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In Defense of Extreme Pornography

By Greg Beato

In late September, as a controversial movie director spent the first week of
her year-long sentence at FCI Waseca, a federal prison in Minnesota, Harvey
Weinstein didn’t bother to circulate
a petition
demanding her release. Debra Winger didn’t issue
a statement
protesting the director’s incarceration and anticipating her
next masterwork. Peg Yorkin, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, didn’t
why the government had spent the last seven years trying to put the
director in jail.

Maybe Janet Romano should have drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old. Or, at
the very least, had better cinematic taste. Unlike Roman Polanski, Romano has
never won an Oscar for Best Picture. In fact, the 31-year-old porn auteur,

whose credits as a director include Pain and Suffering, I Love to Hurt
, Cannibalism, and Sexual Intrusive Dysfunctional Society
, has never even won an AVN Award for Most Outrageous Sex Scene.

Still, you’d think many of the creative types rallying around Polanski would
be equally sympathetic to Romano’s plight. Essentially, she’s in prison for
rape, too—as is her husband, Rob Zicari. But as Whoopi Goldberg might have put
the rape that landed them in the slammer wasn’t actually rape-rape.
It wasn’t even ‘70s-style-libertine rape. Instead, it was movie rape, a scene
enacted by consenting adults.

Zicari and Romano, known in the porn industry as Rob Black and Lizzy Borden,
were the primary figures behind Extreme Associates, a production company, which,
along with a few others, began pushing the boundaries of what the mainstream
adult video industry depicted in the late 1990s.

Of course, it wasn’t just porn that was growing more extreme in those
days—all pop culture was. It was the heyday of Marilyn Manson and Eminem,
South Park, professional wrestling, Jackass, Fear
World’s Wildest Police Videos, Girls Gone Wild,
Tom Green, and most of all, the Internet, where websites like and were assembling vast
visual libraries of any taboo or depravity that could be digitized: gruesome
crime and accident scene photos, animal snuff, people disfigured by bizarre
medical conditions.

Along with everyone from NBC executives to computer nerds living in their
parents’ basements, Zicari and Romano simply jumped into the fray. Hollywood
slasher films chopped nubile teens into pieces, so why couldn’t they simulate
similar antics in their own efforts? Hollywood reality shows featured
contestants eating pig rectums for money, so why couldn’t they engage in their
own gross-out stunts?

In their videos, female performers (and the occasional male one) were
slapped, spat on, and verbally degraded. Rapes and murders were depicted. Vomit
was vomited, then consumed again along with other bodily fluids. And of course
there was explicit hardcore sex. Had Zicari and Romano stuck to just rape and
murder, with some R-rated nudity to complement artful scenes of mutilation and
dismemberment, as Hollywood does in movies like Hostel and House of
1000 Corpses
, they could’ve avoided a lot of trouble. Likewise, had they
focused on hardcore sex and kept the violence and puke out of it.

By mixing these various elements, however, they earned a 10-count indictment
on obscenity charges in 2003. In the eyes of many in the adult industry, they’d
brought this trouble on themselves. A year earlier, a PBS Frontline
documentary on porn included shots of Romano filming simulated rapes and murders
that the members of the Frontline crew found so disturbing they fled
the set. At a time when anti-porn organizations were increasingly pressuring the
Bush Administration to resume obscenity prosecutions against the adult porn
industry—which had fallen by the wayside during President Clinton’s years in
office—this was not exactly the kind of PR effort that mainstream adult
companies like Vivid Entertainment and Wicked Pictures wanted to put out there.
Nor was Zicari’s combative rhetoric appreciated. “We've got tons of stuff they
technically could arrest us for,” Zicari told
. “I'm not out there saying I want to be the test case.
But I will be the test case. I would welcome that.”

In 2004, when I interviewed Zicari for a Reason
on the federal government’s newly energized campaign against the
porn industry, he remained defiant. “This is the World Series, and they're the
Boston Red Sox,” he exclaimed. “They're getting a chance that they haven't had
in 9 billion years, and if they blow this, they can never come back. Because
where can you go after a jury says there's nothing wrong with these movies? How
do you go after a movie involving a husband and wife and the guy's wearing a
condom? How do you get someone to go after that, when you couldn't even
prosecute a tape where the guy comes in the girl's mouth, and then he fucking
stabs her? This is their one shot, and they fucking know it.”

In January 2005, it seemed as if the federal prosecutors had whiffed—U.S.
District Judge Gary Lancaster dismissed the charges against Romano and Zicari,
ruling that federal obscenity laws were unconstitutional because they violated
one’s “right to sexual privacy, which encompasses a right to possess and view
sexually explicit material in the privacy of one’s own home.” Later that year,
however, an appeals court reversed this controversial ruling, and the government
resumed its case against the couple.

As the case dragged on, it attracted less and less attention, ultimately
becoming the the judicial equivalent of the celebrity who you thought died years
ago but is actually quite extant. And while the federal government never really
ramped up its crusade against the porn industry enough to satisfy the anti-smut
forces or terrify Playboy subscribers, it did continue to intensify its
efforts. In 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales expanded the government’s
anti-obscenity efforts by creating the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, which,
, would be staffed with the DOJ’s “best and brightest” prosecutors.

In 2008, those prosecutors won a victory against
Paul Little, aka Max Hardcore, convicting him on 10 counts of violating federal
obscenity laws, a verdict that led to a 46-month prison sentence. Earlier this
year in March, just a few weeks before their own case was scheduled to go before
a jury, Zicari and Romano accepted a plea bargain when the government offered to
reduce its case against them to a single count of conspiracy to distribute
obscene material.

“We felt like they had the best chance to get the least amount of time if
they pled,” says Jennifer Kinsley, an attorney at Sirkin Pinales & Schwartz,
the law firm that represented Zicari and Romano throughout their seven-year
legal battle. “Financially, this case really destroyed them. People became
afraid to do business with them on the production side and the distribution
side.” Their business no longer exists. Neither one has produced or directed a
video since 2005. “They went from living in a very nice house that they owned to
sharing a small apartment with a roommate.”

Now, they’re in prison, Romano at FCI Waseca in Minnesota, and Zicari at FCI La Tuna
in Texas. According to Kinsley, Zicari was supposed to serve his sentence at FCI
La Tuna’s minimum-security satellite facility, but he mistakenly reported to its
primary facility 30 miles away. Instead of transferring him to the satellite
facility, however, prison officials kept there. “But then they ended up putting
him in solitary confinement [for nearly a month] because that was the only space
they had available,” Kinsley says.

Granted, hardcore pornographers don’t make for the most sympathetic victims,
even when they’re financially strapped and thrown in the hole simply 
for poor
navigation skills.

Ultimately, however, two American citizens are currently spending a year in
prison for making movies that involved adult actors participating in fictional
scenarios with their full consent. The rapes and murders they staged were no
less imaginary than the rapes and murders Hollywood stages with far greater
verisimilitude every day. The gross-out stunts they engaged in were no grosser
than the bug-eating contests of reality TV or the bodily fluids gags that can be
found in countless Hollywood comedies.

Unfortunately, Romano and Zicari had the audacity to mix genres of
entertainment that, while permissible on their own, are apparently not allowed
to be combined. And thus they managed to achieve what not even John Waters ever
accomplished: They were sent to prison for having bad taste.

But those with better taste shouldn’t expect immunity now that the Obscenity
Prosecution Task Force has extended it winning streak. As Rob Zicari told
Frontline 2002, it’s not as if anti-porn advocates make distinctions
between good pornography and bad pornography: “They want to get rid of
everybody. The Christian right, the fundamentalists, they don't like
pornography. It doesn't matter if their movie is a married couple having sex in
the bed, and they're loving each other, or it's our kind where it's like some
pimp having sex with some street hooker in an alley for crack or something. They
don't look at it that way. They look at it as sex, filming it, and distributing
it to the masses…”

Currently, the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force is led by Alberto Gonzales
appointee Brent Ward, a man who once led
a crusade
in Utah to get nude art-class models to wear bikinis. According to
Jennifer Kinsley, the Task Force isn’t just continuing old cases that began in
the Bush era, it’s also actively seeking out new ones. “Someone was asking me
the other day why this is still happening,” she says. “I think the reason is
that Brent Ward is still there. Had he been asked to resign, I don’t think these
cases would still be going on. But basically the Obama Administration has left
the previous decision-makers in their offices.”

Those decision-makers remain in office in part, no doubt, because so few
people have even acknowledged, much less objected, to the fact that our federal
government is sending people to prison for thought-crimes. In the July 2009
issue of Reason, Jacob Sullum reported
on the case’s outcome, but throughout the mediasphere, coverage was scant.
The New York Times made no mention of Zicari and Romano’s conviction or
subsequent sentencing. Nor did The Washington Post. The Los Angeles
ran a 131-word AP story. Now that the two convention-flouting
provocateurs are actually sitting in jail, though, perhaps their ordeal will
seem compelling enough to inspire their Hollywood brethren to at least circulate
a petition or two on their behalf in the name of artistic freedom.


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