Friday, May 16, 2008

Dirty Work

What follows is an excerpt from something I've been writing for some months. I can't really post the whole thing in good conscience without putting an "Adult Material" warning on the blog.

This is only partly fictional. All the major events are true. Most of the minor events are true. All names but my own, including names of people and places, have been changed. One of the fictional elements is that I've never kept a diary in my life. This is reconstructed from my memories, with some license taken for the sake of clarity and brevity.

Dirty Work

I am not a fan of spectator sports.

When I was in high school, I kinda-sorta understood the appeal of spectator sports. Given the right atmosphere and circumstances, I could get caught up in the spirit and excitement of a football game or a basketball game as completely as the people in the bleachers around me. But eight years of marching band and pep band in high school and college knocked that enthusiasm right out of me. After several years of being required to attend every single game and of enforced twelve-or-more-hour bus rides to bowl games and national championships, I no longer care if I ever attend a sporting event again as long as I live. Being a spectator gets pretty boring, actually, and I learned that the fastest way to suck the enjoyment out of something is to make it your job.

Which brings me to pornography.

I am not a big fan of pornography. Especially not heterosexual pornography.

Right after I graduated from college, needing to pay rent and bills, I took a job managing a video store in a local chain of video stores. And for several weeks in the mid-1980’s, it became part of my job to watch pornography.

At the risk of perpetuating Southern stereotypes, I must tell you in advance that I lived alone in a mobile home in a low-rent trailer park. The d├ęcor resembled that of Joy and Darnell’s trailer in “My Name Is Earl,” only not quite that nice.

You also need to know that in my own store we had what I secretly referred to as my “All Male Cast” (and, no, the irony of that appellation is not lost on me). Both I, the manager, and Eric, my assistant manager, were openly gay (or “flaunting our homosexual lifestyles,” depending on whom you asked). Eric was six feet four inches tall, and he incorporated some element of leather into his work clothes every day – a big boy, in many ways a “man’s man”, but completely capable turning his camp persona on and off like a light. The other four part-time employees were all heterosexual (or, as Eric and I sometimes privately referred to them, “the straight boys”).

I think the best way to tell this story is to give you some excerpts from my journal during that period:

October 1985:

We had our monthly managers’ meeting today. I assumed it would be the standard yawn-fest, but it turned out to be considerably more eventful than that.

Our great state has passed a pornography law. The reason they haven’t passed one before now is that no one actually wanted to define pornography. In defining “pornography,” the lawmakers would have to go into detail about what constitutes sexy, what constitutes erotic, what constitutes kinky, etc. Which would logically mean that anyone reading the law might gain some insight into the sex lives of the people who wrote the law. Which would imply that the lawmakers have sex, and no one wants to encourage citizens to imagine their state senators having sex.

So they got over this hurdle (or “hump,” if you will) by refusing to give a definition. Instead, they said that the actual definition of “pornography” is up to each individual community’s standards. Then they proceeded to define in no uncertain terms the penalties that await people who are convicted of “selling, renting or otherwise disseminating” pornographic materials.

(Am I the only one who finds irony in the use of the word “disseminating” in this context? I asked this at the managers’ meeting, and no one laughed, although Paula later told me that she wanted to laugh, and that she couldn’t believe I actually said that out loud in a managers’ meeting.)

Everyone’s worried that this could be the death of home video rental stores. Adult entertainment easily accounts for one quarter of our revenues, if not more. Equal to Barney and Disney combined, easily. We all had to go back to our stores and shut down our adult rooms until further notice.

General discussion produced some interesting speculation. The consensus seemed to be that the rat bastards had used “community standards” as a dodge. Everyone agreed that in shifting the burden to “community standards,” the lawmakers had assumed that no one in their right mind would stand up and say “here’s what will be this community’s standards regarding pornography,” and, therefore, that the only safe response anyone could have to the new law would be to take all adult-oriented materials off the shelves.

Phil [Ed: the owner of the chain] has been thinking about the local politics of the situation. Based on what he knows about the D.A.’s in our counties, he feels that Whitman County will get their adult sections open first, Norman County will be second and Maycomb County [Ed: the county that I lived and worked in] will be last because our D.A. is the sternest and strictest D.A. of the three.

Next day:

Concerns have arisen from the staff and even from a few customers.

Does the law imply that just owning pornography might be illegal? A literal reading of the law does not seem to indicate that. But what if….?

What if you own an adult video? And what if you watch it late, late at night while your kids are asleep? And what if you’re so sleepy that you forget to put it away out of prying eyes, but just carelessly leave it on top of the TV? And what if your six-year-old invites his friends over to watch Barney? And what if they find the porn and pop it into the VCR and watch it? Does that mean you’re guilty of “dissemination,” even if you didn’t personally show the porn to the kids?

I held the opinion that it was prudent to exercise vigilance in hiding one’s porn from one’s children at all times, regardless of this law. On the other hand, in the face of laws like this, a little paranoia might be good for you.

A few days later:

Contrary to popular belief, Maycomb County will be the first county with its adult sections to open again. Our D.A. issued a statement yesterday regarding the pornography law. The main office received the official communication, and copies of the D.A’s statement were disseminated to all the stores in my county.

To paraphrase: “Far be it from me to dictate to this community what their standards are or should be. But I am the District Attorney. If you wind up in court, I will be the person prosecuting you, and I can tell you the measuring stick against which your offenses will be measured by me in court. Attached to this letter is a list of activities. If you are found renting, selling or otherwise disseminating materials containing these acts, you will be arrested and tried in my court, and you will lose. Period.”

THE LIST is surprisingly long and detailed. It contains mostly things that you would expect to be there – sex with children, sex with animals, rape, incest. The inclusion of S&M and B&D on the list makes me vaguely uneasy – I would probably argue for wording more along the lines of “non-consensual torture,” but the D.A. didn’t ask me, now, did he? You could tell that a lot of thought went into THE LIST – for example, it specifically stated that the materials could not depict sex with minors even if the minors were being portrayed by adults.

So, shortly after I received my copy of the statement and THE LIST, I received this phone call from Phil:

“Billy, I need you to do a few things. First, I need you and your staff to watch all the tapes in your adult room.”

“Well, that shouldn’t take long. There’s only about 600 tapes in there….”

“Don’t be a prick, just watch the tapes. If the D.A. is going to hold us responsible for the content of these tapes, then we damn well better know what’s in them. We have to look for any of the activities on the D.A.’s list. If you see anything that you’re not sure about, stop the tape at that point, send the tape to the head offices, and we will make a decision from here. Any tapes that clear the D.A.’s criteria, we can start renting them again, and I want you to have a few titles back on your shelf starting tomorrow if at all possible. Tell your staff that they’re not going to be required to do anything that they don’t want to do. We are not going to force anyone to watch adult materials if they object to it, but if they are willing to watch some, that would be great.”

“Hell, we can probably save some time just by asking some of the straight boys about the ones they’ve already watched.”

“The other thing. I want you to take all the gay tapes in your store, put them in a box, tape up the box and put in the space over your storage room.”


“Because we’re not going to be renting gay porn, that’s why.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s against the law.”

“What’s against the law, Phil?”

"Homosexuality. There’s a law against it.”

“No there isn’t.”

“Yes, there is.”

“No, the state sodomy statute outlaws three things: oral sex, anal sex and sex with animals. It doesn’t say anything at all about the genders of the people or animals involved.”


"That’s not true.”

"Go look it up if you don’t believe me. Oral sex and anal sex. That’s what’s against the law. And sex with animals. Period.”

“But we can’t pull all the tapes with oral and anal sex in them! We wouldn’t have any tapes left!

“I’ll take your word for that.”

“Just pack up all the gay tapes and hide them.”


When the store closed, Eric was there, as was straight-boy Kevin. Each of us took home five tapes and a copy of the D.A.’s list.

Guess what I’m doing tonight…..

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