Michael Kirk
Michael Kirk
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'American Porn'
With Michael Kirk, Producer/Director, "Frontline"
Danni Ashe, Adult entertainer/Internet entrepreneur
Friday, Feb. 8, 2002; 11 a.m. EST

It's one of the hottest industries in America. Easier to order at home than a pizza, it's arguably the most profitable enterprise in cyberspace. And with estimates as high as $10 billion a year, it boasts the kind of earnings every American business envies.

Danni Ashe
Danni Ashe

It's pornography -- and with adult movies, magazines, retail stores, and the growth of the Internet -- business is booming. But the leaders of the adult industry are worried that President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft will show a renewed interest in obscenity prosecutions. FRONTLINE's "American Porn," airing on PBS Thursday, Feb. 7, at 9 p.m. EST, reports on the explosion of sexually explicit material available in American society and investigates the pending political battle that may engulf the multibillion-dollar pornography industry.

Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk produced the program, and was online to talk about the film and the industry on Friday, Feb. 8. Joining him was Danni Ashe, CEO of Danni's Hard Drive, one of the most successful adult sites on the Web.

Kirk, a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, was Frontline’s senior producer from 1983 to 1987, and has produced more than 100 national television programs. He was online in November to discuss "Gunning for Saddam," and in October to talk about "Target America." Other films include "The Clinton Years," a week-long co-production with ABC News on the presidency of Bill Clinton that aired in January 2001; "The Choice 2000," comparing the lives, beliefs and experiences of Vice President Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush; "The Killer at Thurston High," the first comprehensive TV profile of high school shooter Kip Kinkel; and "The Navy Blues," a 1996 Emmy Award-winning look at the post-Tailhook Navy.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Mr. Kirk and Ms. Ashe, and welcome. In his appointments, President Bush has been very politically savvy, and his choice of John Ashcroft to be attorney general is widely regarded as a means to work with conservatives. How serious do you think this administration is about obscenity prosecutions, and how much has that agenda changed since Sept. 11?

Michael Kirk: What I know is that prior to Sept. 11, there was supposed to be an announcement by the attorney general of a major anti-pornography initiative from the federal government, working closely with local prosecutors. That announcement was supposed to come out on Sept. 16. If we back up just prior to Sept. 11, we can remember that there were headlines about the Bush administration announcing a new values campaign. That all was overtaken by the tragic events of Sept. 11. What they tell us is that they're focused and determined on the war on terror. But there are, as always, hints that this particular attorney general in this particular administration is not entirely sympathetic to an unfettered adult industry.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Question 1 to Danni:

Has your organization considered to move part of its business to Canada? Montreal is an extremely open minded cosmopolitan city and represents a safe haven for the adult industry.

Question 2 to Danni:

Your Web sites are generally rated as being "softcore." Is your enterprise less at risk than the other "hardcore" sites on the Internet? Do you fear the Bush administration and Attorney General Ashcroft's determination to eradicate the American porn industry?

Danni Ashe: No, I don't feel like I'm terribly at risk. I do know that are a lot of adult Web sites moving across the border to Toronto -- there are a number of large adult companies in Toronto and in Montreal as well.

Michael Kirk: I don't think that many people in the Justice Department see people in the adult business as "good pornographers" or "bad pornographers." And it would take a long time before they ever even tried to make a case against someone like Danni. And they've all said absolutely not.

Boston, Mass.: Why didn't the "Frontline" special even mention Playboy Enterprises? It's clear that many of the issues in the special -- Internet porn, "extreme" video porn, access to free images off the Internet, competition from new and upcoming providers -- are affecting the bottom line of, arguably, America's most famous purveyor of female nudity. I would also be curious to hear Danni Ashe's opinion of Playboy.com or the troubles faced by Playboy Inc.

Danni Ashe: I think Playboy tries very hard to distance itself from the rest of the industry. They don't think of themselves as an "adult" company. They think of themselves as an entertainment and lifestyle company. Christy Hefner is visibly uncomfortable with the content, and I think in a lot of ways that probably hurts them, because they're not supporting what they're doing. -- Danni Ashe

Michael Kirk: We had many conversations during the making of the film with Playboy. We followed Playboy's re-purchase of the explicit Hot Network from Vivid, thereby acknowledging that they had to commit themselves to harder core product ... even though they don't want to talk about it. The proof that they don't want to talk about it is that they won't talk about it on camera.

Newark, Ohio: Danni, Ms. Ashe, I have seen you for years now and you are more beautiful now then in the adult mags from seven or eight years ago. How do you do it and can I have some of it?. Philip

Danni Ashe: Thank you. No smoking, get lots of sleep and I swear by Alpha Hydrox and sunscreen.

Sacramento, Calif.: For Michael Kirk: I have been a porn consumer for 25 years and I know that subjects like incest, bestiality, and rape make up only a very small part of today's pornography. So why did you chose to spend so much of your programs time dealing with these obscure porn subjects? It seemed to me that you were going from objective reporting to sensationalism.

Michael Kirk: We didn't spend very much time on that -- maybe a minute, so that's 1/50th of the program. We went into the fetish area because Bill Asher from Vivid told us that it was a growth area -- it represents 40-50 percent of the growth of his business.

Danni Ashe: I have to say that the "blood, goats and kids" comment from the prosecutor was absurd. A lot of times prosecutors will use comments like that and kiddie to inflame and polarize the issue. It's an illegal fringe, and it's not really part of the industry. I think it has a lot to do with the fracturing of the media -- we used to have three networks and PBS. Now their are niches. It also happens in porn.

Michael Kirk: Every single person we talked to, including Rob Black and Lizzy Borden, said that all illegal behavior -- bestiality, kiddie porn -- should all be prosecuted to the extent of the law.

New York, N.Y.: This question is directed to Ms Ashe. I thought one of the comments that you made in the program was among the most insightful, you said; "we live in a society that still feels that sex is taboo and porn is taboo, yet porn is available, put the two together and you get a billion dollar industry." That raises the question that perhaps the changing attitudes toward sex and nudity that has led to the growth of the industry could eventually be the industry's downfall. In other words, can the porn industry so completely saturate its market that it transforms that market into one that no longer finds the product appealing?


Danni Ashe: I don't think you're ever going to get to a world where people find sex unappealing. But I think you're going to find that rabid desire will subside. People want what they can't have, and the more you tell them they can't have it, the more they want it. It drives the rabid desire from the content. I think some day when our culture can relax and people can have what they want, it will be more normal. As soon as you allow yourself to have whatever you want, you'll start to crave something more healthy.

Michael Kirk: Take it from a television producer who spent six months in a room with hard-core pornography, all I want to do is hold hands.

Danni Ashe: That's the best argument against prosecutions. If you just let the market correct itself -- people are pretty intelligent, and they can make the right choices for themselves.

Wheaton, Ill.: How does the First Amendment affect the persecution/prosecution of the producers of adult material?

B>Michael Kirk: The First Amendment is a powerful and potent argument against persecution by the government of what's called protected speech and self expression, and it is the first and probably the most formidable defense from prosecutors of this material -- or any material. And it may be the most important cornerstone of our democracy. And it's why those people are in Afghanistan right now.

Danni Ashe: This is the most important point of obscenity prosecution. To borrow a phrase from Larry Flynt, no matter how much you dislike what I say and what I publish, if you want your freedom of speech you have to defend mine. If you take mine away, who's to say if you let them prosecute me, that your ideals won't be next?

Michael Kirk: And of course, the prosecutors would answer and did answer Larry Flynt by saying unless the speech that someone wants to protect is illegal, or yelling fire in a crowded theater -- their argument is that he's doing that's just incindiary. Once upon a time, hundreds of juries agreed with them. Now it's just more problematic.

One of the reasons we made the film and the reason it's an interesting discussion right now is that there are forces in the government that believe that as long as there is an obscenity standard unchallenged in society that their job is to enforce that law. That law bumps right up against the First Amendment, and it's up to juries to decide if it meets community standards. The Internet presents a challenge -- what is the community? If a case is brought, that's what it will be about. In Adam Glasser's case in Los Angeles, his attorneys want to bring in 30 years of pornography, including "Sex and the City," to show how standards have changed and are changing.

Cincinnati, Ohio: What is "local community" when you have the Internet?

Michael Kirk: That's the thing we said in the film last night -- who can even define a community anymore? It used to be much easier for prosecutors to get convictions -- most people had never even seen hard core pornography before. So you show them "Behind the Green Door" or "Debbie Does Dallas" and they would be so shocked that they would find those materials obscene and anybody who sold them in violation of the law. Juries like that have become harder and harder to empanel through the '70s, '80s and '90s, because the VCR, cable, satellites and now the Internet, have brought pornography into everyone's home.

Danni Ashe: If there's some community in the Bible Belt that says we don't want those movies in our community, the video store would no longer carry it. It's much harder with the Internet. It puts an unfair burden on operators of Web sites to block their sites community by community.

Michael Kirk: And so, prosecutors will face a much more difficult and uphill battle "shocking" jurors into finding guilty verdicts. It seems like we've agreed that what people do in the privacy of their home is up to them.

Sterling:, Va. Hey, I don't particularly mind porn that is straight up porn -- on a secured pay-per-view type Web site or cable channel. What really upsets me is seeing NBC and other major networks showing near-porn (i.e., Playboy "Fear Factor" during the Super Bowl). Families never know what they are viewing these days. I have kids and this near-porn stuff makes me squirm, especially at prime-time.

Michael Kirk: This is the argument that even Larry Flynt made last night -- he made it from the other perspective. It is the age-old tale that standards are slipping everywhere. The more unfettered material, the freer things on this side are to go there. Therefore, "Sex and the City" and "Real Sex" on HBO force the networks in a competitive business community seeking viewers to loosen their standards and practices. The other end of the argument is the Rob Black argument, which says if network television is looser, and HBO goes a little further than that, then I have to go a lot further than that in order to attract customers. So from the prosecutors' point of view, it's very much a chicken-and-egg situation, and their solution, of course, is to cut off the most extreme end with the hope that it will have a ripple effect on all entertainment.

Danni Ashe: Here's what I don't understand: Why aren't we taking Britney Spears to task over marketing sexuality to little girls? This is being targeted at men during the Super Bowl. Why is it Britney just fine?

Falls Church, Va.: As I was watching your "Frontline" special I realized half-way through that you only focused on female porn actresses/models (what gets them into the industry, how they get paid, how they slowly escalate their involvement to get into the big money) but never really discussed any men in the industry other than the "porn kingpins." I've seen a couple of videos in my day, and I'm sure I saw a few male actors peppered about here and there. So why didn't we hear about their experiences in the industry at all? The documentary seemed to have a very male viewpoint in that it only focused on the female actresses. So my question is, what about the men in front of the camera? Were their stories just not very interesting?

Danni Ashe: I do think that there is sort of a subtle feeling that women who become sexualized immediately become devalued and thereby victimized in our culture's mind. We don't have the same feeling about men.

Michael Kirk: Everyone we talked to about the performers were producers and directors in the business, and their primary concern was a trend toward younger and younger women working in the business. What Cromer, Flynt and even Rob Black were talking about was that they felt there was an imperative to find younger and younger actresses.

Danni Ashe: I think there is a real demand for girls who look young. And there's almost a hysteria about pedophilia -- we all agree that it's a crime and it's a terrible thing when it happens. But it's almost an equal an opposite reaction -- a real desire to see young girls in porn -- to find something taboo.

Michael Kirk: The question is when you're 18, can you really give consent and know what you're doing? That's the question. It was really about the age of these performers and the lifespan of a female performer in the business.

Boston, Mass.: What information do you have on the lives of female porn actors AFTER they've been performers? Do they save their money, go domestic, become our "normal neighbors"? Are they better off than ballet dancers, for example?

Danni Ashe: The best analogy is to say that being a performer is like starting in the mailroom at a corporation and working your way up.

A lot of women get into dancing, modeling, movies to make money, work their way through college, and then to move on and to do the things they want to do in their lives. That's the vast majority of the girls in the industry -- they get into it for six months and then move on.

Then there are those who stay in the industry and work their way up and take on some other role -- producer, makeup artist, etc.

Then there are always those people who get stuck. You can stay in the business too long and you never get anywhere. There are the sad cases of the people who never get out of the mailroom.

Smithtown, N.Y.: What is the survival rate of people who participate in the creation of pornography? I guess what I am asking is what is the psychological effects on some of these young people, and how does it manifest itself in their adult lives?

Danni Ashe: One of the things I know I've dealt with as a performer that you really don't expect -- you don't realize really how the stigma is going to affect you. The first time somebody doesn't want to rent you an apartment because you're a stripper, the side glances you get because you're a stripper. That's difficult to deal with. You have to have a very strong character to believe in yourself and not let that affect you. A lot of times you see people become the stereotype, because they buy into it. You become what people expect of you. And you do see that happen.

One of the things I'm trying so hard to do is to elevate the status of women in the industry, and see them be perceived as the human beings as they are -- as intelligent, good people. -- Danni Ashe

Michael Kirk: I might refer you to our site, where the movie is being streamed -- you can watch the section on performers and get another perspective. It questions how long someone's career is, the imperative to do more and varied things to keep your income at a certain level. Frontline Web site.

Baton Rouge, La.: Mr. Kirk,

Thank you for a fantastic documentary. I would like to know what inspired you to pursue an investigation of this topic. Also, what percentage of the porn industry is represented by the Extreme producers (Lizzie Borden)? To what extent do you think children are exploited by this industry?

Michael Kirk: We did the film because the adult business is a great business story, from hundreds of millions to billions. It's a great political story, especially with such a sea change in presidential administrations from President Clinton to President Bush. And it's a great cultural story, because it allows us to examine the American attitude toward sex and sexuality on a range from Danni's Hard Drive to Rob Black and Lizzy Borden.

Danni's site speaks for itself and will probably always prosper and exist. As to what Rob Black and Lizzy Borden do, they are on the cutting edge of potential prosecutions. They are not engaging in patently obvious illegal activity in the sense that there are no children involved, no animals involved. It is, by their own admission, material designed to break even porn's taboos. Whether that's illegal or not (obscene or not) is something prosecutors and ultimately the people of Los Angeles sitting on a jury, will have to decide. If it ever comes to that.

Now, as to Veronica Caine, the actress -- we did speak to Veronica a week later. Her comments about her own life expectations after the adult business are included in our film last night. And she told us that she was "fine" after the scene.

Danni Ashe: I think it's a very fringe element -- it's a very small part of the business, and obviously it gets a lot of attention. Of course, anti-porn crusaders want people to see that -- they want people to think it's all like that. The vast majority of the business isn't getting anywhere near subjects like that. The large producers are worried that it's not going to be good for the industry.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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