Porn and Politics
Kat Sunlove, publisher of a sex magazine and a retired dominatrix, is hugging the most powerful man in the state Senate.
Having just missed him at his office, the nation’s top porn lobbyist spots President Pro Tem John Burton--a close personal friend, she calls him--in one of the grand foyers of the Capitol and receives a warm embrace, plus a little help on a troublesome bill.
A Sacramento power broker meeting with a porn industry lobbyist, let alone plotting strategy with her, would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But a group calling itself the Free Speech Coalition, which is headquartered in the San Fernando Valley, has entered the lobbying game in pursuit of an audacious goal--the mainstreaming of the multibillion-dollar adult entertainment industry.
Critics see that aim as something far more sinister. It is, as one legislator put it, “turning perversion into politics.”
The coalition, often shunned and frequently ridiculed, is no political heavyweight. But Sunlove, the group’s paid lobbyist, has learned that even if lawmakers are no friends of pornography, she can enlist their aid against some bills threatening freedom of speech. That certainly is the case the day she runs into Burton, a San Francisco Democrat.
“I’m worried about this one,” she tells him. The bill would empower local governments to restrict sexually oriented businesses and potentially banish them to a far corner of the state.
The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park), had cruised out of the Assembly and this day appears headed for a favorable vote in the Senate Public Safety Committee.
“That’s not a good place for it,” says Burton, chairman of the body that makes committee assignments. “Let’s see if we can’t get it in the Judiciary Committee.”
And a few days after this May meeting, that’s exactly where the bill goes.
Sunlove considered the original Gallegos bill an illegal limit on free speech. Burton had his doubts too. But by the time a much-watered-down proposal emerges from the Judiciary Committee, which Burton also chairs, it poses no new legal threat to sex businesses.
The attenuation of the Gallegos bill was one of many small victories for the coalition, the nation’s first adult entertainment trade group. Based in Chatsworth, the nonprofit organization claims 600 dues-paying members, from Web site operators to porn actresses.
“Historically, the adult industry has been regulated without any dialogue between the government and the businesses they regulate,” said Jeffrey J. Douglas, an attorney and the coalition’s executive director. “Now no one would dare regulate the fishing industry without first talking to fishermen. So why do they think they can do that with us?”
Well, the reasons are pretty obvious. Even if millions of people purchase pornography every year, few are going to write their assemblyman about it.
“The water Kat carries is hot and boiling, but she carries herself as a professional and makes people think about the votes before they cast them,” said Burton, who views himself as an ardent defender of the 1st Amendment. “People running for office don’t want to have it appear that they’re in favor of porn--she’s got a rough row to hoe.”
Each year, government bodies all over the nation attempt to zone, tax, prosecute and ban the ubiquitous porn industry, whose annual revenues have grown nationally in the last decade from about $1 billion to more than $8 billion--an industry estimate that porn critics say is probably too low.
With a meager annual budget of $290,000, the coalition acknowledges that it is a marginal player on a political stage dominated by some of the biggest special interests in the nation. Sunlove’s strategy is to join hands with those interests--even when they would rather that the pornographers keep their hands to themselves.
For example, in May the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the coalition all opposed a proposal to criminalize the sale or rental of “harmful matter” to minors. The bill would have forced retailers to decide which recordings and publications were harmful and to segregate such merchandise in adults-only sections.
Sunlove says she alerted MPAA lobbyist Terry Thomas to the bill, explaining that its definition of harmful matter could potentially include NC-17 titles released by big Hollywood studios.
Thomas lobbied hard against the bill, but not to protect X-rated videos. “We have two different products,” Thomas said. “My alliances are with makers of mainstream material.”
In any event, the bill’s author--state Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier)--scrapped the measure a day before it was to come up for a committee vote.
“I am just amazed at how effective the porn lobby is,” said Calderon. “The fact is, this industry is very good at moving the Legislature into inaction.”
But Assemblyman Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) believes that Calderon gives the coalition too much credit. “Remember, almost nobody is voting for the adult entertainment industry, except maybe a couple of members in San Francisco. Usually it’s a vote against the fanatic religious right or for the 1st Amendment.”
Although many of the coalition’s members are based in the Valley--a longtime home to the porn trade--most are located outside California. The coalition plans to export its lobbying efforts to North Carolina, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York--states where X-rated business operators are facing increasingly hostile legislation.
“Eventually, we want to have a lobbyist working with legislators in every state,” said Douglas, a UCLA Law School graduate who wears Jerry Garcia ties. “They are going to be hearing from us whether they like it or not.”
The industry’s tactics were quite different a few years ago when big pornographers hired high-priced lawyers to fight hostile laws in court after they had been enacted.
But the group has not abandoned courtrooms altogether. In 1996 the coalition filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department challenging a law that prohibits the production of simulated child pornography. The action is the first legal test of the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act and the coalition’s sole court case at the moment.
Coalition lawyers in May argued before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the law was overly broad and could brand even R-rated films such as “Taxi Driver” and the new “Lolita” obscene. A ruling on the case is expected this year.
In a way, the Reagan administration created the Free Speech Coalition.
In a controversial 2,000-page report, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III’s Commission on Pornography linked sexually violent materials with “anti-social acts of sexual violence.”
That finding and 92 recommendations for government action set off an unprecedented wave of anti-pornography sentiment and legislation that eventually landed several high-profile porn executives in prison--including Russell Hampshire, head of the video manufacturing company VCA Labs Inc. In 1988 he served nine months for shipping obscene videotapes across state lines to federal agents in Alabama.
Two years later Hampshire helped found the Free Speech Coalition. Now a member of the board of directors, he donates space to the coalition at his Chatsworth facility, where he runs a $15-million porn operation.
The office is spacious and tastefully furnished with leather couches, a large desk and a bank of security monitors. Portraits of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon hang on the walls. So does a photo of gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. An end table features a neatly piled collection of skin magazines.
Much like the fictional characters in the movie “Boogie Nights,” members of the industry--and its lobbying efforts--aspire desperately to respectability. We’re just businessmen, they say.
In fact, many coalition members argue that pornography is already an integral part of popular culture. As proof they cite highly praised Hollywood films such as “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and the wide availability of pornography.
“There’s hardly a hotel room on the planet that doesn’t have access to adult material,” said Gloria Leonard, president of the coalition.
Earlier this month the coalition joined Cal State Northridge’s Center for Sex Research in sponsoring the grandiosely titled “World Pornography Conference: Eroticism and the First Amendment.” The three-day conference at the Sheraton Universal in Universal City explored everything from Victorian smut to cyber-sex.
Hampshire has long tried to push pornography into the mainstream. Sporting his trademark Hawaiian shirt, shorts and a chunky pinky ring, he recalled how the industry hired a Beverly Hills public relations firm in the late 1980s to drum up public support after the Meese report. That support never materialized.
“We were naive,” he said.
The industry also set up a standing $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of child pornographers. The reward was offered after revelations in 1986 that porn actress Traci Lords made 75 X-rated movies before she turned 18. The coalition has offered the money to one person since 1987--and he didn’t want it.
Later on, “we tried to donate it to the Children’s Defense Fund and the Justice Department,” he said, but both turned the money down.
The coalition hired its first lobbyist in 1996, but replaced him last October with Sunlove, a 53-year-old grandmother who publishes Spectator magazine, a news rack weekly thin on articles and heavy on phone-sex ads.
Long before she was a porn advocate, Sunlove was just plain old Penny from Kilgore, Texas (population 11,066).
“I had a wonderful childhood in a lot of ways,” said Sunlove, an exceedingly polite woman who speaks with a matronly lilt. Her father owned a small beauty supply business and her mother published the local telephone directory. “We were a hard-working, churchgoing Southern Baptist family.”
Sunlove changed her name in the wake of a painful divorce and eventually developed a proclivity for whips and leather underwear after she moved to San Francisco in 1980. There she dubbed herself Mistress Kat and offered erotic dominance workshops.
She divides her time among her magazine, the Capitol and her cluttered home office in Pilot Hill, where a window frames the Sierra Nevada and a bookshelf features titles such as “Consensual Sadomasochism” and “Meeting the Master,” alongside a paperback copy of the U.S. Constitution.
Sunlove has worked as a volunteer in several Los Angeles election campaigns, including Tom Bradley’s first mayoral bid, so she is no newcomer to politics. But she quickly learned that it’s tough going representing a client that is viewed with alarm, if not disgust.
At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, the coalition hosted a reception for state lawmakers at Brannan’s, a popular watering hole across the street from the Capitol.
“I got 32 RSVPs, but only two showed up,” Sunlove said. “We had some picketers out front, some right-wing group with their little video cameras--they’re so damned intrusive.”
The protesters--the California Coalition of Family Values--show up again in June during the coalition’s annual “lobbying day,” a bizarre event that brings porn stars to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers in person.
As Sunlove’s amateur lobbyists congregate on the Capitol steps, Wiley S. Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, marches at the fore of the small group of pickets. “Pornography Destroys Families” their placards exclaim.
“We’re opposed to their efforts to legitimize the ills of this industry. . . . They want to call evil good,” Drake says. “We’re concerned that legislators will be duped into listening to them. We’re concerned that the enemy is encroaching on our territory.”
Drake’s protest is short-lived, however, as a California Highway Patrol officer informs him that his group has not obtained a permit to picket and orders them 200 yards away from the Capitol steps.
A few of the amateur porn lobbyists jeer as the protesters walk away. A colorful bouquet of inflated condoms waves in the background.
Elementary schoolteacher Shirley Womack, leading a tour of puzzled fifth-graders, shepherds them past the pornographers, deflecting the children’s questions.
“We’re not going to go there,” she tells them. “I wish we were here on a different day.”
Clutching white papers and lists of appointments, the porn delegation fans out through the Capitol. Time after time, diligent staff members say the lawmakers are out, on the phone or simply not available.
Staffers for Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) say he is taking a nap.
At Assemblyman Mike Honda’s office--their last stop of the day--the group is told that the legislator is busy. But suddenly the San Jose Democrat appears at his door and cordially invites the group inside--over the vehement protests of a young press aide.
“We’re advocating a different lifestyle than the traditional Judeo-Christian advocates would,” coalition lawyer Allan B. Gelbard tells the stone-faced legislator. “We want the same right to express our ideas as others.”
“We are more fiscally responsible businesses than we were in the past,” says Veronica Hart, a porn star turned porn executive.
After the meeting, a grateful Gelbard shakes Honda’s hand and praises his courage. “I understand there are political costs in even talking to us,” he says.
“I’m just doing my job,” says Honda, waving off the compliment. “I come from a people who were put away because no one wanted to talk to us.”
The meeting produces no promises and no action, but the legislator gives the porn industry his attention. And that, for Kat Sunlove, is a victory of sorts.
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