Industry Self-Censorship and the Birth of the ‘Alternative Adult’ Market

By David Church, Northern Arizona University, US

Prosecutions of theatre owners for obscenity increased after the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Miller v. California decision returned responsibility for obscenity definitions to the judgment of local community standards, meaning that ‘smaller hard-core theatres suffered through a lack of product and a suddenly more discerning hard-core audience.’ [1] One of the major implications of this legal precedent was a deliberate toning down of ostensibly aberrant or ‘taboo’ content in many post-1973 hardcore films. […] In the theatrical pornographic feature, illicit acts seldom appeared to begin with, but even a handful of 35mm genre ‘classics’- such as The Story of Joanna (1975), Femmes de Sade (1976), Barbara Broadcast (1977), Pretty Peaches (1978), Candy Stripers (1978), and 800 Fantasy Lane (1979) – suffered trims of select scenes when later appearing on video. […] As David Jennings recalls of the Los Angeles filmmaking scene, ‘In the wake of the crackdown on kink in the mid-70s, LA’s police and pornographers had forged a truce: the LAPD wouldn’t bust porn manufacturers if they’d refrain from urination, defecation, bestiality, child sex, fist or foot insertions, flagellation with penetration, bondage with penetration, and shooting in L.A. county.’ [2] In some cases, then, directors intentionally omitted such content to begin with, while in other cases, distributors made hasty trims to pre-existing films. Though not exclusive to heterosexual pornography, hardcore features fictionally depicting incest, rape, or other forms of non-consensual sex […] became less far common over the 1970s […] and such scenes were often cut out of later video reissues where possible – a selective rewriting of adult film history that Laurence O’Toole compares to the Soviet doctoring of photographs to erase the existence of purged officials. [3]

In the wake of feminist activism against pornography and especially the 1986 Meese Commission’s neoconservative crackdown on obscenity, the combination of unsimulated, penetrative sex acts with fictional depictions of force or restraint only seemed to play into anti-porn crusaders’ worst fears, so reasserting hardcore’s legal legitimacy necessitated the industry’s move toward self-censorship. In his 1986 guide to the best adult films, Jim Holliday complained,

Antiporn idiots who speak from the heart rather than the head have claimed that porn has become more violent, more explicit and more demeaning to women in recent years. As a porn historian, my response is exactly the opposite. Any fool could notice that fisters, pissers, excessive violence, rape and young girl themes have been heavily self-censored by the adult industry themselves. [4]

[…]

After VCA founder Russ Hampshire’s release from prison on a 1988 obscenity conviction, for example, he tasked several editors with censoring potentially offending material from the company’s 3000-title accumulated library, although one of these editors recalls that at least 50 films […] suffered so many cuts that they were taken out of print altogether. [5] Moreover, these cut versions have remained the iterations predominantly available today, since most so-called ‘classics studios’ have merely imported their older video transfers to DVD and not bothered to reinstate previously trimmed footage.

[…]

As this suggests, then, the late-1980s adult video industry may have been experiencing a glut of new product, but the contested circulation and ownership of many hardcore features in their various iterations meant that some older films had quickly slipped back into obscurity or at least been rendered less controversial. This also suggests how, unlike the uncontrolled duplication rampant during the industry’s ‘outlaw’ early years, the very notion of hardcore genre ‘classics’ became increasingly contingent upon several prominent porn studios increasingly asserting copyright control over their libraries, and thereby helping restore value to texts that once might have circulated in disreputably fragmentary and unauthorised forms – though some notable bootlegging of these out-of-print versions has remained active. The mainstream heterosexual porn industry’s selective forgetting of its ‘rougher’ or more ‘taboo’ past when certain texts reappeared on home video can thus be seen as an understandable concession to more contemporary forms of political correctness – especially as the video market increasingly targeted heterosexual couples instead of lone men – but it can also reproduce a particularly vanilla vision of sex by erasing from its visual register various practices like bisexuality, BDSM, urolagnia, fisting, and various fetishes that originally appeared in select scenes of even major theatrical hits.

[…]

Indeed, Linda Williams notes that the industry’s post-1973 efforts to both avoid obscenity prosecutions and raise its cultural repute were gradually achieved less through a separation of non-explicit from explicit representations than a separation of ‘normal’ from ‘perverse’ sexualities. [6] As the porn industry took steps toward mainstream corporate legitimacy over the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, the latter practices became increasing segregated into AVN’s separate category of ‘specialty’ adult tapes (largely made by much smaller companies), implicitly setting boundaries for how the presence or absence of particular sexual practices within pornographic features could shift from being seen as historical signifiers of a less ‘tasteful’ past to generic signifiers of sexual marginality.

Consequently, even as the larger industry players self-censored the content of older films when it was presumed to be potentially ‘shocking’ to local community standards, such content could still be split off and capitalised upon as ‘specialties,’ but at the risk of whitewashing the diversity of acts…that were once more permissible for inclusion in 1970s hardcore features. […] One of the limitations, then, of denouncing the ‘rougher’ strain of behaviour within some 1970s hardcore films as the ‘bad old days’ of a more conservatively masculinist past – which some vintage porn fans may indeed regressively nostalgise […] much as fans of proximate genres like horror and other exploitation-ready texts similarly nostalgise the 1970s as a ‘grittier’ and less homogenised past – is the corresponding danger of denigrating queerer forms of sexuality through an ultimately conservative conflation of 1970s-era ‘political incorrectness’ with ‘bad sex’. Hence the need for accessing multiple versions of films and carefully analysing individual texts on their own terms, rather than merely relying on broad generic generalisations that fail to account for the sexual complexity found even within films ostensibly aimed at a heterosexual theatrical market. 

And yet, if the informal distribution (such as piracy) of hardcore features in theatres and on video has meant that stable and unchanging iterations of particular films were once difficult to standardise within the marketplace, then the vagaries of circulation mean that retrospectively exploring the world of vintage pornography – such as collecting old VHS and Beta tapes, both cut and uncut DVDs of films that were censored on VHS, or compilations of clips excised from preexisting films – can uncover unpredictable records of fragmentary and seemingly ‘excessive’ varieties of sexual expression. The adult video industry may have attempted to standardise its available product to avoid certain legal and political pitfalls, but the fantasy of stumbling across the suppressed pieces of a text’s history remains as much of vintage pornography’s retrospective appeal as the more common reality of encountering a mutilated text. Much as horror film fans seek out uncut versions of particularly gory films, for example, some vintage porn collectors will compare and recommend different video editions for mere seconds of missing footage. Yet, as much as collectors may often want to see a given film as it was originally meant to be seen, the crude trims and alternate versions seen in remediated editions can also remind viewers of what has since passed back into the realm of the cinematic unseen.

Contradicting common assumptions that hardcore pornography has teleologically moved toward greater and greater explicitness since coming aboveground in 1970, the continued circulation of these censored iterations bespeaks a tantalisingly uneven history of sexual visibility. Each absence, then, is a signifier of loss, but however much one might reject such censorial efforts, these absences also remind the historian and fan of the alluring temporal gap between then and now, the historical distance encouraging an eroticised longing for the past. As these outmoded and sometimes deleted forms of sexual representation have become temporal signifiers in their own right, the adult film industry’s for-profit strategies of selective forgetting have thereby comingled with its selective remembrance of more esteemed genre ‘classics,’ ultimately forming a variegated corpus perpetually open to contested sexual/cultural tastes and fantasies of historical rediscovery.

[…]

The chicness and related controversy of legally available hardcore features may have increasingly (but not entirely) dominated public attention in the more permissive 1970s theatrical marketplace, but once home video use became widespread in the mid-1980s, various types of softcore films ironically saw a gradual resurgence of interest – despite the increased conflation of terms like ‘X-rated,’ ‘adult,’ and ‘pornography’ with hardcore films alone. Whereas earlier guidebooks to adult cinema […] included a variety of sexploitation films from the 1960s and 1970s, the glut of hardcore content released onto video was the predominant focus of later consumer guides, as if responding to a suddenly more pressing need to critically evaluate tapes for an adult film audience that had gradually become more discerning but simultaneously faced a massive explosion of buying/renting options.

[…]

During the adult video industry’s mid-1980s downturn, however, hardcore producers and distributors began reviving the older practice of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ cuts, diversifying into softcore versions that could be sold to cable television and to video stores in socially conservative areas. ‘Essex Video Announces Cable Version: The Profitable Alternative’ read one 1986 ad, while AVNelsewhere reported that adult video manufacturers were turning to exploitation films, children’s films, and other ‘general release’ genres as more bankable product lines. [7] Indeed, when pornography was under fire from the Meese Commission, sales for softcore films…saw significant gains as viewers and retailers who still wanted sex films began shying away from hardcore videos. [8] The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw AVNbeginning to review video reissues of striptease and burlesque films, sexploitation features and trailer compilations, and other pre-hardcore films released by minor distributors.

AVN’s coverage of both vintage and contemporary softcore forms was increasingly folded into the catchall category of ‘Alternative Adult’ releases. As editor Gene Ross remarked, the term ‘softcore’ carried higher taste connotations than ‘hardcore,’ and was therefore to be avoided in a trade magazine primarily promoting hardcore products, although the publication still retained ‘hardcore’ to avoid using the overdetermined term ‘pornography.’ [9] […] Although terms like ‘softcore’ and ‘alternative’ gradually became synonymous in AVN’s pages to differentiate hardcore from its cultural others, Ross speculated that vintagesoftcore forms garnered an unexpected renewal of interest due to a niche audience’s rejection of the more contemporary softcore forms then being made for nontheatrical distribution: ‘whatever is prompting it – the ongoing wave of nostalgia or the sad look of much of the current softcore film market – sexploitation films are enjoying a revival.’ In his estimation, the sheer rarity of 1960s sexploitation films compared to hardcore product – with perhaps one thousand sexploitation titles made over the entire 1960s vs. 1700 hardcore titles released in 1987 alone – combined with the lack of available titles then released on home video, was a significant part of their attraction. [10] Although that situation has certainly changed in the intervening years, I would argue that AVN’s one-time investment in the rediscovery of ‘lost’ vintage films speaks to not only the economic allure of an untapped market, but also an intertwining of historical value and erotic potential undergirding the subcultural fandom of vintage pornography in general.

[…]

As increasingly ‘vintage’ forms of adult cinema became relegated to historical and industrial marginality, cult film fanzines and bootleg tape sellers/traders took them up as objects of subcultural interest and mail-order circulation. For retailers hoping to break into this potential market, AVN even recommended reading cult film magazines like Psychotronic Video and Film Threat to find fresh product in mail-order ads, since these publications would be more promising sources of information about recent rediscoveries than hardcore-centric trade magazines. [11] After all, the legally indeterminate status of surviving prints and video sources, both then and now, has allowed some fan-collectors to become niche-market entrepreneurs in their own right, especially when long-time collectors of prints move toward opening their personal archives and profitably recirculating texts. Such outfits [such as Something Weird Video and Vinegar Syndrome] have subsequently developed into prominent labels among adult film aficionados, devoted to locating and transferring ‘new’ material for video distribution, especially when the increasingly corporatised ‘mainstream’ hardcore studios have generally been more concerned with capitalising on their more recent catalogues than uncovering the vast wealth of decades past.

Acknowledgements

This article is an excerpt from David Church, Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Disposable Passions is reviewed on the Screening Sex blog here.

Notes

[1] Justin Wyatt. 1999. Selling ‘Atrocious Sexual Behavior: Revising Sexualities in the Marketplace for Adult Film of the 1960s. In Hilary Radner and Moya Luckett, eds. Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 124.

[2] David Jennings. 2000. Skinflicks: The Inside Story of the X-Rated Video Industry. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, chapter 4.

[3] Laurence O’Toole. 1998. Pornotopia: Porn, Sex, Technology, and Desire. London: Serpent’s Tail, 207.

[4] Jim Holliday. 1986. Only the Best: Jim Holliday’s Adult Video Almanac and Trivia Treasury. Van Nuys, CA: Cal Vista, 43.

[5] Former VCA employee. 2014. Personal communication, 5 February.

[6] Linda Williams. 2004. Second Thoughts on Hard Core: American Obscenity Law and the Scapegoating of Deviance. In Pamela Church Gibson, ed. More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power. London: British Film Institute, 168.

[7] Essex Video ad. 1986. Adult Video News Confidential. February, 13; Lee Irving. 1986. Adult Manufacturers Hedging Their Bets: General Release Tapes as Viable Alternatives. Adult Video News Confidential. June, 22-23, 26.

[8] John Paone. 1986. The Adult Film Industry: Waiting and Wondering. Adult Video News Confidential. September, 10. 

[9] Gene Ross. 1993. Overview: Oh Mama, How That ‘Other’ Market Has Changed. Adult Video News. ‘Alternative Adult’ supplement. Winter, 3-4.

[10] Gene Ross. 1987. Sexploitation Films: The 60s Sexplosion!!! Adult Video News. March, 82.

[11] Mark Kernes. 1993. Making Alternative Adult Video a Profit Center. Adult Video News. ‘Alternative Adult’ supplement. Winter, 22.

Contributor

David Church is a Lecturer in Cinema Studies at Northern Arizona University, and specialises in genre studies (especially horror, exploitation and adult films), taste cultures, gender/sexuality studies and histories of film exhibition/distribution. He is the author of Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema (2016); Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (2015) and is currently writing a monograph on queerness and pastness in post-ironic genre cinema.

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