Review: The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships

The Price of Pleasure–a new documentary airing this week at the Wealthy Theatre–offers an important look at the pornography industry and the impact it has on people’s lives.

The Price of Pleasure - Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships

Pornography is one of those issues that either becomes framed as a matter of free speech or morality. Those who oppose it often are labeled as anti-sex feminists. However, there are new voices and new perspectives that are trying to draw attention to the violence in both the production and consumption of pornography.

In a new documentary The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships, the directors provide a fresh look at an industry that now has an estimated 420 million websites, produces 13,000 new DVDs every year, and is completely intertwined with mainstream media. The Price of Pleasure does not necessarily draw strong conclusions, but it does raise important questions about the pornography industry and what impact it is having in the US.

The documentary begins with a look at how pornography went from being a marginal business that tended to be viewed with scorn to a multi-billion dollar industry that boasts its own lobby. The porn lobby, known as the Free Speech Coalition, challenged legal rulings and some significant cases in the 1990s, particularly cases that paved the way for the power that the Internet would provide the industry as a mechanism for distribution. Now pornography is part of the capitalist landscape with media companies like Time Warner and NewsCorp profiting off partnerships with the porn industry.

Other issues raised in the documentary are how pornography makes commodities out of women & men, the racist elements of pornography, and new trends in pornography, such as “Dorm porn.” Dorm porn is a growing phenomenon where college students are making porn as a way of paying for tuition.

One of the most revealing aspects of the documentary was a study done by students and faculty of the New School, where they looked at the most popular porn videos to make some determinations about the content. Pornography defenders have long argued that anti-porn activists always use the “worst” porn examples and make it look like this is all porn. However, as Robert Jensen and Gail Dines have shown in their research, the bulk of porn produced now is what might have been called “extreme” years ago. This is exactly what the researchers from the New School discovered, that the most popular porn videos that were being rented in the US had extreme content. The researchers found that in 89% of the videos they viewed, verbal and physical violence was central to the production.

The documentary includes voices from those in the porn industry, former porn industry workers, researchers, and activists. It is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to understand what the industry is and what impact it can have on our lives.

You can view the trailer online and come to a public screening this Wednesday, January 7 at the Micro-Cinema in the Wealthy Theatre at 7pm.

Interview with Robert Jensen

This interview with Robert Jensen is based upon his new book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Media Mouse asks Professor Jensen a wide range of questions dealing with the impact that pornography has on men, how to analyze pornography through a media literacy lens, and what is the relationship between the anti-pornography movement and other social justice movements.

Federal Court Upholds Ordinance Regulating “Sexually Oriented Businesses”

According to the corporate press, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday that a Grand Rapids ordinance regulating so-called “Sexually Oriented Businesses” is legal and dismissed a lawsuit filed by the owners of two sexploitation businesses, Herb Newhouse of the Little Red Barn Adult Theatre and Sensations and Showgirl Galleria owner Mark London. United States District Court judge Robert Holmes Bell issued a 38-page ruling in which he rejected arguments that the ordinance violates the First Amendment and oversteps the City of Grand Rapids’ authority. Additionally, Bell rejected Newhouse’s allegation of conspiracy on the part of Judy Rose and the Michigan Decency Action Council for their funding of the city’s legal bills. In his opinion, Bell wrote that the prior rulings at the federal appellate level allow the city to regulate so-called sexually oriented businesses to prevent their “secondary effects” including crime, prostitution, drug use, and blight. Bell wrote that “the Ordinance imposes restrictions that are narrowly tailored to serve that interest. It necessarily follows from those determinations that the Ordinance is neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

According to the Grand Rapids Press, Newhouse has already filed paperwork for an appeal with the federal appeals court seeking an injunction to stop the resolution. Newhouse has been perhaps the most vocal of the local sexploitation club owners in fighting the ordinance and publicly claimed the he will defy the resolution because it is costing 80% of “his” profits. The Grand Rapids Press stated on Monday that there were acts taking place in Newhouse’s club in September that appeared to violate the ordinance according to police and city commissioners, although the Assistant City Attorney said that they were not infractions.

Libertarians Award Strip Club Owner “Guardian of Liberty Award”

Over the weekend, the Libertarian Party of West Michigan awarded local strip club owner Mark London their “Guardian of Liberty Award” for his ongoing legal battles with the city over the opening of his Showgirl Galleria club. The political party—which is to the right of the Republican Party on many issues—gave the award to London because they admired his willingness to take on the city government and praised him as a “Small Businessman” working to preserve free speech and property rights. According to an article about the award published in the Grand Rapids Press, London used to be the treasurer of the Kent County Republican Party and ran for the Michigan House of Representatives in 1982, but gave up his political activities once he got in the sexploitation business. On the Party’s website, the Libertarians approved of London’s speech in which he called for a balanced budget, limited government, and free enterprise. They also expressed confidence that London would support Libertarian candidates in the future.

Strip Club Owner Says He will Defy Grand Rapids’ Rules

According to reporting today in the Grand Rapids Press, Herb Newhouse, owner of the Red Barn Adult Theatre, will defy the city’s resolution restricting adult entertainment. Newhouse is quoted as saying that the resolution banning “all nude entertainment” and requires dancers to remain six-feet from patrons, is costing his 34-year old business $2,200 per day (or 80%). Newhouse says that with a maximum fine of $500 per ordinance violation, that it makes financial sense to defy the resolution. The Grand Rapids Press says that Newhouse “plans to tell his dancers to do business as usual, including performing lap dances.” WZZM 13 further reported that Newhouse is altering the physical layout of his club in order to attempt to setup his strip club in such a way that it no longer falls under the “sexually oriented business” classification subject to regulation. To this end, Newhouse is installing a wall to separate his adult bookstore and peep show from the dance club and is having dancers remain “partially clothed” which he believes will permit the club to offer lap dances and remain open all night. Mayor George Heartwell was quoted in the Press article saying that the courts have said that the ordinance is enforceable and that Newhouse can expect to police officers to visit his business, a legal threat to which WOOD TV 8 quoted Newhouse as saying “Let ‘em in. Have ‘em arrest me”

As has typically been the case in the corporate media’s coverage of the city’s adult entertainment resolution, there was no substantive discussion in any of the recent stories about why such a resolution was passed or how women working in the industry are treated. The corporate media has entirely ignored the relationship of strip clubs and other sex industry businesses to patriarchy, despite the fact today’s Grand Rapids Press article in particular, indicate that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. In the Press article, Newhouse’s comments indicate a patriarchal orientation with Newhouse being described (and describing himself) as the one who is losing money and explaining that he intends tell “his” dancers to perform lap dances. Significantly, Newhouse is not quoted as expressing any concern for female dancers employed at his business, thereby providing a certain degree of credence to the notion that the ones profiting from the sex industry are predominantly male and that it the treatment of women is of little concern as long as money is being made.

Federal Judge Allows Enforcement of Grand Rapids’ Ordinance Regulating Nude Dancing

A United States District Court Judge ruled yesterday that effective Saturday at 12:01am, the City of Grand Rapids can enforce a resolution regulating nude dancing in the city.

The corporate media reported today that United States District Court Judge Robert Bell ruled said in a preliminary hearing that the City of Grand Rapids can enforce its ordinance regulating nude dancing. The ordinance, which requires a minimal amount of clothing for dancers, keeps patrons six feet from dancers, and restricts operating hours, was allowed to go into effect because Judge Bell determined that a lawsuit filed by strip clubs challenging the ordinance did not have a “substantial likelihood of success.” Enforcement of the ordinance, passed back in April, had been delayed until Bell’s ruling as the City’s lawyers agreed to wait until for this preliminary hearing before enforcing the ordinance. As of 12:01am Saturday, the City can now begin enforcing the ordinance, although in the Grand Rapids Press Assistant City Attorney Catherine Mish said that whether or not it would be enforced tonight is “a question for Police Chief Harry Dolan.” Additional rulings on the strip clubs’ challenging the ordinance on constitutional grounds will be made on October 20, 2006 as Bell did not rule on the city’s request for dismissal of the lawsuits.

Showgirl Galleria—the proposed all-nude club in downtown Grand Rapids that in many ways triggered the ordinance—has still not opened in downtown despite initial plans to open in 2005. While the club did open temporarily as a sort of “publicity stunt” likely designed to gain media coverage, the Club has yet to open with nude dancing (a store selling “adult” merchandise is in operation) due in part to public and legal opposition. London was quoted in the media stating that his businesses (Showgirl Galleria and Sensations) will become “non sexually-oriented businesses” with dancers (London refers to them as “girls”) dressing in bikinis and covering their buttocks and breasts as of 12:01am Saturday. Other strip clubs—namely the Red Barn and Parkway Tropics—will be doing the same, with Parkway Tropics taping off a portion of their stage to keep dancers six feet from customers and requiring dancers to put on bikinis before approaching customers for tips. Of course, the fact that semi-nude dancing continues to be allowed means that more work remains to be done in combating the strip clubs and the negative consequences of pornography and the sex industry, with a considerable amount of work being left undone to confront the patriarchal aspects of such businesses instead of only confronting the moral aspects.

Second Lawsuit Filed to Stop Adult Entertainment Ordinance

A second lawsuit was filed yesterday to overturn the city’s recently passed resolution restricting adult entertainment in Grand Rapids. The lawsuit, filed by Herb Newhouse, owner of the Little Red Barn Theatre & Bookstore was filed in federal court under the premise that the resolution violates the Theatre’s first and fourth amendment rights regarding the right of expressive and non-verbal speech. However, unlike the lawsuit filed earlier this month by Sensations and Showgirl Galleria owner Mark London, the second lawsuit also seeks damages from organizers who worked to pass the resolution as well as their financial backers. It specifically names Judy Rose of Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community and Dar VanderArk of the Michigan Deceny Action Council while also targeting the anonymous donors that contributed to a legal fund that organizers setup to defend the city’s ordinance in court. In justifying his legal attack on members of the community, Newhouse was quoted in the media stating that people “have no right to spend money to put people out of business.”

In addition to the lawsuits filed against the City, the City has agreed to delay enforcement of the new ordinance in response to the lawsuits. While the ordinance was originally scheduled to take effect at the end of May, the ordinance will not be enforced until July 14, 2006. The agreement, according to a statement released by the City, was “designed to avoid the need for immediate court hearings on any motions for temporary restraining orders by the plaintiff businesses” while describing the delay as “desirable in order to avoid unnecessary proceedings for temporary relief, to conserve judicial resources, and facilitate the prompt resolution of these lawsuits.”

Today is the final day for sex industry businesses to file lawsuits.

City Commission Passes Resolution Banning Nude Dancing

At last night’s City Commission meeting, the Grand Rapids City Commission voted 6 to 1 to pass a resolution banning nude dancing and restricting what can take place in “sexually oriented businesses” located in the city of Grand Rapids. The resolution was passed with only minor wording changes after being tabled two weeks ago when Commissioner Rick Tormala raised concerns that a ban on total nudity would not survive an anticipated legal challenge. Commissioner Tormala was the only Commissioner to vote against the resolution, citing the fact that he favored a more “defendable” resolution that would have allowed full nudity but restricted contact between performers and patrons. The new resolution bans total nudity, bans contact between dancers and patrons, requires performers to be on a stage six-feet from patrons, and requires that all existing clubs come into compliance within 180 days.

As has been the case throughout the debate, the corporate media framed the passage of the resolution primarily in terms of morality, with WXMI summarizing the issue as “a battle of the first amendment versus morality,” WOOD TV quoting Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community member Judy Rose as saying “it’s going to make Grand Rapids a nice place to live, instead of a place where you can go and find smut.” This angle has been hyped repeatedly over the past eight months, with the media focusing on the moral aspects of the sex industry while ignoring the economic realities of the sex industry and the ways in which strip clubs reinforce patriarchy. Opponents of the resolution, speaking primarily at public hearings held by the City Commission, attempted to exploit this angle by labeling proponents of the resolution as “Puritans” that had little understanding of what goes on in a strip club. Additionally, club owners also criticized opponents as people who did not understand the industry and who sought to impose their morality on others.

The resolution will likely face a legal challenge in the coming months, with Herb Newhouse, owner of the Red Barn, and Mark London, owner of Showgirl Galleria, pledging to fight the ordinance.

Reviews: Black Liberation and Socialism, Confronting Fascism, and Strip Show

Three new book reviews—Black Liberation and Socialism, Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement, and Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire—have been posted in the book review section of the site. While all of there books offer valuable background information for those organizing broadly for a better world, Confronting Fascism and Strip Show address issues that have been of particular concern for activists in Grand Rapids—the increase in neo-Nazi activity and the question of how to deal with sexploitation (“sex industry”) clubs such as Showgirl Galleria. Similarly, Black Liberation and Socialism offers an essential overview of black history and race in the United States.

Showgirl Galleria Opens after Strip Club Resolution Tabled

At Tuesday morning’s Grand Rapids City Commission Committee of the Whole meeting, City Commissioners voted to table a resolution that would restrict sexually oriented businesses such as strip clubs like Mark London’s proposed Showgirl Galleria. The resolution was tabled after Commissioner Tormala announced that he planned to propose an amendment that would make nude dancing legal and focus instead on illicit activities such as prostitution. The proposed resolution as it is currently written would ban total nudity, keep patrons at a set distance from performers, elevate the stage, and require a peep show booths to be visible to club operators. Tormala said that he made the changes over concerns that the proposed resolution would not hold up to an anticipated legal challenge. Judy Rose, member of the Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community, the group that is leading the effort and has offered to bankroll the city’s defense dismissed Tormala’s concerns and at the City Commission’s Tuesday night meeting said that while she had no problem waiting another two weeks for further discussion of the resolution, the City Commission had already heard from Scott Bergthold, a lawyer who specializes in the writing and defending of such resolutions who believes that the Grand Rapids resolution is entirely defensible. The corporate media has reported that most Commissioners oppose the Tormala’s changes to the resolution.

Shortly after the City Commission voted to table the resolution, Mark London opened Showgirl Galleria for the first time, holding what was described as an “impromptu” opening. While the club will not have its formal opening with regular hours until May, the “opening” on Tuesday offered Mark London another opportunity to get free advertising for his club from the corporate media who has been largely willing to give him considerable airtime to promote his club. According to the report that ran in the Grand Rapids Press, a patron challenged stereotypes about strip clubs and said “This isn’t the kind of place to get drunk and grope women… I think it’s going to be a little more upscale,” while watching three semi-nude women dance for the dozen or so men that had assembled to watch the dancers amidst the ongoing construction. As a means of flouting the proposed resolution, the dancers appeared without pasties that would be required to cover their nipples under the new resolution while patrons were encouraged to stuff dollar bills in the dancers g-strings, a practice that would be banned with the new resolution.

As has been the case with most of the reporting on the resolution in the corporate media, there was no discussion of the realities of the sex industry and instead opposition to the resolution is framed entirely in terms of religion and morality. There has yet to be any mention of the connections between the pornography industry (of which strip clubs are a part) and sexual violence or the inherent objectification and dehumanization of women in strip clubs and the ways in which such views continue outside of clubs. Similarily, while there has been considerable discussion of the Showgirl Galleria, there has been no attention given to Tini Bikini’s, another downtown club that both promotes objectifying views of women and the pornography industry as a whole.