And other warnings from the 1961 film Perversion for Profit, the Reefer Madness of porn
This still from Perversion for Profit depicts one of the pornographic magazines the narrator warns against.
Financier Charles Keating is best remembered for his role in the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal of 1989, but a prior generation knew him as one of America's most vocal and determined opponents of pornography. Mail order porn was "capable of poisoning any mind at any age and of perverting our entire younger generation," he told the House Judiciary Committee in 1958. The same year, he founded Citizens for Decent Literature, an organization that would become the nation's leading anti-pornography organization, and he later became Richard Nixon's first appointee to the President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, where he issued the lone dissent from a landmark report recommending "a relaxation of legal controls over smut."
But his lasting legacy as an anti-pornography crusader is owed to Perversion for Profit, a propaganda film he financed in the early 1960s, hiring George Putnam, a well-known radio and television broadcaster, as its narrator. In the statements it makes about the dangers of pornography, the film is reminiscent of Reefer Madness, the 1936 anti-marijuana film that was rediscovered decades later, when a more liberal generation found amusement in its hysterical claims.
Perversion for Profit is but a lesser known cult-classic. As Peter Stein put it in The San Francisco Chronicle, "At first, the cornball gravitas of a bespectacled newsman shouting alarmist narration creates a kind of ironic distance. The cynical viewer can easily titter at lines such as, 'This moral decay weakens our resistance to the onslaught of the Communist masters of deceit.' But as the parade of girlie magazine covers, men's physique pictorials and campy S&M leaflets continues, the film betrays a kind of prurience the filmmakers could hardly have intended. What results is a remarkable visual record of mid-century underground literature and sexual appetites, and a gloss on the values of the society that condemned them."
That's an accurate description, though watching the film today, there are several arguments that today's readers will find familiar. "You might ask yourself 'Why this sudden concern? Pornography and sex
deviation have always been with mankind.' This is true," Putnam says. "But, now,
consider another fact: never in the history of the world have the
merchants of obscenity, the teachers of unnatural sex acts, had
available to them the modern facilities for disseminating this filth.
High-speed presses, rapid transportation, mass distribution: all have
combined to put the vilest obscenity within reach of every man, woman,
and child in the country."
Many today feel the same way about the Internet.
Unlike today, criticism of pornography proceeded as if the average viewer would be unfamiliar with it. "These highly colorful magazines depict stark nudity on slick paper," Putnam patiently explained. "They often present their subject on a bed or couch, in positions indicative of intercourse or other sex acts, obviously calculated to stimulate the reader." Back then, they also thought that "the nakedness, the nudity of these magazines is defended and foisted on the people by a vociferous minority in our society," an argument even anti-porn crusaders don't make today.
But the biggest difference between then and now is probably the way that homosexuality is discussed:
And then we come to a terribly sad indictment of our society -- the so-called physique group of publications. These magazines with a homosexual viewpoint and poses are often not understood by many youngsters who take them as instruction of body development. But psychiatrists believe that prolonged exposure of even the normal male adult to this kind of publication, though he may not be aware of its true nature, will nevertheless pervert.
Think then of the consequences to the inexperienced youth, who in purchasing and studying this material becomes a pawn for these misfits. These homosexuals, who have a slogan that betrays the evil of the breed: 'Today's conquest,' they say, 'is tomorrow's competition.
It's hilarious, when watching the film, to imagine anyone not realizing that the magazines depicted were gay pornography, and remarkable, though unsurprising, to know that's how homosexuality was spoken about the year that Barack Obama was born and eight years before the Stonewall riots. There's a lot more to the film, which is embedded below, and listening to the warnings about the increase in unwed births, the uptick in rapes, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, one must simultaneously recognize that for all its absurdity, this film and the people behind it perceived real, urgent problems; and that they utterly failed to address them in any helpful or persuasive way, as a direct result of their bad cultural criticism.
No one actually familiar with the material in question could take their characterizations seriously.