Porn Goes Mainstream

  • Even among hard-core pornographers, Rob Black is considered a sleazebag. His movies are packed with images that the porn industry itself has long censored (rape, drug use, hitting women with dead fish), and he gleefully rebels against the industry's recent agreement to have its stars use condoms. At last month's Video Software Dealers Association convention, held in 115[degree] Las Vegas heat, Black, 25, stands in a black suit with a black sweater, his face multipierced and satanically goateed. His mother, a plump, pleasant-looking nurse from Rochester, N.Y., bursts into the curtained-off adult section of the convention floor toting her favorite actor, Shemar Moore, who plays Malcolm on The Young and the Restless. "I said to him, 'I'm Rob Black's mother. Do you know who he is?'" she squeals to her son. "And he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You want to meet him?' And he said, 'Sure!'"

    Although emotional mother-son scenes are still rare in the porn industry, the conflation of mainstream entertainment and hard-core films is not. As porn-video rentals and sales have steadily grown into a $4.2 billion-a-year business (nearly 14% of all video transactions and more than a quarter of the home-video industry's revenue), the mainstream media have started to cash in on the growing celebrity of hard-core performers. Howard Stern, Jerry Springer and the E! channel regularly feature porn stars as guests on their TV shows, while film directors like Spike Lee and John Frankenheimer use them in cameos as a hip name check. The industry's reigning star, Jenna Jameson, told TIME she's quitting the business to pursue a clothes-on acting career. Having become a World Wrestling Federation manager and landed a speaking part in Stern's film Private Parts, Jameson says she is receiving scripts unsolicited. "Nowadays it's kind of a cool thing to have adult stars in other movies," she says. "It's the right time for someone like me to hit in Hollywood."

    The major players in the porn industry are so confident of their growing acceptability that they seemed unfazed when New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani padlocked sex shops this month in Times Square. That's because most of the industry's money is made in suburban video stores. Almost as much is earned on cable-TV systems that make sexually explicit films available on pay-per-view and adult channels. Steve Hirsch, president of Los Angeles-based Vivid Video, the world's largest producer of adult films, dismisses the loss of Times Square: "We're not going to lose any customers."

    Vivid, with $25 million in annual sales, has focused on producing couples-friendly, plot-heavy 35-mm films costing up to $200,000 and selling them to the Playboy Channel, the Spice Channel, Spectravision systems in hotel rooms, and foreign television. With Playboy, Vivid co-owns AdulTVision, an adult-movie channel available on many cable systems. And Vivid is negotiating with Playboy to buy Hot Spice, a new hard-core cable channel.

    At retail, the selling of porn has become less lurid. Vivid is happy to peddle videotapes in a more Main Street manner through the Adam & Eve catalog, which is mailed to 2.5 million people a month, and Tower and Virgin record stores, where the "Vivid girls" have done signings. Castle Superstores, a chain of eight Wal-Mart-size outlets in the West, is trying to bring a sense of class to the business. By getting rid of peep shows and strippers, the Castle stores have been able to attract a clientele that is nearly 50% couples, much higher than the 20% most stores get. "People want to have a retail-shopping experience," says Castle CEO Taylor Coleman, "but they end up having to go to some scummy section of town. The 'I'm O.K., this place is O.K.' issue is very important to us."

    The industry got these opportunities to open up to a larger audience partly because young adults grew up with VCRs, cable TV and the Internet and thus have been exposed to more adult material. And the AIDS epidemic has prompted a turn to voyeurism as a prudent alternative to sex. But an equally big factor, say the porn manufacturers, is that since Bill Clinton took office, the Justice Department hasn't prosecuted any new interstate transportation of obscenity cases.

    So the video companies have started to market their products more aggressively. For big releases, there are screenings and premiere parties. VCA, one of the four big adult-film companies, has put promotional billboards along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Vivid has placed ads at the Burbank airport as well as along Sunset. Vivid's actresses also appear in ads for Fresh Jive clothing and Black Flys sunglasses.

    Intellectuals have just about accepted pornography's place in pop culture. This month's World Pornography Conference in Los Angeles, sponsored by California State University at Northridge, included a Georgetown University professor talking about "Gonzo Pornography." Keynote speaker Nadine Strossen, president of the A.C.L.U. and author of Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights, says, "My very strong impression is that the tide has turned." Of the $10 billion sex industry, she says, "It's not 10 perverts spending $1 billion a year."

    Even antiporn feminist Andrea Dworkin thinks the battle has been lost. "People don't have a sense of outrage that women are hurt. They don't seem to care," she says. Her 1979 tract, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, just went out of print for lack of buyers. "It makes me ill, but it may be related to who's winning and who's losing here. Larry Flynt isn't facing the demise of Hustler." Her colleague Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon agrees. "Society has made the decision they want the abuse to continue rather than to stop."

    From the evidence, it would seem that society is downright masochistic. Pamela Anderson's and Tommy Lee's homemade video of their lovemaking became the best-selling porn tape of all time, with more than 200,000 copies sold. After the success of Boogie Nights and The People vs. Larry Flynt, a rash of producers--even Ron Howard--tried to put together movies about the porn industry. Next month Orgazmo, a porn-industry spoof by South Park co-creator Trey Parker, will be released, with a sizable part for fat, hirsute porn star Ron Jeremy. Jeremy, easily the most recognizable figure in adult filmdom, exploits his fame better than anyone, branding his fat, hirsute face on cigars, beer, Porn-Star brand T shirts, and, of course, a sex toy based on his anatomy.

    Though all this may recall the porn chic of the '70s that sent well-dressed couples into art houses to see Deep Throat, the current trend is without the self-aware camp of the earlier one. The porn stars going mainstream are doing it slowly, in cameos or roles in small independent films, without the freak-show p.r. that trumpeted Traci Lords. Nina Hartley, a porn performer for 14 years, says people are "not using pornography to say how hip they are; they're using it to improve their sex life." Or more likely, as a substitute for one.

    Actor-director Brad Armstrong--the only porn star to ever change his name to Brad from Rod--says the trend will continue because "in mainstream you're seeing a lot more nude stuff and a lot more sexually explicit films. That's piqued some interest." And Candida Royalle, a '70s porn star who makes female-oriented erotica through her company, Femme Productions, says advertising, movies and TV have made porn seem less shocking: "If people are going to have sex thrown in their face, then they want the real thing too."

    Or the really scary thing. As the four major adult-film companies--Vivid, VCA, Wicked and the NASDAQ-traded Metro--focus on couple-friendly, cable-ready fare, tape rentals and sales are booming for gonzo films, often shot in Eastern Europe and far rawer than anything seen before. Black, who rules in the shock department, sends his mother copies of his movies with the sex scenes edited out. Even then, she says, "I have gotten after him for the things that he's done in some of these movies. I said, 'Rob, I don't want to see any more movies with pregnant women in them. That's so tacky.' He said, 'O.K., Mom. O.K.'"