Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Traci Lords

Porn Explodes

Boogie Nights
Boogie Nights

Twenty years later, the Traci Lords scandal seems somehow quaint. Porn was less conspicuous then.

By the mid-'90s, it was a transcendent cultural phenomenon, thanks to the Internet — so hip that Director Paul Thomas Anderson took viewers inside the porn scene in the hit 1997 feature film Boogie Nights.

"When I was in porn, it was still kind of underground," Lords told Playboy magazine. "There were people who rented movies, but it was not like it is now. Porn is everywhere. The most conservative people I know like to watch movies. The Internet is a big factor, and there are women who really promote themselves as porn stars. That wasn't happening when I was around. I did what I did and hoped that nobody found out about it. Now people are like, 'Yeah, I'm in a porno movie.' It's pretty bizarre."

Or, as Frank Rich of the New York Times put it, porn is "no longer a sideshow to the mainstream. It is the mainstream."

Adult entertainment store
Adult entertainment store

The seeds of the cultural change were planted a generation ago, in 1973, when the Supreme Court made a historical ruling that only "patently offensive" films, magazines and other materials were obscene. The ruling added the proviso that obscenity should be measured city by city based on local community standards.

In effect, the ruling liberalized American obscenity standards, and pornography became more graphic.

Yet most Americans did not feel comfortable slipping into the local Pink Pussycat "art film" theater for X-rated enjoyment. Pornographic "stag films" were available on 16 or 8 mm film, but that required cumbersome projectors and screens for private showings, and the picture quality was often poor.

Technological changes then began to transform pornography. The invention of the videocassette recorder made porn more accessible. VCRs, first sold in 1975, grew increasingly affordable around 1980. At the same time, the VCR revolution slashed the cost of production, because videotape cost about a penny on the dollar compared with film.

Deep Throat & Devil movies
Deep Throat & Devil movies

VCRs enabled millions of men and women to bring their smut of choice into their homes.

"Porno chic" swept certain precincts across the country, and three seminal XXX films produced in the early '70s soon turned up on videocassette racks in American homes: Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and the Devil in Miss Jones.

The films raked in huge profits for the producers. Deep Throat, shot on a budget of $24,000, is reported to have grossed as much as $600 million. (Producer Ron Howard looks into the film's legacy in a contemporary documentary film, Inside Deep Throat.)

For decades, pornography had been a sleepy cottage industry based in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. But the VCR boom increased the market for new titles, and dozens of new porno production companies popped up. That brought about a corresponding spike in the need for fresh and willing on-camera talent.

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