Friday, December 9, 2005

The Bush Administration’s War on BDSM OR Washington’s War on BDSM

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #275, December 9, 2005)

GRAPHIC: Leather Pride flag with “CENSORED” stamped over it

Things are not going well for the Bush administration. The war in Iraq, Gulf Coast natural disasters, an out-of-control budget deficit and a growing list of Washington scandals are spotlighting this administration’s gross incompetence and crass indifference.

But do you know what’s really wrong with America? There’s too much porn on the internet.

And your government is taking bold steps against it. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently announced his office will specifically target “bestiality, urination, defecation, as well as sadistic and masochistic behavior.” Federal sentencing guidelines state any obscenity-related punishment should be “enhanced for sadomasochistic material.”

Recently the Department of Justice began recruiting new staff to pursue obscenity prosecutions and the FBI announced it was forming an anti-obscenity task force. (We can’t find enough people to translate Arabic terrorist messages, but we evidently can find enough people to investigate porn.)

Since 2001, forty people and businesses have been convicted of obscenity and 20 additional indictments are pending. (There were only four obscenity prosecutions during the eight years of the Clinton administration.)

Several BDSM web sites have been raided recently. Others, such as Bound & Gagged and BeautyBound.com, have voluntarily suspended operations. Still others, including goth/porn site SuicideGirls.com, have started censoring themselves rather than risk the attention of federal authorities.

Our community’s stories in text form are no safer than our images. The erotic-fiction web site Red Rose Stories is facing obscenity charges after federal agents raided the owner’s home on Oct. 3.

How did we get to this point? One of the criteria for obscenity, according to the legal definition in use since 1973, is that the material “is patently offensive under local community standards.”

But how to reconcile 1973’s “local community standards” with the global nature of the internet in 2005? Under current law, the most restrictive community’s standards can effectively be applied (and have, in fact, been applied) to the entire nation. Even if a web site is based in California, it can be viewed in Tennessee, so Tennessee’s standards can be used to shut it down.

In 2001 the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) and Barbara Nitke, a New York City artist and photographer, filed a court challenge to overturn these obscenity laws on the grounds that they are overbroad, and therefore unconstitutional. (The case, now called Nitke v. Gonzales, is currently being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

At the start of the case, NCSF spokesperson Susan Wright said the goal of the lawsuit was “to overturn this unconstitutional provision before this administration tries to score political points by attempting to enforce it.”

Four years later, what Wright feared is coming true. The current administration is overzealously tightening the screws on what it considers obscenity both by enforcing existing laws more vigorously and by revamping and tightening regulations.

Case in point: “18 USC Section 2257,” which started as a measure to curtail child pornography, has recently been expanded in an effort to shut down other kinds of pornography as well.

Originally put into effect in 1990, 18 USC 2257 mandated that producers of pornographic material be able to prove that all models or performers depicted are at least 18 years old. The law came about after 15-year-old Traci Lords used fake ID to start her porn career.

The revised 18 USC 2257 that went into effect July 23, 2005, targets not only producers of pornographic material but also “secondary distributors” including webmasters. Any web site displaying material depicting sexual activity must maintain, and have available for inspection, the exact same documentation as the producer of the material.

That documentation includes a copy of a state- or federal-government-issued photo ID for everyone pictured on their site. There are no exceptions, even if the people shown are obvious senior citizens.

The penalty for not being able to show the Porn Gestapo the proper papers is steep—up to ten years in federal prison per violation. No wonder many web site operators feel they have no choice but to shut down or water down their sites.

All this reminds me of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. After the government made examples of a few artists and intellectuals, the remaining artists and intellectuals censored themselves for years. At the time we in America thought that was shameful and tragic—yet here we are now doing basically the same thing.

It’s time to get mad, get informed, and get visible and vocal. NCSF estimates that 20 million Americans engage in some form of BDSM. Today BDSM is being criminalized. Tomorrow it might be nudity, or dungeon toys, or who knows what. (There are already reports of pornography that goes beyond “normal pornography” being confiscated at airports by the U.S. Customs Service.)

Bob Wingate, publisher of Bound & Gagged, ended his website’s closing statement by saying, “Let us each, individually and together, stand up loud and clear for our civil rights. We will only have ourselves to blame if we lose them.”

Write your elected representatives. Vote intelligently in 2006. And make a contribution to cover NCSF’s lawsuit expenses at <www.ncsfreedom.org/donations.htm>.

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