Masturbation Fodder

Robert Rosen, Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography

Headpress, 232pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781900486767

reviewed by Kate Gould

Robert Rosen's Beaver Street is an account of his time spent working in the world of men's pornographic magazines. It's a meandering tale through the day-to-day running of various publications for which Rosen wrote, edited and, on one greatly aggrandised occasion, posed as a disembodied penis being given a blow job. The book is a mix of his personal experiences and some of the goings-on in the sex industry at large that seeks to pit anyone taking a critical stance towards pornography - the ‘moral warriors’, as Rosen refers to them - against the liberal porn producers, actors, and publishers.

I have many misgivings about the pornography industry, particularly regarding the issue of consent and the way in which porn teaches boys to view and treat women, and I had hoped that Rosen's account of the industry might engage intelligently with such issues. It doesn’t.

The book purports to be a history, but there are so many gaps and its interpretation of events is so heavily biased it suggests Rosen was unable or unwilling to consider the existence, let alone the validity, of any opinion other than his own. The closest he gets to a structural criticism of the sex industry is in describing his own, momentary experience as a porn actor, posing as a disembodied penis being given a blowjob in the name of journalistic research. ‘Though I don't recall going home that day, I do remember being in a state of shock when I got there, and wanting to do nothing more than lock myself in a dark room and be left alone. But first I managed to record in my journal, in a shaky, nearly illegible scrawl, a few gruesome details of the obscene exhibitionistic acts I'd just committed.’

His reaction to seeing the magazine in which the pictures were printed on the newsstand is similarly dramatic. ‘I just stood there, mesmerized by Pia Snow's big brown bedroom eyes, knowing that it was official; I, too, was a bona fide inhabitant of the shadow world of the public fornicator. I, too, was masturbation fodder for any freak with $3.95 in his pocket … I felt guilt and shame - more than I'd ever imagined I was capable of feeling.’

It's unlikely his near-flaccid penis (he recalls he was unable to get an erection during the shoot) was likely to be ‘masturbation fodder’, but that's the way he felt. Rosen could have used his experience as a first step in an interesting consideration of the attitudes of those working in the industry towards their work. Instead, he doesn't think any further than his own feelings.

In 1986, porn actress Traci Lords was arrested for appearing in pornography while underage. Aged 15, using fake ID, she'd posed as a 20-year-old in order to get into modelling and pornography and, by the time she was arrested, had appeared in 100 films and innumerable magazine shoots. Her arrest and the ensuing investigation exposed the use of underage girls in the industry, resulting, for a time, in tighter proof of age regulations. It also resulted in companies having to destroy all material in which Lords appeared or risk being charged with making and distributing child pornography.

Rosen claims the barely-legal and teen porn genres not only didn't exist but were ‘unthinkable’ before the Traci Lords scandal. She, believes Rosen, ‘did more than anybody - porn star, pornographer, or government official - to transform the “young girl” into an object of such intense fascination, it's now the single most profitable sector of the porno-industrial complex.’ While Traci Lords may, briefly, have been the poster girl for underage porn, to say that she was, to any extent, responsible for the eroticisation of girls is to scapegoat her. It's also a ludicrous statement. She didn't create the demand for paedophilic porn - paedophilia is as old as time which is, obviously, considerably older than Lords herself. If sales of barely-legal and teen porn increased following the scandal, it's because it drew to the attention of the producers the demand for porn of this genre.

Though he dedicates a fairly large portion of the book to the various investigations carried out into the porn industry (primarily The Meese Commission), Rosen appears to believe there is no exploitation, maltreatment or abuse in it. The findings of the Commission, he believes, were based on shoddy social science and the agendas of the ‘moral warriors.’ Admittedly, the Meese Commission's membership had a Christian and Conservative bias and its report was criticised by individuals both within and outside the porn industry, but the tone of Rosen's reportage seeks only to ridicule and dismiss it.

If you're looking for a dude's take on smut mags, Beaver Street might be quite titillating. I was hoping for something more insightful - maybe along the lines of the books written by women in the porn industry, like Carly Mine’s Naked Ambition (Seal Press, 2005), that actually have something to say. Rosen excluded female pornographers entirely from his history. I suspect he was too caught up in his own juvenile dabbling to notice their existence.