Porn Didn’t Have to Be This Way

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 16 2011 5:14 PM

Lady Problems

If Larry Flynt, Hugh Hefner, and Bob Guccione hadn’t had personal issues with women, would today’s porn be less awful?

Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt poses with Hustler models (from left) Vanessa Graw, Tanya Schafer and Nikki Gray
Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt poses with Hustler models (from left) Vanessa Graw, Tanya Schafer and Nikki Gray

Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Anyone who has gone looking for porn on the Internet—and statistically speaking, that would be all of you—has borne witness to one of the great mysteries of our time: its relentless awfulness. I am not referring to the understandable awfulness generated by low budgets, nonprofessional actors, and tight shooting schedules. No, the most baffling aspect of porn is why most of it seems to treat sex as an endurance test designed to measure how much discomfort and humiliation actresses can handle. Sure, there are porn producers who don’t embrace the Fear Factor model (wherein bug-eating is replaced with orifice-stuffing, name-calling, and semen to the eyeballs), but the fact that their work is inevitably designated as “alternative” shows just how badly mainstream porn runs women down.

Amanda Marcotte Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

Like the Auto-Tune in pop music, porn’s loathing for women inexplicably manages to resist the dual forces of strong criticism from people who hate it and weak demand from consumers, who generally swear up and down they’re just there for the sex and have no desire to hurt women. Mike Edison’s new history of porn magazines in the 20th century, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers—An American Tale of Sex and Wonder, provides some potential answers to this mystery, though it does so in spite of itself. Edison, who worked for one of these magazines, Screw, for a long time, doesn't deal honestly with porn’s misogynist streak and tries, unsuccessfully, to argue that most of the men who crafted modern porn as we know it did so with no ill will toward women. Edison traces the history of the Four Horsemen of Mainstream Porn—

Hugh Hefner of Playboy, Bob Guccione of Penthouse, Al Goldstein of Screw, and Larry Flynt of Hustler—discovering four very mixed-up men whose hang-ups about women and sexuality didn’t just shape their own magazines, but in so doing created the blueprint for standard American porn. Even as their magazines wither, contemporary, online porn continues in the tradition they established. And unfortunately, that tradition includes a strong, but not at all inevitable, dose of misogyny.

Edison never quite reaches this conclusion himself, however, except when it comes to Hugh Hefner, whom he singles out as an overt woman-hater, one whose intellectual pretensions are belied by the harem of interchangeable blondes he treats like pets. In Edison’s view, the other porn kings didn’t share Hefner’s demeaning attitudes toward women. The reasoning here isn’t entirely clear but seems to boil down to the fact that they chose instead to marry, repeatedly, and in some cases to women who took a strong hand in running their businesses. Unfortunately for Edison, his desire to liven up his history with the dirty details of how their careers went down undermines this theory, offering plenty of evidence that Guccione’s, Goldstein’s, and Flynt’s lives reflected a dysfunctional mishmash of unsavory attitudes toward women.

Edison launches a particularly lavish defense of Goldstein, whom he rightly admires for his eccentricity and courage against censors. He takes the hero worship too far, however, when he claims that anyone who has been around Goldstein knows “that he worships women.” Strangely, he can’t hold back from recounting how the supposed woman-worshipper decided to run stills from a film of Linda Lovelace having sex with a dog, something she did while under control of Chuck Traynor, “a low-down thug and abusive pimp.” Edison glosses over the legal troubles that resulted from Goldstein’s having harassed a former secretary with threatening and obscene phones calls and published her number in Screw. Edison also completely ignores Goldstein’s conviction for stalking his ex-wife. The book is replete with quotes from Goldstein being amusing or political but doesn’t include some of his less becoming remarks, such as when he told the Villager in 2004 that, “Women are despicable and vile and I prefer salami any day.”

Bob Guccione doesn’t come off much better, despite Edison’s best efforts. Caligula, Guccione’s notorious attempt to enter the film business, featured so many sex scenes degrading to actresses (including vaginal penetration with an eel), that filming was interrupted by a strike when 50 extras “claimed to have gotten their periods within five minutes of each other.” Guccione’s hand-picked director, Tinto Brass, reminded the women they had signed a contract agreeing “to any coupling with humans/and or animals at the director’s sole discretion. …” Guccione eventually fired Brass most of the way through filming, not for subjecting actresses to either painful devices (the less said about the barbed wire, the "tongue machine," or the giant, splintering wooden dildos, the better) or sex with animals, but because Brass had run over budget and also because Guccione felt that the actresses in some scenes needed to be sexier.

Edison paints a rawer version of Larry Flynt than Milos Forman did in his acclaimed biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt, but as in the movie, Flynt’s issues with women are framed as a mark of his delightful eccentricity, not as a major character flaw. And yet while Edison claims that Flynt is a pussycat when it comes to women, he demonstrates the opposite in recounting an episode in which Flynt decided to target not just Guccione but also Guccione’s girlfriend, Penthouse publisher Kathy Keeton, in the pages of Hustler. Guccione was accused of being an adulterer (true, according to Edison: He took up with Keeton while his second wife was pregnant with their fourth child). But Flynt saved his insinuations of dirty-whoredom for Keeton, running a cartoon implying she had the clap. When her libel lawsuit against Flynt reached the Supreme Court, Flynt, in his usual colorful style, spewed invective at the justices, calling them “eight assholes and a token cunt.” A Flynt apologist could probably wiggle away from the sexism of the word cunt; harder to excuse was Flynt’s preposterous suggestion that Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment was meritless, an empty gesture of political correctness. To Edison however, the whole episode was “a wonderful new low” for Flynt.

It is when it comes to Hefner, whom Edison characterizes as “bully,” that the book comes closest to reckoning with the extent to which these men injected their magazines—and modern porn more generally—with hostility to women. Edison’s distaste for Playboy’s heavily airbrushed, faux-sophisticated style of porn—he appreciates the magazine’s writing—seems to give him the freedom to assess Hefner honestly, and his conclusions aren’t flattering. Analyzing Hefner’s pre-Playboy youth, he suggests that Hefner’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and his sense of alienation from traditional masculinity were crippling, and that dominating women made him feel powerful. An hour of watching Hefner’s reality show should render this argument persuasive.

Despite his dislike of Hefner, Edison gives him credit for his courage against censors, the role he played in the sexual revolution, and his generally liberal approach to politics. It is a shame that Edison didn’t apply a similarly nuanced, analytical approach to his other three subjects, instead of merely writing off some of their uglier aspects as amusing eccentricities. If Hefner can be understood as both a sexual warrior with a vision and an unpleasant misogynist whose problems with women tainted his work, why not the other three? For all the book’s limitations, though, the stories recounted here still manage to shed light on why mainstream porn portrays women the way that it does. When these four men founded their magazines, pornography wasn’t a multibillion-dollar enterprise with corporate funding. It was a social stigmatized, semi-criminal industry, and it’s probably no accident that the men who entered it were broken people with serious sexual and emotional baggage.

It’s unfortunate that these men’s attitudes intertwined with their work until sexism became a standard feature of porn, one that outlived the feminist revolution. Just as file folder icons on computers will be around long after real life file folders disappear from offices, the demeaning portrayal of women these men brought to porn will outlive all of them. It’s not necessary to the experience, but without it, the user would now feel that something is off.

It’s interesting to consider what a porn industry started by an entirely different set of men, a set of men who loved women, might have looked like. Would different abbreviations now populate porn sites instead of such current favorites as DP (double penetration) and ATM (ass-to-mouth)? Would what we consider “alternative” porn now simply be the mainstream? Or would mainstream porn have evolved into something beyond what we can imagine? It’s hard to even contemplate how we would feel about porn if it weren’t so disparaging of women, if its “hardness” weren’t measured by the audacity of the tasks it required its actresses to endure, but rather by its sexiness.

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