Ron Jeremy Is the Greatest Porn Star of All Time. How Did That Happen?

What Women Really Think
Feb. 1 2013 2:00 PM

How Did Ron Jeremy Become the Greatest Porn Star of All Time?

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For three decades, Ron Jeremy has been the pornographic picture of the heterosexual American male.

(Mark Mainz/Getty Images)

Legendary porn star Ron Jeremy was hospitalized this week to treat an aneurysm near his heart. The medical emergency triggered an outpouring of concern for Jeremy—he's currently recovering from surgery with the assistance of a respirator—and renewed public fascination in his unlikely career. How has this short, fat, hairy, bowling-shirted, pinky-ringed Jewish man from Queens managed to troll our sexual subconscious for so many years?

It's tempting to attribute it to sheer force of will. While most of his aging male peers have retired, transitioned to directing, or died, Jeremy is still hawking penis pills, bottling ironic self-branded rum, and making the reality television show rounds. But Jeremy's success actually says more about us than it does him: For three decades, he's kept pace with porn’s evolving conception of masculinity, reflecting how we feel about a man performing sex—and a woman watching him.

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Ron Jeremy did not always look like this. When he first entered the porn business, after stints as a special ed teacher and a struggling mainstream actor, he resembled something approximating the 1970s masculine ideal—hirsute and physically fit, with a Selleckian mustache and a sizable penis. In 1978, Playgirl found his nude photographs fit to print. From there, he served as a character actor in the pornographic films of the time, which really were films. Modeled after Hollywood features, they were released publicly in movie theaters and targeted a wide national audience, from suburban couples to bohemian sexual revolutionaries. These films were overwhelmingly male-oriented—1972’s Deep Throat was about a woman who could only orgasm through the penile stimulation of her clitoris, which was located in her throat—but in trying to fit in with the era’s women’s lib/sexual revolution, they required reasonably attractive male performers to ape the style of their Hollywood counterparts. Modern-day female performer Chanel Preston once described the look to me as “The Brawny Paper Towel Man”—pretty fine for a lumberjack.

With the rise of the VHS tape, and the Reagan-era crackdown on public porn viewing, pornography evolved, and so did Jeremy’s physique. Porn consumption grew into a highly specialized and fiercely private habit. Films no longer needed to appeal to a diverse audience to usher viewers (and their wives and girlfriends) into the seats. Producers were free to target niche audiences directly with some weird, wild stuff.  As the ethos of Deep Throat adapted to this new market, women were depicted pleasuring men in increasingly extreme situations, and that included grosser-looking dudes. Anxious men could watch a guy like Jeremy without feeling threatened; men into coercive fantasies got an extra thrill out of a woman having sex with a man they couldn't imagine actually appealed to her. (My boyfriend once described Ron Jeremy to me as the “human equivalent of Japanese monster porn”). By the mid-'90s, the popularization of “gonzo” pornography had erased the Hollywood pretense entirely and placed the camera directly into the hands of the male performer. The disembodied penis was ready for its close-up: While female porn performers were still required to maintain the physique for the work, male performers-turned-cameramen needed only to provide the prop. Jeremy’s body was no longer screen-ready, but his member—which he measures at nine and three-quarters inches—fit the bill.

In this new pornographic landscape, sexually attractive men were not only unnecessary in straight films—to some producers, they actually started to seem kind of gay. The explosion of video and DVD required pornographers to market their smut more explicitly and aggressively to the private male hobbyist, and part of the game was to differentiate gay and straight porn on sight. The female gaze became something of a liability for the straight porn industry. As modern porn producer Joshua Lehman told me in 2011, “If you put a man in the foreground on a box cover, male and female customers are going to assume it’s gay porn.” But cast a guy like Ron Jeremy in your movie, and there will be little confusion as to the intended audience. (By the time I first became aware of pornography, in the late-'90s, Jeremy was the only male star I knew by name. That was enough to keep me away from the stuff for years.)

Thanks to the internet, porn is pop cultural again. The strangest corners of the niche video porn market are now available free and unfettered to the masses online. (Today's real niche is female porn fandom, which is still relegated to dark corners of the internet. Wake me up when the female equivalent of Ron Jeremy is anointed the greatest porn star of all time). My generation of viewers, twenty-somethings who have grown up with porn as just another thing online, has adapted to the onslaught by adopting an ironic distance to it. Privately, porn still offers serious masturbation material—deep throating is as popular to the mainstream viewer as it was back in 1972. But publicly, the most ridiculous and extreme pornographic fare now functions as source material for fratty jokes forwarded between friends. And Jeremy, fully developed into his dirty old man persona, has become our gross-out king. (At this year’s Adult Entertainment Expo, Jeremy received more cat-calls from the peanut gallery than the standard starlet.) The porn industry has responded to this tittering attitude by reviving the full-length feature, this time in the form of hard-core comedic parodies of mainstream films. In them, Jeremy is again tapped to play the supporting actor. These days, he doesn't even need to have sex.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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