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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Protecting Us from the Evil of Protecting Us from Evil

AND NOW RICK SANTORUM is going to abolish porn. With a hundred years of hindsight, we see Anthony Comstock struggling to keep “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” off the New York stage and looking ridiculous enough to provoke George Bernard Shaw to comment that the U.S. had become “a nation of Comstockery.”

But even as he was laughed into oblivion, other crusaders erupted on the scene. Check out Edward De Grazia’s Girls Lean Back Everywhere for a scholarly study of the attempts to keep Ulysses, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and Lolita (among many others) off our shelves. Then get a copy of Bob Rosen’s Beaver Street to find out how more explicit porn evolved in recent years.

Today is the official U.S. publication date for Rosen’s book, although fearless is listing only a Kindle edition and some overpriced copies from other sources. The best online source I've found so far is Powells Books. (It was published last year in the U.K., so you’ll see copies from British sources as you search.)

A signal moment in the history of porn took place in 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that you could look at whatever turned you on in your own home. In response, President Johnson formed a Commission on Obscenity and Pornography – which only seconded the High Court’s decision, noting that the shouldn’t “seek to interfere with the right of adults who wish to do so to read, obtain, or view explicit sexual materials.”

When he wasn’t busy tearing our hard-won workers’ rights to shreds, President Reagan appointed his hapless attorney general, Ed Meese, to lead an anti-porn panel. Thanks to deeply flawed survey methodology, in 1986 the Meese Commission was able to conclude the opposite, ascribing all kinds of evil to the consumption of porn. In the end, that report enjoyed more popularity for its pornographic value than for any scholarly merit.

But the crusaders never stop trying. Remember Senator James Exon of Nebraska? He came out with a Communications Decency Act in 1996, trying to propel Congress to censor the new and scary internet – an effort stamped out by the Supreme Court. The pre-Alito, pre-Scalia court, it’s worth noting.

But this is where I came in. “If you've tried out the web site addresses I've listed in recent months,” I wrote back then, “you've seen how quickly some of them vanish into the electronic ether. Too much traffic, Senator Exon. Too many people want to hug a virtual girlfriend. Right now we're enjoying the experimental era of the Internet, as the public stampedes into a service that's still figuring out how to handle the traffic. One thing is for sure: there's money to be made from online visitors, and more and more web sites are figuring out how to dip into your pocketbook (via your credit card, or course).” That was from one of my Cyberotica columns for D-Cup magazine, edited by Bobby Paradise – in real life, the Bob Rosen mentioned above.

I figured, if it’s good enough for David Mamet, who wrote what’s termed “girl copy” for Oui magazine way back when, why shouldn’t I take a whack at porn? So I worked with Bob for a few years in a variety of guises, providing essays, website reviews, fiction – and even, under the nom de porn of Dr. Marilyn Vas Deferens, an advice column for Sex Acts magazine.

But where I was on the sidelines, filing my copy from afar, Bob labored in the porn-mag trenches
for sixteen years, beginning at High Society before moving into an cut-rate empire that included titles like Swank, D-Cup, Plump and Pink, and many others, churned out quickly, struggling to compete with the exlposion of the internet.

Thus, seventeen years ago I could write: “Sex has always been an important driving force behind technology, and from the day that the first computer-based screen flickered to life there have been tits and ass alongside the spreadsheets. It was crude stuff, in the worst sense of the word; the really good crude stuff needed color monitors and high-resolution graphics for anything approaching photo-realism.” I believe we discussed whether “tits and ass” should be construed as a singular or plural phrase, and obviously opted for the latter.

Beaver Street is a hands-on, first-person romp through the business of smut in the last part of the 20th century, starting with the boom of 900 numbers – those once-ubiquitous for-pay sex lines – whose most frequent customers called from the Pentagon. Even as Rosen moved through ranks, collecting a paycheck generous enough to keep him at this dispiriting grindstone, he witnessed such events as the Traci Lords scandal, terming it “the pornographic equivalent of a Chernobyl-size toxic spill,” when the X-rated actress was revealed to have been underage for most of her movies and the shift from film to much-cheaper video, resulting in much-cheaper movies. Hard to think of porn as having had a golden age, perhaps, but compared to what the multi-billion-dollar industry has become, a point in history can be seen when art and erotica found common ground. I suppose you could term it shaky.

“I don’t dislike porn,” writes Bob. “I dislike the kind of porn I was doing – schlocky, grind-it-out-as-fast-as-you-can, anti-erotic porn. If criticizing the people who grow wealthy by splattering this kind of stuff all over the planet while grudgingly paying me a living wage makes me a self-righteous hypocrite, then so be it. I’m a self-righteous hypocrite.”

It’s a very entertaining and well-written book. As a guy who went from studying with Joseph Heller to grinding out some of the most amusing girl copy I’ve ever seen, Bob knows how to make words dance. He demonstrated that in his previous book, Nowhere Man, a look at John Lennon’s final days, which he learned from the bizarre fact that he was in possession of Lennon’s diaries for a while. It’s all recounted in the narrative.

And check out Bob’s website and blog, the Daily Beaver. He’s currently following a juicy story set in the Paramus, New Jersey building where he used to slave for porn magnate Lou Perretta – where ultra-conservative congressman Scott Garrett also has an office. And where, for the past six years, Garrett has received campaign contributions from Perretta.

Writes Bob: “Garrett, a Tea Party icon and a ‘birther’ who is up for reelection this year, is known for his extreme right-wing positions. He received a perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union and a 0 rating from the Sierra Club. Citing ‘states’ rights,’ Garrett has opposed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, an extension of unemployment benefits during the recession, a woman’s right to choose an abortion in cases of rape and incest, and emergency aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

We’re still waiting for the “liberal” mainstream media to pick up on this story.

Rummaging through my old stuff, I'm reminded that I used to buff my pornographic pen to a bright finish. You’ll never find my D-Cup Magazine contributions anywhere else, so let me close with another excerpt:
“You spend too much time with computers,” a friend said recently. “You need to get out, meet real women.”
Perhaps he was right. I made my way to one of the neighborhood’s clubs, a juice bar that features a bevy of beauties whose dancing suffers no state liquor authority restrictions. Brandy was on stage as I entered, her perky, natural breasts just peeking over the top of her halter, when I was thrust into the arms of one of the other dancers.
“Lap dance, honey?” she asked, rubbing her large chest against me as she raked her fingernails up my leg.   
“I’d just as soon – ”
She pushed me away and went to work on the guy just entering behind me. I sat at the bar and ordered a juice. Brandy made an imploring gesture from the stage for me to sit ringside. I held up a just-a-minute finger. She scowled at me.
When the evening was over I’d spent five bucks to get in, nine on juice, ten on tips, and endured a particularly unexciting lap dance with a woman whose many piercings looked more painful than enticing. Twenty bucks--and a five-dollar tip.  
My friend was wrong. I’m going to be spending even more time with computers, and so will you. Technology is changing at a dizzying pace, and the sexy stuff, as usual, is keeping pace with the changes.

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