Why Libraries Need to Archive Porn

The history of modern hardcore deserves to be studied, not end up in a dumpster.

|
Feb 22 2017, 5:26am

Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

The history of American hardcore film is scattered across Jerry Douglas's Upper West Side apartment. Stacked in his bedroom are production and press books from the string of 1990s gay hardcore films that won him a shelf full of awards—films like Flesh and Blood and More of a Man. In a closet, there are bound volumes that document the Yugoslavian shoot of the 1975 bisexual-chic landmark Score, which he wrote; a poster for his earlier play version, featuring the young Sylvester Stallone in a supporting role, graces the living room wall. And buried somewhere are outtakes from The Back Row, his gay milestone from 1972.

The collection is fit for an archive. Thankfully, it's headed to one—eventually. At 81, porn pioneer Douglas says he "can see the end of the tunnel more and more clearly." Now, he's thinking seriously about history and how it's preserved.

"I don't want my life's work to end up in a garbage dumpster," he told me.

A series of pornographic film posters in Jerry Douglas's New York apartment. Photo by Whitney Strub

When it comes to porn, that's exactly what usually happens. I've heard firsthand accounts of the records and letters of now-dead pornographers departing for landfills in trash bags. When Douglas's papers enter the holdings at New York University's Fales Library, as they will upon his death, it will offer a virtually unparalleled documentary record of modern hardcore history.

Porn archives are, paradoxically, everywhere and nowhere. It's relatively easy to find smutty Victorian novels and mimeographed sex stories in places like the British Museum and even the Library of Congress. It's the behind-the-scenes material—the scripts, storyboards, and production memos—that remain elusive. You can find such documents for mainstream American film in numerous collections held at UCLA, USC, and elsewhere, but if you're looking for the counterparts in the history of pornography, where do you even begin?

There are a few early examples: There's the Samuel Roth papers at Columbia University, which offer a rich window into mid-century print sleaze. Roth, who published the tawdry Violations of the Child Marilyn Monroe in 1962, lost a 1957 Supreme Court case that created modern obscenity doctrine, and his papers are both fascinating and detailed. Ralph Ginzburg, who served federal time for publishing smut like Eros and The Housewife's Handbook on Selective Promiscuity, gave the Kinsey Institute a collection of 1960s hate mail he received. It's a window into the anger thousands of Americans directed at his Jewishness, his depictions of interracial sex, and more. (The collection also contains the single oddest thing I've ever encountered in an archive—a biohazard bag containing the human shit that was mailed to Ginzburg and then dutifully preserved.)

But archival collections dry up during the 1970s, when hardcore cinema moved aboveground. I recently co-edited a book, Porno Chic and the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representation in the 1970s, and the contributors dug up material that greatly expands our historical narrative beyond the obvious canon of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones: Shaun Costello's 1975 hardcore Christmas Carol adaptation, The Passions of Carol; Bob Guccione's failed "Penthouse for women," Viva; forgotten magazines like Female Impersonator News; and the autoerotic gay smut of Peter Berlin. All of these left texts to study, in the form of movies and magazines. But none left an archive of its production, distribution, or reception.

Jerry Douglas's porn awards. Photo by Whitney Strub

The single best repository for hardcore history is probably Rialto Report, a collection of oral history podcasts and deeply researched essays about the 70s and 80s. But scholars have been slow to make use of it, probably out of misplaced anxiety about the fact that it's housed online rather than in a university library. Indeed, the only extensive archive of a hardcore filmmaker that I know of is the Candida Royalle Papers, still being processed at Harvard's Schlesinger Library—where the pioneering feminist pornographer's records join those of her opponents Andrea Dworkin and Women Against Pornography, the 1980s feminist sex wars preserved in archival amber, forever counterpoised.

This absent hardcore archive is felt by historians. For most of the quarter-century since Linda Williams's groundbreaking study Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible, academic porn studies was dominated by film scholars, more committed to textual analysis than historicization. But a coalescing movement of porn historians has grappled with how to do justice to the complexity of porn's undocumented past. In her recent book, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, Mireille Miller-Young scoured everything from privately held stag-film collections to internet message boards to recover lost histories, brilliantly detailing, for instance, one unnamed woman's on-screen labor negotiations with a money shot in the 1930s. In another recent book, Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video, Peter Alilunas crafts an entire methodology, which he calls "trace historiography," to unearth the adult film industry's transition to home videos in the 1970s. He's literally doing scholarly research through eBay auctions at times, but imagine what the business records of a sex motel, or the diary of that unnamed stag performer, would add here.

That's effectively what Jerry Douglas's collection offers. His papers hold screenplay drafts, memos to actors about their characters, his life's correspondence, and more. Not everything has been preserved—the full script for his 1993 film, Jock-a-Holics, for example, was left on top of a car and blew away. But what's there is invaluable in fleshing out porn history, on multiple levels from the material legacies of smut (crystal butt plugs from Beyond Perfect, Douglas's second-to-last film in 2005 and purchased over the producer's cost objection) to the personal lives of those lost to the AIDS epidemic (Gerald Grant, who performed in straight, gay, and bi porn, is commemorated through a beautiful scrapbook compiled by his lover). Shooting logs show Douglas carefully plotting performers' orgasms (marked with an "o"), and among his abundant outtake footage is apparently a climactic would-be threesome in More of a Man (1991) in which a horny extra decided to make it a foursome and Douglas interrupted the orgy to obtain a mid-coital release form. Thirty-eight boxes remain unpacked from when Douglas and his partner moved in 1994, so who even knows what else is there?

Douglas's archive came to NYU by way of Marvin J. Taylor, the head of special collections at NYU's Fales Library. In addition to collecting everything from punk history to cooking books, Taylor is a strong advocate of archiving smut—silver print French photographs of two young men having sex from about 1905, more than 1,000 gay and lesbian pulp novels, and 40 cubic feet of porn with a BDSM emphasis in the recently obtained Richard Marshall collection, all grace Fales. Taylor acknowledges the "occasional raised eyebrow" about his acquisitions, but he doesn't mind. This is important historical material, and after all, he said, "It's just sex. Lighten up."

Looking back at his life's work, Douglas told me he feels more like Salieri than Mozart. But I think he's looking at it wrong. Through his archives, he's poised to be a rare and unique tour guide to the history behind the hardcore lens.

Whitney Strub is the author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right and Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle Over Sexual Expression. He blogs about pornography here.

More VICE
Vice Channels