Porn Festival Screwed
Film showcase blocked by zoning regulations
Molly Adler and Matie Fricker learned the word "turgid" from the city's zoning code. The two co-own Self Serve, a sex shop.
Any showing of "specified anatomical areas" turns a venue into an adult amusement establishment, according to the code. These areas include: genitals, buttocks, female breasts (including the bottom of the breast) and turgid male genitals, among others.
Adler and Fricker have had good reason to get intimate with Albuquerque's zoning regs. They've been putting on Pornotopia, an erotic film festival, since 2007. Though the fest brings in hundreds of attendees, it runs into trouble with city government every time.
This year, after months of scouring zoning maps for an appropriate venue, they decided on the Sunshine Theater. It had the right zoning for a weekend-long porn festival—or so they thought. Fricker says members of the Pornotopia planning committee checked with Zoning Enforcement and learned they could get a one-time, “special use” permit. But on the third visit—about a month before the event—she says they were shot down. A Downtown zoning overlay prevents adult entertainment use in the area.
Pornotopia is off this year. "Had we not checked our butts, had we not gone a third time," Fricker says, "we would have run the event based on the advice Zoning had given us."
So how does Knockouts strip club operate a few doors down? Anything that existed before the year 2000 is allowed, explains Matthew Conrad, Code Enforcement Division manager.
And how does Century 14 movie theater get away with the occasional bare butt? Conrad says adult establishments have an emphasis on those specified anatomical areas and mainstream movie theaters do not.
Adler says it's fascinating that body parts are so heavily regulated when violence isn’t. "If two people are loving each other nekkid, for real, honestly, that's against the law, according to Zoning. If people are murdering each other violently, it's probably not even necessarily rated R."
"If two people are loving each other nekkid, for real, honestly, that's against the law, according to Zoning. If people are murdering each other violently, it's probably not even necessarily rated R.”
The Self Serve owners are used to resistance. Though the first Pornotopia was heavily advertised for months back in 2007, the theater hosting the festival got a cease and desist notice two hours before showtime. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico got involved in short order, and the festivities continued as planned at Guild Cinema [News, ” Right to Porn,” Dec. 6-12, 2007]. The Guild was cited but not fined. Potential penalties could have amounted to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail for each film shown at the festival. The venue hosting Pornotopia, not Self Serve, takes the risk.
Fricker says they worked with Zoning Enforcement to reach an agreement for the second Pornotopia in 2008. They couldn’t come up with anything, she says—there was no exception to the rules and no conclusion. They went ahead with the event, and they were cited again.
The second infraction ended up in court and wasn’t resolved until after the third Pornotopia in 2009. According to the ruling, Pornotopia broke the law. Fricker and Adler decided they could no longer hold the festival at the Guild.
A team of about 30 people who make up the Pornotopia committee started compiling lists of all the places with the right zoning for the festival. Most of them are heavy industrial buildings—car dealerships and garages, Adler says. But many still wouldn’t work legally for a large event, she adds. What if there aren’t the right number of fire exits? she asks.
Fricker says they're coming to the conclusion that there isn't an appropriate space to hold Pornotopia in Albuquerque. They're looking outside the city. "It's really unfortunate because I think it adds something special to Albuquerque to have this festival," she says. Moving it "takes away revenue and tax dollars."
From its inception, the film showcase had the full support of the Nob Hill Business Association, she adds. She also says business was good in nearby shops when the event rolled around. "Not only have we taken those dollars out of Nob Hill, we've taken them out of Downtown, and we're at the point where we have to take them out of Albuquerque."
It was suggested that perhaps Pornotopia should go underground and take place as private parties in people's living rooms. "But that's still saying porn should only be allowed in private, and it's a shameful thing that needs to be quiet and behind closed doors," Adler says. "And we're saying, No."
Though the showcase consists of international, feminist, positive pornography, they add, it's still porn—and that's OK. "People think, Well, porn, erotic films, can never be art,” Adler says. But she counters that “they can never be art if they can never be shown."
Code Enforcement Division Manager Conrad says he doesn't think this is about censorship. "Freedom of speech is great, it's necessary and I appreciate that. And you're going to find that the City of Albuquerque Comprehensive Zoning Code has categories that allow this type of self-expression. So I don't believe this is censorship." Strip clubs are zoned correctly, he points out.
Fricker says the suggestion that Pornotopia should just find space at a skin house is insulting to the integrity of the festival. "That's the opposite of what we're trying to do here."
The Self Serve owners are not looking for a brawl with the city, she explains. They didn’t want to become porn freedom fighters, she says, and they’d still love to work with the city in finding a venue.