Paul Fishbein Addresses Sex Therapists at UCLA

LOS ANGELES – About 25 sex therapists crowded into a conference room at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute last Thursday to hear about the world of porn from someone who's lived in it for a quarter-century: AVN founder Paul Fishbein.

The lecture was part of UCLA's Couples and Sex Therapy Training Program, a six-month course run by Dr. Walter Brackelmanns, with the assistance of co-directors Ron Crane and Berta Davis. The course includes a variety of speakers on topics that may be of help to therapists in understanding the sexual problems their clients may face.

After Dr. Brackelmanns introduced his guest, whom he said he'd know for eight years, Fishbein began by describing the adult entertainment community as "a bunch of rebels with an 'us against the world' attitude," challenging the tenets of an essentially Puritan society.

Describing himself as the "black sheep of the family," Fishbein gave a brief history of AVN's founding in 1983, when he was working at retailer Movies Unlimited, "the first video specialty store in Philadelphia," and realized that customers might be interested in a "newsletter" that reviewed adult videotapes.

"So with three partners who had $300 each, and me living in my parents' basement," he recalled, "we put out a sample issue of something called Adult Video News, and with what was left over, about $400, we bought ads in men's magazines... and after all these $18 checks started coming in, we knew we were onto something."

"We thought we were film critics," he continued, "so we went and critically reviewed adult movies, and if you look at that first issue, you'll see we gave some fairly scathing reviews to movies that are considered classics today ... but we didn't know any better; we thought we were doing a film magazine."

But it wasn't long, he said, before he realized that his subscriber base was quickly filling up with adult retailers, and ad revenues were mainly from adult movie producers, so he decided to make AVN a trade magazine for the still-fairly-new adult industry.

But though it wasn't long before AVN became the established voice of the adult industry, Fishbein explained that he had yet to understand the breadth of the conflict between sexual speech and the government.

"About four or five years into the business, I started to learn what the First Amendment was, and what obscenity was and what the history of speech in this country had gone through," Fishbein recounted, "and how we were in the mid to late '80s, and we were living in a world that was 50 years behind the rest of the world in terms of speech, in terms of government intrusion, in terms of privacy issues."

Fishbein detailed the course of government persecution of the industry, including the Meese Commission Report, the multi-jurisdictional prosecutions of mail-order companies and the coordinated busts of 58 producers nationwide that became known as Operation Wormwood.

"The best thing that ever happened to the adult business happened in 1992," Fishbein stated, "and it's not the invention of the DVD player and it's not the invention of the internet and it's not some great new technology. The best thing that ever happened to the adult business was Bill Clinton, [who] disbanded the Obscenity Unit. I think he felt the Justice Department had better things to do than go after speech."

Fishbein also noted the importance of the proliferation of Blockbuster Video outlets, which due to their refusal to carry adult videos, gave power to smaller video outlets and all-adult stores that were willing to satisfy the public's craving for sexually oriented fare.

But with the inauguration of George W. Bush, the Justice Department's Obscenity Unit was reformed, Fishbein said, and the only thing that prevented an immediate strike on the adult industry was the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's almost a sick benefit to the adult business that the business was pretty much left alone after 9/11," he said. "It's an irony, or whatever you want to call it, and the Bush administration still hasn't gotten its shit together."

However, he noted, both the current poor economic picture and the availability of free, sometimes pirated, material online have adversely impacted the industry.

Fishbein went on to describe the various AVN publications: AVN, AVN Online, AVN Novelty Business (ANB) and GayVN, providing copies of each to the attendees, as well as the various conventions with which AVN is affiliated: Erotica LA, AVN's Adult Entertainment Expo, the Adult Novelty Show, Internext, and of course, AVN's Award Show.

Fishbein then answered questions about AVN's movie reviewing process, how pre-noms are generated for award consideration, and how the voting process works. The "teen" movie phenomenon was also discussed, as well as the government's persecution of the genre.

"Whenever the government passes a new law to 'protect children,'" Fishbein noted, "if you read deeper into the law, most of the time, it's to censor adult material. But no Senator or House member is going to vote down a bill that 'protects our children,' and the government likes to mix up 'pornography' and 'child pornography,' [but] they throw it all against the wall and they figure some of it's going to stick."

Fishbein also supported the concept of internet sites requiring age identification before allowing visitors to see sexual material, but noted that it's the parents' responsibility to monitor their children's web surfing.

The topic of "porn addiction" was discussed, which Fishbein advised was a minor problem, and he supported the public's access to non-violent sexual fantasy material.

"The country with the lowest violent crime rate per capita is the Netherlands," he told one questioner, "and look at what's in Amsterdam: There's prostitution, people are smoking pot in the streets, and it's the most decadent but beautiful city I've ever seen."

The session lasted about 80 minutes, and the audience seemed to enjoy the free flow of information. AIM founder Dr. Sharon Mitchell had already addressed the group, and in the coming weeks, they will also hear from actress Nina Hartley.