Porn Is Dead! (Long Live Porn!)
Can the skin mag stay afloat?

It's now almost impossible to imagine the cultural landscape of American pornography a mere 20 years ago. While mainstream society reveled in the safe tits and ass offered on Charlie's Angels and Three's Company, its logical progression was viewed as an obsession for perverts and long-and-sticky trench coat freaks. If you need a yardstick by which to measure the mainstream's attitude from two decades past about pornography, look no further than 1979's George C. Scott vehicle, Hardcore. It depicted those in the adult entertainment business as scumbags and smut peddlers; nihilists hell-bent on exploiting and degrading women and poisoning children until society buckled under the weight of huge tits and 13-inch schlongs (or Al Goldstein).

See also...
... by Steve Robles
... in the Crave section
... from November 11, 1999

At the time, adult entertainment was split simply into two media -- magazines and films. Magazines were clearly the dominant force, since it was a lot easier for the closet porn-hound (and that's pretty much all there was) to pick up Playboy or Hustler at a newsstand or 7-Eleven than to hurriedly sneak into the Pussycat Theater. Plus, while Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Bob Guccione had built their empires on expanding the reach of porn into the national consciousness, adult film producers were doomed to hammer away at a niche market. It didn't help the filmmakers that the girls in the Big Three (Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler) were a lot comelier than most of the hags producers dredged up for "stag" flicks.

How times have changed. Most adult magazines are seriously down on their luck. Circulation has fallen dramatically, and even their status as torchbearers for the First Amendment has been stripped away. Unless you just woke up from a coma and are waiting for the new season of The Dukes of Hazzard to begin, it's easy to see who has usurped the once-mighty mags of their reign. The wildfire that was porn video 15 years ago and is porn Internet today has been like a cancer for the Big Three.

How have these dinosaurs responded? Some have tried to branch out onto the Net. Others have relaxed their standards, allowing such previously taboo images as urination and full penetration on their pages. But the numbers show it hasn't been enough. Are they nervous? Well, if the fact that none of the Big Three chose to cooperate with this article is any sign... probably.

Tale of the Tape

To be fair, porn magazine's decline in sales is no different than that of, say, the Los Angeles Times. But this is not likely to be any comfort. Of the Big Three, Playboy has fared the best; in the last 10 years, its paid subscriptions have remained at around three million, only dipping about 500,000 since 1989. Guccione and Flynt, however, have been clobbered. In 1989, Penthouse's paid subscriptions ran at about 3.1 million. This year, they are at a paltry 970,000, a drop of almost 70 percent. Hustler's paid subscriptions, 1.5 million when the Berlin Wall came down, stand now at a neutered 30,400. While Larry Flynt Publishing (LFP) also puts out seminal faves Barely Legal and Leg World, the status of its flagship publication has a bearing on the entire company.

To counter this slump, the Big Three are subscribing to the "if you can't lick 'em, lick 'em" ethos and diversifying onto the very medium that has stolen much of their thunder -- the Internet. Again, Playboy has had the most success. Early next year, it will attempt the first major initial public offering of a sex-related Internet site. While other sites have attempted to go public, experts believe may have the mainstream clout to pull it off, so to speak. Meanwhile, Penthouse and Hustler have resorted to pushing the "obscenity" envelope to help keep their presses running.

Upping the Ante

In his 1993 book The Jaguar and the Anteater, writer Bernard Arcand called porn magazines "the canaries in the mineshaft that test censorship." If this was ever the case (and one could argue that despite Flynt's First Amendment battles, it was the medium of film that first showed actual sex), it certainly is not the case today. A cursory review of any number of Internet sites will provide the viewer with everything from fisting to a farm girl choking on the voluminous seed of a jackass (no, not Ron Jeremy). Video, as well, has gone boldly into frontiers of expression for which "porn" seems an inadequate description.

To counter this affront to its outrageous integrity, Flynt decided to test the waters of obscenity law, allowing penetration first (heretofore unseen in any major commercial publication), and then "water sports" (urination) onto Hustler's gilded pages. Penthouse and Cheri soon followed suit. Some argue that the decision was artistic. "I think Larry and everybody are just taking advantage of a political climate that has been very tolerant lately," said Gloria Leonard, president of the Free Speech Coalition, former publisher of High Society, and general porn legend. "Clinton hasn't brought a single case [of obscenity] to court in his entire administration, and [publishers] are very aware of that."

Of course, Flynt has stretched the boundaries of obscenity legislation before -- and sometimes apparently just for the hell of it. "It's no secret that Larry likes to kind of thumb his nose at authority," Leonard chuckled. An editor at a very successful European porn magazine, who asked not to be identified, said it's a combination of chutzpah and the decline of sales. "These guys are desperate, there's no doubt about it," he said. "Sales are down, and they need something, anything to create some kind of buzz. And let's face it, you and I know Flynt has an army of lawyers and he probably figures he'll push the envelope until they actually have something to bill him for."

That is, if anyone notices.

Dope addict Steve Robles often channels the ghosts of Bukowski and Lester Bangs for "inspiration." His work has appeared in Odyssey and UnReal People.