Literary Hub

Men of a Certain Age: On Sex, Privacy, and Pornography

An older pornographer calls me after a decade of silence. It is midnight in Berlin, summertime. When I see his number on the display, I think there can only be one reason he’s calling. He’s dying. I pick up, already in tears.

In September, Hugh Hefner dies. The sorrow I feel is much the same as for my pornographer. I turn to Twitter for some sort of comfort, but all I see is vitriol. Even my mother makes a point of telling me, “Good riddance.” The unity of opinion surprises me. Have I spent so long working with pornography that I can’t see straight anymore? (I know it’s made me slow to pick up on innuendo; I’m used to things being clear.) The articles that look to Hef’s contributions to civil and women’s rights activism, the story in the New Republic that explores how “his greatest achievement was the brilliant criticism he provoked from women,” have not yet rolled in to provide a counterpoint. But even they don’t capture what I’m feeling.

What is this sadness? I carry it with me on the day of Hef’s death, the same day my agent tells me I have an offer on my debut novel. I carry it with me through the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Not scandal: abomination, though no one can pretend to be shocked. I listen to the audio of Weinstein trying to get Ambra Battilana Gutierrez into his hotel room. “I’m telling you right now, get in here,” he begins.

And then it hits me, a discomfiting mixture of nostalgia and self-interest. I’m not mourning these men. I’m feeling the loss of something inside myself. And I’m wondering, what will happen to women like me when all these men of a certain age die? I will, most likely, outlive them all.

*

After the Weinstein story breaks, among the first people on my social feeds to reflect on the ways in which they too may have engaged in misconduct are members of the American kink community. Of course. They’ve always been good people. That community’s willingness to establish consent and recalibrate assumptions about romantic and sexual mores is what drew me to the scene in the first place. They are radical in their belief that we must respect personal integrity and take responsibility for our actions, no matter how permissive the environment. It’s what put me on a path that I sometimes describe as “a life in sex.”

I’ve always preferred the company of people who navigate by the stars of their desires, unafraid to identify and pursue what they want, willing to question what they’ve inherited and are offered. Borrowing from Camille Paglia, let’s call these people pornographers; to be alive to the sexual energy all around us is a kind of pornographic vision. Seeing the world through this lens makes clear just how fraught our society’s relationship to sex is. The pornographic lens—and with it pornography—chronicles a society’s sexual dreams and anxieties. Our relationship to pornographic material today speaks to how little we value lust as a force for creativity, knowledge and insight. They say we get the porn we deserve.

This “pornographic lens” is one of the reasons I liked working as an editor at a trade magazine covering the adult film industry. At its best, the business is filled with First Amendment crusaders, wary of governmental overreach, who spend their lives challenging sexual norms. There are stars who offer an alternative to mainstream porn such as Stoya, Madison Young, Shine Louise Houston and Jiz Lee; they control the means of production and are working to bring little-seen desires to the screen and opening up spaces for erotic discourse and queerness in the wider world.

In ways that are invisible to most, the adult industry is doing the hard work of trying to disassemble laws that only apply to most of us if the authorities get a bee in their bonnet. Laws such as 18 U.S.C. §2257, a statute intended to keep minors out of porn that “requires anyone who films sexual [content of actual human beings] to maintain and keep detailed records and IDs of the persons depicted in the film, cross-referenced in files, with dates of production, nicknames and copies of the movies. [ . . . ] Likewise, anyone who incorporates that imagery—a clip from a video posted on a website, a still from a movie on a box cover—must also maintain these records. And every sexually explicit image must bear a label identifying the address where the required records can be found.”

This law, first passed in 1988, is meant to supplement existing obscenity and child pornography laws, matters close to the heart of the Free Speech Coalition (the industry’s trade association) and the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection. But in practice the law doesn’t seem to be good for much. The industry consensus, especially since the under-age performers who’ve entered the porn industry have done so using fraudulent government-issued IDs, is that 2257 is most effective as a tool to surveil and harass adult producers. (Misfiled papers can lead to five years in prison.) Only in 2015 was it ruled that requiring these records to be made available without a warrant violated a producer’s Fourth Amendment rights.

But let’s go back to the word “anyone,” and let’s not be coy. It’s not uncommon to have and share sexually explicit content of ourselves and others. Think of all those porn gifs on Tumblr. If you’ve ever reblogged one, dig into 2257, and you might discover that you could be considered a primary or secondary producer. Revenge porn is not exempt; neither was Kim Kardashian and Ray J’s sex tape.

Members of the adult industry have turned to First Amendment activism because they know what it’s like when the government wants to infringe on your rights just because they don’t like what you’re doing. People of a certain age in this industry remember this struggle, and many entered the business because they believed in protecting the sexual freedom of consenting adults. In 2012 adult performer Nina Hartley told the Huffington Post that her nearly forty-year-long career is part of a larger project to help heal a sexually sick society. With The People v. Harold Freeman, a porn producer and director, effectively legalized the making of hardcore pornography in California in 1988. It also spelled out the difference between prostitution and hiring actors for sexually explicit, non-obscene performances. Vanessa del Rio, who began performing in 1974, describes her colleagues at that time as “sexual rebels.” In a 2008 interview with AVN, she added: “the people in [porn] were on the fringes of society and daring to do as they pleased.”

Being a sexual rebel, or even a sexual outlaw, is of course not limited to those involved in adult entertainment. Consider Lawrence v. Texas (2003), when the Supreme Court finally struck down sodomy laws, making it no longer a Class C misdemeanor or “deviate” for a man to have anal sex with another man in any US state and territory. Imagine the police busting into your house and arresting you for what you do in bed. Oral sex, owning sex toys, sleeping in the nude: there have been or are laws about each of these things in the United States. For what purpose? How have they been enforced? Such matters are an area of concern for many pornographers. But most of us will never care about these things unless the law comes crashing through our door.

Society loves to hate porn, but not as much as it quietly loves to love it. We know this already. This love, the money offered to express this love, allowed Hugh Hefner’s Playboy to rise above the pack of girlie mags, men’s adventure magazines, and pulp fiction of the 1950s to become an empire. An empire built in part around a problematic brand of objectification. Nevertheless, the money and demand that flooded in is a testament to the power of bringing to light our repressed lust, of attempting to reconcile the private body with the public heart and mind. In Playboy, readers were shown a world in which sex was part of a wider cultural conversation; readers saw they were not alone in their desires and that feeling desire was not shameful in and of itself. And they couldn’t get enough.

The problem with Playboy is that it is a monolith, built by one man’s vision. A singular sexual dream.

*

What did Hugh Hefner want? Reflecting on the magazine’s early days, Gay Talese in Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1980) writes “[Hefner’s] sexual appetite, long frustrated, was now insatiable. He dreamt of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age. In a video interview with the New York Times, Hefner said he had a thing for Busby Berkeley’s blond showgirls—those geometrical arrangements of women dancing in unison, forming dazzling patterns of limbs, sequins and hair. And so a lot of the Playmates were refractions of those smiling women from the 1930s.

Talese suggests that Hefner—a boy with a cold mother, a man with a Catholic wife whose affair during their courtship seemed to ruin the relationship for him entirely, an “unattractive and shy” cartoonist who built up enough confidence to believe that women might desire him—became a man who “wanted not only to have the nude pictures [of Playboy models] but also to possess the women who had posed for him.” And in this, he was rather successful. Reading Talese and statements from Hefner and ex-girlfriends Holly Madison and Kendra Wilkinson, the story of Hef’s ability to have the women who posed for him is one of coercion, transaction, and/or fun and attraction.

You can say his Playboy philosophy—the cultured man who listened to jazz, read books, liked a stiff martini with a twist of bombshell blonde—was a half-baked, self-serving sham, but in doing so we forget an essential part of the story. Hugh Hefner back in 1953, in the wake of Dr. Kinsey’s report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) was asking important questions about the state of sex and romance in America.

In Hugh Hefner’s review of the Kinsey report in Shaft magazine, he wrote, “This study makes obvious the lack of understanding and realistic thinking that have gone into the formation of sex standards and laws. Our moral pretenses, our hypocrisy on matters of sex have led to incalculable frustration, delinquency and unhappiness.” Through Playboy, Hefner asked if the way we were doing things was working. Does it have to be this way? Can it be different? Do we need to update our social and moral codes?

This is why I mourn Hugh Hefner. There are not many among us who ask the hard questions about how we live our lives, and there are fewer still who succeed in asking them in a way that makes any impact. Perhaps it is too much to expect of one person to ask these questions and to overcome the lack inside him. His frustrated sexuality. His partner’s early infidelity. I’m speculating.

*

Let’s return to my pornographer.

On the phone, he tells me that when he was child, he got his hands on a copy of Playboy that advertised Playboy-branded cufflinks. He wanted them more than anything. From the magazine he understood that there was another valid way to grow into an American man. Not just John Wayne, the man in the gray flannel suit or a soldier. Playboy showed him that the fact that he liked books and art didn’t mean he was a poindexter, an object of ridicule, not a man. With childhood slipping into the rearview mirror, he saw the road leading to a new kind of masculinity. My pornographer wanted those cufflinks bad. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a button-down shirt, he had pajamas. Just like Hef.

When I talk to my pornographer after all these years, we end up in old patterns of conversation. We talk about our careers, sex, and relationships. He uses the word “millennial” like a curse. I say: Millennials are doing some hard work on behalf of society by questioning romantic and erotic norms. They have found a way to subvert the dominant white, middle-class, male gaze. Millennials, like my pornographer and Hefner before them, get some things wrong, but they’re laying the groundwork for change. We haven’t figured it out. But we are evolving, I say, feeling like a bridge between them and him. I hope one day we will be civilized enough to tell the difference between a person who happens to be in the same room and a person inviting sexual advances.

Unlike many men, my pornographer never made assumptions about what kind of person I was or how easy I would be to get in bed because I was a woman working with porn. We were both pornographers. We had no use for innuendo. I felt relaxed with him, appreciated and free. And the fact that I felt like he saw the parts of me I valued most, reminded me that others would, too.

My pornographer was not calling to tell me he was dying. He just thought that too much time had passed. I agreed. I’d been missing him, too. It was a relief to speak again. My life has spun off in a different direction since my time at the trade magazine. In my new community, men like my pornographer are a relic. I mourn the part of myself that is also becoming a relic with time, out of place in my everyday—this part of me that’s calibrated to the norms of a society shaped by men of a certain age. But when my pornographer and I talk, that relic part of me has a place, and I find a glimmer of understanding for the women who refuse to fight for change: the comfort of the familiar. Who am I without these strategies and inherited ways of being? At times I feel unmoored.

More than a generation removed from my pornographer, I am the product of the world people like him and Hefner helped shape. I’ve grown up with the aftermath of the sexual revolution, the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. I’ve grown up thinking that a nude centerfold, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Updike aren’t out of place side-by-side. When all those men of a certain age die, it falls to us to remember what it took to get from the birth of Playboy to #metoo.

*

In the meantime, pornography as we know it is dying. As in the music industry, the demise of porn can be attributed to digital piracy and changing consumer behavior—wanting a song or a sex scene and not a full album or movie. Pornographers have always been early adopters of new technology. Developments in technology—from the printing press to home video systems to VGA graphics that made it possible for images to be shared between networked personal computers before the worldwide web—gave consumers better access to what they wanted. Porn, yes, but also the possibility of consuming said porn in increasingly private and discreet ways. In 1995 Time magazine reported that 83.5% of the content in shared libraries on the Usenet bulletin board system was porn. Savvy systems operators charged for access to their content, and people were happy to pay. With the advent of the Internet, innovation in online payment and marketing, video streaming and more, a multitude of pornographers large and small, home-grown and corporate, created an industry online. You could say this was a Golden Age, or a gold-rush.

In 2006, about a year after YouTube launched, tube sites for porn appeared online, and free porn began to take over the market. Who actually uploads this content is a point of contention: who is culpable for this large-scale copyright infringement? The issue is murky and complex. In short, tube sites claim their users upload the content, while adult film professionals assert that the tube sites are doing it themselves. If the latter is true, why?

MindGeek is an expansive organization that dominates the adult entertainment market. Built up by tech entrepreneur Fabian Thylmann and founded in 2004, the company is perhaps best known for the PornHub Network of websites and their portfolio of adult production studios, such as Brazzers and Digital Playground. In 2014, Slate reported that MindGeek owns “nearly a hundred websites that in total consume more bandwidth than Twitter, Amazon, or Facebook.” They even manage parts of the Playboy empire. Playboy, which in 1993 won a $500,000 dollar copyright infringement lawsuit against one of the biggest Bulletin Board Systems for sharing digital scans of copyrighted images. As a result of this shift of control in production and distribution avenues, pornographers of yesteryear are closing shop. Fees are low, profits are down, and even porn cannot escape the Uberization of work. The people who run MindGeek aren’t pornographers; they call the company “a leader in IT, web development and SEO.” Their main commodity seems to be traffic.

The free porn on tube sites is doing more damage to the porn industry than anti-pornography laws and campaigners combined. Feminist journalist and ex-porn performer Ovidie’s documentary Pornocracy: The New Sex Multinationals paints a grim picture of the mainstream porn industry after MindGeek’s ascension. In a panel discussion at pornfilmfest Berlin on October 28, 2017, Ovidie said that the most tragic part of making the documentary was meeting female performers who were in the industry for such a short time they could not or did not want to formulate an opinion about their labor conditions and their exploitation. They wanted to get in, get the money, and get out. In this environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the humanity of the people involved. Instead of performers with distinct identities and personal integrity, we are being asked to accept a seemingly endless supply of disposable bodies navigable by keyword: blonde, big tits, old/young.

Like MindGeek, post-Hefner the Playboy empire seems to be abdicating the responsibility that generations of pornographers have taken in stride: that by creating pornographic materials, they open themselves up to criticism for how their work impacts society. Playboy kicked off 2018 by announcing that they’re considering shutting the magazine down. They want to move away from the media business and focus on brand management. What vision will Playboy-branded cufflinks stand for then?

At least Hefner’s Playboy encouraged us to know the names, predilections, and occupations of the Playboy Bunnies, marketing them as sexually liberated girls-next-door with full lives who posed nude as a lark. One might begin to dream of a Golden Age, of the comparative innocence of a figure like Hugh Hefner in 1953. But there is no Golden Age. Like Playboy before it, MindGeek is a monolith shaping the tastes of a generation.

Here we are again, being offered one man’s singular sexual dream. We deserve better. And so, with body, heart, and mind, we must begin to dream together.

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