Cincinnati has finally hustled Larry Flynt out of town. A few years back they indicted him for bribing a policeman with the services of a prostitute and for sodomy. The case fell though, but last month's rematch between the morally outraged D.A. of the midwest and the morally outrageous publisher of Hustler magazine culminated in a startling decision. Flynt was convicted of pandering obscene material and engaging in organized crime.
The question here (for those readers who have been ignoring Cincinnati since its heinous transgressions of the will of God in the world series last fall) is freedom of the press, the press being a smut magazine which manages to offend more people than all its competitors combined. But more interesting than any of the legal issues raised by the conviction is the ambivalent nature of the anger which surrounds it. Everyone who has voiced public disapproval of the court decision, from Nat Hentoff and Nora Ephron to the New York Times, has prefaced his comments with a strong statement deploring the "offensiveness" of Hustler. Journalists are rushing to protect not the odious Larry Flynt but rather the principle of the first amendment, in other words, themselves. This ruffled condemnation and self-consciously fierce separation of Flynt's magazine and the principles it depends on makes the message of the American press quite clear. We are fighting the good fight but for someone who disgusts us, someone Ben Bradlee would not invite home to dinner, someone who is not one of us.,
Larry Flynt, of course, is very much "one of us" but more on that later. Flynt is a burly red-haired man who looks more like a truck-driver than the publisher of the third largest men's magazine. (Last year that ordinal number meant over twenty million dollars in profit.) Hustler, in fact, celebrates the myth of the hard-drivin' fast-cussin' mean-fisted truckdrivers. They are the last American heroes, a lone breed of tough guys blazing down the pike at a speed that would turn a "pansyass" as white as his collar. Flynt talks slowly, firmly, and with a touch of impatience as if he were explaining a simple concept to a classroom of distracted children.
Perhaps these are the qualities which make his regular appearances on the Tomorrow Show the prize of late night television. In an interview taped soon after the Cincinnati conviction, Tom Snyder, full of indignant fluster, demanded to know how Flynt could publish a magazine which so egregiously corrupted the minds of readers. Flynt reminded Snyder that experts (most notably the recent Commission on Obscenity and Pornography) had not been able to establish the link between reading obscenity and committing obscene acts. If in fact pornography is dangerous, mused Flynt, just contemplate the ravaged minds of all the psychologists and assistant D.A.'s who spend forty hours a week perusing the stuff. Snyder was not deterred: what of the people who are not "mature" enough to realize that Hustler is for the most part an indulgence in sexual fantasy, the few people who in fact might read Hustler and take some of its perversity not only to heart but out to the streets as well? Flynt shook his head with blustery impatience. "I don't publish a magazine for the mentally ill," he replied. The same comment in one of his Hustler editorials would have been worded "retards" rather than "mentally ill." While other skin magazine publishers, such as Bob Guccione of Penthouse or Al Goldstein of Screw, consciously cater to a readership less educated or sophisticated than they, Flynt is probably representative of a Hustler subscriber.
Richard Neville writes in the New York Times that not the moral but the social implications of Hustler are troubling the media establishment.
The journey from Ulysses to Hustler involves more than a move from literature to smut, from words to images. It involves the transition from the preoccupation of an educated minority to the everyday fantasies of the blue-collar majority. Hustler was launched by a man without any formal education...Now it is the "servants"--the busboys, the farmers, truck drivers and men on the assembly line--who are on the receiving end of censorship, whose erotic tastes are repulsive to a bewildered literary establishment.
But the distinction between the pornography of "servants" (blue collar workers) and "employers" (the educated elite) is not as great as Neville would have us believe. When Esquire magazine asked skin book publishers to describe their readership, here were two of the replies:
Larry Flynt on Hustler:
When we started we hoped for the blue-collar audience. But a recent demographic study showed a different reader: a lot of college students and professionals. That kind of blew our theory.
Al Goldstein on Screw:
Our publication is aimed at college professors at Harvard who secretly masturbate. Seriously, a demographic survey showed that our readership is just behind that of The New Yorker, which either means that we have a brilliant readership or that the people interviewed are psychopathic liars.
The underlying principle of all successful sex magazines, from the relatively tame Playboy to the raunchy Stag and Cheri, hinges on the absolute degradation of women. Page after page shows women being strung up, knocked down, beaten with objects too numerous to mention, pierced in places too delicate to mention, and I would go on, but I have my roommates to consider. When Nora Ephron withdrew her name from a newspaper advertisement protesting Larry Flynt's conviction, I do not think she was especially offended by the "blue collar" sensibilities of Hustler. I do not think sophisticated French pronography would have been any more palatable to her. Empress Katharine and her pedigreed white horse is not much different from Dancing Toni and her Prancing Pony.
The blue-collar angle to Hustler does, however, yield some interesting results. It is the only porn magazine which does not equate sex with money. Unlike Playboy, Penthouse, Oui and Gallery (the other four in the big five) the pictorials are not filled with feather-bedecked women waiting in expensively decorated apartments for well-dressed, well-tanned young men. Hustler accepts no liquor or cigarette advertising, the mainstays of men's magazines. Whether this is done for moral reasons or as a neat stratagem for future court cases is impossible to say, but the absence of Winston and Salem men fits the editorial policy well. Each month Hustler turns over its lucrative back cover to a public service announcement; when asked how this is possible, Flynt just says, "as for advertisers, Hustler doesn't need them." The magazine outprices its competition at a hefty $1.95.
The man Ben Bradlee wouldn't bring home for dinner is not, after all, much different from the majority of magazine and newspaper publishers in America. He is a shrewd businessman whose only goal in life has been to make a million bucks fast. The established press is anxiously trying to disown a man who is by no means a stranger to the system; Larry Flynt and his magazine are the logical extensions of that system. Magazines like People, Cosmopolitan and New York probably have more in common with Hustler than they do with the New Republic; most journals sold in this country pander to less-than-noble interests. Larry Flynt is the illegitimate offspring of a Helen Gurley Brown and a Rupert Murdoch. Hustler makes money. Hustler makes sense, and this is why Hustler makes everyone nervous