50 Years of Porn
A Father/Daughter Story
By Zan Romanoff
Reading time 27 Minutes
What happens in the first place
What happens in the first place is that my father tries to go back to school. He’s a twenty-year-old high school dropout, a post-juvenile delinquent making a little bit of money as a photographer around Chicago, shooting weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. But he wants to get into the movie business, and knows he’ll have to learn the trade first— this is 1962, decades before digital, when exposing a piece of film properly requires specific technical knowledge.
So he calls up Columbia College in the South Loop to see about enrolling in a course. The one he wants to take isn’t available that term, but the guy who teaches it is shooting a movie in town. The registrar says: Call him. See if he’ll hire you.
And that’s how my dad starts his career in porn.
Though it’s not porn, exactly: not yet. In Chicago in the ‘60s you can still go to jail for that kind of thing. America as a whole is still pretty prudish, and Chicago particularly so: The city employs a board comprised of the widows of police officers and fireman to preview every film seeking permission to screen locally.
At that point, there are dirty magazines—Playboy is a nearly a decade old—but pornos are strips of 16mm film that get passed around hand-to-hand; they’re “home movies” or footage shot at nudist camps. So, for profit, entrepreneurs shoot what are called nudies, or nudie cuties: films with plots that involve naked people. Just wholesome, normal, non-titillating nudity—the kind required to make a realistic film. One is about a bunch of girls at a finishing school going about their days with their tops off, just as a for instance.
The man my father calls up about a job is named Herschell Gordon Lewis, and at the time, he has a variety of jobs. He owns an ad agency; he teaches; and he shoots nudies. The one he’s making that fall, the one that inaugurates my dad into the dirty picture business, is called Boin-n-g, and it is the story of two men who set out to make a nudie.
It’s like, very meta.
Forty-plus years later, in 2004, my friend Chrissie turns 18. It’s September of our senior year of high school, and she’s the first of our friends to get legal. One night, a group of us go to dinner somewhere—a strip mall in west Los Angeles—and then after, we go to a newsstand, and purchase a porn DVD. How did we decide on the newsstand, or the movie? I don’t remember. That we’re doing it was much more important than anything else.
What I do remember is getting back to her parents’ house and realizing that we’d accidentally bought foreign porn, which is to say, a DVD that wasn’t region-coded for the U.S., which scuttled our plans to watch it on the player in her room. So we crept into the family room—three girls, two boys, like little horny mice—and watched it with one eye on the door that led from the den to her parents’ bedroom. We kept the volume on very low.
It was not an auspicious introduction to the form.
It’s a commonplace thing to say that people my age
It’s a commonplace to say that people my age and younger—I’m thirty-one, a so-called Old Millennial—grew up with porn: the particulars of on-screen sexuality, which values good camera angles over good physical ones, as well as the general idea that our sexual selves can be easily and profitably commodified.
I’ve always lived in a world where porn was visible, if not always directly available to me: Newsstand Playboys and Hustlers, with their black modesty bars, and the curtained off-sections of video stores, back when we still had video stores, heralded the existence of an unknown adult world. I drove by handfuls of strip clubs on my way to and from elementary and middle school. Images of women’s naked bodies decorated the buildings’ exteriors, their exaggerated curves outlined in lurid, blinking neon.
There’s lots to say about this way of growing up: about the kinds of ideas that take root in the mind of a child who tests her knowledge of the alphabet by spelling out L-I-V-E-G-I-R-L-S -- which for years I misinterpreted as an imperative, a command: Live, girls! Live!
But I really don’t know that I understood, then, that those women were the same kind of animal I was. As far as I was concerned they were made of the neon in those lights, the static and pixel of a television set, comprised of nothing more substantial than the glossy magazine pages they’d been printed on.
I had no understanding of the industry of porn, much less the humanity of its performers; instead, I accepted, unquestioning, the fact of its images.
This is a common affliction. Plenty of people think of the phrase “porn star” as designating a subtype of human, rather than a job title. The gleeful alacrity with which it’s inserted into headlines attests to this. Everyone knows Stormy Daniels’ name, but calling her a porn star is more explicit and exciting. In the same way we don’t have to grapple much with the abject humanity of movie stars, so too we can write off the struggles of their counterparts in porn.
But just as the way we consume porn has changed—when was the last time someone bought a porn DVD at a newsstand?—porn performers’ abilities to speak for themselves has as well. The internet made porn cheap and pervasive, but it also helped give porn stars a platform for their voices. Probably the most famous example of this is Stoya’s now-deleted Twitter account, which she used to accuse her ex-boyfriend and fellow adult star James Deen of rape in 2015.
Over the course of my life, porn stars have made space for themselves in the cultural landscape—not enough of them, and still not enough are taken seriously. The visibility of a few famous porn stars doesn’t do nearly enough for the masses of non-famous sex workers, but at least we’ve started to sometimes act like porn is an industry, and not just a sad, cheesy joke on the people whose lives are bound up in its production.
And in turn that’s helped make space for us to have other kinds of conversations about porn: how it’s a thing that gets made by people with real lives, and how we watch these acts in context. And how, given how we now analyze media, it should be among the categories we consider seriously.
So here are some stories about how porn has been part of my father’s life, and a part of mine: as a job, and as an enticement, and as an element of culture.
These stories are not about shame; they are only incidentally about desire. They are about shifts in taste and technology, in morality and rule of law. They are about how he made things people wanted to watch; they are about what I watched, and when, and with who.
These are stories about our lives in porn, which, much as we hate to admit it, is a type of story almost everyone alive in the 21st century can tell.
When my dad and I started having conversations
When my dad and I started having conversations for this story, I thought of the history of porn as a distribution question: those brief 16mm films giving way to theatrical screenings of films like Green Door and The Devil and Miss Jones. Next came VHS and the curtained-off sections at video stores, and then porn’s final form, a series of clips that live in private browsers, a secret between you, your god, and your internet service provider.
But in fact, the way porn evolved over the course of the ‘60s has much more to do with morality laws than it does with technology. Which seems like a characteristic Millennial mistake for me to make: assuming that the technology itself rules how culture changes, instead of looking at how technology and culture co-evolve to change each other.
For my father, technology was, for a time anyway, more exciting even than naked women. He’s an equipment geek, and on his first film, getting to work with a Mitchell camera was basically as thrilling as the girls taking their clothes off in front of it. Before he even got the job, he’d ordered away for a Mitchell manual from what he calls “the Mecca of California.” The manual was so precious to him that his mother put cloth over the paper cover so that it would last. (She’s no longer with us—died when I was in the first grade—but he still has the manual.)
“I would spend my evenings studying this manual, and learning how to thread the camera, and how to lubricate the camera, all that stuff. How to adjust the parallax, and hundreds of other things,” he says now.
But the women he was working with eluded him. “I'm 18, 19, 20, and these women are beyond my imagination in a way. But I was nice, so they liked me. I still remember to this day—much later, two or three years later, I was on a picture with a beautiful woman. We all stayed at the same motel, and we were lying around the swimming pool and she made some remark about my legs. That I kind of now know— even then I knew something was going on— but I didn't know what to do with it. Except remember it all the days of my life.”
First, though, before he gets to North Carolina, there’s Florida. Because it’s too cold and nasty to shoot in Chicago in the winters, Herschell Lewis makes it his business to go south, to make films with names like Daughters of the Sun.
The year my father goes with him, Lewis has agreed to a partnership with a burlesque theater owner named Leroy Bell, whose buxom wife, Virginia, will be the star of the picture. Bell, Bare and Beautiful is about a stripper who joins a nudist cult.
In the midst of the shoot, Lewis decides -- with an imported crew and all of their equipment already there -- they may as well make a second movie. Not another nudie though—Lewis already senses the tide turning on those, slowly and inevitably. Nudies cost almost nothing to make, but that meant anyone who could cobble together a crew could make them. Theater owners who used to buy his reels to screen had started producing their own content in-house. It was time to figure out what was next.
Lewis has a partner named David Frank Friedman, an ex-carny and film projectionist from Alabama, who, according to my father, “doesn't seem all that smart on the surface. But this guy is smart, and this guy has an instinct for humans: for what humans will respond to in the lowest ways…the carnal desires…the base stuff of human beings.”
Friedman will go on to help invent “roughies,” so perhaps it’s no surprise that what he and Lewis come up with together veers away from sexy innocence and towards naked violence. It’s a film called Blood Feast, a resplendently blood-splattered horror flick that earns more than any horror film before it has, and basically invents the gore genre.
Friedman is also a canny marketer: he calls the cops on one of their early screenings, which helps ensure that there will be publicity aplenty. The people who want to know what’s going on or prove how tough they are, or who think they can’t be offended, or who desperately want to be offended, show up in droves.
For a while, this film it sets my father on a different path. He stays with Lewis and Friedman and works on 10,000 Maniacs and Moonshine Mountain. He works on films where women’s bodies are subject to violence in ways that are explicit and obvious.
Is this where I note that I saw women die on screen
Is this where I note that I saw women die on screen many, many times before I got to see one have an orgasm? My first horror film was Halloween, screened during a friend’s twelfth birthday party. (Coincidentally, Christopher Wayne Curry, in his book A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, identifies Blood Feast’s murderer as the cinematic predecessor of Halloween’s Michael Myers, though I didn’t know anything about this cinematic genealogy—much less my own—then.)
But I don’t want to talk about what porn means here, what it’s done to me, whether it’s better or worse than other kinds of culture. I only want to—what? Point to the fact that it’s not omnipresent or monolithic. There are all kinds of ways to exploit each other and our bodies, to mix up thrill and disgust and fear and desire.
That night, watching Halloween, was the first time I ever held a boy’s hand. My crush stroked his thumb against mine, soothing, maddening. I felt like I’d discovered a whole new body located just under my skin, jumpy and hot and tight. I wanted nothing more than to sit down in another dark room and get scared like that again and again and again.
Anyway, while my dad is working on these horror films, things change in porn. In 1973, the case of Henry Miller’s banned novel Tropic of Cancer makes it to the Supreme Court, which recognizes that different communities have different ideas about “obscenity.” Around the same time, America experienced the first national phenomenon of pornography, the so-called Golden Age of Porn, which was heralded by the infamous Deep Throat. All of a sudden, people are going to see porn in theaters, with significant others. They are discussing it at firesides and family dinner tables.
And a filmmaker named Manny Conde is shooting in Los Angeles. He’s a Cuban émigré or maybe exile my father had met in Miami. A prize-winning filmmaker in his native country, Conde had been reduced to what my father calls “making a living.” Together, they worked on handfuls of films -- “if they had names,” my father says now, “I don’t recall them.”
Here’s my dad’s description of the set-up, the physical space they’re working out of: “On Santa Monica Boulevard there is a small storefront, and the name on the front of it is CHN International. CHN International is owned by a guy named Hal Guthu. It's a modeling agency with a roster of porn stars, but you can also rent it as a stage and shoot whatever you want, so porn is what we shoot there.
“[In] the back is a studio where they have a couple of flats, and they'd set up the flats and there's a window and a door and whatever. You put a desk in front of it, you paint it a different color, and then you get to why you're there to make the movie.
“Guthu later, if I recall correctly, dies mysteriously. He’s found with a bullet in his head, in the burned down studio. There are a bunch of theories about what might have happened.” When it comes to the old porn business, there is almost always some violence in the story.
To this day there’s still violence in the story: porn performers committing suicide, succumbing to mental health issues and substance abuse problems. A lot of people want to believe these are the reasons they got into porn in the first place: They were fuckups or addicts, abuse victims who didn’t know how else to handle their trauma.
Some of them are one or all of those things. But none of that is helped by the fact that we take violence in the sex work industry for granted, that we let it be seedy. That we keep its corners dark so that we won’t have to feel complicit in what shows up when someone turns on the lights.
It takes some mental gymnastics
It takes some mental gymnastics to get from nudies and horror films to shooting straight-up hardcore, and so when my dad and his friends set out to make their first real porno, they give it a proper premise. It’s called Bizarre Sex Practices, and the narrator talks you through a National Geographic-style introduction to what’s on screen: the conceit is that the film was made for anthropological reasons, you see.
It’s a bit of a holdover from nudies, the way that the film strains for an excuse, not for the actors, but for the viewer. You aren’t watching sex. You’re watching something that just happens to contain sex. It’s the structure of a nudie, but the fucking of actual porn.
It’s sort of remarkable if you think about it, how attached we are to stories in our porn. I don’t necessarily mean narratives, long intros and emotional arcs, the things they’re always saying women want—I just mean that, even now, in a highly discerning, on-demand porn landscape, video titles on sites like PornHub or XTube describe power dynamics as often as they do sex acts.
Which makes sense: Watching two people fuck is different if the title is STUDENT SEDUCES TEACHER (and it’s different again if the teacher is having his pants unzipped by a horny co-ed, or if she’s leaning over her student’s desk just a little too far to be proper). This thing that’s supposed to be totally animal, body unmediated by messy mind, is something we enjoy more when there’s a story involved.
It underlines what anyone who’s had sex with someone for reasons other than animal attraction already knows: that sexual pleasure is not just about touch. Anyone can find a rhythm, get you off, but by and large, that’s not what we want from our sex or our porn. We want something that fires our imaginations and then, at last, wrenches us away from them. We want someone else to offer us a light—just that little flare of fire. We have our own pools of accelerant ready to catch and spread the flame.
I was a freshman in college when Pirates came out. It was then the most expensive porn film ever made, with a budget of over a million dollars; it clocked in at a girthy two hours and nine minutes. Now this seems like a sort of quaint vestige: of a time when people paid money for porn, but also of when porn was understood as part of a filmic tradition, rather than what it’s increasingly become, which is a series of decontextualized clips to be accessed on aggregator sites.
The night I watched Pirates began with a school-sanctioned screening: Cinema at the Whitney, a student organization, showed the French new wave film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 35mm in an auditorium on the eastern edge of campus. This was October in Connecticut, and when we walked out of the theater, a rainstorm was in full effect: so blustery and gusting that my own umbrella got turned inside out and then rightside in until its cheap metal ribs were mangled beyond repair.
A group of us arrived at the dorm room where we’d be watching Pirates soaked through and dripping. I remember this particularly because a boy I had a crush on was there with his New York girlfriend, a model. I was taking off my boots and jacket and putting them in the bathtub, wringing my hair out in the sink.
We were eighteen and it was Friday night, so we drank screwdrivers and ate chunks off a massive Toblerone bar someone’s parents had sent in a care package. We pregamed Pirates with Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, a cheesy 80’s film about breakdancing. We wanted make sure we were properly inebriated before the porn started, but the film also helped to set the tone for the evening. This was a funny, hip, ironic thing to do: We were watching porn for the kitsch value, and not because it was, you know, porn.
I don’t remember a minute of the movie. I think a girl gets fucked with a candle? I think, but I don’t know.
What I remember is my crush standing against a wall with his arms crossed over his chest. He was wearing a pair of very short running shorts. I remember the blue glow of the screen, and how I liked to imagine that it was tender, the way that light reached out to touch the bared skin of his thighs.
A few years ago a writer friend
A few years ago a writer friend was working on a story about how Pamela Anderson’s sex tape with Tommy Lee came to have been stolen from their house in the first place. She had met the guy who stole it a party.
She’d never seen the tape before; neither had I, or a handful of our other girlfriends. When it was released we were too young to order it on VHS or to try to watch it during its brief life online. By the time we were curious and capable enough for celebrity sex tapes, there were newer offerings on the market -- Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, the enormous spill of stolen celebrity nudes that came to be known The Fappening.
When we sat down to watch the Anderson/Lee tape, we were all stunned by how innocent it was: how it was clearly culled from home movies made by two people who were in love with each other. It was a moment that brought home how thoroughly we had been raised on hardcore, as well as on celebrity sex tapes. The sex just didn’t feel that shocking. The intimacy with them, of course—that’s what took us by surprise. It was the intensity of feeling, not the intensity of the act.
We have this tendency to talk about cultural objects like they exist in a vacuum, one where things are morally absolute: good or bad, helpful or harmful. Like it’s possible for us to know with certainty how they affect us in the short- or long-term.
Some of the porn I’ve seen was bad for me, probably, though I’d argue not much worse in sum than the melodramatic television and schlocky romantic comedies I cut my baby teeth on. Those more innocent things came earlier, and in much greater quantity, and far fewer people said to me, “young lady, don’t you ever imagine yourself to be Molly Ringwald” than “you know porn isn’t real.”
Now I know porn isn’t real, and neither is actually being a heroine, the person the story is always ultimately about. Guess which one I still fantasize about.
Which is only to say that it felt surprisingly easy to sit at a table at a trendy restaurant in my neighborhood and eat eggs and toast and ask my dad about all of this. About the evolution of pornography, and the sets he worked on, and the women he worked with.
Did you ever worry about telling me? I ask him. His years in nudies and porn are just a small subset of his wild past, stories I knew the hazy outlines of as a child, and have filled in the details of as an adult. Did it ever feel taboo, or shameful, or just like something you didn’t want to revisit?
No, he says. This is the stuff of his life. “Doing porn is not unlike doing drugs, in a certain way,” he says. “To become a person who takes drugs, regularly, at least, you become part of a society. And then you are governed by the conventions and mores of that society. So when you’re doing porn, no one’s talking about shame. They have decided that that myth, that story, is not their story.”
He acknowledges that his story of porn isn’t everybody’s, not even the men and women he shared sets with. “When I walked in to a day’s work, I walked in not thinking I was a victim, or that I was—it wasn’t about economic pressures, or any outside things. It was a day’s work,” he says. “And I took it for granted, whether I should have or not, that everybody else on the set was there the same way.”
But that sense of choice allows him to separate himself from fear or shame around those parts of his life. “What would shame me, deeply, is to fuck people over,” he says. “What would have shamed me is to treat a child badly.” In comparison, “This stuff is not that hard to talk about.”
I know what he means, I think. As long as you blank out the fucking taking place in the middle of it all, it’s just the stuff of life: film sets, young love, adolescent desire. Trying to figure out what was obscene, what was off-limits, what was just normal, animal, allowed. How the world he’d grown up in looked like mine sometimes, and then sometimes didn’t—how the world he made turned into the one I live in, which is obscene, and dirty, and animal, on screen, and off.
Zan Romanoff is the author of two novels: A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and Fever. Her essays and journalism have appeared in print and online for Buzzfeed, Elle, GQ, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.