Established in 1991, the Free Speech Coalition is dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of pornography producers, distributors, retailers and performers — individuals who have long been the target of government-led obscenity crackdowns and antipornography crusades. It also oversees a network of national testing sites that screen performers for HIV and sexually transmitted infections to ensure performer safety, providing a model for how organized testing and tracing works.
These networks and connections are ideally suited for combating covid-19. On March 15, the day California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order instructing all nonessential businesses in the state to close, Michelle LeBlanc, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, called for an immediate voluntary production hold for all pornography filmed on set and launched a fundraising drive to financially assist performers and crew affected by the halt. With the support of individual donors and companies like Pornhub, the organization has raised more than $144,000 for worker relief, with donations continuing to roll in.
In many respects, the adult community is better situated than other industries to undertake such an effort. For over a half-century, it has worked together to fight for its First Amendment rights and advocate for the health and safety of performers in the face of concerted government campaigns to censor and undermine it.
While demand for pornographic material has existed for centuries and the government has long attempted to censor material deemed obscene, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a nascent pornography industry began to emerge.
By the late 1960s, sex was increasingly making its way into public view through a rapidly expanding sexual consumer culture and “adults only” media, such as nudie-cuties — plot-driven films featuring sensuous strip teases and naked women — art cinema and low-budget sexploitation films. As American society became more sexually permissive, the result of shifting sexual mores and norms borne out of 1960s countercultural movements, efforts to combat the “smut industry” and its allegedly destructive forces intensified.
Despite these growing concerns, little was actually known about pornography and its effects and what role, if any, government should play in regulating it.
It was against this backdrop that President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1967, established a Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The commission’s mandate was not to go after pornography, but to move beyond popular rhetoric and analyze pornography in a social scientific manner to broaden the factual basis for future discussions and legislative recommendations.
In 1969, as the commission studied, a group of adult film producers, distributors and exhibitors founded the Adult Film Association of America, becoming what one of its founders cheekily described as a kind of “Nudie NATO.” Concerned about ongoing harassment from law enforcement, including vice raids and arrests of theater owners, one of the group’s first actions was to hire three leading First Amendment attorneys who put together a legal kit for members.
In 1970, the commission released its findings, which caused an immediate uproar.
The majority report found no evidence to suggest pornography was harmful and called for the immediate repeal of all laws prohibiting adults from accessing sexual materials. The report’s dissenters described it as a “Magna Carta for the pornographer” and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject it. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, speaking on behalf of the Nixon administration, assured Americans that as long as Richard Nixon was president, “Main Street is not going to turn into Smut Alley.”
The report provoked outrage because it flew in the face of decades of opinion on the dangers of pornography, stoked by pro-censorship groups that viewed such content as undermining the stability of both the family and the nation.
Despite the efforts of these groups, the 1972 release of “Deep Throat” moved hardcore pornography from the cultural margins into the mainstream. The film became a cause celebre and helped usher in the era of “porno chic.” Yet, despite becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time, backlash continued to brew — in part because as more Americans became exposed to pornography more people were inspired to join the fight against it.
Empowered by the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California, which affirmed the place of local community standards for judging whether material was obscene, numerous local jurisdictions tried to ban the film, which only encouraged more people to see it. Feminists also began organizing in opposition to what they saw as pornography’s message of female degradation, presaging the rise of an organized antipornography feminist movement several years later.
The pornography industry remained in legal and political crosshairs throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s. By the mid-1980s, adult video had overtaken film as pornography’s dominant format, moving the viewing of adults-only fare from public theaters into the privacy of people’s homes. To reflect these shifts, the Adult Film Association of America underwent several name changes, becoming the Adult Film and Video Association of America in 1986, before changing its name again to the Adult Video Association. In 1991 the organization merged with the Free Speech Legal Defense Fund to become the Free Speech Coalition.
Alongside these changes, battles over pornography increasingly shifted from the courtroom to the ballot box. By the late 1990s, federal obscenity cases began to dwindle, in large part because of the challenges of pursuing them in the Internet age, in which community standards — murky under the best of circumstances — became even more difficult to define due to the Internet’s geographically unbounded and global reach.
Today, opponents increasingly position pornography as a public health crisis, and strategies to contain its allegedly harmful effects are focused in the legislative arena, such as Measure B, the 2012 ballot initiative in Los Angeles County, which made condoms mandatory for all adult films shot there, and Prop 60, a similar statewide measure, which, had it passed in 2016, would have allowed California residents to sue individual performers for not wearing condoms.
While some claim to be driven by public health concerns, others argue such measures are an effort to destroy the industry by making it more difficult to work.
The organization of the adult industry itself has also changed dramatically over the past two decades. Due to various economic and technological shifts, including the 2008 economic crash, rampant piracy and the availability of free Internet porn, the traditional studio system has waned. By contrast, adult webcamming and clip sites, such as OnlyFans and ManyVids, which can be shot from the comfort of one’s home and allow for personalized content, greater interactivity and performer control, have flourished. Today, porn stars are better thought of as what one researcher describes as “porntropreneurs,” small business owners who are responsible for shooting and marketing their own content, and building and maintaining their personal brands across a number of different social media platforms.
Given this decentralization, the Free Speech Coalition is doing what it can to keep performers safe and provide some economic relief to those most in need during this uncertain time. As Mike Stabile, the organization’s director of communications noted in an interview, the adult community has long relied on taking care of itself and has built an infrastructure to do so. “We are not necessarily going to be saved by some outside benevolent force.”
Covid-19 may prove to be, in Stabile’s words, a “real inflection point” for the industry, not only in terms of its response, but also in positioning performers as small business owners and the real center of the industry.
If so, the Free Speech Coalition will probably continue to adapt, providing the resources and support these small businesses need to fend off industry critics and weather this uncertain time as safely as possible.