The Sporadic Beaver

Penetrating Academia

November 23, 2013

Tags: The Ethics and Politics of Pornography, David Edward Rose, H-Net, Beaver Street, Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit, Patrick Glen, Peter Kenneth Alilunas, The Pornologist

I've always felt confident that sooner or later academia would embrace Beaver Street and the book would find its way onto required reading lists for any number of sociology, history, and gender studies courses. My confidence was not misplaced.

Soon after its publication in the U.K., in 2011, a glowing review of Beaver Street, titled "Free Speech and Competitively Priced Smut: Pornography in the United States," appeared on H-Net, a site devoted to the humanities and social sciences. Written by Patrick Glen, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, it compared Beaver Street to Perversion for Profit, by Rutgers professor Whitney Strub, who essentially covered the same material I did, though from an academic perspective.

“Shocking… evocative… entertaining… A rich account that adds considerable depth and texture to any understanding of how the pornography industry worked,” was the blurb I took from Glen’s critique.

Then, a few months ago, I became aware of The Pornologist, the website of Peter Kenneth Alilunas, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. On his “Essential Reading” list, Alilunas had placed Beaver Street #1, and as it turned out, his PhD dissertation, Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video, 1976-1986, contained numerous references to the book.

Now, to complete the academic hat trick, a book recently published by Palgrave Macmillan, The Ethics and Politics of Pornography, by David Edward Rose, references Beaver Street in chapter six, “‘I Can’t Do It by Myself!’: Social Ethics and Pornography.”

I don’t know what it says, exactly, as I’m not about to buy a textbook that lists for $105, even if I am in it. But Rose, a lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University, in the U.K., who, according to his bio, specializes in “Hegelian ethics and counter-enlightenment thought and their application to contemporary moral and political issues,” sounds like a serious fellow. And like The Ethics and Politics of Pornography, Beaver Street also raises “a host of moral and political concerns” about “coercion, exploitation, harm, freedom of expression and the promulgation of sexist attitudes.” Which, apparently, is why it continues to make academic inroads.

And it’s always nice to see my name in an index, atop French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I’m sure he, too, had a few things to say about smut.

Perversion for Profit

September 16, 2013

Tags: Perversion for Profit, Charles Keating, Whitney Strub, Eric Danville, Lainie Speiser, politics, Beaver Street, pornography, H-Net

Perversion for Profit is the title of an anti-porn film that Charles H. Keating, founder of the pro-censorship group Citizens for Decent Literature, produced in 1965. If Keating's name rings a bell, however, it's probably not because of his heroic efforts to save America from the pornographic menace. Most likely, you remember Keating because, in the 1980s, he was at the center of the savings and loan scandal, which cost taxpayers $341 billion in bailout money. Keating's bank alone, Lincoln Savings and Loan, had sold uninsured junk bonds to 23,000 elderly investors, swindling them out of $300 million--real money in those days--and Keating himself was sentenced to 12½ years in federal prison on 73 counts of racketeering, fraud, and conspiracy.

In Beaver Street, I describe Keating as one of the "Fab Four anti-porn warriors of the 20th century," a select group of men that also included President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew, and Attorney General Edwin Meese, all of whom had to resign their office in disgrace to avoid criminal prosecution or jail time.

Keating serves as a prime example of one of the main themes of Beaver Street: The biggest crooks cry “Ban pornography!” the loudest.

Whitney Strub, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, was so impressed with Keating’s anti-porn work and the breathtaking magnitude of his hypocrisy that he titled his book Perversion for Profit.

Perversion for Profit came to my attention about two years ago, when Columbia University Press published the hardcover edition, and an academic site, H-Net, reviewed it along with Beaver Street. Both books essentially told the same story, they said, Strub’s from an academic perspective, and mine from a literary perspective.

Tuesday night, September 17, from 8:00-10:00 P.M., at the 2A bar in the East Village, Strub will be joining me, Eric Danville, Lainie Speiser, J. C. Malone, Gloria Malone, Britney Shannon, David Healy, and Peter Loureiro for a night of readings about sexual and gender politics. Check out the flyer on my home page and stop by 2A for a drink.

Professor Strub says attendance is mandatory, Beaver and Perversion will both be on the test, grades of A will be liberally awarded, and extra credit will be given for those of you who’ve actually read the books.

Sex & Politics, American Style

September 11, 2013

Tags: Eric Danville, Lainie Speiser, politics, Beaver Street, pornography, Perversion for Profit, Whitney Strub, The New York Times

The image on the right is the flyer for the next event at the 2A bar, 25 Avenue A, in the East Village, where Eric Danville, Lainie Speiser, and I have been coordinating a series of readings for the past few months. The theme for Tuesday night, September 17, is politics--specifically sexual and gender politics.

In celebration of this theme, I'll be reading the section from Beaver Street that ties together Lyndon Johnson's Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, Charles H. Keating, Deep Throat, and Watergate. All in about 1,300 words.

Whitney Strub, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, will be reading from his first book, Perversion for Profit (Columbia University Press), which was just released in paperback, and which covers material that’s almost identical to what I cover in Beaver Street. (You can read a review comparing the two books here.) The title is a reference to an anti-porn film produced by banker and convicted felon Charles H. Keating, who might have described Strub as a “permissive professor dedicated to a position of complete moral anarchy.” Our kind of educator, in other words.

J. C. Malone, a take-no-prisoners political columnist for Listin Diario, in the Dominican Republic, will read one of his columns, posible en español. Translation will be provided. Here’s a link to a recent Malone dispatch from the Bronx.

Malone’s daughter Gloria Malone, who writes for Teen Mom NYC, will read “I Was a Teenage Mother,” her Op Ed piece that ran in The New York Times.

Other performers include Lainie, who will read from Election, by Tom Percotta, adult film star Britney Shannon, actor David Healy, and actor Peter Loureiro.

It promises to be a provocative and enlightening evening, and we hope to see you there. Admission is free and the event runs from 8:00-10:00 P.M.

When Academics Attack (Each Other)

September 12, 2011

Tags: H-Net, Beaver Street, Perversion for Profit, Whitney Strub, Patrick Glen, pornography, Sonja Wagner

Nasty business, academia. Imagine what it must be like to say something inconsequential about an obscure theory only to have 14 other professors in your department, all of whom are competing for the last remaining tenured position, drag you into a metaphorical dark alley and viciously pummel you to within an inch of your professional life.

I got a taste of this kind of scholarly brutality when I sent to the so-called anonymous professor who once edited Swank magazine (I call him “Jack”) the H-Net review comparing Beaver Street to Whitney Strub’s Perversion for Profit. (Jack had previously weighed in with his opinion about Beaver Street.)

At the time I sent it to him, I was still not aware that a revised version of the essay, by Patrick Glen, PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, had been published on H-Net, and I lightheartedly suggested that “Jack” had written it himself, on a sojourn to England.

Here is the anonymous professor’s response to “Free Speech and Competitively Priced Smut: Pornography in the United States,” an essay that I thought was brilliant, and that another reader has lauded as “the first scholarly paper to refer to the ‘insertion of fifteen billiard balls into a man’s anus followed by an elbow-deep fist-fucking.’”

Hey Bob,
I may have been a bit slow in responding to this for a reason—it is a gargantuan pile of silliness. First, from the spelling and punctuation, it is safe to assume the review is from the UK (or perhaps Oz.) Second, its possibly valiant attempt to merge a post-mod theoretical study (meaning it is largely improvised according to political need) and your authentic and gritty memoirs is sad and strained. I wouldn’t be the first to compare the former to a type of mental masturbation that aligns reality with the titillating prospect of a “reasonable” theoretical outcome, no matter how outrageously this interferes with perceived facts. I’m afraid I don’t have the energy or inclination to respond more fully, but I’ll add that the stylistic errors throughout attest to a desire to put the message before the medium, to the certain detriment of both.

Frankly I enjoyed best Sonja’s comment—“I’m one of those women that worked as an art director for D-Cup. I assure you I am a feminist.”—which simply blew apart the absurd posing of both the “academic” study and the review itself. Pfft.

Jack

PS—I’d probably give him a C-. He’s fairly articulate, though makes stylistic errors that a grad student should not. (Was there no editor?) The main problem is that his approach is simply wrong-headed—it follows a construct that is largely improvisational and therefore less than useful. He does (perhaps by accident) make some useful observations.


Do we have a genuine, take-no-prisoners academic controversy brewing? One can hope.

About That Scholarly Analysis

September 6, 2011

Tags: Beaver Street, Perversion for Profit, Whitney Strub, Patrick Glen, H-Net, pornography, Eric Cantor

The scholarly analysis comparing Beaver Street to Whitney Strub's Perversion for Profit that I wrote about last week is showing signs of being a turning point in Beaver Street's publication.

The essay, titled "Free Speech and Competitively Priced Smut: Pornography in the United States," by Patrick Glen of The University of Sheffield, and published on the humanities and social sciences site H-Net, seems to have persuaded certain people, who were leery or dismissive of Beaver Street because of its subject matter, to reconsider the book's merits.

Their thinking seems to be: If a scholar, in an academic paper, is describing Beaver Street as “thought provoking,” “vivid,” and “a rich account,” etc., perhaps it’s more than a dirty book. Perhaps it’s even a book worth reading.

But my favorite reaction to the essay comes from an old friend who plays a small but crucial role in Beaver Street. On page 146, he informs me that while I was incommunicado in the mountains of Idaho, trying to forget about what I did for a living, Traci Lords had confessed to being underage for her entire porno career.

Here’s what he said in his e-mail:

Congratulations, Bob. Not only is the analysis flattering, but you are now responsible for the first scholarly paper to refer to the “insertion of fifteen billiard balls into a man’s anus followed by an elbow-deep fist-fucking.”

I hope that no federal funding went to pay for this paper; you might end up being named in a tirade by Eric Cantor on the floor of Congress and will have to defend yourself in the presidential election.


To which I replied:

No need to worry about Cantor. The paper is a product of the British university system. Someone should alert the Queen.

Mystery Solved! Source of "Beaver Street" Review Found!

August 31, 2011

Tags: Beaver Street, Perversion for Profit, Robert Rosen, Whitney Strub, pornography, Patrick Glen, H-Net

The source of the "anonymous" review that I posted last week, comparing Beaver Street to Perversion for Profit (Columbia University Press), by Whitney Strub, has been located. Titled, "Free Speech and Competitively Priced Smut: Pornography in the United States," it was written by Patrick Glen, a PhD candidate at The University of Sheffield, in England, and published on H-Net, which describes itself as "An international consortium of scholars and teachers," dedicated to the advancement of "teaching and research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences."

Well, I’ll drink to that. And while I’m at it, I’ll post a blurb on my homepage.

Click here to read the review on H-Net.

An Encyclopedic Knowledge of Applied Obscenity Laws

August 29, 2011

Tags: Beaver Street, Robert Rosen, Perversion for Profit, Whitney Strub, pornography

Now that I've had time to fully contemplate the anonymous review I posted last week, comparing Beaver Street to Perversion for Profit (Columbia University Press), by Whitney Strub, a history professor at Rutgers University, I'd like to share a few more thoughts.

The review, which apparently ran (or is about to run) in an academic journal, is important because it shows that Beaver Street, condemned by some as “smut,” is being taken seriously in academic circles, which is something I was hoping for but hardly counting on. And, of course, the critic, whoever he or she is, totally gets what I did in the book: “By combining memoir and historical account Rosen constructs a vivid impression of how the pornography industry worked and the tensions imposed on the individuals involved, describing a reality that was shocking and mundane in equal measure.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For those of you who don’t have the time to plow through the review’s densely written 1,869 words, I’ve taken the liberty of condensing it, Reader’s Digest style, to a few salient points.

· Rosen … describes the pressure and paranoia of being under the surveillance of the anti-pornography crusaders and maintaining sales whilst satisfying both publishers’ requirements and readers’ tastes. A sixties counter-culture participant of the kind that later pornography opponents feared, Rosen celebrates the subversive potential of the medium.

· Some of Rosen’s protagonists inspire sadness as they are exploited, alienated from society, experience feelings of shame and some rather unhappy personal lives … [T]his results in a rich account that adds considerable depth and texture to any understanding of how the pornography industry worked.

· With his encyclopedic knowledge of applied obscenity laws, Rosen details how he and his counterparts tried to provide their readers with the “smut” they demanded.

· The stigma surrounding pornography attracted an eccentric milieu as those intoxicated with wealth and sex mingled with social outsiders. Rosen captures them evocatively, the good and bad, which is a handy reminder that the book is as much of a literary as it is a conventional historical account.

· Rosen adds further confusion to the reading of gender and partial confluences of feminist and New Right politics with his account of the Traci Lords scandal … This wider issue in pornography is energised by Rosen as he describes the panic to remove every image of Lords from the D-Cups office to prevent accusations of child pornography.

· Overall both Strub and Rosen have written thought provoking and entertaining histories of modern United States pornography. Neither revel in smut—as the readers of Stag may have done—yet, neither are they coy, thus enabling the reader to gain a solid understanding of a large part of the print, film and now web-based pornographic media and its socio-political context.

· Readers of more “vanilla” tendencies may be put off by graphic descriptions of hard core pornographic scenes, such as [Rosen’s] account of the “insertion of fifteen billiard balls into a man’s anus followed by an elbow-deep fist-fucking”. Rosen’s candour is not simply aimed to titillate, but to inform about pornographic publishing using its own idiom. What both Rosen and Strub convey is how pornography comes into contact with greater narratives of obscenity, permissiveness, sexuality and gender. It is apparent from their accounts how pornography is a vital and rich subject for analyzing a range of social pressures and competing narratives.

"Quasi-Feminist Tropes"? I Love It!

August 24, 2011

Tags: Beaver Street, Robert Rosen, Perversion for Profit, Whitney Strub, pornography

The below review, comparing Beaver Street to Perversion for Profit, is brilliant. It was posted anonymously online. I'd like to know who wrote it and where it was published. An academic journal, I presume.

Whitney Strub. Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 382 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-14886-3; ISBN 978-0-231-52015-7.
Robert Rosen. Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. London: Headpress, 2010. 256 pp. $20.00, ISBN 1900486768; ISBN 978-1900486767


Perversion for Profit and Beaver Street contribute to understanding the negotiations and social fault lines that pornography brought into acute focus in the twentieth century United States. Whitney Strub’s Perversion for Profit describes and analyzes the cat and mouse battle between the mostly prudish, incrementally more aligned to the New Right, defenders of public morality and a pornography industry whose more unwholesome proclivities and economic successes provoked controversy. In some cases this clash led to legal action and tested the limits of the right to free speech. Robert Rosen’s Beaver Street is a less conventional history. Rosen edited, wrote and, on one occasion, featured in pornography in a career spanning sixteen years. By combining memoir and historical account Rosen constructs a vivid impression of how the pornography industry worked and the tensions imposed on the individuals involved, describing a reality that was shocking and mundane in equal measure. The two books complement each other, providing an absorbing discussion of both permissible social mores and obscenity in the context of interpretations of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Strub offers a meta-textual analysis from the voluminous and lively body of literature surrounding pornography and pieces together the skirmishes prompted by pornography and obscenity focusing upon campaign groups, politicians, judges, lawyers, pornographers and the general population. Strub’s analysis has some parallels to other works on censorship by Paul Boyer, Nicola Beisel, Andrea Freidman and Leigh Ann Wheeler.(i) Nevertheless, it extends the project and local focus that Andrea Freidman, for example, explored in her work on obscenity in pre-war New York. Perversion for Profit stands out by concentrating in great detail and scope on a period in which pornography proved a cultural mainstay and a political issue. Strub’s inclusion of the local battles in which obscenity proceedings emanate before eventually reaching the Supreme Court underlines the key friction between local and national law-making is key to the book’s success. By showing these frictions Strub helps contextualize the change from the rather polite opposition to pornography posed by the relatively moderate Citizens for Decent Literature to the Communist scaremongering of the New Right or the outraged moralist New Christian Right.

Rosen, on the other hand, provides an account of his personal experience interspersed with a wider history of pornography. He describes the pressure and paranoia of being under the surveillance of the anti-pornography crusaders and maintaining sales whilst satisfying both publishers’ requirements and readers’ tastes. A sixties counter-culture participant of the kind that later pornography opponents feared, Rosen celebrates the subversive potential of the medium. Nonetheless, he admits that his kind of pornographer was outnumbered by those who were simply sexually precocious, cash-strapped writers (for instance Mario Puzo) or capitalists allured by the financial rewards of selling sex. The precariousness of the industry is apparent in Rosen’s account. He describes magazines folding, participants finding more mainstream occupations and editors developing cocaine habits. The dark side of pornography is also not obscured. Some of Rosen’s protagonists inspire sadness as they are exploited, alienated from society, experience feelings of shame and some rather unhappy personal lives. Together, this results in a rich account that adds considerable depth and texture to any understanding of how the pornography industry worked as a sector of the print media, particularly in regard to the uniquely intense outside scrutiny it received.

Perversion for Profit takes the reader through the ruptures in the modern anti-porn movement. Following the Second World War, pornography was restricted under the law. Simultaneously, a liberal legal interpretation of free speech predominated, positing that censorship was anathema to American values. As the production of pornography on an industrial scale became more viable, the number and circulation of magazines increased; higher sales were prompted by more and more brazen and titillating pictures. In response, as Strub argues in chapter three, an organized antiporn movement emerged. In 1963 Citizens for Decent Literature released the documentary Perversion for Profit which focused upon “the extent of the pornography racket and the different types of pornography”. This was coupled with the emergence of local chapters of the group which put pressure on local authorities to prevent obscene literature in the community. Strub’s explanation of the way in which the First Amendment was tested by national and state legislatures when creating and applying obscenity laws is impressive. In the latter half of the book he explores the way in which the First Amendment debate intensified and became politicised by the New Right and New Christian Right. This qualitative change in the antiporn movement was in some ways mirrored in the more outré pornography that began to be produced at the same time, allowed by, as Strub argues, the permissive social changes of the sixties and seventies. However the internal vicissitudes of the pornography industry and its magazines are naturally better explained by Rosen.

Rosen’s account fits the general narrative that Strub proposes. For instance, Rosen recalls being the subject of an early seventies obscenity dispute as the editor of City College’s student newspaper Observation Post following the publication of a cartoon that depicted a nun masturbating with a crucifix. This cartoon was debated in the United States Senate by Republican James Buckley and led to a cunning bill that circumnavigated the hegemony of liberal free speech laws by cutting the funding for student papers. A few years later as a result of sustained unemployment and a job offer, Rosen was working for pornographic titles High Society (followed by Stag then D-Cups) and again irking the moral purists. Interestingly Rosen discusses the daily precautions taken to prevent obscenity accusation, the placement of strategic blue dots, the politics of “split beaver” and the adjustments made to magazines to satisfy stricter Canadian obscenity laws. With his encyclopedic knowledge of applied obscenity laws, Rosen details how he and his counterparts tried to provide their readers with the “smut” they demanded. The completion of this finely balanced task is interspersed with anecdotes of censorious threats and colorful colleagues both in front of and behind the camera. The stigma surrounding pornography attracted an eccentric milieu as those intoxicated with wealth and sex mingled with social outsiders. Rosen captures them evocatively, the good and bad, which is a handy reminder that the book is as much of a literary as it is a conventional historical account.

Although Strub’s book is thoroughly engaging throughout, his focus upon reactions to modern pornography by American feminists is particularly thought provoking. It resists the often-held assumption that feminists are categorically opposed to the medium and its frequent explicit sexism. Strub is insightful when analysing the marriage of convenience between anti-pornography feminists such as Angela Dworkin and the vehemently anti-feminist New Right. Strub argues that Dworkin and the New Right’s dalliance was due to American liberalism’s failure to provide a space for a debate on sexual politics. In fact, many feminists sought to protect society from censorship and, as Strub shows, were thus compelled to defend pornography despite its failings. Rosen further complicates interpretations of gender politics—which seem inextricable from pornography—by giving instances in which strong women have worked in porn as actors or magazine staff. Indeed, it is important to take into account that these women were not feminists and have often been subject to disapproval from feminists; even feminists who support women in pornography’s inalienable right to free speech have remained uncomfortable with their submission to misogyny. Also instances of advancement within pornography do not disguise how few women were in positions of real power in the porn industry, or that women who become porn actors were often discarded decades before their male counterparts. The exploitation of women is an issue that historians of pornography cannot ignore and which could be explored more in both texts.

Rosen adds further confusion to the reading of gender and partial confluences of feminist and New Right politics with his account of the Traci Lords scandal. Lords was a highly successful porn actor who in 1986 admitted to having acquired a false driver’s license and passport when she was fifteen in order to appear in pornographic films and photographs. Rosen relates how Lords deployed quasi-feminist tropes to justify her advancement in the maleficent pornography industry and in response to her personal narrative of exploitation by older men in the industry and relatives. Nevertheless, the New Right responded by espousing a rhetoric that focused upon child protection and child pornography. This is slightly incongruent with Strub’s conceptualisation of a marriage of convenience, as in Rosen’s account and this instance, both rhetorical language from the New Right and Lords’ peculiar brand of self-defined feminism seem to share aims, but remain separate. Nevertheless, the strategy acrued the right considerable political capital and had significant legal ramifications for the magazines. Ronald Reagan added the ‘Traci Lords amendments’ that Rosen argues were superfluous and craven changes to the already robust Child Protection Act of 1984. Lords eventually parlayed her infamy into a moderately successful non-pornographic film career. This wider issue in pornography is energised by Rosen as he describes the panic to remove every image of Lords from the D-Cups office to prevent accusations of child pornography. The Lords affair shows how coupled with Strub, both texts work to problematize the reading of gender, and narratives of liberalism and conservatism that compete for control. Albeit it is important to note that Strub is somewhat unconvinced about Rosen’s implicit assumption that pornography can be a tool for the advancement of women.

Overall both Strub and Rosen have written thought provoking and entertaining histories of modern United States pornography. Neither revel in smut—as the readers of Stag may have done—yet, neither are they coy, thus enabling the reader to gain a solid understanding of a large part of the print, film and now web-based pornographic media and its socio-political context. Rosen’s lack of squeamishness may be off-putting for some. Readers of more “vanilla” tendencies may be put off by graphic descriptions of hard core pornographic scenes, such as his account of the “insertion of fifteen billiard balls into a man’s anus followed by an elbow-deep fist-fucking”.(ii) Rosen’s candour is not simply aimed to titillate, but to inform about pornographic publishing using its own idiom. What both Rosen and Strub convey is how pornography comes into contact with greater narratives of obscenity, permissiveness, sexuality and gender. It is apparent from their accounts how pornography is a vital and rich subject for analyzing a range of social pressures and competing narratives.
________________________________
i Paul Boyer, Purity in Print: The Vice-Society Movement and Book Censorship in America (New York: Charles Screibner’s Sons, 1968); Nicola Beisel, Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); Andrea Freidman, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945 (New York: Colombia University Press, 2000);Leigh Ann Wheeler, Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004).
ii Robert Rosen, Beaver Street, p. 56.