Death of the Centerfold 

How Internet technology killed the old, sentimental medium.

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Thrashing through the stacks of see-through-plastic-wrapped magazines, I got the feeling that my psyche needed a bit of leash. Pornography, you see, is about memories. At least it is for me.

Getting to this particular section of the store—which also, by the way, sells old books on Mormon doctrine, paperback classics and all manner of collectible bric-a-brac—is no big deal. Push the Old West swinging doors, read the warnings and you’re in. It’s been so long since I’ve been to this section of a magazine store. Honest it has.

Like road kill on a bookshelf, the hardcore stuff was easy to spot. The covers are garishly colored. The women look like wild panthers, and some of the covers even look like close-ups of open-heart surgery. The vintage goods—and please allow me the courtesy of this euphemism—were much more comforting.

A Playboy dated May 1966 sported a woman dressed in a lime green evening dress. Yes, she was fully clothed. A long-haired woman with a flower in her hand graced the cover of a March 1972 Penthouse. Looking through these previously used, individually wrapped stacks, all sorts of possible stories come to mind. Like, who owned them first? Some old geezer forgets to clear whole stacks of pornography out of his attic before his untimely death. Only then would his daughter, much to her shock, find them sitting next to her mother’s old cedar chest. Or there’s the chronic masturbator who finally surrenders his collection before growing up and getting married. As much as the male sex drive can be called interesting, this mass of porn no doubt had its own secret history. The stomach turns ever so slightly thinking about it.

The woman behind the cash register was friendly, but not exactly anxious to look me in the face. “OK guy. That’ll be 20 dollars,” she said.

Eight magazines stuffed into one brown grocery bag made me feel like one hell of a rascal. “Do you sell a lot of this stuff?” I asked.

The overwhelming majority of romantic novels are consumed by women. The majority of all forms of pornography is purchased by men. From this fact alone we can deduce that men and women carry vastly different ideas about love, intimacy and all manner of turn-ons.

There should be no shame in admitting this, even if the open admission of possessing a sex drive is still not good manners in some circles. As a presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter openly admitted in the November 1976 issue of Playboy that he had at times “lusted in his heart.” For that harmless, forthright admission Carter was mercilessly lambasted by all sorts of hypocrites clamoring for the altar of righteousness. That’s politics.

But sex is nothing if not political. In case you haven’t heard, we have laws regulating it. Those arguments are as old as the day is long. Pornography is about the geography of lust, where it’s taking us, and where it lost its way.

We’re not talking here about the naïve concept of losing innocence. Loss of innocence is someone’s melodramatic way of saying that we all grow up sooner or later, usually after we learn that the outside world has no interest in following our personal scripts of “the way life ought to be.” What we’re talking about here is the ways in which fantasy is stoked. We’re talking about the evolution of desire, and how the male libido is currently being pounded into oblivion. Could I be so bold as to say we’re talking about the survival of Western Civilization within a working, sexual framework? I think I can.

First things first: Sex has always been with us. So has the erotic. So has, to one degree or another, pornography. Check your Bible. Of all the things God deemed not good, loneliness was the first. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and the two become one flesh” (Genesis 2: 24). The Song of Solomon was so dead sexy that Joseph Smith, a man with more than a handful of wives, deemed it uninspired. That’s irony for you. King David danced practically naked before the Lord, and was accused of exposing himself to servants (2 Samuel 6). Shakespeare wrote a sonnet (No. 144, look it up) referencing bisexuality and venereal disease.

The greatest poets and writers of the 20th century ignored sex at their peril. “The great event of a boy’s life is the awakening of sex,” wrote William Butler Yeats in his Autobiographies. “It all came upon me when I was close upon seventeen like the bursting of a shell. Somnambulistic country girls, when it is upon them, throw plates about or pull them with long hairs in simulation of the poltergeist, or become mediums for some genuine spirit-mischief, surrendering to their desire of the marvelous. As I look backward, I seem to discover that my passions, my loves and my desires, instead of being my enemies, a disturbance and an attack, became so beautiful that I must be constantly alone to give them my whole attention. I notice that, for the first time as I run through my memory, what I saw when alone is more vivid than what I did or saw in company.”

We may be talking about sexual fantasies here, but let’s be honest. No one ever needed pornography to fantasize about or objectify women. Men can do that perfectly well on their own. It wasn’t until the French put nude women on postcards that people started calling the police and consulting attorneys.

Which brings us all the way to Playboy and Penthouse, now the two most endangered species in all of porndom thanks to the Internet.

The Playboy website poses the question, “Would Playboy sell so well if it didn’t have naked women in it?” It’s answer to itself, “Probably not. We’ll never know.” But we might: In a nod to Playboy’s struggles in recent years to turn T&A into hard cash, Hugh Hefner’s flagship publication recently talked about gutting the magazine of nudity altogether for a format mocking the better-selling young men’s magazines like Maxim and Loaded. Battling the Internet, where the most pornographic images can be had sometimes for free, was a fool’s game.

But about this same time last year, Bob Guccione’s General Media, the parent company of Penthouse, admitted it was millions of dollars in debt. His adult mass-market magazine, which sold 5 million copiers per month at its zenith, now sold only 650,000. For industry wags, this was shocking news, because Penthouse, the porno mag that first prided itself on showing Americans that small-breasted women could be sexy, had been pushing the boundaries of explicitness almost with each passing year. If men weren’t buying it, what were they buying? Again, the Internet.

Stalwart feminist Andrea Dworkin broke it down for an April 11, 2002 article about Penthouse’s woes in The New York Times. “I’m delighted that Mr. Guccione may be going out of business,” she told the newspaper of record. “The problem is that he is being replaced, quite possibly, by something that is much worse.”

Puritans, then, really have no reason to rejoice. The mainstream pornographic magazine is, by any account, a puppy dog compared to the ravening wolf of Internet sites dedicated not just to fetishes but to rape, snuff scenes, bestiality and scowling hermaphrodites. Neo-Nazi transvestite dwarves with barnyard animals, anyone?

Thoreau wrote in Walden that he could “sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary.” People can argue all they want about whether there’s a line between pornography and outright depravity. But surely there must be a demarcating line between a healthy sense of sexuality and bald-faced insanity. Definitions are the stuff of endless quibbling, but let’s put it this way. “Pornography” is an honest enough term for magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse when they first broke out of the gates. It’s not entirely true to its etymology, the way some words are. Its literal Greek meaning is “writing about prostitution.” So “porn” is the root word for prostitute, while “graphien” means to write. So much for definitions. All we need to know is that it’s meant to arouse sexual passions and it can, at times, be graphic. The offerings of the Internet, however, aren’t really pornography. They’re graphic all right. But they have nothing to do with writing or erotic expression. That’s what makes the Internet far more smutty than mere pornography. What we are now seeing, and what’s been taking place right under our noses for a number of years, is the slow death of old-school, magazine pornography.

My first encounters with the powerful allure of the nude female form were never so poetic as Yeats’. Instead, it was something I happened upon at a babysitter’s house while growing up in Missoula, Mont. A whole wall of pin-ups hung near the backyard door, right next to the bedroom of the babysitters’ older brother. Everyone I knew as a child in early-’70s Montana was poor, so house space was at a premium. But I still wonder about the conversation that finally allowed a high school boy to hang pictures like these so close to the family kitchen. At first sight, a child might naturally think that these must be family photographs. So knowing my babysitter’s family, I looked for a family resemblance and found not one. Staring back at me were topless or totally nude women reclined on pastel bedsheets. Lemonade sunlight streamed through partially veiled windows revealing their forms. Each woman smiled.

The sense of amazement you got gazing at these was something on the order of watching an alien life form walk the earth. It was like looking at slide-show pictures of dinosaurs in your grade-school classroom, or trying to imagine for yourself what the Battle of Little Big Horn must have looked like as the Indians charged General Custer. A 7-year-old boy couldn’t put it into words then. How could I put it into words now? And what did I walk into the kitchen for anyway? Oh, yes, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Picking me up after a hard night of studying, I cluelessly showed this grand wall to my mother, thinking she’d share my sense of wonder. She did, but her Christian sensibilities meant she felt an entirely different sense of wonder. I never saw the inside of that house again.

Years later, my second encounter with pornography was more rambunctious, and as a result more supervised. It was, I believe, two summers after Nixon’s resignation and I’d struck up a few friendships with teammates from my baseball team while staying with my grandmother in Wolf Point, Mont. We practiced batting all day long, trapped frogs on the community golf course, blew our spare change on watermelon bubble gum at the Circle K. Along the way of our stray adventures, someone unveiled a few copies of Penthouse, the odd Playboy, and some other mind-blowing magazine that was an edge or two more explicit than either. Who knows where or how we got hold of these. I can’t even recall. Although it sounds painfully cliché to say it, we all gathered in someone’s backyard tree house to ooh, ahh and laugh our way through the pages.

Every boy remembers the summer he finally admitted to himself and others that girls were pretty darned cool. That was the summer.

Then my grandmother somehow nabbed the dog-eared copy of Penthouse hid under my bed. It was lecture time. To my grandmother’s great credit, she didn’t scare me with tales of people gone blind. Men who, ahem, “read” these magazines are not respectable, she told me. They are not respected by their peers. They are not respected by their communities. Penthouse was material fit for car mechanics, college drop-outs and assorted fly-by-nights who couldn’t pay their bills.

“Your mother is raising you to be a gentleman,” I remember my grandmother saying. “A gentleman! Do you hear? And if you’re not going to be a gentleman you cannot be my grandson!”

So of course I opened my big brown bag of porn with a certain amount of keen relish. Boy, had it ever been a long time.

The May 1966 Playboy was a corker, and not because the women inside are limited strictly to topless snapshots. It’s the way the magazine drenches the bachelor’s life with so much charm and adventure. There’s a travel piece on the Iberian shores. Woody Allen clowns around with a feature about camera equipment. Readers wrote letters to the editor commenting on the latest Fellini movie.

But the crown jewel is an article about Playmate Jo Collins’ first-class visit to our boys in Vietnam. The introduction sings the praises of pin-up girls who feed the spirit of our fighting men “on the frontiers of freedom.” The lovely Collins gets a bit of mortar training near the Cambodian border. Apocolypse Now! wasn’t making stuff up.

By 1972, it was clear that Vietnam was the deep ditch we should have stayed out of. The March 1972 Penthouse doesn’t reflect this. But Penthouse was always marinated in a lot more sex than Playboy. Long before it featured photographs of women-on-women and liberal doses of sex toys, it was the bohemian alternative to Hefner’s corporate-style women. You know, the kind who marry millionaire golfers. With Penthouse, you got the sense that these were the sort of women who dated starving artists or British rock stars. And, yes, you also got to see the Promised Land down south.

Women objectified? The female form exploited and showcased solely for the pleasure of a man’s gaze? Well, yes. But in Penthouse you at least got a sense that these women had a voice. Those commentaries accompanying each pictorial were surely edited, but some were more genuine than others.

“To some people, I know I seem like a lazy, vain bitch,” admits model Sophie Francoise Boulet, ocean water running over her breasts. “But for how long are you young? … You cannot tell by appearances. I have known some incredibly sexy men who were hollow beneath their muscles, and had nothing in their heads but a burning love for themselves.”

Sounds honest enough. And if Francoise Boulet’s sand-covered bottom didn’t catch your eye, you could still read an article about the sex life of Byron, or a Mediterranean island where Mafia suspects live out their last days.

For the January 1983 issue, the magazine even put an Austrian woman in the photogenic confines of Lake Powell, sticking her bare hiney out the top of a high-powered motor boat. “Her favorite natural wonders were the Grand Tetons and the Painted Desert,” the text reads. “In Salt Lake City, she even spent an afternoon listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”

That’s pushing it for laughs. Penthouse had an arch sense of humor more clumsy than clever. At least you were reading, and if you weren’t going to be reading the magazine’s articles, at least you could read your pornography. Somewhere in the mid-’70s, Penthouse inaugurated the “Call Me Madam” column by Xaviera Hollander. These were outrageous, sometimes poignant letters of sexual adventure and dysfunction. Here’s a man who admits to being aroused by the scent of women’s foot perspiration. Another claims bald women turn him on. Maybe you could never talk to your parents about sex, but Penthouse let you laugh at it.

The “Forum” letters were a kind of social IQ test. Of course, people don’t spend every waking hour going at it like rabbits. No one has sex with a waitress they just met within the hour, or a group of sorority girls stumbled upon during a camping trip. No one opens a letter with, “I can’t believe I’m writing this.” But none of this stopped the average teenage boy from burning through 15 “Forum” letters in just under 10 minutes. Unbeknownst to Mr. Guccione, the most durable invention of the whole publication was these adolescent fairy tales.

So it went for years. Playboy revved engines with achingly perfect, airbrushed women. Penthouse hit a comfortable stride with ever more mysterious looking women, and somewhere along the line got progressively more kinky, like a volcano spitting out greater amounts of lava.

A troll through adult magazine sections today is more depressing than words can tell. No one cares if the photographer used a Nikon or a Hasselblad. It’s humorless, charmless and as vulgar as some extreme contact sport. It’s hell-bent on making you feel more perverse than the Puritans already think you are.

And when the mainstream stuff is completely gone, will we will be left only with nightmarish Internet sites?

Sex and its manifold expressions is a lot like politics. Forget, for a moment, all the First Amendment arguments. Forget, too, the moralist alarm bells. If no one will stand up for moderation, extremism prevails. You’re either of the opinion that Rodin’s “Kiss” and Michelangelo’s “David” represent straight filth, or you pollute your soul with Internet sites. Both extremes are wrong. Critics never tire of telling us pornography is bad, bad, bad. In Utah it’s the new Communism, replete with domino effect. Catch sight of a topless woman and you’ll soon purchase magazines of an ever harder stripe and empty your wallet of every last dollar for pornographic DVDs until finally washing up on the sordid shores of molesting children and raping women during lunch hours.

That is, of course, absolute twaddle. It’s not a harmless scare tactic, either. It’s an insidious line of reasoning that relegates us to the level of base animals. It divorces us from the responsibility of our individual actions. Animals, who can’t tell right from wrong, are free of responsibility. If humanity hasn’t yet got right and wrong sorted out, at least we’ve made stabs toward a definition.

Eight pornographic magazines stuffed into a grocery bag made me feel like a scoundrel alright. Have I gone mad? Not at all. We can’t know the true, singular nature of the good and right until we know something of the wild side.

So it was with a certain relief that I heard the cashier answer my question: “Do you sell a lot of this stuff?”

“Men’s magazines?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Oh yes, we sell a lot of them.”

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