Hugh Hefner died September 27, 2017, but mass market sex magazines died fifteen years earlier. Hefner created an industry, like Steve Jobs. That doesn’t mean he was a lone genius. Innovation in magazines or films or any other kind of popular culture is similar to creativity in other fields. Sex may be the topic but how it gets presented comes from what happens when networks spin off, experienced personnel circulate, and rivals imitate and jockey for position with each other. A good way to trace this process is the field of men’s magazines from the 1950s through the 80s when it had huge circulation and made big fortunes. An entry point into the network is Hugh Hefner and Playboy Magazine.

Road map:

Similarities and networks between Esquire and Playboy

Life-spans of US magazines and generational die-offs

Evolution in the men’s magazine niche

Sex work markets

Tie-ins between sex magazines and film

Summary of sex models’ career patterns

Two dimensions of porn: How much sex; Beauty / wealth

Who made the big fortunes in sex?

Does creativity work the same way in all fields?


Similarities and networks between Esquire and Playboy

Hefner worked for Esquire Magazine before he started Playboy in 1953. Esquire was the elite men’s magazine of its time, publishing a mixture of men’s fashion, short stories by famous writers, and sex mostly in the form of cartoons by pin-up artists of the 1940s. Playboy followed the same format. Its main innovation was adding a glossy color photo of  semi-nude women. This was a detachable centerfold fold-out, that could be hung up like World War II pin-ups or the calendars that followed. This would evolve.

For the outset, look at Esquire at the end of the 1940s and early 50s, with Playboy overlapping:

Logo:  Since its origin in 1934, Esquire always featured on its cover a cartoon figure of a balding, pop-eyed gentleman. Playboy created a similarly light-hearted logo, a rabbit dressed in tuxedo or other tweedy/debonair clothes. The bunny, of course, “breeds like a rabbit.”  Esquire was an honorific title for a wealthy gentleman, although depicted humorously as a “sugar daddy” or “dirty old man.”

Esquire covers 1934-1951

Esquire covers 1934-1951

Esquire 1951, Playboy 1955

Esquire 1951, Playboy 1955

Some of Playboy’s early covers were close imitations of an Esquire cover. Here they depict the dating game, Playboy’s looking surprisingly like a women’s romance magazine:

Esquire 1952, Playboy 1956

Esquire 1952, Playboy 1956

Fashion and upscale consumption:  Esquire’s content from the beginning was very fashion-oriented. Playboy updated to current styles and new products. When long-playing, high-fidelity records came on the market in the late 1950s, Playboy ran photos of well-dressed party scenes featuring records and hi-fi equipment:

May 1959 Playmate of the Month posed at a record party

May 1959 Playmate of the Month posed at a record party

And sometimes undressed, tripping out on music and wine:

July 1959 Playmate Yvette Vickers listening to jazz

July 1959 Playmate Yvette Vickers listening to jazz

Modern jazz had been around since the late 40s, but was an esoteric scene and fell into the background in the mid-50s with the explosion of popular rock ‘n roll.  Hefner pushed jazz as a more adult and upscale version of hipness, featuring regular jazz reviews and sponsoring jazz festivals. Since jazz musicians were heavily black, Hefner’s parties became a beacon for social integration at the time of the civil rights movement-- and gave legitimacy while the magazine was moving the nudity frontier.

Literature:  It became something of a joke to say that you read a men’s magazine for the articles. But in fact Esquire was one of the chief literary magazines of its day, publishing Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and André Gide.  Playboy carried on, publishing short stories by the new generation-- Ian Fleming, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike; sci-fi writers like Arthur Clarke; feminists Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood.  Esquire kept pace with Playboy for a while on the sex front, but as nude photos became more prominent, Esquire switched course and in the 1960s became the exponent of so-called “New Journalism” blending reportage and first-person fiction techniques by writers like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Tim O’Brien. The magazines were dividing into separate niches.

Cartoons and pin-ups:  But not yet in the mid-50s. Esquire had been running risqué cartoons for years. Now they morphed into Playboy’s photographic version of the same scenes:

1954 Esquire cartoon; 1955 Playboy centerfold

1954 Esquire cartoon; 1955 Playboy centerfold

In the 1940s, Esquire regularly carried sexy pin-up art by famous artists Alberto Vargas and George Petty. Up through the late 1950s, it produced an annual calendar, with a pin-up for each month.  Playboy continued to feature not only sexy cartoons but some of the same artists:

1954 Esquire calendar; 1971 Playboy pin-up art by Varga

1954 Esquire calendar; 1971 Playboy pin-up art by Varga

It was the pin-up connection that created Playboy’s sensational debut in December 1953. In a later interview, Hefner said everyone had heard about Marilyn Monroe’s nude calendar, but no one had seen it. It had been shot in 1949 when she was a bit-part actress, and printed by a company that made hang-up calendars carrying custom-made local advertisements. By 1952 Marilyn was a rising star with a buzz about her early nudity. Hefner found out that her photos were owned by a calendar company in the outskirts of Chicago, and talked them into selling the rights for $500 (about $4500 in today’s dollars).  Playboy’s first issue, with Marilyn as centerfold, sold out at 50,000 copies. Her career as a sex star rocketed, as did Playboy’s reputation-- the following issues selling even better as distribution expanded.

1946 Varga pin-up in Esquire calendar; 1953 Monroe centerfold

1946 Varga pin-up in Esquire calendar; 1953 Monroe centerfold

There were network connections on both sides. Marilyn’s pose-- torso in profile, arm up, head back as if gazing out over her bare armpit-- is virtually the same as Vargas’ pin-up from 1946. Tom Kelley, the Hollywood photographer who did the shoot with Marilyn in 1949 had no doubt seen Vargas’ work.  Marilyn posed extensively both for photographers and pin-up artists in her early career:

Marilyn posing for Earl Moran pin-up

Marilyn posing for Earl Moran pin-up

Marilyn had even posed for  a 2-page color photo in Esquire in 1951. (Playboy’s centerfolds would be 3-page.) But it attracted no particular attention; it wasn’t nude, the color wasn’t particularly good, and there was no publicity build-up around it. When Hefner’s turn came, he made a point of telling wholesalers and distributers nationally that “some of the guys from Esquire had stayed behind and were creating this great new magazine” (2003 interview) and that it would include the Marilyn Monroe calendar pictures.

Esquire 1951 photo of Marilyn

Esquire 1951 photo of Marilyn

So how did Hefner know how to locate the original rights? He had been working for Esquire in promotion, but quit when the magazine headquarters moved from Chicago to New York. Hefner became circulation manager for Chicago companies that produced a variety of magazines, including art photography and men’s magazines. These gave him the crucial links-- the big hurdle for any new product being distribution. But what did he have to sell? The same grapevine brought him the info that rights to the Monroe calendar were owned by a local company. This too was not an accident, as many of the notable pin-up artists of the time worked in Chicago, and the main distributers of calendars were in the same part of the country. Hefner came up at the heart of a dense network. And he started early, producing a high school magazine about movies and radio shows, and editing a college humor magazine at University of Illinois.


Such were the ingredients that came together at Chicago at the turn of the 1950s: a publishing center for many national magazines; a center for magazine and pin-up artists and calendar publishers; a famous men’s magazine, Esquire, that had successfully fought government censorship over semi-nude pin-ups, and whose employees included some ready to go in a new direction.

1946 trial: Attorney for U.S. Post Office asks Methodist bishop for opinion about obscenity of Vargas pin-up

1946 trial: Attorney for U.S. Post Office asks Methodist bishop for opinion about obscenity of Vargas pin-up

The public atmosphere was changing. The Kinsey reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, came out in 1949 (reviewed by Hefner in his college magazine), with the second volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953.  It was becoming legitimate to talk about sex.

One more factor coincided in the mix: color photography was starting to come into its own. News and art photographers had used black and white since the beginning of the 20th century; as in movies, color photography was expensive and the colors were garish and unnatural. Printing on glossy paper was expensive. (Pin-up calendars used cheap paper.) For technical reasons, even pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren who took color photos of the model referred to them in order to do his painting, which in turn would sell as pin-ups but also for advertisements (like Coca-Cola) and for mainstream magazine covers. By the mid-1950s, it was feasible for Playboy to print a glossy color fold-out, but too expensive to have more than one full-size color photo per issue. The rest of Playmate of the Month feature (on the back side of the fold-out) would consist of black-and-white photos-- in Hefner’s marketing ploy, these were not sexual but showed her in ordinary scenes such as a college girl. As the 60s wore on, color photography became less expensive, and the quality improved to where it could out-do the best black-and-white photographs. The number of photo features in Playboy began to increase. This would be a major point of competition when it faced a new set of rivals in the 1970s.

Life-spans of US magazines and generational die-offs

Magazines are born; the successful ones expand, reach a peak, and eventually decline and disappear. The beginning and end points tend to cluster, implying something external is happening to the entire field at particular historical moments.

S general interest magazines timeline

S general interest magazines timeline

The big mass-circulation magazines clustered in two generations. Collier’s Magazine and  Saturday Evening Post started in the late 1800s, and rose to over 1 million per issue in the beginning of the 20th century. Up through the 1930s they competed over the top position at close to 3 million. Both had famous artists doing their covers and illustrations (Norman Rockwell at Saturday Evening Post; Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl pin-up, at Collier’s). Famous writers provided short stories or serialized their novels-- Sherlock Holmes stories, Jack London, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, later Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger; humor from Ring Lardner and P.J. Wodehouse; science fiction from Ray Bradbury; mysteries from Agatha Christie; cartoonists like Charles Addams and Bill Mauldin. Winston Churchill reported on World War I, Hemingway on WWII. After the war these family magazines started losing money and readers, and closed in the late 1950s and 60s.

In the mid-1930s came another burst: Esquire in 1933, Life in 1936, Look in 1937. The latter two were photojournalism, with large staffs of photographers covering news, entertainment celebrities, and human interest, publishing weekly in black-and-white. In the 1940s and early 50s Life boomed to 13.5 million. Its close imitator Look lagged behind but in the 1960s both leveled out around 8 million. Losing advertisers and readers, their circulation were still an impressive 5.5 - 6.5 million when they closed down in the early 1970s.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 10.12.29 PM.png

In a separate category was Reader’s Digest, a monthly that excerpted books and other magazines. It started slowly in the 1920s, but by the 1980s led all magazines at around 18 million, and was still on top as it declined in the 1990s and went bankrupt in 2009 with a still impressive 5.5 million. Reader’s Digest was immune to generational trends, buffered by sampling what others were publishing at the time, which made it into a kind of index fund of the publishing business.

The dying off of Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post was widely attributed to television becoming almost universal during the 50s. (TV also brought the demise of national radio networks and their comedy and drama shows. This in turn freed up radio for independent stations, which now promoted rock ‘n roll and the youth culture of the late 50s and 60s.) Despite TV, the second wave of  magazines, the photojournalism founded in the mid-30s, did well into the 60s, before collapsing in the early 70s. The outburst of men’s sex magazines in the early 70s coincides with this dying off. The new men’s mags were photo magazines too, except in color instead of black-and-white; and with a decidedly different kind of appeal than family magazines. *

* The older men’s magazines like True, Argosy, and Stag were about hunting, fishing, and outdoor life.   That “male” world was declining, as farms disappeared and population became increasingly urban and college-educated. 


The decline of Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post reflected a shift in public ethos. The latter’s conservative politics and glorification of old fashioned small-town lifestyle attracted a diminishing number of readers. Popular authors moved to other magazines (like Esquire), and the older magazines economized by publishing more on current events (bringing them into competition with news magazines) and replacing artists’ illustrations with photos for covers and advertisements. This is the same as the shift away from pin-ups and cartoons in men’s magazines; underlying both was less the growth of TV than the maturing techniques of color photography and color printing.

Collapse of the big photojournalism magazines also came from being caught in a cultural transition. Life see-sawed as it lost revenue, publishing articles in the late 60s describing LSD and the psychedelic youth culture, but this alienated their conservative readers and advertisers. It also had trouble covering the civil rights movement, the assassinations and riots of the mid-60s onwards, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Exposés offended traditionalists accustomed to the uniform patriotism of World War II and its aftermath. Damned if you print and damned if you don’t, either way photojournalism lost.

The failing magazines still had quite respectable circulation while they went into financial crisis; some, like Life and Look, went out with closing numbers above the peak of virtually all magazines in U.S. history. In a business where advertising is the income difference-maker, gross numbers are less important than any downward trend. Ad agencies are above all a network of the buzz, driven by crowd-following emotional flows, and are the first to desert a sinking ship.


Evolution in the men’s magazine niche

Among the generational births and die-offs, Playboy is an anomaly, starting in 1953 during a trough for other successful start-ups. But we can see it as a spinoff and continuation of Esquire, of the mid-1930s generation. For a while they share the same sex-plus-literature-plus-lifestyle niche, but in the 60s Esquire becomes the hot center of current literary movements, while Playboy becomes a sex mag. Esquire dying in 1977 (to be sold and later reinvented in various forms) fits the die-off pattern of the older generation magazines.

Hefner made his way cautiously through the 1950s, while a sexual revolution was slowly building up. One sign was the growing divorce rate: by the 1960s half of all marriages were ending in divorce. The Kinsey Reports revealed that even earlier a substantial portion of Americans had sex before marriage, although they kept it hidden. Sex was separating from marriage. Sex was already much looser in Europe, especially in Scandinavia. Erotic literature was published in Paris, even when people had to sneak it through customs into English-speaking countries. Around 1960 censorship relaxed and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were published in the US. Hemingway had already published his “the earth moved” sex scene, and James Baldwin had written about homosexual and interracial love. In this respect, mass magazines were the last medium to join the sexual revolution.

In 1959 Hefner set up the first Playboy Club, where cocktail waitresses wore bunny costumes (basically a one-piece bathing suit), and launched a late-night TV show starring himself with a array of cool guests. He began to cultivate a public image, surrounded by his Bunnies and Playmates, wearing three-piece suits, smoking a pipe, and flying in a fur-lined plane. (Was this what Jane Fonda was satirizing with her fur-lined space-craft in the Brigitte Bardot-inspired 1968 film, Barbarella?)

Hefner with Bunnies and girlfriend: 1966, 1970

Hefner with Bunnies and girlfriend: 1966, 1970

Through the 1960s, Playboy gradually showed more nudity. A capsule summary of the progression is illustrated by the annual New Year’s covers, in which the Playboy rabbit displayed Playmate shots of the year as an art gallery.  The first such cover in 1956 showed the rabbit looking at a real art gallery, basically of Renoir-era nudes. Having implied that it is all a matter of high (European) art, Hefner went on to equate it to his centerfold art.

Playboy annual art gallery covers: 1956, 1958

Playboy annual art gallery covers: 1956, 1958

Over the next two decades, there was progressively less coyness, cover-up, and tease. Leaving this aside for the moment, notice what happens to the Playboy rabbit.  In 1968 he is still wearing a tuxedo-- proper evening dress. By 1971, he wears a cross between an old-fashioned smoking jacket and lounging pajamas:

Playboy gallery covers: 1968, 1971

Playboy gallery covers: 1968, 1971

By 1973 the necktie is gone, and the rabbit is wearing a gold chain, open-necked shirt and jacket-- the lounge lizard look. In 1977-- the last time Playboy ran its annual gallery or had a full-sized rabbit on the cover-- he looks like a mafia-type stud.

Playboy gallery covers: 1973, 1977

Playboy gallery covers: 1973, 1977

What happened during the late 60s and 70s was informalization.  Old-fashioned formal clothing disappeared. Being casual and counter-cultural became the high status look, then the new normal. Hefner’s image of the playboy-- the old Esquire man-about-town, the millionaire with the sports car and the yacht-- was superseded. Not that rich people weren’t still there, but they struggled like everyone else to keep up with the fashion change. More than a fashion change, it was a change in social manners and prestige-- looking like a rebel was the thing to be, even if everyone else jumped onto the same rebel trip. In fact, the first move in the style rebellion might have been started by women. The mini-skirt of the late 1960s was a way to flaunt convention, and to shock prudish old ladies as well as conservative men:

Topless bathing, mini-skirt, and disapproving looks: late 1960s

Topless bathing, mini-skirt, and disapproving looks: late 1960s

This may be a reason why young women in the second-wave feminist movement, challenging convention by wearing tight jeans, living in hippie communes and flashing nudity at rock concerts, threw themselves at first into the outburst of public eroticism.  Probably the most widespread taboo to be broken during the years 1968-71 was living together without being married. This used to be called “living in sin” and before 1950 it could get you blackballed by the kind of people who read the Saturday Evening Post. But the change to what became called cohabiting was accepted with amazing speed. Sociologists figured out it was similar to being married in most respects except these couples didn’t have children, and they broke up even faster than the rising divorce rate. The new pattern was serial monogamy; young middle-class people had sex with a number of partners but usually just one for each period of time. A few short-lived communes tried to practice free love, but those quickly broke up over jealousy. Within a few years cohabiting couples were accepted by their relatives and everyone else as the new normal.

The ramifications of this sexual revolution would go on into following decades. Until the 70s, children born out of wedlock were called “illegitimate”, and this was considered the biggest of all scandals. But the taboo was already broken in Scandinavia, with its socialist welfare for unemployed women and their children. Gradually middle class white women started having children on their own; in the lower classes, both white and black, this was already common but now it affected the majority of children born. The practice was legitimated by the radical feminist movement (although not initiated by them-- they were just adding an ideological reason for an existing trend). The movement for openly gay sex and gay partnering extended the sequence of liberalizations in the 80s and 90s.

In this atmosphere, it is not too surprising that sex magazines of the 1970s were breaking taboo after taboo of what could be displayed in photos. Who knows where it would end?

US sex magazines timeline and circulation

US sex magazines timeline and circulation

Playboy’s monthly circulation had risen to 4 million by the end of the 1960s. A British magazine, Penthouse, decided to enter the US market in 1969, after its owner Bob Guccione discovered that he was outselling Playboy among American troops in Vietnam. Within a year Penthouse was selling over 1 million and rocketed to 3 million by 1972.

Journalists started referring to the contest as the “Pubic Wars” in a pun on the Punic Wars between ancient Rome and Carthage. Up to that time, the borderline between nudity and obscenity was considered to be whether the photo showed pubic hair. Penthouse began to encroach on this zone, at first with coy shots in mirrors, strategically placed flowers or towels, side-angle views, by 1972 arriving at full frontal nudity. Closely following suit, Playboy was surging in the competition. In late 1972, it sold 7.2 million copies-- the second highest circulation of any American magazine of any kind except TV Guide.

By 1973, competition shifted downward. Legs started spreading for the camera, pubic hair led to outer labia. Penthouse photographers became known for soft focus shots, showing what might be obscene through blurred lenses and shadows. Guccione had been an aspiring painter, from an Italian family in Brooklyn; he had tried painting in Italy, then became a cartoonist and eventually editor of an American weekly newspaper in London. He hooked up with the sex market when he married a former dancer from a London strip club, who ran a business selling pin-ups. In 1965 Guccione started Penthouse, using London club workers and models, and recruiting uninhibited Scandinavians and Continentals. Lacking funds to hire professional photographers, he taught himself photography, using classic painting techniques of lighting and shadows and modeling himself on Degas.

Penthouse intruded into Playboy’s niche, with beautiful photographs, luxury settings made lush with flowers and feminine fashion. Hefner claimed that Guccione had lifted the title from his TV show, Playboy Penthouse. There was a change in emphasis. Playboy’s centerfold shots-- initially the only full-color nudes in an issue-- were done in a studio, with elaborate lighting, luxury backdrops, beautiful hair-dos and clothing. On the whole, they were smiling faces, a wholesome look designed to contrast with cheap pornography. Any bodily flaws-- not just pubic hair-- were carefully airbrushed away. Hefner had said from the outset his aim was to show nice girls have sex lives too.* The black-and-white photos surrounding the centerfold illustrated this by shots of the model in everyday life, even pictures with her family while growing up.  Penthouse, in contrast, was about sex all the time, showing each model in a set of color photos, usually in an erotic (or auto-erotic) reverie. The typical Playboy model was statuesque, strikingly beautiful, with large and shapely breasts and perfect figure. Penthouse models, especially before the magazine became rich, were less stunning but looked artistically erotic through the combination of lush photo technique and pushing the pubic frontier.

* The classic good girl/bad girl contrast ran throughout the business of photography, literature and film. Marilyn Monroe was initially type-cast by Hollywood as a bad girl (The Asphalt Jungle, Don’t Bother to Knock, Niagara). Her breakout came when she started getting roles as a dumb blonde (neither of which she actually was), sexy but good-hearted (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, and the late, neglected film, The Prince and the Showgirl). The “girl next door” cliché popularized by Hefner was essentially the good girl type.


Playboy now was going the same route. Both magazines started showing couples making love, the men always very handsome and fit and elite, in exotic locations and costumes. Some were stills from film, some celebrity couples. Combined with shadows and soft focus, couples sequences made the photos more erotic while leaving the genitals covered because the bodies were in the way. By 1973, men’s penises were being shown (although erections would be taboo for another decade). Lesbian sex photos also became popular in both Penthouse and Playboy, sometimes showing oral sex but at a distance and obscured by the position of the bodies. Playboy tended to make its female duos playful and to bill them as sisters (keeping up its nice-girl theme).  Using the same formula, in 1973 Penthouse launched a women’s magazine, Viva, while a Playboy imitator launched Playgirl, mixing fashion with male nudity. These never proved financially successful.

As the market became increasingly erotic, Playboy worried about keeping its clean-cut image, and decided to launch an edgier magazine to appeal to younger readers. The plan was it would protect Playboy from going down the path where Penthouse was heading, while giving access to its revenue. Oui was launched in 1972 as an American version of the French magazine Lui, combining French content with recycled Playmates in more revealing poses. Oui was an immediate success, jumping to 1 million. But the rest of the plan did not work out. Oui never made a profit on the large amounts invested; it didn’t take market share from Penthouse, which kept on growing; and it didn’t protect Playboy from being pulled into the Penthouse path.

Competition was becoming multi-sided, as more magazines entered the US market. Also in 1972, Gallery was launched. It was virtually a clone of Playboy, published in Chicago, in a building right across the street. The owner even copied Hefner’s  mansion and lavish lifestyle. It also had a celebrity tie-in, the co-owner being  F. Lee Bailey, a famous criminal lawyer who defended the Boston Strangler and later O.J. Simpson. Gallery was soon  overwhelmed with expenses and was sold in early 1974; it survived in a modest niche, and prospered in the 1990s in the beauty/luxury slot when other magazines were turning to hard-core and quirky sex variations. More fatefully, the Gallery start-up attracted the attention of Larry Flynt, a working-class type who owned a string of strip club bars in Ohio, patronized by factory workers going off shift. Flynt already had a cheap black-and-white newsletter carrying photos of strippers at his clubs; and its circulation was growing in the sex-charged atmosphere. His potential investment in Gallery did not pan out, so Flynt started his own magazine in summer 1974, Hustler.

By this time, Penthouse and Oui (and less frequently Playboy) were publishing photos that showed women with their legs spread and less air-brushing and shadows between them.* Flynt brazenly advertised his new magazine as showing fully lit, real women rather than retouched images, including “showing pink” -- labia in a state of arousal.  Advertisers stayed away, but Flynt had plenty of cash flow from his profitable clubs; it was even an advantage since advertisers could exert no pressure on what he published.

* Playboy showed more in feature articles such as reviewing sex in cinema (including X-rated films), and “The Year in Sex” showing nude night clubs, beauty contests, and nude beaches. It thought it could get away with this because the photos were small rather than full page, “news” rather than original content, while the iconic centerfold remained conservative by comparison.


The first 12 months were a rocky beginning. Hustler could not afford good quality paper or photography, and its models although sexually explicit were not particularly attractive. Flynt aimed for a working-class atmosphere without luxury settings, although as he got more money, he would waver back and forth imitating Penthouse. By spring 1975, Hustler was running out of money and almost folded. From a friend in the porn business, he heard about paparazzi photos taken with a telephone lens of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sun-bathing in the nude, showing her pubic hair. Flynt bought the photos for $18,000 (about $85,000 today) and published them in his July issue. It sold a million copies and created a media flurry. Flynt had replicated what Hefner had done with the Marilyn Monroe calendar in December 1953. Flynt was suddenly rich, and Hustler was on its way to a peak circulation of 3 million at the end of the 1970s.

The booming sex market attracted more magazines, growing to as many as 40 competitors. Most successful of the new entrants was Club, another British magazine that entered the US market in 1975.  Its publisher Paul Raymond ran a Paris-style nightclub in London while ripping off the Playboy bunny motif. He had plenty of photo material from his British clubs and magazines, while saving money by cutting down on the articles and literature that Hefner and Guccione bought to keep up their image. Club would become 4th or 5th in circulation behind the big three sex mags.  Club pushed the others by expanding to four or more nude photo features per issue, with plenty of crotch hair and open labia.

An even more blatant way of testing public acceptability was Hustler’s monthly “Beaver Hunt,” a contest in which readers sent in nude photos of girlfriends and wives (and sometimes of themselves). In 1977 Gallery started a similar contest called “The Girl Next Door ” with the winner getting $500 ($2000 in today’s dollars) for a full-length layout, and a chance at the yearly Grand Prize of $5000 ($20,000). Hustler offered $50 ($200) for a published picture, $750-1000 ($3-4000) for a pictorial. Neither magazine had any lack of entries pushing the boundaries of genital display.

Playboy was riding high with 7.2 million sales of its November 1972 issue. But the peak was passed, and by spring 1973 its circulation had declined to 6.7 million. By 1977, Playboy and Penthouse were tied at 4.5 million, the former falling, the latter approaching its peak. (A single issue of Penthouse in September 1985 sold 5.4 million copies, containing old nude photos of the current Miss America, made earlier in her life.) By the 1980s, everyone was declining. Playboy held on better than the others, with 4.2 million in 1985, number 11 on the list of best-selling US magazines, just below Time Magazine, and ahead of Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Sports Illustrated. The same year Penthouse was number 14, at 3.2 million.

In the 1980s, virtually all the sex magazines were losing advertising. Most now carried nothing but ads for phone sex services. Through the 1990s, they relied on the old formula of pushing the edge: now erections, close-ups of oral sex, intercourse with explicit penetration, even pissing shots. It was a vicious circle. The more extreme they became, the less advertising they got; their circulations declined; they tried for something even more sensational. Long before the Internet and its plethora of free sex sites, they were caught in a spiral downward.

The nearest to an exception was Playboy, whose circulation was still a respectable 3.1 million in 2004-- enough to be number 18 on the list of national magazines, only a few slots below Time.  Playboy’s moment of crisis came early. In 1975, it published a cover with a woman-- not nude-- but her legs spread in what would be a pornographic pose, and her hand in her shorts while eating popcorn. Ostensibly it went along with a feature on sex in the movies.

Playboy’s executives had worried about the cover. Now they were concerned that retail chains might refuse to display the magazine. This was a warning shot for Playboy, which shifted back to more conservative covers, although its inside pages continued, with some wavering, to keep not too far behind Penthouse. But it had reached a frontier beyond which it would rarely go: essentially the crotch-tease shots of Penthouse (and Playboy itself) around 1973. Into the 1980s and 90s Playboy published very beautiful women topless or in leg shots like old-fashioned cheese-cake, avoiding the labia shots that filled rival magazines. Advertising held up, running the same ads for liquor, cigarettes, and music equipment that Playboy had since the 60s (and that Penthouse once had-- but never Hustler).

By the 1990s and early 2000s, Penthouse was keeping itself going by selling Special Editions consisting of models from previous years. Essentially without ads, they kept expenses down by recycling their photo archives. By the late 90s, Playboy was doing the same thing.


Sex-work markets

One reason all the magazines had tended to converge on a similar erotic edge was because their personnel circulated between them.  Top photographers worked for several magazines. Jeff Dunas, a master of the Penthouse style of diffused-light romantic pornography, left to become chief photographer for Oui, in the rival Playboy stable. Playboy photographer Suze Randall, who would get her models in the mood by stripping along with them during a photo shoot, moved to Hustler and contributed photos of herself made with a remote camera cord;  later she worked for Penthouse.  Some photographers, especially in Europe, would sell pictures from the same photo shoot to different magazines by giving the model different names. Particularly as the photos became more erotic, the bolder models would move from Playboy to Penthouse, and vice versa, as well as appearing in the now-numerous British magazines, and the foreign-language editions that both magazines sold throughout Europe.

Playboy photographers Bunny Yeager (left, 1968); Suze Randall (right, 1976)

Playboy photographers Bunny Yeager (left, 1968); Suze Randall (right, 1976)

Some photographers started out in women’s high fashion magazines, doing advertisements, covers and “editorials” (photo features). Stan Malinowski, whose photos and covers appeared in Vogue and Cosmopolitan, worked for Playboy and Penthouse in the 60s through the 80s. * The publisher of Lui (French predecessor to Oui) began as a fashion photographer, moved successively to radio, music producer, publisher of music magazines, and finally a sex mag. Helmut Newton, a photographer for Vogue and other international magazines, brought out a book of very pubic (but arty) black-and-white photos in 1982-- a sign of the hyper-sexual atmosphere at the end of the 70s. Such cross-overs help explain why photos in women’s fashion magazines in the 80s and 90s started looking like pornographic poses, using the cover-up devices of men’s magazines from the mid-70s.

* Malinowski also did the Opium perfume ads of the 1980s, early in the period of “heroin chic.”

High-fashion advertisements: 1995, 2004

High-fashion advertisements: 1995, 2004

How did sex-content producers get women to pose in a less-than-honorable but high-visibility job? How is best answered, where did they recruit their models?  From the network of adjacent types of sex work. If we define “sex work” as selling sexual attraction for money, the field includes not just prostitutes and porn actors but cocktail waitresses, fashion models, actors, singers, dancers and showgirls; and these connected with networks in theatre, night clubs, film, entertainment production and publicity. It was a community that normalized sex work for at least part of the spectrum, facilitating gradual transition from one type of sex work to the next. *

* Marilyn Monroe, out of work in Hollywood in the late 1940s when her bit-part film contracts were not renewed, sometimes traded sex for meals, temporarily at the prostitution end of the sex-work spectrum.  A 1996 Penthouse Pet had been a prostitute in the early 90s in a (legal) brothel in Nevada, after starting out as a bikini-clad model at NASCAR races.


A grocery checkout clerk moved to London to try out for a job in the Playboy Club as a Bunny. The club manager took nude photos of her and sent them to Hefner, who flew her to Chicago. She became Playboy’s first full frontal nude centerfold in 1971, alternating as girlfriend to both Hefner and her London boss and eventually marrying the latter. Another Bunny at the same club became girlfriend of a famous disk jockey and later an American singer, and posed in 1971 Penthouse for a crotch-tease pubic shot.  Penthouse’s earliest pubic bush shot was provided by a fashion model married to photographer Clive McLean, who later went on to work for Hustler. In 1975, a Playboy Books editor working on a collection with staff photographer Pompeo Posar (a former colleague of Salvador Dali), posed for him in the most explicit crotch shot Playboy would run.

Some came from low-paying jobs. A Swedish woman with a 40-24-36 figure, working as a nurse at London hospital, posed for Penthouse in 1973 with legs spread in broad daylight on a deserted beach. Her picture was carried in subscription ads with her bright red bathing suit rolled down to her waist. Suze Randall was another London nurse who answered an ad for nude modeling, then decided to become a photographer after discovering she wasn’t making a lot more money dancing in clubs. She was 30 years old when she made the big time working for Playboy.

Penthouse often got breakthrough photos to move through the stages of the Pubic Wars by using hard-core porn actresses, under different names and dialing back from what they did on screen. Playboy followed the same strategy in auxiliary features on famous porn stars Marilyn Chambers and Linda Lovelace. Deborah Clearbranch moved from rural Georgia to California “trying to break into movies,” became a topless go-go dancer and provided Penthouse with its first spread-legs crotch shot. Next year she posed for brand-new Hustler with a black man with a huge penis (probably a porn film performer himself). The pictorial got Larry Flynt shot by a segregationist. She changed her name to Desirée Cousteau and made hard-core films into the 80s.

Some women moved from theatre into sex modeling. Demi Moore acted on Broadway, posed for the cover of Oui and (under an assumed name) for a layout in a European sex magazine in 1981 before getting the squeaky-clean TV role on the Demi Moore show. Lori Wagner acted on Broadway, posed under an assumed name in boundary-breaking shots for Penthouse in 1975, then quit her Broadway gig to fly to Rome for a part in Caligula. She lost most of her speaking lines but got a passionate lesbian oral sex scene. Hostile reaction to the film effectively ended her career. Her co-star Anneka di Lorenzo struggled to get into mainstream film, but her notoriety closed her out. She had been Penthouse Pet of the Year in 1975, leading the way through a series of Punic War stages. “How famous do I want to be?” she said. “Let’s just say I’m going to be the sexiest woman in the world.” [IMDB bio]

The big sex magazines claimed their models appeared in their own pages exclusively, but in fact the most daring ones circulated among Playboy, Penthouse, Oui and others. Early photos in British publications like Mayfair and Page Three didn’t count, since these were considered minor league.

Models for sex photos were often badly paid (Marilyn Monroe got $50 (about $500 today) for her 1949 nude shots; photographer Tom Kelley got $500 ($5000); Hefner parlayed it into millions. Fifty years later, a Playboy Playmate of the Month got $25,000, and a chance for $100,000 as Playmate of the Year. At the extreme end of the spectrum, Guccione paid Joanne Latham 70,000 pounds (about $600,000 today) because he wanted someone exceptional for Penthouse’s Tenth Anniversary issue in 1979. Latham was a busty Brit who was currently the subject of a media frenzy in England, repeatedly appearing as the Sun newspaper’s Page Three Girl, and pursued by many magazines. Guiccione no doubt got carried away by the English buzz, and he was bidding against Playboy at the height of Penthouse’s circulation and income.

Sex photos in major magazines held out prospects. Few models made it to the top, but those who did publicized the possibility of rapid ascent. In this respect, sex modeling was like fashion modeling, where large numbers of beautiful young women congregated in Manhattan or London, attending runway tryouts and casting calls. Ashley Mears’ book describes how aspiring models lived off hand-outs and rent subsidies from agents, and in return were expected to provide publicity and atmosphere at glitzy restaurants and clubs-- by being there on display, and ceremonially carrying in huge bottles of champagne when the establishment was entertaining a “whale” on a big expense account. Competition was especially high since models tend to rapidly age out of their beauty peak, both in fashion and in Playboy style. But even if one’s career never took off, they had a period of adventure near the center of the action.

Not all models were from the lower classes. In England, some of Penthouse’s boldest models were from the aristocracy, attracted not by money but by membership in the hip elite of the 70s, centered on drugs and antinomian self-presentation generally (AKA the counter-culture). One was Sigmund Freud’s granddaughter.

Some sex models moved to the other side of the camera. British model Joanie Allum married a photographer and became a photographer herself, working for Club, Mayfair, Gallery and others, with a knack for making fairly ordinary women look highly erotic. Bob Guccione’s wife, Kathy Keeton, went from being a club stripper, to Penthouse’s first advertising manager, to running the entire business while Guccione concentrated on the photography. Husband/wife teams were prominent in the sex business. Tom Kelley’s wife made up Marilyn Monroe for her 1949 shoot, arranging the red drape background while Tom took the photos from a 10-ft. ladder.  In 1973 Playboy photographer Russ Meyer posed his wife, actress Edy Williams,  in a famous spread-legs swimming pool shot.

Erotic sequences of celebrity couples making love, prominent during the breakout period of the mid-70s, featured people like an Andy Warhol “star” with girlfriend;  a TV action-series star with wife; a former Swiss ski champion with his actress wife. Sometimes it was a comeback in a declining career: a dancer from West Side Story in the 1950s, Hollywood film in the 1960s, doing a couples shoot to show he still had it at age 40. A 15-year old actress in 1965 in The Sound of Music appeared nude in Playboy in 1973 to try to change her image.

Some sex models moved up because of the access it gave to high-level dating markets.  Attending parties and publicity events with celebrity athletes, movie people, and the glitzy elite, led sometimes to meeting film producers and lining up jobs; sometimes to acquiring boyfriends and husbands. A 1972 Playmate became girlfriend to a noted British stage director. Playboy’s receptionist married a Chicago Bears quarterback whom she met during her nude photo shoot. Playmate of the Year 1993 Anna Nicole Smith married an aging Texas millionaire, after meeting at a nightclub performance; this would touch off an inheritance battle with his 60-year-old children. Melania Trump was the most successful at the marriage route; starting as a fashion model in Europe and New York, with a bit of nude photographs, before marrying a real estate developer, boxing promoter, and TV reality show host.

A few sex models made it through to become mainstream film or TV stars. Marilyn Monroe, of course; Playmates Stella Stevens, Dollie Reed, Barbara Edwards and others. English actress Helen Mirren posed for Oui early in her career, and had a speaking role in Guccione’s orgiastic film Caligula (1979); this did not prevent her from later playing Queen Elizabeth II. Playboy had film celebrities in their pictorials as much as possible, although their nude shots were generally rather modest. Jayne Mansfield appeared in Playboy in 1955, part of her campaign to challenge Marilyn as the great bosomy sex star. It was the right strategy; Jayne’s next films made her famous. Established stars joined the procession. Brigitte Bardot posed in 1958; Raquel Welch in 1979 in a bikini bottom, but kept her arms crossed over her breasts. Madonna posed nude in 1985, which was in her repertoire anyway. Posing had become an accepted part of Hollywood publicity.

The last big star to come up this way was Pamela Anderson. She got her start with a Playboy cover in 1989 and Playmate of the Month layout in 1990, preceding her career role in Baywatch, 1992-1997. She was discovered when stadium video cameras spotted her in the crowd at a Canadian League Football game wearing a beer company’s T-shirt, and flashed her on the Jumbotron screen. Signed by a modeling agency, she moved to L.A. and had two breast-enhancement operations.* Even as a film star, sex mag photos for Pamela were not a one-and-done; she kept appearing for covers and features in Playboy and Penthouse through the 90s and later, leveraging her stardom in both directions.

* There was also a lot of cosmetic surgery in Hollywood in the 1940s. Marilyn Monroe had her hairline changed and went from  strawberry-brunette to golden blonde before her career took off.

Norma Jean Dougherty in 1945 before going blonde

Norma Jean Dougherty in 1945 before going blonde

Symbiosis between sex mags and film

Film stardom is the career allure of sex work. The San Fernando valley, just outside Hollywood, was the center for porn films, because of the glut of models and actors. For a long time, porn films were very low-budget, since they could not be shown in theatres, and made small income from rentals and sales for private showings. L.A. was also a center for “glamour” photographs of the stars, sold to tourists as well fan magazines. This was the backdrop for the surge of pin-ups for troops during WWII, continued in calendars for hanging in male places like barbershops and garages. As we have seen, photographers and artists and their models traveled between mainstream advertising and national magazines, film publicity, and men’s sex magazines.

The sexual revolution in visuals was helped along by an economic crisis of the film industry. In the 1960s, film audiences had dropped to less than half the 1950s level (and still further below the 1940s peak). Half the movie theatres in America had closed. The number of films made fell to an all-time low. This was a reaction to the coming of TV in the 1950s. For a time Hollywood staved it off by concentrating on big blockbuster films, based on Broadway musicals and classic novels (The Sound of Music; Ben-Hur) all done in overpowering Technicolor (early TV being black-and-white). A side-effect was to eliminate other genres, like film noir and serious dramas that came across well in atmospheric black-and-white. The die-out paralleled the disappearance of magazines carrying literary short stories and serialized novels.

Starting in the 60s, the major studios became targets for take-overs by corporations, perpetually thereafter churning through a series of mergers and realignments. The family dynasties that controlled the major studios disappeared, giving way to independent producers who used the studios mainly for distribution. The Motion Picture Code, set up in 1934 under religious pressure, had censored sex and violence on the screen and required evil always to be punished in the end. It was replaced in 1968 by a rating system, ranging from G for general audiences, M for mature audiences, and X for no one under 16. This brought a huge difference in how films were made. The Code office reviewed film scripts in advance and demanded changes; the rating system merely labeled finished films, leaving choice to the discretion of audiences and parents.

More sexually explicit films had already been coming in from Europe in the 1950s, undermining the code. The Graduate, which somehow made it through the Code office at the end of its tenure in 1967, depicted a young man having affairs simultaneously with his girlfriend and her mother. It was the surprise hit of the year. It contained a scene where middle-aged Anne Bancroft seduces Dustin Hoffman by opening her legs at him in a most unlady-like way. With the Code gone, it was followed by even more erotic films like Clockwork Orange (1971), about a gang of British rapists, directed by Stanley Kubrick. (The star of this film, Malcolm McDowell, would go on to play the title role in Guccione’s Penthouse production, Caligula.)

Mrs. Robinson’s come-on in  The Graduate , 1967; 2004 Fashion ad

Mrs. Robinson’s come-on in The Graduate, 1967; 2004 Fashion ad

The way was open for sex to merge with mainstream films, as well as to exploit its own niche. Playboy photographer Russ Meyer had already pioneered this path, with underground cult films like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in 1963 (big busted go-go dancers driving around in fast sports cars and beating up men); in 1970, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (featuring former Playmates, set in the Hollywood drug scene). X-rated films became an advertising come-on, attracting buzz and a rush of audiences to theatres showing pornographic films. The first big hit was Deep Throat (1972), with a plot line about a woman (Linda Lovelace) who had her clitoris in her throat. The title became notorious as a nickname for the government official who secretly leaked information about the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal of 1973. Audiences also rushed to see Behind the Green Door (1974) because it starred Marilyn Chambers, who had been widely viewed on TV advertising Ivory Snow detergent.*

* The title came from a popular song (“Don’t know what they’re doing, but they laugh a lot, behind the green door...”). The film also included an Oakland Raider lineman as bouncer.


Hollywood came out of its economic difficulties in the 1970s. Rotating stars between sex magazines and movies was increasingly legitimate. It was in this less restrictive atmosphere about visual taboos that the pornographic revolution of the sex magazines took place.

The introduction of video cassettes in the 1980s furthered the trend. Played in the privacy of the home, explicit porn of any kind could be viewed, along with the entire spectrum of films. This would play its part both in the normalization of visual sex, but also the decline of sex magazines at the turn of the century.


Summary of sex models’ career patterns

Altogether, 484 women were Penthouse Pets between 1969 and 2009. Of these, 80 were noted for something else besides their magazine appearances. The percentage rose steadily from 8% in the 1970s, to 26% in the early 2000s. The main area of career success was film, TV and video.

Usually they started in B-movies, horror films and sex comedies. Aside from Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, the biggest success was probably 1974 Playboy cover girl Debbie Shelton. A former Miss USA and Miss Universe runner-up, she appeared in multiple episodes of Dallas  in the 1980s. A 1973 Penthouse Pet was in Jaws (1975) as a nude swimmer who gets eaten by the shark. Playmate of the Year 1973 Cyndi Wood played more or less herself in Apocalypse Now entertaining soldiers in Vietnam. Other models played opposite Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone, appeared on Magnum P.I. or in Batman.

A much more typical post-photo career was soft-core films and videos, often proceeding to hard-core porn.  Even models from more respectable Playboy went this route:  Terri Weigel, a centerfold in 1986, went on to Penthouse in 1992 and to star in porn films.  By the 90s and early 2000s, porn film performers were a major source of recruitment for magazine photos, and vice versa.

Very few made the reverse route from porn to mainstream. Ironically, the most successful of these was Traci Lords. She was an early-developing teenager, who got a fake driver’s license showing she was 22 when she was only 15, dropped out of high school, answered a newspaper ad for a modeling agency, and posed in the mid-1980s when open genital shots were the fashion. After a number of minor magazines, she was in Penthouse in 1984, and acted in pornographic movies. In 1986-- when she was 18 and finally legal-- news got out about her underage photos and films, resulting in a huge scandal, criminal charges against the producers, and retraction of a great deal of material from the market. Traci now went to acting school, and began performing mainstream films. In the 1990s and 2000s she recorded a breakthrough music album and had many roles in TV series. Her success illustrates the Hollywood line “It doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right.” But this is not generally true for work in porn; more likely Traci benefitted from sentimental support for going straight and getting a second chance.

A half-dozen sex models made the transition to management, mainly by directing porn films and sometimes producing them.


Other common patterns:

A large number of Pets and Playmates got their start as beauty contest winners.

A few started as athletes: Pamela Anderson was a gym instructor. Penthouse’s 1993 Pet of the Year was a six foot one inch athlete who danced in a Las Vegas chorus line (where tall women were preferred). She eventually married the producer of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  The 2000 Pet of the Year was a professional gymnast, a member of the Czech national team; she took her own initiative in sending nude photos to Penthouse. (Sex workers of all kinds moved to the West after the collapse of the Communist bloc, where such work was often admired rather than stigmatized.)  

Some trained as ballet dancers: Joanne Latham, who shifted from TV commercials to a huge payout from Penthouse in 1980. Delia Sheppard danced in Denmark and Paris (where she did fashion modeling for Dior); after injuring her back, she became a Las Vegas showgirl, a Penthouse Pet in 1988,  and broke into mainstream film and TV. (We could add Bridget Bardot, who got her break via ballet in the late 1940s.) Ballet was also the entry point for French model Christine Haydar, who did a highly erotic shoot for Penthouse in 1977 photographed by her husband; the couple moved to Turkey where she became a top film star.

Some came from the hippie milieu. Oui in 1975 featured a German actress and film-maker who lived in a Munich commune of five women and one man; she eventually became a yoga teacher. The same year, Penthouse featured a Munich photographer who was simultaneously Professor of Fine Arts and member of a rock band. He and his wife (subject of the photos), moved to Hollywood, where they did portraits of rock stars, pictures for men’s magazines and advertisements for corporate clients. His wife now styles herself High Priestess of alternative lifestyles, healing arts, and sacred sites of elves and fairies. An English woman who pushed the Pubic Wars frontier for Penthouse in 1972  was a screamer for Rod Stewart’s band. Anneka di Lorenzo started in L.A. as a rock-band groupie.

Most famous of the hippie background was Tera Patrick, whose Thai mother married a US soldier in Vietnam, returning to Thailand while Tera was raised in San Francisco by her hippie father. At age 14 she signed with a Japanese modeling agency, and spent two years in Tokyo, having sex with the photographer and getting addicted to Valium. Her father brought her back to the US, where after college she went back into modeling because she needed money. She became a Penthouse Pet in 2000, going on to features in Playboy and many other sex magazines while making hundreds of porn videos. She married a fellow porn actor and then a Hollywood special effects artist. Crossing over to the business side, she created a talent agency, a video production company, lines of clothing and herbal products. 

Some came to bad ends. In the 70s several Penthouse Pets died of drug overdoses. A 1989 Pet made a career in British TV, but was subject of stories at age 33 that she was homeless and addicted. A 1998 Penthouse Pet of the Year was later arrested for assault on her husband, and sent to prison for tax fraud. After release, she became a kindergarten teacher.

1980 Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratton was murdered by her jealous boyfriend. She had sold ice cream at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver when she was hustled by a car show promoter, who sent nude photos of her to a Playboy competition. Hefner put her up in the Playboy Mansion guest dorm, and got her parts in films and TV, aiming to make her a big star. The boyfriend stalked her, took her earnings, and got her to marry him while on tour in Las Vegas. When she filed for divorce, he killed her and committed suicide.

Many just disappeared back into ordinary life. Exquisitely beautiful Lilian Müller, discovered by Suze Randall (and effectively launching her photography career), appeared on three Playboy covers in the 1970s. Eventually she became a local celebrity in Norway as a motivational speaker. A 1974 Penthouse Pet, discovered during a film casting call in Sweden, made soft-core films for a couple of years, but unable to break into mainstream, she opened a jeans shop and retired to private life. Joanne Latham, presumably after spending her money, became a yoga teacher. The statuesque Penthouse Pet of the Year 1997 made Penthouse videos, moved back to Missouri and opened a tattoo and piercing parlor. The 1998 Pet of the Year did advertising tours for Kia, moved home and married a pharmacist.


Two dimensions of porn: How much sex; Beauty/wealth

We may be inclined to think that the direction of innovation in an cultural field is always towards the increasingly edgy. Breaking with existing standards and taboos creates attention, initially a succès de scandale, which then becomes normal and is outdone by something further. Pierre Bourdieu asserted this as the principle of development in art fields, illustrated by the scandals of the early Impressionists. But this does not accurately describe the history of visual sex markets.

Pornography existed in the era of painting (back to the 1700s at least) and in photography (dirty postcards of the early 1900s).  These showed erections, oral sex both cunnilingus and fellatio, intercourse with penetration, even pissing. Essentially these included all the variants and perversions that sex mags were pushing as their circulation declined in the late 1980s and 90s.  The extreme edge was the same throughout; what changed was what could be shown in public.

What concentrating on edginess leaves out is another dimension: how beautiful the images are, which in turn relates to how much money and cultural capital the producers have.

Cheap porn mags existed in the 1940s and 50s, printed on cheap paper, with grainy black-and-white images. They were shot on cheap sets, often in motel rooms, and the models were rarely beauties. The main exception were professional  strip-club performers (Lily St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Sheree North), but here the principle tended to apply: the better-known names showed less flesh, confining themselves to their stage routines (at most topless dances and G-string teases). There was an inverse relation between how much sex shown and how much beauty. It was a vicious circle: underground markets with limited sales and income meant inability to hire the best models and photographers, and to market an attractive product. It was edgy but it didn’t move the field.

As public tolerance changed in the era of mass circulation men’s magazines, both dimensions-- how much sex and how much beauty-- were for a while being traversed. Hefner’s Playboy in the 1950s explicitly aimed to counter the low-quality porn image. As his revenue increased into the 1960s, he emphasized beautiful models, in beautiful settings and (to the extent they wore them) clothes; carefully and elaborately photographed in lengthy studio sessions with attention to lighting and retouching; printed on glossy paper in the best color. (This explains why for the early decades Playboy had only one glossy photo set per issue.)

Penthouse entered the market led by an editor coming from a background in classical painting, who transposed art techniques into photography. He simultaneously pushed the sexual edge: taking off from existing images of bare breasts and buttocks, to showing pubic hair, crotches, genitals in various stages of arousal, sexual acts with self and others. Initially Penthouse models were less beautiful than Playboy’s, but made up for it by combining luxurious settings, artistic photography, plus the leading edge of sexual display. At its height of popularity, Penthouse was moving on both dimensions, followed by its imitators depending on how much money they had.

A side-dimension was arty nudes, which both Penthouse and intermittently Playboy in extra features used as protective legitimation. Art nudes could be recognized (if the accompanying text didn’t tell you) by unrealistic color tints, abundance of form-shaping shadows, surrealism and bizarre props. The effect of arty nudes was generally neither beautiful in the sense of pretty, nor erotic. Some photographers following contemporary art movements used deliberately ugly models or effects (as in paintings by Lucian Freud).  Nevertheless, I would include art nudes in the beauty/wealth dimension, since the common denominator here is high cultural capital in Bourdieu’s sense. Above all, art was the link to traditional respectability and immunity from legal prosecution.

Hustler sought out a distinctive niche, both by pushing the edge of the genital frontier, and by repudiating the fantasy upper-class, luxury image of both Playboy and Penthouse. Nevertheless, Hustler featured beautiful women when it could afford them. Mainly, it rejected high cultural capital (AKA “good taste”).

Playboy, like Esquire before it, sold the combination of beauty, wealth, and tasteful sex. The upper-class/ tasteful components were devalued with the antinomian/ informalization trend of the 1970s and 80s. Nevertheless, Hefner stuck to his mission. By the end of the 70s, Playboy ceased to follow Penthouse in high-profile genital shots. Nor did Penthouse follow Hustler in the low-taste route. For over 10 years, Penthouse had a fairly stable market, without pushing further on the sexual edge, working out the erotic and aesthetic possibilities of techniques accumulated over past years. Playboy’s mix of old-fashioned pin-up poses and modest pubic shots kept up high circulation longer than any other magazines. It was the sexual edge-pushers who lost market share most severely in the 1990s.


Who made the big fortunes in sex?

At the peak of his career at Penthouse in the early 1980s, Bob Guccione was listed in Forbes  400 richest persons in America, at about $400 million ($1.6 billion today). Hugh Hefner was a multi-millionaire since the late 1950s, owning a huge Chicago mansion, and buying Playboy Mansion West in L.A. in 1971 as revenue approached its peak. Larry Flynt first became a millionaire in 1975, and by 2014 had about $500 million-- the figure came out in October 2017 when he offered $10 million in a full-page newspaper ad to anyone producing information leading to impeachment of President Trump.

These fortunes did not necessarily last. Guccione went bankrupt in 2003, in debt for over $25 million dollars. He was largely self-financing, and always took big risks with his money.

In the early 1960s, unable to attract investors for his Penthouse start-up, Guccione decided do it himself. Thereafter he would never take on co-investors or partners. He came from a small business entrepreneurial background. His parents were Sicilian immigrants to New York; his father the accountant for a small factory owned by his wife’s brother. Later, when Penthouse became a $140 million per year operation, he ran it like a family business: his father as treasurer; sister, daughters and son for office manager, circulation and marketing, with his wife unofficially overseeing everything. As circulation rocketed in the 70s, Guccione bought adjacent townhouses in Manhattan and razed them to build a nine-story mansion, the largest private residence in New York City, importing Italian architects to do the marble and create a atmosphere of Caesaresque grand luxury. Completed, the house cost $5 million a year to maintain. He filled it with a $60 million art collection ranging from Botticelli to Van Gogh to Picasso.

Guccione started a Penthouse Club in London in 1970, but lost its casino license the next year. Unfazed, he built the Penthouse Adriatic Club in Yugoslavia (a cheap-labor Communist country then opening to the West), and flew in Penthouse Pets. It went bankrupt within a year, after Guccione had sunk $45 million of his own money ($225 million today).

Ambitious to have his own movie studio, he invested in Hollywood films (including Roman Polanski’s Chinatown ). In 1976 he launched the first-ever big-budget X-rated porn film, Caligula. Gore Vidal was commissioned to write the screenplay, actors John Guilgud and Peter O’Toole had major speaking roles, along with Penthouse Pets for the sex scenes. It took three years to complete, at the cost of $17 million to Guccione (about $85 million today). But distributers refused to show it, so Guccione rented a Manhattan theatre to show it himself. He grossed $20 million, for a modest profit.

Meanwhile he bought an Atlantic City property and proceeded to build a hotel/casino. But he was unable to get a license, lenders backed out of financing, and by 1980 construction stalled. It sat empty until bought by Donald Trump in 1993. Guccione lost $145-160 million.

Thinking still bigger, in the early 1980s Guccione funded a research laboratory in San Diego, hiring 80 nuclear physicists to produce the world’s first nuclear fusion reactor. It was to be the solution to the world’s fossil fuel crisis and clean air. It lost $20 million.

In 1985, things started to go seriously wrong. The IRS claimed $45 million back taxes, forcing him to sell the casino and close the nuclear-fusion lab. Guccione also had spent a lot of money over the years on new magazines: Viva in 1973, running nude males and fashion for women (closed in 1979 with a dearth of advertisements); Omni, a science and science-fiction magazine, in 1978; Longevity, a health magazine dedicated to the quest to live forever; these closed in 1996, having lost $100 million. Loans to support his magazines built up heavy debts in the 1990s. In 1993 Guccione tried to finance his way out, selling $80 million in bonds on his holding company, to be repaid at 10% interest in 7 years. It turned out to be a risky gamble when the markets collapsed in 2000.  Guccione had to sell his art collection, put up as collateral for tide-over loans.

The last straw was the coming of the Internet in the late 1990s, providing plenty of free sex photo sites, on top of sex on cable and pay-per-view TV. Penthouse sales plummeted to 600,000, and Guccione’s role at playing Caesar (Augustus? Nero?) was over.

Hefner was also a big spender, once he had the money. He started Playboy with $8000 (about $70,000 today) in personal loans from family and friends, including his brother who worked in television. At first he did everything himself. Like Guccione, he found that professional photographers were too expensive, so the first year Playboy ran nude photos bought through the grapevine. The Playboy Clubs, which Hefner started in 1959, did not actually make a profit. But they gave prestige and publicity, with the Bunny outfits creating an iconic presence, establishing Playboy and Hefner himself in the celebrity circuit (and also providing more of a continuous career path for sex models than a rare photo shoot). Clubs of this sort were imitated by all the major players in the sex entertainment field, and became a basis for networks recruiting new sex models. But Playboy Clubs lost out as center city locations deteriorated when commerce moved to suburban malls; most of their income came from the London club, which had a casino. Playboy hotels, records, movies and books rarely made money. Spinoff magazines were money sinks, and Oui was sold off in 1981.

Playboy’s circulation continued fairly strong (compared to all other magazines) in the 1990s. But in 2000 the company’s value started to fall, from $1 billion to $185 million in 2010. Hefner took the company private and held on until his death in 2017. By this time it was making most of its income from licensing rather than Playboy itself.

Larry Flynt came from a lower class background than Hefner and Guccione. Using his savings from serving in the Navy, in 1965 he bought his mother’s bar in Dayton, Ohio for $1800. He upgraded it and starting taking in $1000 a week, which he used to buy two more bars. Upgrading again, in 1968 he opened the Hustler Club, with nude hostess dancers. Soon he had eight clubs in Ohio cities, each grossing $250,000-$500,000 a year (altogether, $10-20 million today). Building on a publicity newsletter, he began publishing black-and-white photos of the dancers in 1972. By putting off paying sales taxes on his clubs, he funded his Hustler Magazine start-up. After a rocky start, his $18,000 investment in nude photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis put Hustler on the map and made him rich.

Flynt leveraged the fame of Playboy and Penthouse by announcing he would take the revolution in sexual explicitness well beyond them. Rivalry with established competitors not only created new contents; it also was a deliberate move to draw attention to oneself as a new niche in a recognized field. Guccione had done the same thing when he brought Penthouse to America in 1969, taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring “We’re going rabbit hunting.”

Flynt’s campaign for publicity had another moment at the center of  sensational attention. In 1977, while Flynt was on trial in Georgia for obscenity, he was shot by a white southerner enraged at a photo sequence Hustler had published showing a black man with a white woman. Flynt ended up permanently in a wheelchair, while Hustler’s position as the number three-selling sex mag was assured.

Flynt turned out to be a better businessman than Guccione or Hefner. He had a clear eye for losing operations. In his early years in Ohio, he closed down an unprofitable vending machine business. Staying closer to his home field, he created several spinoff magazines of Hustler in specialized sex markets, but shut down the experiments when they didn’t pay their way. His privately owned holding company, set up in 1976, included publishing as well as distribution. Monitoring his ventures closely and living a relatively modest life-style, Flynt kept overhead down and anticipated the decline of print pornography by licensing the Hustler name. Branding rights kept his company solid from the late 90s onwards, leaving Flynt as the richest of the big three magazine owners.

He may have been outdone by the comparatively unknown Paul Raymond. An Englishman of Hefner’s age (thus 5 years older than Guccione and 17 years older than Flynt), Raymond began as a small-time carney operator and street entertainer. In the late 1950s, he started one of the first legal strip clubs in London, mixing Parisian dance revues with Playboy look-alike Bunny waitresses. In the 70s he purchased theatres and produced sex comedies, reinvesting in property in Soho, London’s entertainment center, as well as posh districts elsewhere. Raymond’s early efforts at adult magazines failed, but in the 70s he followed Guccione’s example by bringing his Brit-filled Club magazines to the US. He went on to buy Mayfair and most of the other leading sex magazines in Britain. At the time of his death in 2008 he was worth 650 million pounds or a billion dollars. Most of this was from real estate while property values soared.

So how is money made in the sex business? The female models and performers are the lowest paid (though information is lacking about the pay of male strippers). Women did better if they moved into photography or management at successful sex magazines. * They did particularly well if they played their opportunities on the marriage market (as Kathy Keeton did with Guccione, and a series of Playmates did with Hefner). A select few made it through the intense competition to become highly paid film and TV stars. Even here, top actors make less than big film producers-- a pattern paralleled in sex magazines.

* Dawn Steel moved from secretary to merchandising director at Playboy, to running the Star Wars merchandising, to head of Paramount Pictures. Anna Wintour started as fashion editor for Penthouse’s Viva spinoff, and became editor-in-chief of Vogue.


The underlying mechanism is that beautiful bodies are more perishable than images recorded of them. A brief photo-shoot results in sales that depend on how widely the product is marketed. Fame as sex stars in the dishonored porn economy do not parley into very lucrative careers; and turn-over of top photo models is very rapid, the longer careers covering 5 or 6 years at most. Fame in the mainstream mass entertainment world can last longer, but least so as a sex star. Marilyn Monroe drank and drugged herself to death when she felt her looks were going at age 36 (having been a top star for 9 years, since she was 27). Jayne Mansfield’s movie star career lasted only 2 years, although she rode her fame on the night-club circuit for another decade. (She famously said, “Is it possible to go back to being a starlet?”)

The top money competition was among the men. They made money by closely monitoring their rivals; concentrating on access to the most willing models and the best photographers. Hefner and Guccione both began with experience in periodical distribution. Flynt and Paul Raymond began by expanding their sex-oriented clubs and managing their own publicity. All of them were essentially self-financed, which kept profits from being eaten up by financial professionals, and gave them a free hand without someone looking over their shoulder concerned with mainstream respectability. But they lost money when they ventured into areas they did not know well (casinos, hotels, nuclear power, or magazines that had nothing to do with sex). Guccione shows that following one’s own personal interests, when flush with new-found money, results in keeping pet projects going even when they become a drain. Paul Raymond (and for that matter another fringe-player in such markets, Donald Trump) did best because they combined glitz with a concentration on booming real estate.


Does creativity work the same way in all fields?

Let us define creativity as successful innovation. It’s not enough to have the idea, people have to carry it through to realization. This is not merely an individual process.

Is the creative process the same in all fields? Tracing networks of scientists and philosophers, we have found the most successful were protégés of the eminent thinkers and researchers of the previous generation. They also honed their creativity by rivalry with their contemporaries, keeping up with the latest techniques personally or by close intermediaries. Shakespeare began as an actor in the same networks who performed early hits by Marlowe and Kyd, and learned playwriting by collaborating in theatre companies that spun off from each other. Later an actor in Shakespeare’s troupe, Ben Jonson, spun off to become the success story of the following generation.

In the business world of high tech, Steve Jobs collected the most creative contacts in Silicon Valley, and lured many away to work for Apple. He wormed out of Xerox the bit-mapping technique that turned personal computers from typewriters into touchable/ clickable screen images. This in turn was snapped up by Steve’s sometime collaborator Bill Gates, who made Microsoft into a giant by switching alliances to the old-guard enemy, IBM.

The formula for innovative entrepreneurs thus includes: apprentice-like contacts with the leaders of the previous generation.  Spinning off new organizations using new techniques. Keeping close contact with your rivals,  imitating/stealing from them; hiring their personnel; and shaping a niche that is close enough to reflect their halo of fame, but distinct enough to make your own identity.

Is the path to success the same in every field? (Does it work in all branches of business? in politics?? in the military??)  The only way to find out is to investigate, field by field. The research on all of these has not yet been done. But this is what it looks like:

The sex entertainment field probably generalizes to other fields of popular entertainment.

The basic processes of creativity have been operating throughout history for scientists and intellectuals-- this is where the network patterns were discovered.

Business entrepreneurs again fit the checklist. But as French sociologist Michel Villette emphasizes, stalking your rivals, keeping up potentially treacherous contact with them, and stepping in at moments of weakness to take over their assets is particularly prominent in business.

Politics and social movements fit the general pattern to an extent, operating as networks of niche-seeking rivals creating the field of political issues. But politics is a field where outsiders from beyond the established networks are most frequent, probably because politics and social movements are intrinsically contentious; and they aggressively attempt to promote generational die-off of incumbent power-holders.

Stay tuned as research progresses.


Carlye Adler and Hugh Hefner. Interview, Sept. 1, 2003. Fortune Small Business

John Colapinto. “The Twilight of Bob Guccione.” Rolling Stone,  April 1, 2004.

Venus Revealed: The Pubic Wars. Parts 1-13 (1953-1981). posted Oct. 16, 2008 - Nov. 1, 2016.  venusobservations.blogspotcom

Wikipedia articles on specific magazines, publishers and models.

IMDB biographies.

Charles Martignette and Louis Meisel. 1996. The Great American Pin-Up.

Francis Smilby, 1981.  Stolen Sweets: The Cover Girls of Yesteryear. 

Robert Sklar. 1993.  Film. An International History of the Medium.

Edward O. Laumann et. al. 1994.  The Social Organization of Sexuality.

Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz. 1983.  American Couples.

Lewis Yablonsky. 1968. The Hippie Trip.

Ben Zablocki.  1980. Alienation and Charisma. A Study of Contemporary American Communes.

David Halle. 1984.  America’s Working Man.

David Grazian. 2008.  On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife.

Ashley Mears. 2011. Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.


on creativity and careers:   

Pierre Bourdieu. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production.

Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies.

--  “Shakespeare’s self-creating networks.”

-- and Maren McConnell. 2016. Napoleon Never Slept. Maren.ink.

Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.