Why did Robert Rosen throw up a promising journalistic career at the age of 30 to spend the next sixteen years of his life as a porn magazine editor, even taking part in a shoot (for reasons of journalistic integrity and in the name of transgressive art) called The Five Dollar Blow Job? ‘In many ways,’ he writes, ‘my professional pornographic odyssey is an ordinary tale of economic survival in New York.’
As someone who has spent roughly this length of time in ‘adult’ publishing, I could identify with the author of an enormously entertaining book about working behind the triple x-rated scenes of magazines such as High Society, Stag and D-Cup. I could also relate when Rosen had ‘not only become unmoored from all sense of conventional sexual mores (…) but I’d ceased to think rationally about sex itself.’ Or the times when the whiff of ‘fetid air, thick with the smell of urine and underlying stench of decay, made me stick to my stomach.’ In fact, here Rosen is describing a visit to Hellfire, an S&M club in NY’s meatpacking district, yet the experience works well as a metaphor for his equivocal reactions to having to occasionally ‘tread the fine line between arousing and sickening.’
The title of Robert Rosen’s Beaver Street, A History of Modern Pornography is a clue to the book’s fast-paced, ironic style, underwritten by a wealth of hilarious experience, insider knowledge and serious research. Yes, it is a history, and an important one at that, but it’s also an engaging slice of autobiography, a revealing examination of North America’s bafflingly schizoid sexual psyche and a tour d’horizon of some of the monoliths that dotted the late 20th century US porno landscape.
Among these were the kings of the stroke mag world, the aptly named Carl Ruderman (the ‘Father of Phone Sex’), ‘Chip’ Goodman, Larry Flint and Screw’s Al Goldstein. And what often surprised these Pornmeisters were the technological leaps that made some very rich indeed but which also, occasionally, bankrupted them. Rosen ably covers the Lockhart Commission on pornography, conceived by a desperate Lyndon Johnson beset by Vietnam War unpopularity and brought forth by the foul-mouthed Nixon and his sleazy, morally bankrupt cronies. He reserves his big guns for its successor, the Iran-Contra-linked, anti-porn, Meese Commission. Finally the author excoriates the staggeringly treacherous behaviour of Traci Lords, the weaselly, mendacious little madam who nearly brought the porn industry to its knees.
A billion dollar industry usually touches everything and everyone, and porn is no exception to the rule: US politics, international trade, Adolf Hitler, Jack Nicholson – even Spiderman and The Godfather. However Rosen is wisely selective when he revisits his deeply unlikeable former employers and the enjoyable, but complex (almost everyone is called Goodman, but don’t worry, the footnotes are excellent), warren of US porn-mag publishing of the early 1980s.
Surely no exposé of sleazy pop culture has ever got this up-close and personal or received such intelligent, funny treatment. As Rosen shrewdly quotes from Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy at the beginning of the book: ‘Sex is not romantic, particularly when it is commercialised, but it does create an aroma, pungent and nostalgic.’ Beaver Street captures the aroma of pornography, bottles it, and gives it so much class you could put it up there with Dior or Channel.
Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography by Robert Rosen; Headpress; ISBN 978-1-90048-676-7; £11.99 from www.headpress.com
Watch ER’s exclusive video interview with Beaver Street author Robert Rosen