Dirty Joke

Pornography makes a wonderful target for politicians. Though millions consume it privately, few this side of Al Goldstein will defend it publicly. The only respectable pro-porn line, of course, is of the free-speech variety, and while these arguments have some merit, they often land strangely on the ear: Anal Lesbians is not Lolita, after all, and to equate them is to evince a loose grasp indeed of both the law and art. Furthermore, who will argue that Queens homeowners who don’t want strip joints in their residential neighborhoods are being unreasonable? It defies common sense to assert that the Constitution and its many judicial interpreters ever had in mind that people should have to look out their front windows and see two-foot-high neon flashing breasts.

As a consequence, few serious objections have been raised against Rudy Giuliani’s campaign against the sex shops. In June, some gallant porn stars in California took their case to Sacramento to fight an anti-smut law there. But the porn-loving masses of New York are more likely to retreat to the Internet than to hold a rally in City Hall Park. Giuliani will win this fight, and most New Yorkers will think the city better off for it. But are we?

Commercial uses of property can be regulated. Urges, however, cannot. And neither can cultural trends. Here we are, thanks to the work of a well-known Washington prosecutor, talking blow jobs and semen stains on the nightly news. Tired of the nightly news? Flip to Showtime, where just the other night I happened across Sherilyn Fenn’s breasts. Bored with television? Rolling Stone this month dispensed with the usual perfunctory teddies and showed model Laetitia Casta starkers – although her nipples seem to have been oddly erased. Vanity Fair, on the other hand, has Gretchen Mol’s (who’s she, again?) nipples protruding like cherrystones. Elsewhere: The acclaimed Broadway revival of Cabaret – the one you couldn’t get a ticket for even before the Condé Nast building fell on top of it – simulates assorted acts of sexual depravity in the interest of re-creating the sleaze in Weimar Germany.

This is all, loosely defined, soft-core pornography, at least as suggestive and often as explicit as any strip-club routine. More so, now that strippers must cover their bottoms and their tops “below a point immediately above the top of the areola,” as the new law efficiently puts it. We can assume – can’t we? – that Giuliani will not move against these targets. But with all this out there, what exactly is he protecting us from?

Morals campaigns have been known to fail in producing their intended effect. Smutbusters from Robespierre on have found that things went their way for a time, but soon enough, people tired of their rules and found ways around them. That will happen this time, too. Pornography has already gone mainstream; if Giuliani’s laws have any effect on this trend, they will only make it more mainstream – bringing more XXX flicks to your local video store, for example, or daring legitimate entertainments to take more risks. And that may only make Giuliani angrier; not a notion many of us want to contemplate.

To see how vice campaigns don’t work, we need look no farther than the mayor’s hero. Fiorello La Guardia’s decade-long campaign against smut was prosecuted in his usual pyrotechnic style and with the assistance of something called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. It commenced against steep odds; campaigns promoting public virtue had not, needless to say, been a weapon in the arsenal of Jimmy Walker, the mayor from 1926 to 1932, whose interest in things prurient manifested itself in the form not of regulation but of consumption. When La Guardia came into office in 1934, he and his licensing commissioner, Paul Moss, quickly set a new course.

The targets of La Guardia’s wrath were burlesque houses, where strippers had alternated turns with stand-up comics and other acts since at least the turn of the century. New York City had about eleven “class” houses back then, and a handful of lower-echelon places. La Guardia wanted them out of Times Square. “It was sort of okay as long as they were down on 14th Street, you know, where the Jews were,” says Rachel Shteir, who’s writing a book on the history of striptease for Oxford University Press, “but once they moved up around the theater district, then it was a different matter.”

The burlesque houses’ odds were not helped by the fact that Moss’s brother was a Broadway producer, which gave the commissioner a more than passing interest in Times Square property values. La Guardia did not enjoy tremendous public support, Shteir says, and the great columnists of the day – Damon Runyon, A. J. Leibling, even Brooks Atkinson – were against him on this issue. But by 1942, La Guardia had prevailed. The Minsky brothers, who operated four of the most famous of the burlesque houses, had by then fled Manhattan and opened two houses in New Jersey. Which thrived.

Skin, and the public taste for it, did not, of course, disappear. It simply went mainstream. After the burlesque houses were closed, Shteir says, strippers went Broadway. In 1942 Mike Todd produced Star and Garter, starring Gypsie Rose Lee; it was even billed as a “burlesque revue,” and it was a tremendous hit. Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey worked this angle as well, with “Zip,” the faux-strip number that hilariously satirized Lee’s rise into legitimate society (“Zip – I was reading Schopenhauer last night / Zip – And I think that Schopenhauer was right”). The culture at large took pity on strippers and regarded them sympathetically. “The whole motif of the literary stripper, the good and even refined woman who happened to be down on her luck, sprang up,” Shteir says. “Fannie Brice actually had a number like that, ‘The stripper is a countess …’ “

If yesteryear’s stripper is today’s porn queen, does this mean we’ll be seeing Tiffany Mynx (a name I learned, rest assured, only while conducting my research) on Broadway? Admittedly unlikely. But with Times Square’s transformation into just another all-American shopping mall, albeit one with superior signage, nostalgia for smut will inevitably grip the heart of a Broadway producer or two. Todd’s shows were pretty racy in their day; whatever boundaries of taste that were in place back then sure don’t exist now (a musical version of Boogie Nights? an “updated” revival of Oh! Calcutta!?) Now that the new, Rudyized porn palaces are offering luggage and tchotchkes and billiards in the front rooms, it can’t be too long before some crackerjack entrepreneur finds a way to take advantage of technicalities in the new law to kick a little more dirt in the mayor’s face. Steak and cigar and tittie bars?

Along with porn stores carrying tourist trinkets, will trinket shops carry a little porn? Some of those Sixth and Seventh Avenue electronics stores stock porn now; won’t more of them do so when all-porn video shops cease to exist? And won’t that just make porn in some ways more accessible? Then there are neighborhood video stores. Many have a small section devoted to dirty movies. Will they now carry more? “Unfortunately, that’s probably what we’re going to do,” says Mike Loney, the assistant manager of the Kim’s Video outlet on St. Mark’s Place. “There’ll probably be a bigger market for it.”

The mayor’s anti-smut campaign probably won’t accomplish that much in the end. And if that’s the case, then we should also wonder whether the crusade comes with a price.

In the late seventies and early eighties, Cincinnati, light brigade led by then-prosecutor Simon Leis, waged the most aggressive anti-smut campaign of any city in America. The city’s red-light district was always small – never larger, in trial lawyer Louis Sirkin’s memory, than three or four establishments – but that was three or four too many for Leis. Today, the city is virtually smut-free, except for Hustler News & Books, which is owned, comically, by Larry Flynt, probably as a joke because Cincinnati is where Flynt was famously sued. Leis’s trick was to sue landlords as well as their filth-peddling tenants, thus forcing landlords to clean up. “Most of these cases got reversed on appeals, but by then these stores were gone,” Sirkin says.

Sure enough, all things Godless moved to Kentucky, which eventually came up with its own laws “because they got tired of being known as Cincinnati’s playground,” Sirkin says. But more important, it didn’t take long for the zero-tolerance mind-set to reach beyond blue material. It was in 1990, when the Robert Mapplethorpe show hit town, that the rest of the country saw firsthand how Cincinnati pronounced on such issues. The Hamilton County prosecutor’s office, under Leis’s hand-picked successor, sued the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie. Sirkin was Barrie’s lawyer and is of the view that their victory in court was a somewhat Pyrrhic one.

“Yeah, we won the arts-museum case,” Sirkin says, “but look at how the funding of the arts in Cincinnati has changed ever since.” Before, he says, the local arts council did an aggregate fund drive and financed projects from the major museums to local theater groups. Now, he says, it’s all corporate sponsorship, and the corporations are careful to fund only safe projects. Meanwhile, a theater group did manage to stage a play called Poor Superman, which mentions transsexuality, but only after consulting with an attorney beforehand. The Pink Pyramid, a gay-and-lesbian bookstore, was threatened with prosecution and fined for having rented to an inspector Pasolini’s Salo – The 120 Days of Sodom.

I know – you’ve said it to yourself already: New York is not Cincinnati. True; Giuliani is probably wise enough to know that if he ever tried to regulate the display of anything that could remotely be called art, a lot of the people who are applauding him now (especially the Times editorial board) would paste him. But a tone has been established, and tones set by mayors tend to ripple across the landscape as surely as executive orders.

The Giuliani tone of “normalcy” and wholesomeness is something this corroded city needed to an extent. But only to an extent. “New York is part of America,” beamed Parks Commissioner Henry Stern in the wake of the Central Park Garth Brooks concert, the Ur-symbol of this administration’s ideas about mass culture. That sounds nice, but there are a lot of New Yorkers who don’t want to be part of America. There are a lot of people who come here to escape America. New York is different. We’re looser. We’re less nervous and uptight. (“There are so many of them out there,” Partisan Review co-editor William Phillips is said to have remarked to Philip Rahv after he and his wife returned from a trip to the Midwest.) We’re more immigrant. We’re more African. We’re more Jewish.

None of this means that we celebrate filth. Times Square was disgraceful in the seventies, and no one wants to go back to that. But it does mean that we say: Live a little. New York isn’t Cincinnati because its citizens don’t want it to be. We want to be on the edge, and the edge makes room for dropouts and misfits and all-night clubs and maybe even smut. The Cincinnatification of New York should stop with vice campaigns and bad chain restaurants.

In La Guardia’s day, smut didn’t have lawyers and legal precedents to cite or anywhere near the market share it has now (pornography ranks ninth in topics people go searching for on the Net, just behind education). There’s something that’s hard to take seriously about the thought of city lawyers spending hours to sit around and draft legal language that includes phrases like “human male genitals in a discernibly turgid state.”

And there’s something unseemly about city inspectors being paid with our money to watch sex shows and report back the details. There’s something ludicrous about making strippers wear tops. There’s something just plain screwy about cracking down on strip clubs while any 6-year-old can look at the sides of street-corner newsstands and see naked women rubbing each other lasciviously on the covers of girlie magazines (displaying those magazines is illegal, but the law is haphazardly enforced). And as clean and safe as New York is now, there’s something unsettling about the fact that Triple X has to be replaced by Triple G. There’s only so much wholesomeness New York can take.

Dirty Joke