The Law and the Skin Trade in the Windy City

Obscene Profits

By J. D. Obenberger, Attorney at Law
© MMI J. D. Obenberger


When I was a law school student back in the seventies, I read an article in Playboy about sex in Chicago. The article began with the memorable words, “Anyone who is really serious about sex in Chicago goes to New York for the weekend.” Maybe it was true then. Maybe it still is.

But anybody, anywhere, who has a serious interest in the ten billion dollar a year industry that creates and sells what is politely called erotica (and is more frankly called pornography by the rest of us) will read Fred Lane’s new book, Obscene Profits: The Entrepeneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age.

Those who have a serious business interest in this industry then should immediately read Fred’s book a second time, and then finally keep the book at arm’s reach for ready reference at all times. If they own the copy of this book that they read, they should underline and mark it up so that they can find the parts important to them when they need to. Whether Obscene Profits amounts to great literature is a question for another writer, in another column, in another publication. Writing here, I can only tell you that this may simply be the best, most informative, and most practical book ever written about the American porn industry. It is a book about the history and economy of erotic expression for profit, from its ancient beginnings to the Jennicam, with stops at all destinations between. As such, it deals with the technology of making and communicating images and ideas, the social constraints on graphic sexual expression by law and church, the fascinating personalities that have formed and shaped it (especially in the twentieth century) and the staggering profits that fuel its continued advance.

Obscene Profits  hits a responsive chord in the reader on every level. This is not a boring book; It is the kind of book that can make history, computers, and even the law ernormously fascinating.

It contains a revealing overview of the technological history of pornography from the copulative illustrations found by archeologists on the walls of ancient Neolithic caves in France and graphic frescoes unearthed in the houses of Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum all the way to the latest in internet porn technology. It is uncommon to find a book that deals with the first erotic uses of the printing press or one that dates the first erotic nude photographs within two years of the invention of photography by Daguerre in 1839: Rarer, still, is the book so rich with detail as to document a raid by the Paris Police Department on Englishman Henry Hayler, in which they seized from his studio more than 130,000 “obscene” photographs and 5,000 slides. In 1874! Fred Lane’s book traces the American pornography industry to arrests as far back as 1846.

The parade of notable figures that cross the pages of this book is a who’s who of the world of erotica, and the role of each in forming the present climate of sexual expression in American society is given abundant detail. Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Bob Guccione, The Mitchell Brothers, Marilyn Chambers, Traci Lords, Linda Lovelace, Reuben Sturman, and John Holmes bring up the rear, and free speech advocates Nadine Strossen and Kat Sunlove, and cyberentrepeneur Ron Levy of Cybererotica form the vanguard. The enemies of adult entertainment, starting from Pius IX on one side of the Atlantic and Anthony Comstock on this side, all receive their due from Mr. Lane’s capable hands.

But this is not mainly a book about history.

No, it is a very practical book.

Obscene Profits details the legal minefield that the adult businessman must transit, because, of course, it is the risks there encountered which justify profits so “obscene”. Indeed, the present law of obscenity is explained with as much clarity as is possible, with a detailed examination of the uses and abuses of criminal obscenity statutes by federal and state prosecutors. It contains at least an overview of all of the regulatory law specific to adult entertainment, it discusses copyright, trademark and domain issues on the web, and Obscene Profits does not stop until it discusses even consumer fraud.

Like the kind of book that is quietly sold in a low-key store for professional magicians on Lincoln Avenue, this is a book that tells the reader how it is done. Mr. Lane’s book discusses every part of the adult internet and its profit picture from Persian Kitty’s index site to “amateur” sites, and he is unafraid to ask the questions about the extent of convergence between image and hype on one side and reality on the other. He asks who the women are in the virtual chat sites and in phone sex, how much they get paid and why they do this for a living. He writes about how the phone lines are set up and marketed. He asks whether any of the “amateurs” really own their own sites. And he gives answers from the best evidence available. He talks practically about the start-up costs and techniques of the sites that are now famous and he analyzes whether such stellar success is still a realistic possibility for the new guys on the block.

In discussion of renewed attempts by lawmakers to sanitize the internet of sexuality, he asks important questions about the fairness of attempts to exclude from internet commerce those who created and developed all of the tools of e-commerce now utilized across the board by mainstream businesses  in marketing, payment, and imaging, the adult webmasters. He discusses the profits that mainstream American communication, cable, and hospitality companies derive from adult content, and his conclusions are more that a bit surprising.

Perhaps most importantly, he talks about the enormous potential of the internet to those with vision. Because the initial starting costs of a website are so low in comparison to the costs of creating a magazine or a videotape, the door of opportunity is now open to ordinary persons without huge investment capital. On the web, on the fourteen inch monitor of a typical web surfer, your site can look just as impressive as that of any Fortune 400 company; Women, who have largely been relegated to the role of “talent” in all past ages of pornography, now can emerge as entrepreneurs in their own right, without the necessity of mediation of the product by men with money to invest. They can and do take charge.
This is a book I am delighted to recommend without qualification. The publisher would risk little were it to sell the book with a thirty-day-money-back guarantee. Obscene Profits: The Entrepeneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age, Frederick S. Lane III, Routledge Publishers, International Standard Book Number (ISBN) 0-415-92096-5 which can be ordered through Amazon on the page linked here.

This article is written to generally inform the public and does not provide legal advice nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you have a legal issue or question, contact a lawyer. If you are arrested, make no statement and contact a lawyer immediately.

 Joe Obenberger is a Chicago Loop lawyer concentrating in the law of free expression and liberty under the United States Constitution, and his firm has represented many owners, employees, and customers of adult-oriented businesses, both online and in the real world. He can be reached in the office at 312 558-6420 or paged in any emergency at 312 250-4118. His e-mail address is

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