NEW YORK—In the Bowery section of south Manhattan, a mere stone’s throw away from New York’s fashionable SoHo district, a nondescript building on Chrystie Street discreetly hides The Box, a plush burlesque house appointed in the style of a 1920s speakeasy cabaret. One expects the doorman to peer through a sliding eye-level slot, demanding the password for admission to the smoky, music-filled room and the debauchery taking place within.
In this setting, luminaries from the worlds of libertarian politics, mainstream media and a select few from the adult industry, congregated Thursday night for a celebration of free speech and, more specifically, John Stagliano’s federal court victory in the obscenity case that many regard as a pivotal moment in the adult industry’s battle with overzealous, anti-sex government censors.
The freezing wind blowing through Manhattan served as a metaphor for the chilling effect created when artists are scared to create out of fear of persecution or prosecution. In contrast, The Reason Foundation, a libertarian organization with a long history of support for and from John Stagliano, energized by the good news of the acquittal, celebrated the occasion with an eyes-wide-open program exposing the uninitiated to their motto “Free Minds and Free Markets” and the vital role of all speech, be it sexual, political or economic, in the pursuit of these fundamental liberties.
The evening was emceed by David Nott, president of The Reason Foundation, who succinctly explained Reason’s decision to hold the event, the choice of venue, the back story of Stagliano’s involvement with the organization and his admiration for Stagliano’s hallmark of honesty and integrity, evidenced by his decision to stand tall and face his challengers despite the possible loss of freedom and livelihood.
Nott acknowledged the evening’s Host Committee, including The Onion’s Joe Garden, MTV’s Kurt Loder, Tony Ortega from The Village Voice, CNN’s Kathleen Parker, Penn & Teller’s comedic activist Penn Jillete and AVN’s Paul Fishbein.
Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.TV and Reason.com, read a prepared statement co-written by Reason Magazine Editor-In-Chief Matt Welch, followed by a video presentation that was part documentary, part interview and part fantasy sequence about Stagliano’s two-year ordeal and the post-verdict wrap-up.
To the chagrin of the too-humble Stagliano, Nott returned to soberly reiterate that he chose to risk 32 years in jail and the grave consequences that would impact his wife, his company Evil Angel and his industry in general, rather than cede his principles in the interest of making a deal to save himself.
Stagliano graciously accepted the award with a heartfelt talk voicing his passionate belief in sexual expression, including hardcore and fetish porn, as a legitimate art form that encourages the viewer to enjoy and consider individual sexual boundaries, the complexity of intimacy and personal liberty, areas that should remain free of government sanction.
To conclude the award portion of the festivities, Paul Cambria, one of Stagliano’s lawyers during the trial, was invited onstage to propose a toast, fittingly consummated with complimentary-for-all, milk-based White Russian cocktails, a reference to Jay Sin’s Milk Nymphos, one of the Evil Angel titles exonerated from designation as obscene matter.
Cambria noted Stagliano’s unwavering insistence that his legal team mount a case to protect the movies as the priority over protecting him. This willingness to sacrifice his personal liberty for societal liberty made Stagliano unique in Cambria’s view, no small feat given the lawyer’s decades long career of First Amendment advocacy representing well-known clients such as Larry Flynt and Marilyn Manson.
Cambria finished on a humorous note, recalling Stagliano’s admonition about the artistic merit of a video clip from Milk Nymphos. Simultaneously laughing and bristling at the notion of swaying a juror’s recognition of the artistic value or community tolerance of a scene featuring liquids shooting from the anus of one woman as a projectile aimed at the face of another performer, Cambria wryly proclaimed “John, you gotta be kidding….” He remembered that Stagliano, nonplussed as ever, displayed his absolutist belief in the worth of sexual expression involving consenting adults. After a nod to John's wife who endured the ordeal of John’s trial and its devastating impact to her family, herself at her husband’s side this evening as she had been in court, Cambria victoriously hoisted his shot glass. “Here’s to you, John. Thank you for the honor and thanks from all of us gathered here tonight.”
The Reason Foundation’s David Nott invited the audience to stay for the two burlesque shows to follow. Ever mindful that this was a fund-raiser, Nott thanked all who came out, especially the various sponsors, supporters and staffers including Adam & Eve founder Phil Harvey, Zivitty.com (represented by luscious lasses in lingerie-chic dress to undress), The Village Voice, The Museum of Sex, libertarian standard bearer/TV personality John Stossel, attorney Robert Corn-Revere (who was also a member of Stagliano’s defense cadre), Reason’s Melissa Palmer and Los Angeles Times editorial columnist Tim Cavanaugh.
Jovial partiers from the adult entertainment sector, showing solidarity for John Stagliano and the Reason Foundation, included Michael Warner from Great Western Litho, IVD’s Frank Koretsky, Ted Rothstein, and friends from Novelties by Nasswalk, AVN’s Fishbein and Evil Angel’s Christian Mann.
It bears mention that the burlesque shows were a top-notch campy revue filled with music, singers, topless dancers, comedians and even dancing dogs, the latter act providing the G-rated contrast to a celebration of the X-rated arts in a landscape bearing the fruits of a free market made possible by unencumbered freedom of speech. Now that’s a Reason for celebration.
For Reason’s web link about the event, click here.
Pictured: John and wife with Reason's Tim Cavanaugh and Melissa Palmer