March 16th, 2005 by Erocon Print This Page Printed periodicals featuring racy stories along with titillating art and photography were widely circulated in the U.S. from the mid-nineteenth century onward. The National Police Gazette (1845-1932) was one of the first examples of this popular genre, exploiting the public’s morbid fascination with crime and sin. It reached a peak circulation of half a million by the turn of the century. Magazines featuring nudists, pin-ups, burlesque dancers, and artist’s models all flourished into the 1950s and 60s.
The modern era of the erotic magazine began in 1953 with Hugh Hefner’s Stag Party, later renamed to Playboy. Playboy eventually became, and still remains, one of the most successful and universally recognized leisure brands throughout the world. Bob Guccione followed in 1965 with Penthouse, which featured more daring pictorials than those in Playboy. Shortly thereafter, 1967 saw the creation of Advocate for gay men, with more titles soon to follow aimed at this distinct, but parallel market. In 1974, Larry Flynt broke the mold with the more explicit Hustler, ushering in the golden era of the newsstand-distributed adult magazine. By the time of its peak in the mid 1980s, over 100 titles had a combined monthly circulation of 21 million in the U.S. and Canada alone. Playboy led the pack with 4.5 million, followed closely by Penthouse at 3.8 million, and Hustler at over a million.1
Because these magazines were widely available in urban, suburban, and rural communities alike through ordinary retail outlets such as convenience stores and newsstands, their content was subject to varying levels of scrutiny and sporadic censorship at the local level. Wholesalers and retailers would often make their own decisions about the suitability of a particular issue for their market, and pull riskier content from their shelves. As a result, the industry developed unwritten standards designed to avoid such trouble. Explicit display of female genitals (so-called "beaver" or "pink" shots) was common from the mid-seventies onward; however, no penetration of any kind was shown. Pictorial layouts also frequently featured opposite-sex and same-sex couples, but direct oral-genital or genital-genital contact was avoided, as were male erections. Thus, portrayals of simulated sex and poses suggesting oral and genital sex about to occur were the norm for many years.
Meanwhile, so-called "hardcore" magazines featuring uncensored and explicit depictions of almost every kind of sexual activity were available in much more limited distribution through urban-area sex shops and mail order companies. These first appeared as European imports in the early 1970s, with titles such as Private from Sweden, Color Climax from Denmark, and Pleasure from Germany. These were eventually followed by domestically produced titles from Gourmet Editions, Parliament Publications, and many more. These magazines were generally of higher quality than their mass-market cousins, were printed on heavier stock, and had significantly higher cover prices, some as high as $50.00.
In the late 1990s, intense competitive pressure from porn available on the Internet began to severely impact the circulation figures of the softcore newsstand magazines. Driven by the economic need for survival, and the perception that obscenity standards were becoming more relaxed, magazines such as Penthouse and Hustler began testing the waters with more and more explicit pictorials. At first they showed obvious penetration that was nevertheless obscured at the point of entry by a shadow, camera angle, or the model’s hand; but soon all artifice was abandoned and the rest of the surviving titles in the leaner newsstand magazine market followed suit with hardcore pictorials. Previously taboo subjects such as bondage, urination, and anal sex also made their debut and continue to be shown in more specialized niche publications such as Taboo and Nugget.
Today most publishers of men’s magazines have diversified into adult video production and Internet sites, leveraging their brand recognition to play in these more profitable markets. One magazine that failed to weather the evolving economic climate was Penthouse. By 2003 its circulation had fallen below 500,000 (while Playboy held steady at about 3.2 million) and the company was forced to declare bankruptcy. The new owner of Penthouse intends to eliminate the hardcore pictorials and transform it into a much tamer magazine, designed to compete with mainstream nudity-free titles like Maxim and Stuff