Why you should care

Because porn fascinates us all — even if you don’t admit it. 

As dirty politicians sneaked into campaign headquarters in Washington, porn made its way out of the shadows nationwide.

The year was 1972, the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon’s presidency and the start of a long-lasting, lusty thrill for the adult film industry. Before “Deep Throat” became the Watergate informant’s infamous alias, it was the title of the first hard-core pornographic feature film, which premiered in porn houses across the U.S. one week before The Washington Post story broke.

We have Richard Nixon to thank for pushing porn into the mainstream.

Robert Rosen, author of Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography

The president, who had launched a war against pornography a couple of years earlier, tried to divert attention from his own scandal. He ordered that theaters showing Deep Throat be shut down and the actors and filmmakers arrested. The backlash probably wasn’t what he expected, says smut chronologer Robert Rosen. Instead of being repulsed, the public went in droves to see the movie; The New York Times Magazine ran an article headlined “Porno Chic”; and Johnny Carson began making risqué jokes about the saga. “We have Richard Nixon to thank for pushing porn into the mainstream,” says Rosen, who wrote Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. And that’s how a mediocre movie about an unorgasmic woman — who learns her clitoris is in her throat — turned porn into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Erotica has been around since cavemen carved copulating couples onto stone walls by firelight. The ultimate sex manual to this day is the Kama Sutra, which is derived from ancient Sanskrit literature that predates the Common Era. And from the moment the Chinese invented the printing press in the 1040s, porn’s been distributed to the masses. Yet it’s only within the last 50 years that it’s become a defining aspect of the American media landscape.

The first nude, silent videos were shown in France before the turn of the last century. But it wasn’t until the sexual revolution of the ’70s — the Golden Era of Porn — that X-rated movies became popular across the pond. Aficionados say the best adult films of all time came from these years. Linda Lovelace, the lead in Deep Throat, was the first so-called porn star. Ironically, the pioneers from this period liked to claim that they were providing a kind of sex-ed for the public. Hence, “I buy Playboy for the articles.”

The political crusades following Deep Throat culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1973 that established the Miller test guidelines for determining what constitutes obscenity. Essentially, content is protected by free speech if “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” finds it acceptable. So even if something is offensive to one person, all a publisher has to do is show that thousands — a “community” — of people have bought their product. Hello, hard-core niche porn.

The ’80s saw the advent of phone sex — a huge hit — around the same time that AIDS hit the scene. While initially panicking sex workers, the virus led to increased safety protocols for the porn industry that remain in place today. But the game changer came when sex flicks went from public theaters to VHS. “People wanted to watch porn, they just didn’t want their church leader to see them,” says Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who studies sexuality. In private, people were also a lot more willing to indulge their unique inclinations, which bolstered fetish porn. A 1994 Carnegie Mellon study found that 48 percent of downloads in the Internet’s early days ranged from kinky to concerning. Virtual offerings would completely redraw the adult film landscape, making porn available to the masses — often for free.

While there are still a few professional production studios directing episodic features, the majority of content comes from amateurs with little more than a video camera and Viagra — known as gonzo porn. Dan Miller, managing editor of XBIZ, estimates that the industry is worth roughly $3 billion to $5 billion worldwide, down from around $14 billion a decade ago. But rather than going to studios and stars, most of the money now goes to website operators and pay-per-view providers. America’s longtime affair with nudie magazines also has waned since their heyday. Larry Flynt, for one, has said the print version of Hustler probably won’t be around in a few years.

Porn has come a long way since Nixon’s time. Celebrity sex tapes and Fifty Shades of Grey have replaced Playboy and presidential scandals as the main vehicles for thrusting it into the mainstream. But whatever the technological or political context, porn keeps evolving to meet our dirtiest desires.

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