Arrayed along the border of Nevada is a string of nearly identical small towns. Posted at every major port of entry into the state, astride every major highway, their purpose is to relieve travelers of their gambling money just as soon as is humanly possible. Some of them are famous (Reno, Laughlin), some are not (Jackpot, Stateline).
Mesquite, Nevada, is one of these casino towns. In this tiny border outpost, one of America’s longest running morality plays is being enacted. It pits an organized gang of Mormon didacts against a lonely but determined purveyor of sexually explicit material, Pure Pleasure Adult Bookstore.
A group of Mormons has been picketing and harassing Mesquite’s sole adult bookstore for more than two years now. Twenty four hours a day, every day, the Mormons pursue their crusade against Pure Pleasure. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these guardians of the public morals from their self appointed rounds.
“You’re sick,” one of the protesters screamed at a Pure Pleasure patron recently as he disregarded their taunts and entered the establishment.
The persecution doesn’t stop at verbal harassment. “If a person comes in who they think looks like he’s under 18,” said Pure Pleasure owner Gary Enea, “they right away call police.” This is in spite of the fact that the store has its own rigorous ID check at the door.
“The kid is 18 he’s old enough to go fight in Bosnia Herzegovina, but he can’t buy a sex book,” Enea said. “He can’t get a hard on in this country.”
The Mormons have organized their crusade against Pure Pleasure into four hour shifts. They’ve constructed a staging area 40 yards from the store, a jerry built plywood superego monitoring a neon id. “Operation Desert Porn” the protesters call their effort, much to the disgust of area veterans.
“Keep Our Town Clean,” reads one of their placards, although many of those manning the shack have crossed three state lines to get there. Other placards read “Say No to Porno,” “This Store Is Anti Family,” and “Bundy Started With Porno” a reference to serial killer Ted Bundy, who left a trail of corpses in the Salt Lake City area. Before his execution, in an interview staged by right wing talk show host James Dobson, Bundy blamed his murderous rampages on exposure to porn a transparent lie that was swallowed whole by pro censorship forces.
In inclement weather and there is a lot of inclement weather in Mesquite, where the sun blazes down in summer and the winds howl out of the Rockies in winter the Mormons huddle in the shack, emerging only when a customer dares to exercise his Constitutionally protected freedom of choice to peruse Cum Shot Babes.
The weather represents a real hardship for the protesters. “Some of these people are elderly,” Enea said, sounding almost as if he worried about them, out there in the cold. In fact, age doesn’t seem a qualifying factor for joining the crusade. Even though one of the main thrusts of the protest is that the bookstore is a corrupting influence on youth, the Mormons bring their kids along.
“They’ve had little tiny tots on the picket line. They’ve had teenagers on the picket line,” Enea said. “If they don’t want to expose this material to young people, why have them out there?”
The protesters make an elaborate point of writing down the license plate numbers of Pure Pleasure customers, sometimes photographing them also. They occasionally go so far as to harass employees of the bookstore.
“They’ve followed me home twice,” said store manager Mike Holland. “I turn around and just stand there and wait for them. When they see me waiting for them, they turn around and go back to the picket line.”
The tenacity of the protesters is remarkable. “So far, I think they’ve missed one day,” Holland said. But even with such a determined effort, the picket line has had a negligible effect on Pure Pleasure’s sales.
“Business is good,” Enea said. “I’m happy.”
Mesquite seems an unlikely venue for such a clash of cultures. Yes, those are the Mormon Mountains looming to the north, and yes, that is the Virgin River that flows out of the Virgin Mountains and through the town. But aside from the symbolic backdrop of topography, there is little to recommend the place as a First Amendment battleground.
More a glorified truck stop than an actual town, Mesquite grew up along the Virgin River and, more important, along Interstate 15. You can walk from Mesquite across the border into neighboring Utah, if you care to, but most of the traffic is coming the other way, heading from the purified precincts of “Zion” as the Mormons like to call their theocracy south to Sin City, Las Vegas, 60 miles away.
For the expansionist Mormons, though, Mesquite represents a beachhead in their effort to export a form of heavy handed sociological control beyond the borders of Utah to Nevada, the West, America, the world. Always a zealously missionary and relentlessly proselytizing religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints prides itself on sticking its nose in everyone’s business.
But when you strip away its modern day trappings of respectability, Mormonism is simply an overgrown religious cult. Founder Joseph Smith can be seen as the David Koresh of his day. Like Koresh, Smith was murdered by a government suspicious of religious zealotry. And like the teachings of the Branch Davidians, the theology of the Latter day Saints is replete with loony mythology and bizarre doctrines. Orthodox Mormons, for example, must remain in contact with what amounts to holy long underwear holding onto it even when they bathe.
There is some disagreement about the degree of direct support the Pure Pleasure protest gets from the church. Protest organizer Rebecca Hartley presents the picketing as a spontaneous crusade. Enea believes there must be some funding provided. Spokespeople for the church refused to return calls from Forum, but in news reports they have been blandly supportive of censorship efforts.
“The church encourages its members to do all they can to oppose pornography and other social ills,” Mormon spokesperson Don LeFevre told a reporter.
It represents a particularly twisted form of historical irony, of course, that Mormons should set themselves up to judge anyone else’s approach to sex. For much of its existence, the Mormon church itself was on the receiving end of criticism and protest for its unconventional manner of coupling.
During the last half of the 19th century, newspapers and magazines in the East were full of lurid accounts of Mormon polygamy in the still wild realm of Utah. Back then, the church’s embrace of the practice (“celestial marriage,” church elders loftily called it) was at least as controversial as anything going on inside Pure Pleasure Adult Bookstore today.
The church’s fling with plural marriage lasted for half a century, and continues even now as an underground practice in some fundamentalist pockets of the backwoods West. “In recent years,” state the authors of a book on the history of the Mormons, “those interested in alternative lifestyles and marital arrangements have looked at the Mormon experiences with more sympathetic interest.”
Joseph Smith received the divine okay to marry more than one woman at a time in a “revelation” he experienced on July 12, 1843. Given the stern Victorian mood of the time, Smith and his followers were in no hurry to publicize their novel connubial arrangements. In fact, they lied their faces off about them, repeatedly denying rumors that the church elders were each servicing a whole stable of wives.
The truth didn’t come out until 1852, when polygamy was publicly and officially embraced by the church. From then until 1890, when it renounced the practice, the Mormon church was under constant siege sort of like those Pure Pleasure customers who are being called “sick” by a lame group of conveniently forgetful picketers.
In 1857, the feds actually organized an army expedition to end the racy little sexual experiment going on out in Utah. The church was dissolved as a legal institution, test oaths were required as conditions for voting (“Do you now, or have you ever believed in plural marriage?”), and anti polygamy laws aimed at the Mormons were passed in Congress.
“It really seems strange that these Mormons, who have undergone a tremendous amount of prejudice against them in their own right, would not at least be willing to live and let live,” said Gary Enea.
Those who do not remember the past are sometimes not condemned but delighted to repeat it especially if there is a change in roles involved. The Mormons were victims of vicious religious prejudice for decades, until they were clubbed into submission by a society intent on enforcing sexual conformity. The Mormons are presently engaged in the same forms of antisex hysteria once leveled at themselves. Only this time, in what must be a much more satisfying variation, they are the ones wielding the club.