As the twentieth century drew to a close, pornography was a $10 billion-a-year business in America. About $1 billion of that cash flow was generated by magazine sales. One of the most provocative and controversial of the so-called "men's magazines" was Larry Flynt's Hustler. The raunchy periodical, founded on its publisher's oft-stated desire to cater to the "erotic imaginations of real people," helped redefine the "mainstream" of porn and wielded an influence far beyond the cloistered realm of XXX literature.
In its essence, the Hustler story is inseparable from that of its founder, Larry Flynt. A child bootlegger from the mountains of Kentucky, Flynt escaped the torpor of Appalachia at age 15 by joining the United States Army. Upon leaving the service, and surviving a failed first marriage, he established a profitable chain of go-go bars. In 1972, he moved into publishing, starting up an eponymous newsletter for his Hustler club. The new periodical, later expanded into a glossy magazine, became notorious for its explicit depiction of the female genitalia. Whereas the other men's magazines of the time, like Playboy and Penthouse, bathed their nude models in a gauzy glow that obstructed the view of their "naughty bits," Flynt's Hustler examined every nook and cranny of the distaff form with an almost gynecological zeal. The approach shocked many in the beginning—no doubt a part of Flynt's plan all along—but had soon resulted in expanded parameters for what could and could not be shown in a newsstand periodical.
A host of imitators cropped up in the wake of Hustler's initial success. Often they bore titles that aped Hustler's pornoscenti cachet, titles like Swank, Gent, and High Society. But few of these publications could match Flynt's élan or his flair for generating publicity. In 1975, Flynt created a furor by running telephoto pictures of a naked Jackie Onassis sunbathing in Greece. Amid howls from the world's opinion elites, Flynt gleefully cashed his checks. The scandalous photo spread helped attract 1.3 million readers to Hustler —and allowed a former strip club owner from Appalachia to rake in more than $30 million a year.
Not surprisingly, Flynt's ability to reach a mass audience made him a ripe target for all manner of detractors. Foremost among these were American feminists, to whom Flynt gave plenty of ammunition. Hustler's visual features repeatedly portrayed sex as ugly and dirty, with women depicted in rape fantasies, smeared with excrement, or likened to pieces of meat. One infamous cover showed a woman being fed into a meat grinder. The backlash to such content was swift and visceral. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Gloria Steinem compared Hustler to a Ku Klux Klan publication and derided Flynt for printing images of women being "beaten, tortured and raped" and "subject to degradations from bestiality to sexual slavery."
African Americans and other minority groups also heaped scorn on Hustler, for its monthly parade of cartoons and features that were blatantly racist, bigoted, or putridly scatological. Even fellow pornographers had little tolerance for this type of material. "I think [Flynt's] dangerous and demented," opined Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. "I don't believe he's normal by any stretch of the imagination. He's very sick and disoriented." To all of these critics a defiant Flynt had the same answer: "We're an equal opportunity offender," he declared repeatedly, adopting the rhetoric of civil rights law to defend his cause. "Every month we try to figure out who we haven't offended yet."
Hustler has not lacked for high-profile defenders. One of Flynt's most ardent apologists has been the outspoken author and academic Camille Paglia, who lauded the maverick publisher as "a hero" who "forces people to confront their own buried snobbery about the South and working-class culture." Paglia went on to laud Hustler for "being totally frank, playing no more games, laying it out for everyone to see. It's the kind of explicitness you'll see in tribal cultures."
Nevertheless, such "explicitness" has cost Hustler dearly among mainstream advertisers, almost all of whom have shunned the magazine despite having no qualms about gracing the pages of Playboy and Penthouse. Even more damaging, Flynt has found himself hauled into court on numerous occasions to defend the magazine against indecency charges. The legal cost of defending Hustler over the years has been estimated at $50 million. It was during one such trial, in 1978, that Hustler's publisher nearly paid the ultimate price for his commitment to pornography. Joseph Paul Franklin shot Flynt twice from close range with a high-powered rifle outside a courthouse where he was being prosecuted for obscenity. Flynt survived the attack, but lost the use of his legs permanently.
The after-effects of the assassination attempt nearly sank Hustler, as a devastated Flynt briefly found religion under the tutelage of President Jimmy Carter's evangelical sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton. The bizarre life change found its way onto the pages of the magazine, which suffered a drop in circulation. Flynt's subsequent addiction to painkilling drugs, with the attendant high spending, resulted in a severe money crunch.
In the 1980s, Flynt reconsidered his spiritual awakening and opted to return Hustler to its raunchy roots. He placed advertisements in the Hollywood trade press offering $1 million to any top television or film actress who would pose nude in the pages of the magazine. Spurred by the advent of videocassette recorders, he started producing porno videotapes under the Hustler imprimatur. The first entry depicted an 18-year-old medically certified virgin being deflowered in front of the cameras. "She was holding out for the right man," Flynt crowed, "but the right price won out."
Hustler's ability to keep publishing such sordid material was nearly compromised during the Reagan era, when Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for libel over a scatological ad parody depicting the preacher in an outhouse having sex with his mother. After a lower court ruled in Falwell's favor, the United States Supreme Court in 1988 reversed the decision and upheld Flynt's right to satirize a public figure. Some First Amendment advocates began hailing Flynt as a poster child for free speech, though many other civil libertarians felt uncomfortable with the association.
Flynt's defenders were plainly cheered by the appearance in 1996 of a reverential biopic, The People vs. Larry Flynt, directed by Academy Award winner Milos Forman and starring Cheers hayseed Woody Harrelson as the eponymous pornographer. The film sugarcoated many of the more tawdry facts of Flynt's life, while avoiding the issues of Hustler's racism and misogyny entirely. Though dismissed as a tendentious mess by some critics, and savaged by feminists as a whitewash, the feature nonetheless proved a major hit and gave the bumptious publisher a brief ripple of renewed popularity.
Flynt used his newfound status as a media darling to his own advantage in 1998, injecting himself into the debate over the Impeachment of President Bill Clinton. In the October issue of Hustler, he offered up to $1 million to anyone willing to admit to having an affair with a member of Congress. His target, he claimed, was the "hypocrisy" of conservatives who were pursuing Clinton for lying about sex, while leading less-than-pure lives themselves. By December, Flynt had bagged his first victim, when Representative Robert Livingston, the Republicans' choice to be Speaker of the House, resigned after investigators hired by Hustler determined that he had been unfaithful to his wife. With Flynt promising more damaging revelations for the future, Americans of all political persuasions briefly recoiled at the thought that such a figure could effectively alter the course of history.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
Flynt, Larry. An Unseemly Man: My Life as a Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast. New York, Dove Books, 1997.
Hustler magazine was the brainchild of Larry Flynt. Launched in 1974, Hustler consciously placed itself on the opposite socio-sexual spectrum from its journalistic cousins, Playboy and Penthouse. At its height it may have reached twenty million readers (Smolla 1990, p. 38).
Flynt's magazine was, in fact, a bad boy Playboy. This is perhaps due to Flynt's background. He was born to a poor family in Appalachia in 1942. He moved to the Midwest, where, after a successful stint in the Navy, he transformed a bar in Dayton, Ohio, into a strip club, giving birth to more such clubs. A newsletter for the clubs became Hustler the magazine.
It was a working-class philosophy that permitted Flynt to understand the unattainability of the women in Playboy and Penthouse for an average male reader. The laminated, air-brushed, almost plasticized bodies of Playboy models was anathema to Flynt. Hustler was not shy about leaving its competitors behind when it showed female pubic hair. As Laura Kipnis puts it (1996, p. 128), sex for Flynt (and subsequently Hustler) was "a political, not a private, matter." Breaking down the bounds of "repression and social hypocrisy" (Kipnis 1996, p. 129), Hustler did not shy away from including fat women, disabled women, and interracial couples. If its goal was to shake American readers out of their fantasies of women as plastic blow-up life-size dolls, it succeeded. Its message was at once egalitarian and anti-establishment. The magazine also earned the harsh condemnation of feminists. Briefly, after a 1977 religious conversion, Flynt made of Hustler a strange amalgam of Christianity and pornography, an attempt he eventually abandoned, along with his conversion.
Flynt was a familiar face in the American court system, be it when he was sued by novelist Jackie Collins or the televangelist Jerry Falwell (Smolla 1990). The attempt to assassinate him, in 1978, even took place outside a courtroom where he was being tried for obscenity. The shooting forced Flynt into a wheelchair, but that did not stop him from considering himself the protector of the First Amendment. He made this clear in Hustler's philosophy of gender. Nothing was out of the bounds of free speech. Hustler, in a sense, pushed its competitors—especially Playboy—into areas where they might not otherwise have dared to go: the transsexual body. Hustler showed it in its pre-operative phase; Playboy, years later, in its cleaned-up and sanitized post-operative phase.
As Kipnis emphasizes, Hustler's body is transgressive, when not Rabelaisian in its portrayal. It is the body uncensored, with all its corporal functions brought out of the pristine closet. In an ironic twist, Flynt's shooting transformed him into one of his own magazine's transgressive bodies: overweight, wheel-chair bound (without control over his intimate bodily functions) (Smolla 1990)—something he exploited to the full when he wheeled into a courtroom wearing the American flag as a diaper, keeping alive the outlaw aspect of Flynt and his magazine.
Kipnis, Laura. 1996. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. New York: Grove.
At the close of the twentieth century, "sexploitation" magazine publishing had evolved into a $1-billion-a-year business. Leading the field was Hustler magazine. Unlike Playboy (see entry under 1950s—Print Culture in volume 3), its chief rival during the century's last decades and a publication whose sexual imagery was far less degrading by contemporary standards, Hustler printed photographs that are raw, graphic, and sexually explicit. Many sex magazines were available only in shops specializing in XXX-rated material. In comparison, Hustler could be found on the magazine racks in all types of bookstores. For better or worse, its initial success in the mid-1970s helped to lift pornography into the mainstream of popular culture. For this reason alone, Hustler is one of the most controversial magazines ever published.
Hustler was the brainchild of Larry Flynt (1942–), its publisher and founder. In 1972, Flynt, who owned a chain of bars that featured strippers and go-go dancers, began publishing a sex-oriented newsletter, which he eventually expanded into a glossy magazine. He broke from Playboy and Penthouse, another of the era's popular "men's magazine," in that he refused to tastefully obstruct his models' "private parts." Nor was Flynt concerned with celebrating the beauty of the female form. He often depicted his models participating in rape or male-domination fantasies, or smeared with excrement. On one of his more infamous covers, he pictured a woman being fed into a meat grinder. In 1975, he raised a furor—and won reams of publicity—by printing a photo of a nude Jackie Onassis (1929–1994), the former first lady and wife of John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), sunbathing in Greece.
Flynt was a shrewd self-promoter. As he became a magnet for controversy, sales of his magazine soared. Through the years, he often was hauled into court on obscenity charges. Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (1933–) sued Flynt in the wake of a Hustler parody depicting the preacher having sex with his mother in an outhouse. A lower court ruled in Falwell's favor, and the case was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. The higher court reversed the decision, endorsing Flynt's right to lampoon a public figure.
Since the mid-1970s, Flynt's legal costs have topped an estimated $50 million. In 1978, outside a courthouse, a would-be assassin shot the publisher twice from close range, using a high-powered rifle. Flynt survived, but permanently lost the use of both his legs. His life story was told in the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt, directed by Milos Forman (1932–).
For More Information
Flynt, Larry, with Kenneth Ross. An Unseemly Man. Los Angeles: Dove Books, 1996.
Hustler Magazine, Inc. et al. v. Jerry Falwell.http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/comm/free_speech/hustler.html (accessed March 27, 2002).
The People vs. Larry Flynt (film). Columbia Pictures, 1996.
hus·tler / ˈhəslər/ • n. inf. an aggressively enterprising person; a go-getter. ∎ an enterprising and often dishonest person, esp. one trying to sell something. ∎ an expert player, esp. at pool or billiards, who pretends to be less skillful than they are and lures or challenges less skilled, esp. amateur, players into games in order to win money from them. ∎ a female prostitute. ∎ a male prostitute, esp. for homosexual clients.