The International Conference on Pornography
I just got back from the International Conference on Pornography, an action-packed event co-sponsored by UC Northridge and the Free Speech Coalition. When I say “action-packed” I don’t mean that it was especially pornographic; there were plenty of porn performers in attendance, sure, but most of them kept their clothes on the whole time, and many delivered papers or addresses to audiences of scholars scribbling notes. Can’t quite picture it? If you eroticize braininess, as I do, you might have found yourself swooning not only over some of the academics who were present (keynote speaker and ACLU president Nadine Strossen, in particular, is a whip-smart, sex-positive heartthrob), but also over many of the porn stars — some of those gals and guys would be at home behind a podium in any college or professional sexuality organization in the land.
Let me go back to the beginning. The University of California at Northridge is home to the Center for Sex Research, an academic department that, among its many other activities, has hosted interesting interdisciplinary sexuality conferences. Several years ago it held one on transgender issues; in early 1997 it sponsored ICOP, the International Conference on Prostitution. The International Conference on Pornography is its latest project. (Actually, calling these conferences international is pretty misleading; international representation is the conferences’ weakest spot, and there were not many people attending from outside the US and Canada.)
What the Northridge conferences have in common, and what distinguishes them from many other sexuality-related conferences, is the mix of participants. They are academic conferences, no question about that, with plenty of researchers, professors, and other professionals delivering papers and lectures. But there is always a much larger group of, pardon the lingo, laypeople at these events than you would find at, say, The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality or another such conference. The CSR folks actively recruit participation by the people the conference is “studying,” so there were many people affiliated with the porn world in attendance. Adding an extra dimension to the discussion, a number of first amendment attorneys also attended.
I noticed no obvious anti-porn participation, unless you count the presence of Larry Flynt’s daughter outside with a picket sign. These days, this is typical. Anti-porn activists (including the academic ones) now usually refuse to appear on the same podium as pro-porn or “porn-comfortable” speakers, especially those with ties to the sex-positive feminist movement. The absence of participants who are actively disapproving of porn let the discussions unfold in a much less defensive way, and interestingly, I think we heard more criticism of porn from inside the industry than we would have if anti-porn folks had been present.
Industry participation was broad — several of our favorite “Golden Age” stars were there, including Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle, Veronica Hart, Sharon Mitchell, Richard Pacheco, Gloria Leonard, and Vanessa Del Rio. I even glimpsed Georgina Spelvin at a party, though as far as I know she didn’t appear on any conference panels. Ron Jeremy, “the most recognized man in America,” introduced himself to me after one of my panels. Shaking hands with the Hedgehog! (I’ll tell you, it’s surreal meeting a person whose penis you’ve frequently seen on film.) Many of our current industry friends were present too. Nina Hartley, of course, is the kind of “big sister” to many current stars that the Golden Age stars were to her. Juli Ashton, whom you may know from Playboy TV as well as from her video work, was there, as were Shayla Laveaux, Kristi Lake, Luc Wylder, Gino Colbert (the talented gay director), Ed Powers, and many others. Producers and higher-ups were mostly, it seemed to me, conspicuous by their absence, though there was a fairly substantial presence of small-to-medium entrepreneurs whose business medium is the Web.
Several adult products businesses were represented, too, including Good Vibrations — I spoke for us on a panel called “The Scope of Mail Order Erotica,” talking shop with people from Homegrown Video, Adam and Eve, the Stockroom, and others. Just before the conference we heard that Alabama had outlawed sex toys — though, as the ACLU representatives present assured us, that law is already being challenged. Still, even though we were surrounded by friends and interested academics, the chilly climate out in the world was never far from our minds. It was my impression that the degree of legitimacy bestowed by the conference on those whose work is denigrated and even legally threatened meant a great deal to the adult industry participants — especially the performers. They may not get called into court as frequently as distributors, but their sexuality is really in the public domain, subject to comment and criticism from all sides.
For me the high point of the conference was the opening night’s performance, “Pornocopia,” hosted and curated by Annie Sprinkle and Candida Royalle, longtime friends who have supported one another as they grew beyond the confines of the traditional adult industry. Other performers included Candye Kane (my favorite blues singer, a big juicy bisexual ex-porno babe), Henry Mach, a gay man who spent several years in the ’70s writing hetero porn books (now you know why the sex in those things doesn’t sound quite realistic!), transgendered porn sensation Geoffrey Karen Dior, Veronica Vera, Richard Pacheco — and me, with an excerpt from my solo performance “Peep Show.” It was an absolute thrill to share the stage with so many of my heroes and inspirations.
If you want to know more about what went on at PornoCon, check the winter issue of Libido magazine, where I’ll be writing a longer report. And in November of this year I’ll present a new clips show, “Beyond Boogie Nights: The Golden Age of the Blue Movie,” featuring a panel of some of our favorite stars, so locals can stay tuned for more about that. In the meantime, a careful scan of our catalogs will reveal videos and books by many of the above-named artists, so if you’re interested in a crash course on intelligent porn and the sex-positive thinkers whose roots are in the adult industry, you’ve come to the right place.