A ‘Sexy Book’ Editor Unveils Porn’s History [NSFW]

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Dian Hanson, 61, would never be one to shy away from declaring her love for pornography, pinups, or even a "big, hairy vulva." Before she was appointed Taschen's "Sexy Book" editor — a crown that she's worn for over a decade — she was deeply immersed in the world of what she calls "second-tier" men's magazines for nearly all of her adult life, where she was one of the few women managing fetish publications including Puritan, Video X, Juggs, and Leg Show. Since then, she's written and edited risqué books including The Big Butt Book, The Big Penis Book, The Big Book of Pussy, and others, some of which of which are even offered in 3-D.

Hanson's latest boxed collection, hitting stores next week, steers tamer than her previous topics. In a three-volume collection called Dian Hanson's History of Pin-Up Magazines, totaling up to 816 pages, she covers the history of pinup magazines from 1900 to 1969, filling the pages with reporting as well as full-page magazine covers and illustrations. "When I first started doing the project, Benedikt [Taschen] had said, we'll start somewhere in 1950 and go up to 1970. He, like many people, thought that men’s magazines started with Playboy. And of course, this was not the case," she told the Cut. "Playboy came at the far end of a long tradition of these kinds of magazines. As I started going back further and further, I found that the magazines at the earlier periods were more beautiful, particularly the covers." Eventually, she made her way back to 1900, when everything was illustrated, and when France, Germany, and the States were competing for supremacy.

This particular three-volume set was weaned out of one of Hanson's earlier six-volume set called History of Men’s Magazines — she edited out the raunchier, hard-core porn and focused on the milder, slightly-more-clothed material. "Men and women, alike, like pinup," Hanson explains. "It’s a nostalgic return to this earlier age of when sex wasn’t so hard-core, when pornography wasn’t ubiquitous." We spoke to Hanson about the transition from illustrations to photographs in pinup magazines, her experiences working as an editor-slash-feminist at various porn titles, and the first time she noticed breasts.

There's a lot of war stories tied to pinup, and your books are divided by prewar, postwar. How much of an impact did war have on the spread of pinups?
The war introduced men to things they didn’t know existed. In terms of magazines, they saw a lot of things in France, just like they did in WWI. Men had seen beautifully made magazines in France, and a lot of them set about importing these magazines. But it also inspired the American industry, with Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang — the first American magazine of this type, which was jokes and little stories and cartoons and not very hot at all, but what could be published at the time. They were done by a veteran who just missed the kind of off-color jokes that he was used to in the military, so he just started this magazine to satisfy the needs of soldiers who had come back. I mean, you don’t want to say that people were missing their lives in the war, but they do, and a lot of men did. They had this male camaraderie that they had never experienced before and the magazine sprang up to bind them together again. It was something that excluded women and was just for the guys. Really, without WWII, we wouldn’t have had Playboy. Hefner saw pinups during WWII and was attracted to the pinups, and particularly the pinups in Esquire magazine.

What do you think fills that gap for our generation?
Well, there is no single magazine. We’ve moved beyond that defining lifestyle magazine. Esquire was one of the first of these. But there was a kind of pre-Esquire period where you have titles that are just very specific to the purpose. They used to have what they called "spicy fiction" magazines in the thirties, for men who liked to read fiction. But that’s pretty much been taken up by women now. [Laughs.] Those magazines were like romance novels. There were others that concentrated on near-nude photographs of film stars; well, now you have Mr. Skin, which is for men who want to see famous people with their clothes off. And if you just want to see naked women, well, we have the Internet for that. Men’s magazines are in complete decline today. Playboy is just hanging on by its tired old fingernails.

Could you talk about the transition from illustration to photographs in pinup magazines?
During the WWII period,  there were people who mourned the passing of the illustrations. The reason they went to photographs was because it was cheaper. It was getting difficult to pay some of these artists. Some of them were making $1,500 for a piece of art. You could get a photograph for $5, $10, so it was a way to save money. 

You were a porn and fetish magazine editor for decades. How was your transition from hard-core magazines to books?
I still love pornography. I love my friends in the pornography world. I like the kind of embarrassment and just that little touch of shame that everyone feels in pornography that makes them so sweet and so nice to deal with and so accommodating and so eager to be liked. A lot of people in the art world don’t have that. [Laughs.] As far as doing the books, I’ve made a happy adjustment. I’ve always liked pinup, I’ve always liked milder material, though I have to say my favorite period is the sixties. When the liberation movement came — sexual, women’s liberation, gay liberation, civil liberation — that was just a heady, heady era of people fighting for freedom and gaining new freedom, and you can see it in the material from those periods. You see happy smiles on the women’s faces and the pride with which they show themselves off. And they were still just mostly topless then. It wasn’t going past their natural barrier, which we wrap around the genitalia. It takes a great leap of confidence to show that part of their body. Whereas women, pretty generally, feel pretty good about their breasts. Women, in general, like pinup material. I just learned that the largest consumers of pinup art are now women.

Do you have an idea of why that is?
Well, the women generally aren’t nude, or if they are nude, they’re idealized. It’s “good girl art,” and everyone feels good about it. It’s appreciation of a beautiful woman. Women have always managed to appreciate a beautiful woman at a distance. 

When did you first get interested in porn in general?
Around the age of 5, I noticed that there was a difference between male and female chests and that women had these protrusions there. And I was really interested and started drawing pictures of women with enormous breasts and was just trying to see breasts, trying to figure it out. I was really obsessed with it. And yet I knew that there was something forbidden about this, so I would take my pictures and tear them up and wad them up and stick my arm down to the bottom of the garbage can — put the pieces down there so nobody would know that I was doing. So I knew it was wrong, I knew it was shameful, but I was still interested in it.

This was all at age 5?
From there, it was just always there. I was just always wanting to get a peek at what you weren’t supposed to look at and sneaking around through my father’s magazines, which he would hide in various parts of the house. My brother and I would go on these little exploratory missions [laughs] to find his girly magazines and get them and look at them. There was always a dual feeling in me of wanting to look like these kind of women. And I don’t know why. Why I wanted to look like them, I can’t tell you. Wanting to be this kind of woman, I suppose, “wanting daddy to like you,” and at the same time being interested in being part of this process. And I never felt like, oh, I want to be in publishing. I was a hippie and just wanted to take drugs and dance and left school in high school. And yeah, just stumbled later in my twenties into publishing and publishing a men’s magazine. But I was clearly very open to it. I was already looking at pornography from the time I left home. Pornography was a part of my life from 17, 18. 

Did you have friends who you'd go see porn with?
I was married when I was 18, so it was with my first husband. We in fact joined something called “The Porno Club” and they promised a hard-on in your mailbox every day. And for $3, they would put your name on a whole lot of porn mailing lists, so you would get all kinds of flyers and ads for sex toys and all that stuff. We did get material every day for quite a while.

When did you start at your first porn magazine?
I left Seattle when I was 20 years old and moved East and ended up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which is where I met somebody who was starting to make a hard-core sex magazine, actually. And I quit my job at the hospital as a respiratory therapist and we moved to New York to start making a magazine called Puritan. I did a lot of magazines: Partner, Video X, Oui Magazine for a time, Hooker. I mean, really, the gutter. Crappy, low-rent magazines. We were making them with no money and digging around the file cabinets to see if a picture we could use in the magazine had slipped in there. But there was a lot of freedom in that. There was also a lot of drinking.
 
Were you the only woman in the industry?
No, there were other women. There was usually one woman per magazine. [Laughs.] That was how they apportioned it. I wasn’t usually working with other women, but there were certainly other women at other magazines. Everyone had the idea that women know something about male sexuality that men don’t. We’d see each other at events. There was no sense of keeping women out. Everyone always thought it was a good thing to get women in there. So they could teach them the secrets of male sexuality.
 
You mention that you're a feminist. How did feminism mesh with being an editor of fetish magazines at the time?
Well, the original feminism of the sixties and seventies was very sex-positive. It encouraged women to demand their sexual rights, the rights to have orgasms — we had Betty Dodson teaching masturbating classes and women examining each others's vulvas and learning how to masturbate with a Hitachi wand. It was very sex-positive. Pornography was all part of it. Part of the reason was Deep Throat. My parents went to Deep Throat, oh my God, so embarrassing, my parents. Jackie Onassis even went to see it. And this was a time when being in Playboy was cool. Men would pose with naked women in Playboy — even Woody Allen — and it would make them urbane, cool, more desirable. Then you got further down the other end of the seventies and it started to be the second wave of feminism and all men were rapists. All men were wanting to hurt every woman. It was the eighties, really, and around the same time when AIDS started to be an issue, it all came together and I’d meet men at parties and they’d be like “What? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Don’t you worry about what you’re doing to women and children?” But I’d be like, "I’m there giving them money! I’m there directing the photo shoots. I'm with makeup artists when we're producing a photo shoot, directing a female photographer or makeup artist and a model, and we're laughing. We’re not hurting anyone!"
 
Was the change in public opinion difficult for you to deal with?
Feminists never came around and bothered us. They never picketed our offices, they never attacked us. They kind of restricted themselves to Playboy and Penthouse and Hustler — and we secondaries, we were left alone. 
 
After all these years, would you say you understand the male mind?
I understand the basic male mind and basic male motivation; of course, the details change and morph. In 1940, the hottest part of the female body was the leg. We had all these leggy models. If you look at magazine covers from that period, they’ll be twice as long and thick as normal legs. That’s because the leg was guarded and hidden. And then we got into the breasts and we had to have very large breasts because we can see it now! And then we could see the vulva. So we were like, let’s have it as big and hairy and scary and tarantula-like as possible! And guys just couldn’t get enough of looking at that big old hairy thing.  And now it’s like, "Ah, hair, no! Oh no, she has pubic hair, I can never have sex with that." I’m like, what are you, sissies? It seems to me that a lot of young men are ridiculously sensitive. They’ve just lost their basic instincts to pursue a woman and have sex with her.

Do you think there's a future for men's magazines today?
I have a feeling that magazines will take a trajectory like vinyl. I think magazines will reach the point of extinction and then they will come back as a sophisticated high-end choice. More as art, and something that will cost quite a bit of money and things people will have as status objects. Something hipsters will collect.

Click ahead for a preview of Dian Hanson's new books.

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