Hello Again, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! I come bearing the second half of my recent interview with Bob Rosen, author of Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. If you missed Part 1, here it is.
You spent ten years researching Beaver Street. What was the most challenging aspect of researching a history of porn?
It was more like six or seven years that I spent researching and writing Beaver Street, and then another two years looking for a publisher. The reason I called it a history rather than the history, and limited it mostly to modern porn, is because if I were to write the entire history of pornography, I’d still be working on the book, and it would probably weigh in at about six volumes. It would be like Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson bio, which is already four volumes and still incomplete.
The two most difficult parts of researching Beaver Street were the story of Traci Lords and the Meese Commission on Pornography, and the history of Swank Publications. There’s just so much information out there on Meese and the scandal of Lords being underage for her entire porn career that it took me about a year to absorb it all, separate what was important from what wasn’t important, figure out what was true and what wasn’t true, and then incorporate it all into my narrative in a way that’s both accurate and entertaining. This was further complicated by the fact that Lords’ memoir—and any interviews with her—was no help at all. She did everything possible to obscure the truth. I say in Beaver Street that in the 60-odd pages she devotes to porn in her book, in virtually every case she leaves out the Five Ws—who, what, where, when, and why—saying she was drunk and stoned the whole time and forgot everything that happened.
Ironically, one of the reasons I chose to tell this story is because I witnessed it first-hand and thought I wouldn’t have to do a lot of research. But when I started writing it, I realized that I couldn’t answer some very basic questions, like: Why did this happen and where is this coming from? I ended up tracing the Lords debacle back to prehistoric cave paintings, but for practical reasons I began the story with Thomas Edison’s invention of the movie camera. (I put the cave paintings in the appendix.)
I had a similar problem untangling the history of Swank Publications. The porn company that exists today grew out of a group of comic-book publishing companies, the best known of which was Marvel Comics, and a group of magazine-publishing companies whose best-known titles were Swank and Stag, and which were originally men’s adventure mags, not porn. These companies were founded by Martin Goodman, and from 1932 to 1972 they operated out of the same office.
Dozens of books have been written about the history of Marvel Comics. Same with the men’s adventure mags, though they’re generally treated as a separate entity from Marvel. But the story becomes murky after 1972. That’s when Martin Goodman retired, Marvel continued as the company we know today, and Martin Goodman’s son Chip, whom I worked for, acquired all his father’s old men’s titles and converted them to porn mags. Until recently, there was next to nothing on the record that indicated that Chip was Martin Goodman’s son or that there was any connection between Chip’s porn titles and Martin’s adventure titles. Reading the historical record, you’d get the impression that the men’s adventure mags died off after ’72 and that was the end of them. You’d never know that Chip reincarnated them as smut. Apparently, the Goodman family took pains to obscure the connection, and I spent the better part of a year poking around in this historical black hole, trying to figure out exactly what happened. And the job was made even more complicated by the fact that Swank Publications seemed to change its name every five minutes.
When I was working at Swank, nobody ever spoke openly of the company’s history. If you told the creative director, who’d also worked for Martin Goodman, that you were thinking of running a comic strip in one of the porn mags, he might say something like, “Good idea. Chip really likes comics.” But that’s all he’d say. Or you might overhear one of the other old-timers tell a story about coming into work one morning to find Mario Puzo collapsed at his desk over an empty pizza box. I mean this is where Puzo was cranking out pulp fiction for the men’s mags as he was writing The Godfather. And this is where Stan Lee created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. A normal company would have put their typewriters in a glass case and employees would have been required to genuflect every time they walked by. But at Swank, it appeared as if the Goodman family didn’t want Martin Goodman’s sacred name sullied by the stench of his son’s smut.
Porn has been called misogynistic. Based on your experiences in the industry, do you think this is a fair assessment? From reading your recollections in Beaver Street, I can’t help but think that misanthropic might be a more accurate descriptor.
There are people in the porn industry whom these words could be applied to—no question. You look at some of the “gonzo” pornos being shot today, which seem to be more about degrading women than creating something erotic, and you’re not going to come away with a good impression of the porn biz. There are writers, like Gail Dines, who’ve built careers on criticizing these videos, because they are both misogynistic and misanthropic.
Beaver Street itself is neither. It contains a number of strong women characters: Pam Katz, Maria Bellanari, Sonja Wagner, Annie Sprinkle, Georgina Kelly. Some of them have achieved positions of authority in the porn industry. This surprises a lot of readers. They’re shocked to find out that there are women working behind the camera. I’d go so far as to argue that Beaver Street is a feminist book.
But the book also contains misogynistic characters, like Chip Goodman. In one scene, Pam Katz is telling me how Chip squeezed her breasts in front of the executive committee, and later in that scene, Chip asks her, “Pam, have your tits gotten bigger?” But ultimately Chip treated all his pornographers with contempt, not just the women, though perhaps he treated women somewhat worse than men. Apparently, though, he doted on his family. Same with Lou Perretta, the current owner of Swank, who Pam Katz (her real name is Joyce Snyder) is suing for age and sex discrimination. Perretta, too, treats his employees with utter contempt, but he dotes upon his four sons and his grandchildren, or so I’m told. So, I guess that makes them situational misogynists or misanthropes. Or to put another way, they’re rich creeps who care about nobody outside their families and are only motivated by maximizing profits. They’re people who’ve never worked in a place where they weren’t the boss or the boss’s son, and it begrudges them to have to pay a living wage. Working for these guys would be like working for Mitt Romney if he were a pornographer. Perretta is, in fact, a Republican who gives money to the RNC and to Tea Party candidates, like Scott Garrett, of New Jersey, who may be the most ultraconservative congressman in America.
With catastrophic events such as the Traci Lords scandal, AIDS outbreaks within the industry, and the exponential expansion of amateurs making porn at home, what keeps the porn industry from collapsing?
The porn industry has been in a state of collapse since about 1995. Magazines are on life support. Everybody whom I worked with in the 80s and 90s has either been downsized or, if they’re freelance, cut back to nothing. The big video companies are either dead or struggling to stay in business. Everything’s available for free on the Internet, if you know where to look and you have the patience to look for it. The questions that nobody can answer are: How do you sell something when the competition is giving it away? And how do professionals compete with amateurs who are doing porn for the sheer joy of exhibitionism? You can’t, and that’s the problem. You can still make money doing live Internet sex shows or going on tour as a “featured dancer” or by being a “superstar” like Christy Canyon and selling your used bras on your website. But these are the exceptions to the rule. The bottom line is, any exhibitionist with a cheap digital camera, an Internet connection, and a willing partner can be a porn star today if they want to, and if you browse through sites like Youporn or Pornhub, you can see that there are thousands of people taking advantage of this opportunity. The amateur exhibitionists are putting the professional studs and starlets out of business.
Do you think the amateur home-porn scene will eclipse and out-compete the “professional” porn industry? Or has it already?
I think it already has. (See above.)
The porn industry seems very homogenized and rigidly formulaic these days…all the actresses look the same, every video seems like the same five acts performed in the same order, even the titles have become utterly bland. “The Taming of Rebecca” and “New Wave Hookers” have given way to “Barely-Legal Blondes #257.” Is the industry stagnating, creatively? And is this a product of the Internet Era, or does this date back to pre-Internet?
The industry has been stagnating creatively since the mid-90s, when everything became an assembly line in hyperdrive. In my own case, I trace this back to when Chip Goodman sold all his porn titles to Lou Perretta, at the end of 1992. I say in Beaver Street, “Producing magazines had become a strictly mechanical process, with all thought and emotion squeezed out by economic necessity.” With Perretta, I was doing more than a hundred magazines a year—two a week. There was no time to think. Everything had to be formatted—same thing issue after issue. I was working on autopilot. I describe creating porn as an “exercise in postmodern sweatshop drudgery.” And the more sales plummeted, the faster I had to crank and the less money I had to crank with. They kept cutting my budget, and I had to keep cutting the amount I was paying photographers and writers. Same thing with videos. As technology advanced, more and more people were cranking out more and more videos for less and less money. In 1999, 11,000 professional porn videos were produced. That’s 30 new videos per day. Now, with the amateurs, I’m sure that number has increased a hundredfold. And from what I’ve seen, they’re mostly badly shot, badly lit—a collection of studs wired on Viagra coupling with women who are clearly not experiencing pleasure. Everybody looks like they’re working. It’s anti-erotic, anti-creative.
It seems like magazines such as High Society and Swank were “across the board” magazines, catering to a variety of tastes – a BDSM spread here, incest fiction there, sodomy pictorial there. Today, porn is extremely categorized; this website for interracial, that website for orgies, that website for women wearing nylons in the swimming pool, etc. Is this a product of the Internet Era, or was this categorization taking place during your time with the industry as well?
This has been taking place since before I began working in porn. There were always niche mags like D-Cup, Blondes in Heat, Shaved, Black Lust, Plump & Pink—and those are only the titles Swank published. The trend accelerated as time went along—more and more magazine filling smaller and smaller niches. Then the Internet kicked in, and now if you have any fetish or kink, no matter how outlandish or offbeat or specific, there are a thousand websites out there waiting to cater to you.
Was writing Beaver Street an act of catharsis in regards to your time in the industry?
I say in the prologue that I wrote the book “to understand the cumulative psychic effect of having spent 192 months immersed in XXX and wondering if I’d ever get out alive.” So, yes, it was cathartic, in part. But it was also an intellectual exercise. I knew that I’d witnessed something strange and complex that I didn’t fully understand. That was where the research came in. In Beaver Street, I wanted to show the political and social history of the late 20th century through a pornographic lens. That’s why I call it an investigative memoir.
If you could go back and give your 30-year old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
“Don’t put your 401(k) in mutual funds.” Aside from that, I don’t know what I could have done differently. Most of the situations I was faced with, I had very little choice in what to do if I wanted to keep my job. On one hand, I could have warned myself about the fallout from posing for a porn shoot—the “$5 Blowjob” experiment. But I wouldn’t have said, “Don’t do it.” I’d have said, “Just be aware of what you’re in for.” But if I’d told myself that, maybe I wouldn’t have experienced it the same way, and it wouldn’t have been as good a story. Or I could have told myself not to get involved with the person I call Georgina Kelly, because it’s going to be nothing but aggravation, insanity, and turmoil. But her character adds so much to the book—it’s a better book because of what I learned from her. She took me deep inside a world that I’d never have known quite that intimately. So I probably wouldn’t tell myself that, either. As I said before, I wanted to experience everything and write about everything. That kind of attitude is going to lead you into relationships with some very crazy people.
What comes next? Do you have any other projects planned?
I’ve been working on a novel, kind of a combination of black humor and historical fiction. I call it Bobby in Naziland and it’s about a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s where, to quote from the book, “World War II lingered like a mass hallucination on East 17th Street and large swaths of the surrounding borough.” I’m going to work on it now, while I still have some energy left.
Thanks Bob! Good luck with the novel. As for the rest of you criminal perverts reading this…seriously, go check out Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. You won’t regret it!