Civil Liberties

Girly Mags vs. the Censors

The changing standards of sexiness


Although they may sound like part of "Bodies…The Exhibition," "bifurcated girls" were a popular attraction in American men's magazines at the turn of the 20th century. "The Bifurcated Girl Is Coming!" announced a May 1903 magazine cover. The following month, there it was: an entire 44-page issue featuring "Gay Girls in Trousers" and "Leading Actresses" in "Men's Togs."

Yes, bifurcated girls were girls in pants. As Dian Hanson explains in The History of Girly Magazines (Taschen), "Women's legs were objects of great mystery and by extension desire in the age of floor-sweeping skirts. Even if a man burrowed under the skirts, there were loose leggings from waist to ankle to conceal the limbs' contours.…The transgression of a woman who dared to adopt male clothing had as many layers as her skirts in 1903. First, it suggested she was stepping outside her Heaven-ordained role as hand-maiden to man; second, it hinted at Sapphic perversion; third, it revealed she had legs, which if followed upward from the ankle could lead a man straight to Hell."

Hanson's heavily illustrated tour of men's magazines, which covers 1900 to the 1970s and ranges across several countries, offers many such examples of how taboo shapes desire. Hanson, former editor of the niche porn magazines Juggs and Leg Show, celebrates not only the entrepreneurs of erotica who got rich by finding creative ways to supply men with masturbatory material but also the faithful fetishists, such as Bizarre founder John Willie and Exotique creator Lenny Burtman, who pursued their kinky visions with little regard for profit. The pictures Hanson has collected are, by turns, quaint, silly, and weird: men in a boardinghouse spying on their (fully dressed) floozy neighbors through a hole in the wall, topless women with Tiki idols, a half-naked mother wearing black lingerie standing in a playpen holding child-size dolls. (The book's most disturbing theme may be beehive hairdos, to which Hanson devotes a chapter.) To contemporary eyes, the pictures are rarely sexy, a fact that brings home the extent to which fashion and the evolving legal standards that constrain it affect seemingly instinctive reactions.

Early on, of course, the pictures were not supposed to be sexy. They were "art nudes" for painters who couldn't afford models, illustrations of the nudist lifestyle, or inspiring images of health and beauty. For many publishers (and presumably most readers), these rationales were merely a ruse to keep the censors at bay. But as Hanson shows, some people were quite serious about the ideological implications of nice-looking nudes. In New York during the 1920s, the sinister-sounding Dawn Magazine focused on "eugenics, nudism and figure studies." Germany between the world wars saw a plethora of sincerely political nudist magazines dedicated to Life Reform, socialism, nationalism, and various other causes. (One had the intriguing title Der Individualist.) After the Nazis took over, the naturist publications were purged of non-Aryan staffers and content, but some continued to publish into the '40s, exemplifying the robust, blond-haired, blue-eyed physical ideal of the Third Reich.

Nude photographs were less tolerated in the U.S. during the '30s, when explicit pictures were sold under the counter and newsstand magazines used code words such as snappy and spicy on their covers to advertise the sexy stories inside. Although the content was similar to "the more graphic Harlequin Romances" of today, Hanson says, publishers still felt constrained to hide behind multiple addresses and front names, even while Hollywood-oriented magazines featuring starlets in lingerie flourished.

American men's magazines were less risqué in the '40s, typically featuring "apple-cheeked good girls in modest swimsuits a boy could be proud to hang over his army cot." Sometimes the "patriotica" took a kinky turn, as in a 1942 issue of Burlesk that included "a sequence in which a gorgeous brunette in a tight uniform toyed with an unconscious blond"—ostensibly to demonstrate emergency medical techniques. Around the same time, London Life was running pictures of "bathing-suited beauty queens" accompanied by "amazingly perverse, utterly English reader letters" dwelling on rubber raincoats, ruffled underwear, corsets, high heels, and silk stockings. "Actual procreative sex," Hanson reports, "was off-limits."

The erotica of other countries was less circumspect. France, the source of the mail-order smut that so offended bluenose crusader Anthony Comstock in the late 19th century, was an early pioneer, a fact Hanson attributes to the country's "Latin culture," "long history of sensual and artistic tolerance," and post-revolution separation of church and state. Sweden and Denmark became leading porn producers after World War II, beginning with naturist and art-nude titles and moving on to increasingly explicit titillation for its own sake, including full frontal nudity and girl-on-girl action by the 1960s. According to Hanson, official censorship in both countries quickly crumbled in response to pornographers whose financial success plainly demonstrated the popularity of their products.

In the U.S., by contrast, the government still tries to draw a line between mere sexual explicitness, which is protected by the First Amendment, and obscenity, which is not. Because this distinction is based on "community standards," which are influenced by what publishers manage to get away with, the line is constantly moving. By running pictures of topless women along with serious articles by well-known writers, Hugh Hefner inspired a horde of imitators (including Duke, a short-lived Playboy for black men with a button-eyed mannequin instead of a rabbit as a mascot) and helped make sexual content acceptable, if not respectable. By 1970, 17 years after Playboy's premiere issue featuring a nude but discreetly posed Marilyn Monroe, community standards were accommodating enough to allow what Hanson identifies as "the very first pubic hair to appear on the American newsstand." It belonged to a snorkeler photographed on a beach for Penthouse, a publication that embodied Bob Guccione's vision of a magazine for men who thought Playboy was too hoity-toity (which makes his title choice a little puzzling).

This is where I begin to understand the fetishists whose publishing exploits Hanson affectionately chronicles, for whom the high-heeled shoe and the full-length glove became objects of desire by association. The first time I encountered the word penthouse was in the context of Guccione's skin magazine. To this day the word seems erotically charged, even when I'm punching buttons in an elevator.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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