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Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography

Prologue: A Kid in a Candy Store

Once, many years ago, my father owned a candy store on Church Avenue in Brooklyn, around the corner from where we lived. The whole family worked there—my grandfather, my grandmother, sometimes my mother, my uncle in a pinch, and even me. By the time I was nine years old I knew how to mix egg creams, sell cigarettes, and put together the Sunday papers. I also understood on some instinctive level that when a new customer walked in and muttered under his breath, “Where do you keep the books?” he was talking about the special rack in the back of the store where my father stocked some of his favorite works of literature. They included My Secret Life, by Anonymous; My Life and Loves, by Frank Harris; The Autobiography of a Flea, also by the ever prolific Anonymous; Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller; and Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby.

Every weekend a half-dozen of my father’s cronies—the neighborhood regulars—would gather in the store. Most of them were in their late thirties, my father’s age at the time, and they struck me as a streetwise and sophisticated lot. One of them smoked Gauloises. Another worked for TWA and made monthly “pleasure trips” to Europe. And I’d sit by the window a few feet away, listening to them as I made change for newspapers. Some days they’d amuse themselves deconstructing the New York Giants and their bald but talented quarterback, Y.A. Tittle, whose name they repeated over and over, seemingly for the sheer joy of saying it. Other days they’d swap World War II stories, horrifying tales of seeing corpses piled like cordwood after the Battle of the Bulge, or of butchering a cow—after not eating fresh meat for months—in a French village just liberated from the Nazis. But their greatest flights of oratory fancy, surpassing even the passion they expressed for the Playboy centerfold, were their expert critiques of the latest book to appear on the special rack.

A copy of the work in question would materialize on the counter, and they’d pass it around, scrutinizing the often salacious cover art and laughing uproariously when somebody would spontaneously read a provocative passage soto voce—presumably so the words wouldn’t penetrate my innocent and attentive ears.

Though I was far too young to fully grasp what these books were about or to realize that many of them had made it to the rack only after having survived a protracted censorship battle, the pleasure they gave my father and his friends was unmistakable. It was clear to me even in 1961 that these books mattered—a lot—and that if I were going to write books, which I thought even then I’d like to do, then these were the kinds of books I wanted to someday write.

I’ve been a professional writer now since 1974, when I graduated from the City College of New York. My name is Robert Rosen, and if you’ve heard of me, it’s probably through my John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, which was a bestseller in the U.S., England, Japan, Mexico, and Colombia.

Now I’ve written a new book—the one you’re reading. I call it Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography, and it’s a book that I think might have earned a coveted slot in my father’s special rack. Beaver Street is an investigative memoir, a term I use to describe the interplay of the personal and historical.

Let’s begin with the personal. I worked in pornography as a magazine editor for 16 years, from 1983 to 1999. Among the titles I edited were D-Cup, High Society, Swank, Stag, Succulent, Sex Acts, Stacked, Plump & Pink, Buf, Black Lust, Lesbian Lust, Blondes in Heat, For Adults Only, and X-Rated Cinema. There were hundreds of others—it would be pointless to name them all. But if you’ve got some old porn mags stashed in your drawer, dig them out and take a look at the mastheads. My nom de porn was Bobby Paradise. Perhaps you recognize it.

Or perhaps you recognize that fellow in the photograph on page one. That’s me, or, rather, Bobby Paradise. It’s a test-Polaroid taken on a 110-degree day in June 1999, at Falcon Foto, a photography studio located in an isolated canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of L.A. The photographer and his crew were setting up to shoot a lesbian-hippie fantasy (working title “Beaver Barbers of ’69”) that I’d ordered for Shaved, one of a dozen titles I was editing at the time. That’s why I’m sitting between two models who look as if they were plucked off a Haight-Ashbury street corner and that’s why I’m wearing a headband and heart-shaped sunglasses. It’s not the way I normally dress, even in California. I was just getting into the spirit of the shoot.

I was directing that day. My job was to tell the models which bits of clothing and lingerie to peel off, which positions to pose in, where to place their fingers, mouths, tongues, breasts, nipples, toes, legs, labia, where to spread the shaving cream, and what to shave first.

This was not necessarily an easy thing to do. It required certain skills—a discerning pornographic eye, a comprehensive knowledge of U.S. and Canadian censorship regulations, a measure of self-control. But it was good work if you could get it… up to a point—a point I’d unfortunately passed sometime in 1995, just as the instant availability of free Internet porn had begun to slowly suck the life out of the men’s-magazine business.

By 1999 I was totally burnt out on smut, on the very idea of having to look at it, of having to think about it, and especially of having to create it under ever more demanding deadline pressure. The fun, to say the least, was gone. But I was trapped, because after 16 years, I didn’t know what else to do. I’d become a professional pornographer and my career options were limited.

That’s one reason I wrote Beaver Street: I wanted to understand the cumulative psychic effect of having spent 192 months immersed in XXX and wondering if I’d ever get out alive. I wanted to understand what I’d witnessed, what I’d done, what I’d become.

What did I witness, aside from women of all races, colors, ages, and body types willingly allowing an army of porn studs to penetrate their every orifice with oversize appendages as skilled photographers stood by capturing it all on film?

Well, for one thing, every day I saw and interacted with people who’d dedicated their lives to the mass production of XXX. Some of them became my close friends, and to better understand them and the nature of a life lived straddling the boundaries between intimacy and professional exhibitionism, I conducted an experiment in participatory journalism: I stepped in front of the camera to see what it was like to be a porn star.

And I witnessed from a ringside seat Ronald Reagan’s terminally corrupt attorney general, Edwin Meese III—a man who’d resign in disgrace to avoid prosecution on charges ranging from influence peddling to suborning perjury—knowingly turn an underage woman, Traci Lords, into the world’s most famous sex star, and then use her as a weapon to attempt to destroy the porn industry as revenge for every legal humiliation pornographers had inflicted on the government since Linda Lovelace and Deep Throat shattered box office records in 1973.

And I saw this government war of vengeance give birth to a new class of super-taboo pornography—the “barely legal” woman—that was so much in demand, it sent sales of all things X-rated skyrocketing into the uncharted realms of the stratosphere.

And finally I saw the Internet transform the underground phenomenon of peep shows, dirty movies, and sleazy magazines into a ubiquitous cyber-force that penetrated virtually every niche of the mainstream media and supplanted rock ’n’ roll as America’s #1 cultural export.

But I’ll begin my story in the mid-seventies, at a time when, just as I was beginning to find my way as a writer, I embraced—perhaps naively or perhaps intuitively—the idea that pornography and transgressive art could be one and the same.