instead rallying behind a guy trying to unseat an incumbent president in the middle of a war was an act of optimism unparalleled in recent political history.

Oh, and one last thing. A lot of progressives are joking about “moving to Canada” — myself included . But if you’re one of those folks who insists that they are really, really considering it, please: do us all a favor and go. The Republicans will be happy to see you leave, and the rest of us don’t really need you hanging around and reinforcing the stereotype that liberals (a) are so unpatriotic that they will ditch their nation in a time of need, and (b) feel entitled to the benefits of a government (like, Canada’s) without having to work for it. If you’re “totally serious” about moving this time, then pack up and head for the border, compadre. Otherwise, dig in your heels, roll up your sleeves, gird your loins and get ready to fight, like the rest of us intend to do.