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The courtroom was silent, save for the faint sound of screaming emanating from the jury box. Fourteen District jurors, outfitted with court-mandated headsets, watched excerpts from gonzo porn titles Milk Nymphos and Storm Squirters 2: Target Practice in the course of the federal obscenity trial against pornographer John “Buttman” Stagliano last week. An audience of about 50 onlookers watched them watch it.
“Yes, it was nasty,” says juror Terri Crawford, 46, who spent the bulk of the viewing looking sad. “There was things in that video that was degrading to humans.” In opening arguments, the U.S. government had warned the jury of those things: Performers using “syringes and tubes to pump milk into women’s anuses and vaginas,” then expelling the milk from their orifices and “into each other’s mouths.” A performer inserting his “penis into a woman’s anus” and then immediately into “another woman’s mouth.” “Drills” in “women’s vaginas.” “Extreme close-up shots” of “women squirting liquid” across the room. A “foot inside a vagina.”
The government also warned the jury of what it wouldn’t see: a “real plot-line.” What the government failed to detail is why the jury should care. “This wasn’t any of our business,” juror Stephanie Mordecai, 43, said after the trial. Throughout the viewing, Mordecai held the base of her headset defensively in front of her face, as if the thin swoop of plastic could shield her from the parade of milk enemas unfolding on screen.
Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon threw out the government’s case against Stagliano due to lack of evidence. But before he did, the jurors were forced to watch 50 minutes of Milk Nymphos and 36 minutes of Storm Squirters, porn titles Stagliano was charged with transporting from California to a D.C. post office box. The jury never got the opportunity to decide whether the films violated D.C.’s “community standard” for obscene material.
Too bad: The government had cherry-picked the titles for the express purpose of riling them. “Looking at the covers [on the website], it appeared that those movies emphasized the excretory function and squirting,” FBI Special Agent Dan Bradley testified on the witness stand. “So that’s why I ordered them.” The Milk Nymphos soundtrack contained a little extra trigger for District jurors: In it, porn actress Annette Schwartz entreats fellow performer Jon Jon to “come on you nigger, fuck me in the ass,” then instructs Lorelei Lee to “look in his eyes when you suck his nigger cock.”
But after the trial, jurors were more concerned with what wasn’t in Milk Nymphos: Violence. Rape. Bestiality. Kids. “These people were adults and they were willing. No one put a gun to their head,” Crawford said. “Had they brought a child out in pampers, then we would have been like, hell no,” Mordecai added. In opening arguments, the defense emphasized that the only entity forcing anyone to watch porn is the government. “The movies are not—and are not meant to be—distributed to these 14 strangers sitting in a federal courthouse,” defense attorney Paul Cambria said. The films feature “adults putting on a performance…for another adult, who would make that choice [to watch it] if that were his or her cup of tea.”
After watching two (or three) consenting adults engage in milk enemas and vaginal squirting in open court, Stagliano jurors may not be clamoring for more milk in their tea—but they’re not crying over it, either. After the trial was dismissed, one of those adults, Milk Nymphos’ Lee, passed quickly by a group of jurors in a court hallway. “We’ve seen you before. Aren’t you the milk girl?” a juror called after her. Lee waved. The juror turned back to her fellow jurors. “She should get her teeth fixed,” she said. “I guess the milk isn’t doing too much for her.”
“That’s because they keep spilling it all,” Mordecai said.
A lot has changed in the 30 years since the government last brought a high-profile obscenity case to D.C. In 1973, a city jury was tasked with deciding whether the Swedish adult film Hot Circuit was obscene enough to require jail time for Louis K. Sher, who’d been charged with “distribution and exhibition” of the title. According to IMDB, the film is an ensemble porn featuring a salesman, a stripper, a babysitter, a feminist, an anti-feminist woodcutter, a forest’s nymph, a secretary, and a hustler who accidentally spills whipped cream onto the stripper.
Unlike Milk Nymphos, Hot Circuit’s dairy play failed to amuse District jurors—they found Sher guilty of violating federal and local obscenity laws, including “knowingly presenting” the film in D.C. and shipping obscene material from New Jersey.
In the three decades since U.S. v. Sher, the government’s approach to obscenity cases hasn’t exactly evolved with the times. Despite the proliferation of adult material online—where anal milk is hardly the strangest fetish on display—Stagliano was tried for the antiquated offense of physically shipping obscene material across state lines.
The government made a half-hearted attempt to modernize the prosecution by introducing the online trailer for Belladonna’s Fetish Fanatic Chapter 5 as evidence: Minors could access in as few as “four clicks” on Stagliano’s website, prosecutors said. But the trailer was thrown out of the trial after prosecutors couldn’t figure out how to play it for the jury without it freezing mid-way through the display of vaginal drilling.
In the end, the prosecution’s case fizzled not on the obscenity test, but on simple facts: The government failed to prove that Stagliano actually sent anything to anyone.
Obscentity prosecutions have ebbed and flowed over the years. Once a culture-war touchstone—Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese famously authored a 2,000-page report that blamed porn for a variety of ills—smut-versus-state battles slipped from the headlines during the ’90s. George W. Bush’s administration made some efforts to revive the war on filth, nearly doubling the number of prosecutions. And now they’ve fallen again under Barack Obama. But Stagliano’s trial, like many of the obscenity cases still languishing in federal court, was originally the work of a Bush-era task force.
The Justice Department declined to offer a rationale for the prosecution—or any predictions about whether D.C. residents can expect a less bumbling repeat performance anytime soon. For his part, Stagliano told reporters outside the courthouse that today’s government simply lacked the “passion” to prosecute him. One of his attorneys, though, said porn cases were doomed not because of missing passion on the part of the government, but because of free-speech sensibilities on the part of potential jurors.
“Jurors have a difficult time with the government telling people what they should think, see, or believe,” offered Robert Corn-Revere, who served as local counsel for the defense. “That will likely be a lesson for the government going forward.” After hearing that a group of female jurors had convened post-trial to make milk jokes, Cambria was more direct: “Women!” he exclaimed. “Fantastic.”
Juliana Brint contributed to this report.