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Flatbush Flashback

"Quasi-Feminist Tropes"? I Love It!

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.
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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.
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