Robert Rosen has come neither to praise nor to bury pornography. He acts instead in his book "Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography" as a Virgil to the reader’s Dante on tour of a business that grew to define pop culture in America. The sex industry is rock and roll without the music, Hollywood without the wardrobe, and as an export likely has surpassed both in terms of global influence.
That’s a scary thought, and only one of many that Rosen touches on over the course of his memoir of writing and editing for a succession of sleazier and more fetishistic slap rags. For sixteen years, from the 1980s to the dawn of the new millennium, Rosen was the man who poured the girl-copy concrete that held together the foundation of soft- and finally hardcore photo sets that were the building blocks of a supposedly multi-billion dollar industry.
It’s a foul way to make a living, and Rosen is not an apologist nor does he unduly condemn. From the start of his career, answering a blind want-ad in the newspaper that lead to an entry-level editorial position at Crescent, then Blue Horizon, publishers of High Society and other “adult sophisticate” titles, he steeled himself to the task and looked forward to a short tenure in the field. Coming from a subversive leadership role on the City College of New York newspaper, the Observation Post, Rosen’s sense of irreverent humor made the segue into pornography at the time relatively seamless.
It was a transitional period, coming out from the porn chic of the 1970s, when hardcore sex was embraced by the mainstream media in a way inconceivable only a decade prior. It was a time when Benihana owner Rocky Aoki thought it was a good investment to launch a girlie magazine with the biblical title of Genesis. There was money to be made and pockets were deep enough to budget outlandish transgression. It was fun, until it wasn’t.
Rosen was fired for talking to a journalist and referring to his position as a porn editor. Crescent’s anonymous owner, Carl Ruderman, less interested in the spotlight than financial gain, demanded his offices looked dully corporate to obscure its prurient products like your father’s stash of Playboys hidden in the dresser under button-down shirts. Acknowledging the dirty little secret of its success, which included the lucrative invention of the phone-sex line, was verboten.
There was always another porn publisher with a book on deadline in need of a professional who could steer it to the printer on time, and was willing to pay workers slave wages for the privilege. Rosen was good at what he did and bounced around from sleaze house to sleaze house, growing hardened to the increasingly filthy material it was his responsibly to get his readers hard to. He wanted out, tiring of the piecemeal, factory-like work, the growing governmental intervention, including the mainstream press headline stealing Traci Lords underage scandal, but the checks cleared so it was easy to stay.
Eventually, technology killed the magazine star, with the invention of cheap VHS and then DVD production that made everyone a porn producer and, of course, the Internet, whose business model was content is king, as long as it’s free. Perverts had better prospects than newsstands when they needed to get off. Magazines dwindled, or were used as fodder to keep printing presses running, as when Swank Publications was bought by a New Jersey printing house that could make money off the books even if they sold at a fraction of their anemic circulation.
The world Rosen writes about is gone, as he is now gone from it, with few regrets and a lot of good stories about the revolutionaries and stuffed shirts who published the stroke books and the rejects, losers, perverts, creative outlaws and unsuspecting apprentices who wrote, edited and designed them. Porn isn’t gone but has metastasized. It is everywhere, used in the marketing of the products from blue-chip companies to defining music, movies and television, it is in the public square and, because of its predominance, has lost its reason for being.
Not that men don’t jerk off to porn or everything and anything, they do, and always have and always will, as Rosen clearly charts in an appendix on pornography’s history. The problem is that pornography as commodity is inherently exploitive. Rosen had the good or ill fortune to land in his editorial desk as the roller coaster ratcheted towards its zenith and then held on for the wild ride. The more money it made, the less those who made it were paid. Photographers and writers of pornography were whittled away to nothing for the bottom line (or, in the case of the naked bodies instrumental in its production, surgically augmented into fleshy monstrosities).
As for the last laugh, it’s on the publishers who gave away the zoo to the animals, exhibitionists who gladly and freely provide their perverted services for free and the freakish thrill of their fetish. It’s a dirty business, few come out on the other side, and if they do it’s not without scars. Rosen exposes his, but not without having a good chuckle, and in the process chaperons readers on a fun and informative trek through a lost world.