Our story begins in 1963, which is when, according to Philip Larkin, sex was discovered. I had not discovered anywhere near as much in person as I wished, and a group of us guys went down to the legendarily corrupt city of Baltimore to get more information. To give you an idea of how different those days were, we were surprised and delighted to see that the drugstores openly displayed "RUBBER GOODS"--condoms. (As they say, back then a man would go into a drugstore, clearly announce that he was buying cigarettes, and then shamefacedly whisper an order for condoms. Now it's the other way around.) We went to a burlesque show and saw actual female pubic hair, and then we visited a store where we could buy books about the alleged Real Thing.
My purchase was Sin Sisters, by John Dexter. It was a Nightstand Book (I got the pun), it cost more than an ordinary paperback, and it inexplicitly promised to be Awful Dirty. By the standards of the day, it kept that promise, which is to say that it described the sexual behavior of its characters more thoroughly, and had more such scenes, than mainstream fiction. It also, and I ascribe this to legal pressures rather than the tastes of those producing the books, was full of moralizing, telling us in as much detail as who did what to whom with which that all of this behavior was WRONG WRONG WRONG, and making sure that all the transgressors were punished in the end.
(I didn't like that part, and would have been happy to know that a more positive approach to written sex would be permissible in a few years. The two approaches battled for the next thirty years, with the worst example of that particular combination of the two meanings of prurient--itching desire and morbid shame--appearing near the turn of the millennium, when a guy with the porn-writer name of Ken Starr needed $40,000,000 of the taxpayers' money to produce a Nightstand Book that Don Elliott would be ashamed to sign his name to.)
Of course, this was not the first time I had seen fictional sex described in print. It was becoming permissible (soon to be mandatory) among designated Serious Fiction Writers, such as John O'Hara and James Gould Cozzens. (The latter's one description of the act in By Love Possessed read like the work of space aliens who produced their cars that way.) Furthermore, thanks to lawyers and justices who believed that No Law means No Law, we were finally getting access to the dirty books we'd been hearing about for years. This was where I first learned that to be a First Amendment fanatic is to defend nasty people and crappy writing.
Henry Miller wasn't all that bad, but he kept boasting of his skill at utilizing those around him for sex, money, and whatever else he wanted, and that soon palled. Perhaps he deserves his current historical status as primarily a supplementary figure in the fictions of Anais Nin (the ones she calls "diaries"). D.H. Lawrence was more the sort one defended out of pure duty. Along with the famous Good Parts, Lady Chatterley's Lover featured endless harangues about Life and Passion and the importance of thinking with one's blood, rather than one's brain, a suggestion later made by Joseph Goebbels. There was also the subtle symbolism of having Lord Chatterley, the main representative of the upper classes, paralyzed from the waist down; he was contrasted to the manly Mellors, whose dialogue mixed university knowledge with a properly lower-class accent, phonetically represented. (I have sometimes imagined a world in which Lawrence was born in the USA, so he made Mellors an African American, expressing all that life-affirming stuff with lots of "I'se gwine"s.) Like many who idolize Woman, Lawrence was less fond of women.
It would get better. The next book to run the court gauntlet was Fanny Hill, alias Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, an 18th-century work that had survived by being light-hearted and tolerably well written. Lenny Bruce had hit the bull's-eye on one of the hypocrisies of the time by saying that one of the most hopeless seduction lines imaginable would be, "I'll tell all my friends what a nice person you are because you did that with me." One of the reasons Fanny was such a nice person was that she did that with many people.
Then Candy, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's sex-changed update of Voltaire's Candide, introduced the radical concept that porn could be funny. It also opened the door for the other works originally published in Paris by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press, all of which were brought to America in the mid-60s by Greenleaf Classics, Brandon Books, and Collectors Publications.
Olympia had always been a curious operation, presenting serious fiction with unacceptable sexual content (Lolita ), XXX stuff with titles like The Whip Angels, and everything in between. Girodias had continuing bad luck (he wound up legally entitled to almost none of the American proceeds of the work he had published), which put him into bad situations he proved himself equal to. Much of the history of Olympia Press is given in The Good Ship Venus, by John de St. Jorre, a charming book in which we learn, for instance, that The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy's most successful (and perhaps only readable) book, was, at great effort, cut and pasted into shape by a woman known as Muffy (the wife of translator Austryn Wainhouse).
The Olympia stable included Alexander Trocchi, perhaps the most respected of the bunch, whose Cain's Book and Young Adam wound up published in America as mainstream fiction; the poet Christopher Logue ( Lust, by "Count Palmiro Vicarion"); and Iris Owen, who wrote amusing Olympia books as Harriet Daimler and returned to the United States in the 70s to write, under her own name,After Claude , which began with much wit, ran down, and concluded as something like a Harriet Daimler BDSM book. Mason Hoffenberg proved himself to be something more than Southern's second banana (as it were) with the hilarious Until She Screams and Sin before Breakfast. Norman Rubington wrote even funnier books (and pasted up remarkable collages) under the name of Akbar Del Piombo. The steadiest performer in the group was a British civil servant named John Stevenson, writing as Marcus Van Heller, who turned out a dozen books that resembled competent contemporary or historical fiction (Kidnap, The Loins of Amon) with one hypertrophied part.
Also in the mid-60s, Grove Press, which had fought the good fight for Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, was trying to keep up by publishing two classic works of Victorian erotica. My Secret Life had what is called an unreliable narrator when one is discussing fiction, but it was alleged to be a factual memoir. The man who called himself Walter convincingly, if inadvertently, presented himself as a mindless rich boob, one who had relations with over 3,000 women (every nationality but Lapplander, he proudly reported) and still believed that all women ejaculate. He showed a similar lack of awareness of his effect on the lives of the impoverished women whose company he purchased. The Pearl was a collection of writings from a 19th-century underground publication, full of explicit descriptions but somewhat less pleasurable to those of us who did not attend British public schools or otherwise learn to associate arousal with flagellation.
Cheerier than these were the two great works of sexual idealism that decade produced. Of course, Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land was not primarily about sex. Its first effect on me was the introduction to a new religious approach, one that I soon learned is common in the East. Still, there were those nests, with everyone finding unjealous bliss, and while the novel included indications that Martian superpowers were needed to make the nests work, many readers were tempted. (I never tried to set up a nest, but I did modify my feelings about jealousy, though not to the point where I considered it simply pathological.)
If Stranger had no explicit sex in it, The Harrad Experiment, by Robert Rimmer, contrived to be less erotic. It harked back less to Fanny Hill than to books like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards, which, as serious critics have been known to complain, proceed from premise, rather than character. An ideal system is proposed, and enthusiastic puppets eulogize it. In this case the system was a small college in which students were required to share a room with a member of the other sex, and this would lead to enlightenment and to what would later be called polyamory. While copulating, the spokespersons carry on long philosophical conversations, sometimes pausing to read aloud to each other. The characters engaged in this practice to ward off orgasm, an effect that was known to transfer.
As America became more permissive, France began cracking down on smut. In 1968 Girodias moved Olympia Press to America, on the assumption that there one could pretty much get away with anything, at least as far as the written word went. To the best of my knowledge, he had no obscenity busts, but he also continued to lose money. He produced a few good books while the operation lasted. There was for instance, The Erotic Spectacles, by "Genghis Cohen," an erotic multidimensional fantasy. As might be guessed from the author's nom de plume, the book was rich in references to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. My favorite American Olympia book was Bishop's Gambol, by Roger Agile, a hilarious picaresque in which a Roman Catholic bishop is miraculously healed of impotence.
Olympia tried to present quality smut, as did Essex House, a short-lived imprint that published two of Philip Josť Farmer's more grotesque imaginings ( A Feast Unknown and Blown ), but most publishers were aiming at cheaper and shoddier production. (Proofreading was a rare luxury. It was not unknown to encounter a character sporting a "big hand on.") Around that time I met a man whose job was literally, as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac, not writing but typing. His assignment (he did not divulge the identity of his employers) was to take other publishers' dirty books and copy them with only names and scenes changed (another job no doubt eliminated by computerization).
I don't know if Little Liverpool Books operated that way, but I didn't like them. The male characters got their way by ordering the women to comply (with no overt threats, so it wasn't "really" rape), and the women eventually realized that the sex was what they always wanted. I could no more identify with men who behaved that way than with the protagonists of the Kennel Club series. I think it is a positive change that more people refer to that sort of thing as "date rape."
My own tastes ran more to the softcore stuff published by general mass-market publishers Berkley and Lancer, in which nice people enjoyed nonserious sex. In Robert Vichy's Making It Big and Making It Bigger the protagonist was a hippie standup comic, and his act was interspersed between his acts ("Imagine when grass is legalized and there are TV ads: 'Ladies, is your wash dull and gray? Smoke Groovies and you won't give a shit.'") Andrew J. Offutt, writing under the name of John Cleve, wrote the hilarious Holly Would, whose protagonist becomes rich and famous by acting rich and famous.
There were also alleged nonfiction books that provided at least as much physiological detail as necessary, such as the writings of Russell Trainer. One leading producer of such material was John Warren Wells, who approached the work with the kind of light-heartedness and cheer about sex that I prefer. For instance, a chapter on adult consensual incest was entitled, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." He lovingly dedicated several of his books to novelist Jill Emerson. I thoroughly enjoyed her book, Threesome, for its descriptions; it also offered my first introduction to my two favorite Freud quotes. ("Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" and "The paranoid is never entirely mistaken.") I eventually learned an interesting pair of facts about those last two: Lawrence Block was both of them, and Wells's work was as fictional as Emerson's. (Block's hand has not lost its skill, as his recent novel Small Town demonstrates.)
It was around this time that I entered science fiction fandom, where I read complaints that sf was "ghettoized." Porn had always been more so, and after a brief moment in the sun, it was returning to that status, to the benefit of neither it nor the mainstream. Berkley stopped doing porn, and Lancer vanished in 1973, almost immediately after publishing Samuel R. Delany's The Tides of Lust (pure coincidence, I trust). For a while, there was a tolerable specialty line, Bee Line Books. My favorite of their writers was one Lilith Della Mare, whose name was so exotically feminine that I immediately assumed the author had to be a greasy fat guy, smoking a cigar while typing in his undershirt and occasionally pausing to scratch his balls. I liked the books anyway. It was friendly stuff, and while some of the participants were below the official age of consent, we were told, with all the repetition and lack of subtlety that categorizes the genre, that the participants were sexually mature. After a while, though, Bee Line showed its respect for its product by taking the writers' names off it, and there was no more identifiable Good Stuff, at least not in the written word.
L'Envoi: Many years later, we have learned of a medical study concluding that those men least at risk for prostate cancer are the ones who averaged five or more orgasms a week. (Medical science does not distinguish between "honorable" and "dishonorable" discharges.) And so I would like to dedicate this essay to all those who got in any sort of trouble for producing work so conducive to male health.