Monday, June 14, 2010

Echoes of a Past Life - Confessions of a Pornographer (part one)

I moved to New York City in 1981 to work on a socialist newspaper. The job was great, the salary subsistence level. It didn't take me more than a year or two to realize that the Big Apple was no place for no money, so while I continued for a while to design the paper on a volunteer basis, I jumped at the opportunity to take a real job for real money. My socialist paper gig had taught me the basics of professional graphic design and the publishing biz, so when my friend David said he knew of a typesetting job at a magazine company he thought the two of us could share, I eagerly agreed.

The magazine company was looking for an evening shift to cover its expanding roster, and yes as long as everything got covered, the two of us could divide up nights. Eventually David moved on to his real interest of journalism and the shift was all mine. We arrived at the office late each afternoon when everybody else was getting ready to leave. We were handed a manila folder of typed manuscripts ready to be typeset on their state-of-the-primitive-art CompuGraphic editwriter, a prehistoric dinosaur level computer with a spinning filmstrip that exposed rolls of photosensitive paper; which would then be developed in a special kind of dark-room simulating processor machine. The job was basically retyping and coding manuscripts to turn them into galleys of type that would be cut and pasted up by the art department the next morning.

There was one detail about Modernismo Publications that we needed to know. While Modernismo published a line of high-end knitting magazines in seven European languages, its bread and butter came from "Adult Sophisticate" magazines. The daytime typesetter preferred to work on the knitting magazines: she wanted little to do with "Adult Sophistication," which, it turned out, were codewords for smut. Modernismo published a line of pornographic gay magazines: Mandate, Honcho, Playguy, Torso and Inches, and a line of heterosexual skin magazines: Juggs, Legshow, and Cinema Blue. While I was there they started an absolutely hilarious boxing magazine called Fight Beat but that's another story.

Anyway, being a red-blooded young gay man I was familiar with the gay magazines. Mandate had literary pretensions, combining legit fiction and cultural writing with fantasy stories and skin spreads, plus the occasional travel feature and actual news story. Honcho was a little edgier, focusing on hyper-masculine models, gearing its taste in fantasy in the direction of the leather crowd. Playguy, despite its catchy name, was a sort of sad orphan, showing skinny young models who looked younger than their of-legal-age-IDs, catering no doubt mostly to the dirty old man set. It was the cusp of the AIDS epidemic and while the disease was eventually going to cut a swathe through the magazine's editorial and art staff, as well as through its audience and cultural sensibility, these magazines all still adhered to a late 1970s hedonistic sensibility of newfound freedom and openness in gay male sexuality. I thought it would be a hoot to work on these.

Modernismo was owned by George Mavety, a big man almost always seen smoking a cigar. He was a sort of poor man's Larry Flynt. Rumored to have an actual family somewhere, it was not unusual to see him keeping company with some busty young blonde. Mavety was a classic entrepreneur, and while heterosexual himself, he knew the value of his property. His cultivation of gay pornography was shrewd and successful: the gay mags were staffed all with gay men and given a fairly independent editorial voice. But Mavety was well immersed in the pornography world as a whole. One day a Japanese skin magazine came to the office and took photos of the place for a feature they were writing on the American trade. That's me at my typesetting machine in the top center of this photo montage from Japan's "Bachelor" magazine. (Modernismo eventually became Mavety Media Group; George Mavety died in 2000; his gay magazines finally shut down just a year or so ago)

Of course I had to work on Modernismo's heterosexual magazines as well and that was an education. "Juggs" and "Legshow" were not "Playboy." "Juggs," whose tagline was "The world's dirtiest tit-mag" was all about women's breasts, the bigger the better. It featured chubby models, older models, pregnant models ("lactating lovelies"), anyone who would display absolutely huge breasts. Ironically, Jugg's reigning "Tit Queen," a frequent centerfold and regular columnist was the original Candy Samples--no relation to my current Drag Queen friend of the same moniker--whose breasts were each larger than her head. "Legshow" was for the legs-and-ass crowd. Both mags were mass market hardcore, which meant they could compete with anatomy textbooks for their raw display of female genitalia, but being sold on newsstands they could not show penetration or actual sex. These magazines had no literary or cultural pretensions, just crude raw fuel for male masturbatory fantasies.

The difference between the gay and straight pornography I spent my evenings typesetting was a fascinating lesson in objectification and fantasy. I'll leave a fuller discussion of that for another essay. But I took the job and became a kind of working-class cog in the real pornography was a crazy job. I'll talk about what it was like to work as a pornographer in a third essay.

Fast forward a year or two: I left Modernismo for a job at a small family-owned type shop. Turned out I was a really good typesetter. It wasn't just typing: my typographic sense and design talent and my ability to get these primitive computers to churn out better quality turned out to be a marketable skill (for a little while, anyway) and after a couple years typing smut it was time to move on. But who doesn't need extra money? I had remained friends with the editor of the straight mags at Modernismo and I asked him if I could write some stories for him. I figured even if I was a textbook Kinsey 6 of a gay man I had lots of experience in reading these stories as I typeset them, so how difficult could it be to write them? I knew I was planning to take a spring and summer off to travel to Nicaragua, and I figured I could write stories from there, send em in, and keep a small paycheck going.

I was thrilled that he agreed. He greenlighted the one story I wrote before my trip and then I sent him a small handful of stories I typed out on my trusty manual typewriter from Managua. And I got paid; not a lot, but enough to soften the blow of my return to the States after a summer away.

Now here's the thing. I wasn't going to write gay pornography, not stories I actually found hot. I was going to write crude Juggs-style porn. The stories for Juggs were hilarious to me. Compared to the gay stories with romantic subtexts, the straight stories were raw exercises in titillating escapism where average Joes lived among ravishing women wanting nothing more than pure physicality, unencumbered by actual responsibilities or real-life complications. I wanted to take the stereotypical scenarios from straight porn and the vile objectification and rude language and ridiculous cliches and see if I could subversively produce a story that I thought was amusing. And so a new pseudonym was born, Sergeant Babs "Bust 'Em" Brady.

The stories I wrote are filthy dirty, full of words I would never use and can't believe I'm going to retype for this blog. But they make me laugh every time I read them. I don't think they're exactly erotic; they're meant to be subversively over-the-top. I still had--and have--a commitment to a certain kind of (sex-positive) feminist ideal, and I didn't want to completely betray my principles, even if the scenarios I had been typesetting for so long blurred crucial lines between rape and consensuality. But I thought it would be hilarious if I, a gay man, writing in the voice of a heterosexualized lesbian, could write satirical caricatures of straight pornography and have them published as actual pornography, and that is what I did. Here is the first of these stories. I have two more of them sitting by my 'puter and will continue these in later installments of "Confessions of a Pornographer."


"You're Under a Breast"
by Sgt. Babs "Bust 'Em" Brady
Originally published in the December 1986 issue of Juggs Magazine

[Editor's note, 2013. I decided after thinking this over and over that this writing was just too rapey to let stand. It was done with some humor that does not survive the moment, as an in-joke, and because, frankly, I was a little angry and bitter, at a lot of things. I'm not going to apologize for writing it, that would be disingenuous, but I'm gonna say it wasn't my proudest moment. So I'm pulling the actual porn story I wrote. In so doing, I'm not taking a stand against porn, or analyzing the complicated human psyche that might eroticize rape in an abstract fantasy setting; but I am taking a stand against saying that there's anything funny about actual, real rape. And I will not be adding the two other porn stories I wrote to the "Echoes of the Past" series. Sorry if you've been waiting all these years for the follow up. Live and learn. Respect each other. —ISH]


  1. Ian, Creepy story to follow, I felt uncomfortable reading this. I'm starting to agree with certain feminists that we live in a rape culture. I can see why your picture of a normal hetro fantasy would involve a prisoner being raped by her jailers but it was still really disturbing. In fact the normalcy of it made it even more disturbing.
    Shortly after reading this I resumed watching the movie "The Secret Life of Words". At first it appears to be a story about a man who was burned and blinded while working on an offshore oil rig. As the story develops we realize that the real story is about the woman who is nursing him. She is secretive, aloof and obsessive in certain behaviors. The worker teases her and jokes with her until she finally relaxes just enough to tell him her story. She tells a perfectly horrible tale about her life in a Serbian rape camp. After that, she leaves him.
    There's a foolish and unbelievable ending where she and the worker find love but I was, again, struck by the normalcy of rape. So many stories about the Balkan war center on the ordinariness of the young rapists and murderers. The victim in the movie was held captive in her own home town. She says that the men who tortured and raped her looked and spoke just like the boys she grew up with. Some of the men who raped her apologized but they raped her anyway.
    Your story recreates rape culture with a hierarchy of victims and perpetrators. Were you conscious of the rape/pornography connection? It's a beautiful day and I feel guilty and ashamed of my gender, my sexuality and my powerlessness to change the world. I'm not having a good day.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment Jon.

    You know I stumbled across my porn stories and reread themt a few times over the years and the parts that made me laugh at my own jokes were all that stuck with me.

    It was not until I retyped it for this post that I grasped exactly what you point out... I think I was a little horrified to see how intertwined with rape the sexuality in the story is. I see how I attempted to soften that connection by making my protagonist a (completely unbelievable) lesbian, but I was surprised at myself by how often the protagonist had to demean her victim. I think that's what I learned about the straight porn I was exposed to at Modernismo that's so different from the gay porn I approached more as a consumer. There's dominance and submission and of course physical objectification in gay porn too, but there's not the same kind of emotionally dehumanizing objectification--as opposed to the over-focusing on specific body parts-- which is I think what I mean by the romantic subtext of gay porn absent in this kind of straight porn.

    I don't think I had realized how much I had captured the rapey aspect of porn here before working on this post.

    I was kind of exhausted after retyping this story; I want to examine the two others I intended to reprint here. I think I'm going to have to apply a harsher eye toward my claim of subversion. It's entirely possible that my attempt at putting one over was itself subverted by the medium in question.