When it comes to a resource as abundant, renewable and vital as sex, the question isn't whether it can be sold, but how. How to repurpose it, reproduce it for the changing times. With the technology to broadcast sound and images — indeed experience — into the deepest recesses of the brain, p*rn entrepreneurs have preoccupied themselves with finding out what more is possible, what more is needed in this virtual free-market society.
In 2011, Steven Hirsch offered $5 million to Pippa Middleton, sister of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, to star in an adult movie. It was, barring marketing stunts, a philosophical move by the founder of one of the world’s largest porn studios. After some 25 years building an empire on breaking conservative barriers, Hirsch didn’t need a reply from the future queen’s sister: The offer was success in itself.
Some will call his industry debauched, despicable, morally bankrupt, socially hazardous even. Hirsch and his ilk will call their success inevitable. Even the most conservative minds fantasize about sex, and when you fantasize you start to want, and under capitalism, society’s wants are society’s needs. Under capitalism, Larry Flynt is a modern day Henry Ford.
Since you’re on the internet, chances are you’ve done business with these 4 trailblazers of adult entertainment. Love them or hate them, their success has shaped society in both seen and unseen ways. But perhaps mostly seen.
4 Joe Francis
Joe Francis set out from the get-go to market and sell the explicit. His first project Banned from Television — compilations of car accidents and assorted violent spectacles — laid the groundwork for his philosophy of visual turpitude. But his real success would come from a far more hedonistic sort of exhibitionism - violence was only a stepping stone.
Today, girls getting spontaneously raunchy on spring break sounds like an old formula, but there was a time when Girls Gone Wild held vast real estate in adult fantasies. For that, Francis is certainly to thank. He didn't just know that people would pay to watch smuttiness bar-side; he knew how to make them want to. As early as 1997, his late night infomercials swept the airwaves as a brand of sex non-fiction. Get yourself a DVD, download or stream, and live the dream through the Girls Gone Wild magazine and clothing line. Amateur real-life entertainment: Francis’ biggest contribution wasn't just being the king of soft p*rn for a decade, but making this concept a permanent part of the industry.
In the early years Girls Gone Wild captured, says Francis, real moments of sexual liberation. But in its heyday, the brand and the very idea of flashing the cameraman for a free t-shirt was so widespread that the moments it captured were too self-aware, too planned to have that “real” element that made the idea so provocative. The girls knew exactly what they were doing, so the exploitation that defined the early years — when the girls couldn’t possibly have known they’d someday be viewed naked by millions —gradually became replaced by full consent: Is that the girls gone wild tour bus? And so the sex Francis sold quickly outgrew the nervousness, uncertainty and confusion it thrived on.
The formula became understood, the trick explained. And yet, GGW retained its popularity until very recently. As it vacated the throne for future rulers of adult entertainment, the question remained: Was it non-fiction in the end? Was there anything truly sexual about flashing the camera not out of genuine, kinky exhibitionism, but for 15 seconds of fame? Today in this sort of adult entertainment - now diversified into 'cam' sites and 'amateur' videos - these kinds of lines are blurred. Like it or not, that’s the mark Francis made.
3 Steven Hirsch
Vivid Entertainment once had its name on a third of all adult DVDs sold in the US. When viewers moved to web, Vivid followed close behind. Multiple websites, licensing programs stemming from Vivid vodka to condoms to snowboards to calendars, and a feature publication, The Ultimate Vivid Guide, elevated the company to one of the biggest empires in porn. Given Steven Hirsch is the second of his family in adult entertainment, this amounts to something of a dynasty.
For Hirsch, it’s not about what you have but how you use it. He built a company against tradition, even within San Fernando Valley’s dogmatic adult entertainment scene. While other companies pushed volume, Hirsch’s once raked in $100 million USD a year producing a modest 60 titles. Many of their releases are just old repackages. They know, when adult entertainment isn’t just selling a product but an experience, a lifestyle brand and aggressive marketing make all the difference.
But that’s not to say Hirsch simply followed the right formula. Vivid invented the celebrity sex tape market. Pamela Anderson & Tommy Lee, Janine & Vince Neil, Kim Kardashian and even Jimi Hendrix live and uncut made thirsty voyeurism -even at the expense of real peoples’ privacy - fair market game.
2 Danni Ashe
“I guess I’m an exhibitionist. But that’s not quite true. Part of the reason is that I developed huge breasts at an early age. At an early age I was getting a lot of sexualized attention. Eventually, I just felt that stripping kind of put all that stuff out on the table.”
In all its forms, the adult entertainment industry rests on a general impression of scummy misogyny: cigar-sucking production sharks snatching up performers like prey and exploiting them at every corner to squeeze their youthful years for all they're worth on the market, leaving aging generations of broken would-be stars to shrivel. Tons go in, few come out alive.
While there may be some truth to this, the idea of a purely exploitative machine that kidnaps people for fuel doesn’t explain 21st century adult entertainment. Consider the near-paradox of “self-exploitation”: What does it mean to exploit yourself willingly? Is it even possible? These are greater social questions for which adult entertainment simply becomes analogue, but if anyone has a provocative answer it’s Danni Ashe, the only woman to appear on the cover of both the Wall Street Journal and Juggs magazine.
Ashe had the goods, and like it or not that meant she had the attention. She began, quite naturally, as a stripper, selling softcore videos of herself on the side. She eventually taught herself HTML and launched Danni.com (Danni’s Hard Drive) in the span of two weeks. Within years she became the most downloaded woman on the Internet. Tens of millions in profits later, she sold the site to a venture capitalist and retired in 2004. Real name Leah Manzari now runs a photography practice in Arizona.
What differentiated Manzari from other adult performers wasn't just 32 FF cups, but unfailing resolve that her vulgar sexuality was economically empowering. If Hirsch represents corporate success, Manzari represents the performers, the marching soldiers of the x-rated industry. Ashe wrote the book on navigating the industry's sweaty hallways without getting lost, a freelance exhibitionist only half by choice, on a mission to get in, take what she needed, and get back out having made a tidy profit.
1 Larry Flint
It began with just $1,800 in savings. Flynt used it to buy and refurbish his mother’s bar, and business went on the upswing. He established two more, then a series of so-called Hustler’s Clubs where nude hostesses brought in profits of $500,000 a year. The Hustler Newsletter soon followed: four pages in black and white, these edgy spreads on club lifestyle, which quickly drew a booming clientele and enough interest to expand into a 32-page publication. But then the oil crisis of ‘73 hit. America was in recession, and Flynt’s clubs were deserted.
When it came time to jump ship, Larry Flynt swept away on his empire’s paper sails. He relaunched the former newsletter in ’74 with the raunchiest graphics on the market and sights on national distribution. Hustler’s “pink-shots” became a hot topic of debate and consumption within the year, and when it featured paparazzo photographs of a sunbathing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, everyone learned the name Larry Flynt.
The winds of capitalism lifted Flynt to the heights of the adult industry where strip clubs, film studios and even a casino venture mushroomed under the umbrella of a say-anything, show-anything philosophy, and he took the American legal system on the ride with him. His endeavours have been at the front lines of developments not just in the adult industry, but in the very ideology of the American system - we're talking first Amendment battles worth making films about. In a world where market freedom reigns, Larry Flynt represents the forces pushing at the threshold, and The People vs. Larry Flynt as it were, only ended with the people on his side.