Forbidden looks

Porn may be going mainstream on the coasts, but a couple of recent obscenity busts in Dallas make it clear that isn't about to happen here. Dallas, true to its Saturday night-Sunday morning moral compass, is as schizophrenic as ever in its approach to skin. It consumes porn in vast amounts -- and prosecutes the sale of pornography as fast as the city's 24-man vice unit can pop the nasty tapes into their VCRs.

The latest merchant to feel the sting of the vice cops is Forbidden Books owner Jason Cohen, who learned this summer that some things truly are forbidden, at least some of the time, despite the brisk business that porn dealers do here. Cohen is facing a misdemeanor obscenity charge for selling a hardcore video at his store.

But even big national retailers aren't free of the grasp of Dallas' moral watchdogs. Tower Records, the Sacramento-based music and video chain of more than 200 stores worldwide, opened its first Dallas outlet in December and found within a few months that this definitely is not California, where porn stars make box-signing appearances in Tower outlets. On February 11, Detective C.A. Reynerson, an undercover Dallas vice cop, wandered into Tower's Lemmon Avenue store and perused its section of skin flicks. He selected one titled Up and Cummers #42 -- which, as the detective later described in his report, pictured "men and women engaged in oral sodomy and sexual intercourse on the cover." Reynerson plunked down $32.42 at the counter and took Up and Cummers back to the station.

The tape turned out to be a standard-issue skin flick containing five scenes that all but exhausted a checklist of sex acts that can be performed by two (and in some scenes, three) consenting adults. "The video shows nothing but isolated acts of sexual conduct and has no plot and development of characters except as it relates to connecting one sex scene to another," the detective's report states.

As is standard practice in the city, an obscenity charge -- a Class A misdemeanor under Texas law, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine -- was brought against the clerk who sold the tape, not against the store. In this case, though, the store weighed in on the clerk's defense.

"An attorney [for Tower Records] called me from California and said she couldn't believe our community standards were different from California's," recalls Lt. John Degan of the vice squad. "I told her, 'I can say without a doubt our community standards are different.' The community's standard under the law is left for jurors to decide, and in Dallas jurors usually will find a tape such as Up and Cummers #42 to be obscene. Not every jury will decide that, but most will."

Rick Ohren, manager of the Lemmon Avenue store, said Tower struck a deal with Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill's office about a month after the citation. In return for dropping the case against the clerk, the store agreed to stop stocking triple-X tapes. A dismissal letter in the clerk's case file says the district attorney was dropping charges "in the interest of justice."

"They gave us some guidelines about what would and wouldn't get us in trouble," Ohren says. "Nudity is allowed, but the big watchword is 'penetration.' The videos have to have some sort of a pretense of plot, even if it's a fairly graphic story line. What they don't want is fornication with no apparent plot."

Ohren said he does not see those rules trampling on free artistic expression. "It's pretty clear that films with artistic merit are allowed," he says.

Jason Cohen isn't as sure about that.

He and his Exposition Avenue store were busted on an obscenity charge on July 26, when a vice detective slipped into the store and bought a copy of Slurping for $13. The police report's outline of Slurping reads a lot like the one of the Tower Record's video -- save for the substitution of a couch for a bed, and a foursome for a threesome.

"I'm still trying to sort out what they want, so I'm not ready to get a big battle going," says Cohen, who happened to be manning the register when the officer bought the tape. Cohen has been in business eight years, selling out-of-the-mainstream books, videos, and magazines -- material such as punk rock 'zines, 1950s horror films, and books dealing with such subject matter as cults and drugs. He has never advertised porn, but he discreetly began renting and selling adult tapes after people began demonstrating a big demand. "People want it," he says, adding that about 10 percent of the store's 4,000-tape library is hardcore adult.

According to a recent story in the San Diego Union-Tribune on the mainstreaming of the porn industry, adult videos are now a $4-billion-a-year business. There were 8,948 movies made last year (most in less than a day at the cost of less than $4,000). It may be against the law in Dallas to sell it -- though you'd never know it, since such mega-porn shops as New Fine Arts and the Paris Adult Book Store tout their wares on billboards all around town.

"It's hard to believe this is a law they actually try to enforce," says Cohen, who learned the hard way that he had been busted.

He says nobody informed him that the vice unit had bought the tape and filed the charge. Stopped in his car in Montague County on the way back to Dallas from a New Mexico vacation, he spent a night in jail before he could arrange to pay his $500 bail.

The vice squad's Degan says his unit is responsible for handling prostitution, obscenity, liquor violations, public lewdness, bigamy, and several other sections of the penal code -- and there's way too much business in those areas for the department to handle. If it looks as though the obscenity law isn't being enforced, it's not that they aren't trying. Degan says his squad busts the big operators -- including the New Fine Arts and Paris -- and mom-and-pop operations alike.

Cohen, meanwhile, has a few decisions to make. A plea offer in his file will get him two years' probation and an $800 fine.

"I don't know if they want me to stop selling these or what," he says. "It's a huge First Amendment issue. It worries me that the city is gonna come in and tell me what is and what is not obscene. Where does it stop? Who is to say what is and what isn't on the list?"

Right now in Dallas, it's safe to say that Slurping and Up and Cummers are definitely on the list.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec

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