There is was, right in front me…my heart’s desire. And it might as well have been a mirage before a thirsty desert wanderer. Damn.
One day in the spring of 1978 my mom and I drove out to the recycling center north of town. In those days if you wanted to recycle newspapers and magazines, you drove them out to the place yourself. There was this massive bin to receive recycling, big enough to seem more like a small barn and loaded with paper, bottles, and bags of junk. Earlier that morning, my mom had bundled two large stacks of newspapers and loaded them into the trunk of the Datsun. She hoisted one of the bundles and started toward the bin, gesturing for me to grab the other bundle.
The bundle was heavy, and by the time I made it half way to the bin I passed my mom, already on her way back to the car. I, of course, made a huge production of my discomfort, hoping to guilt her into paying me a few bucks or at least buying me a blizzard at Dairy Queen. She showed no sign of noticing my display. Upon arriving at the bin, I opened the door a crack and started to toss the bundle. Something red and glossy just inside the door immediately caught my eye…an issue of Playboy.
I slipped quickly inside the door to investigate. It wasn’t just one Playboy. I’d seen the one issue on top of a bag, but for all I knew the bag was full of Good Housekeeping or Time or some such boring crap. But to my amazement the large shopping bag actually contained four years worth of monthly issues in chronological order…nearly fifty issues of Playboy. I picked up the issue on top and quickly leafed through…centerfold intact, perfect condition.
My mind raced…how could I possibly get these home?!? How could I even get one of them home? In my running shorts and T-shirt I couldn’t tuck any issues into my clothes, and I sure as shit couldn’t carry the bag back to the car. I was eleven: I couldn’t drive (though I’m sure I entertained the possibility of learning), and it was too far to bike. I just turned and walked back to the car, shaking my head and hoping for sudden inspiration.
I’m no porn historian, but it seems to me Playboy Magazine held a much more significant place in American culture in 1978 than it does now. As a boy I found the “harder” mags such as Hustler pretty disturbing. But Playboy – my friends and I would tear into an issue as if it contained all the answers to the Universe. If anyone had the incredible fortune to come across an issue (usually nicked from the Nite Owl convenience store on Third Street), we’d all get together and study it like a tome. Even the cartoons held the answers to our most hotly-debated topics.
One of my friends went into business around seventh grade (it wasn’t his last capitalistic venture before eventually landing in the pen). His superior shoplifting skills enabled him to accumulate a substantial stash of mags – by then we weren’t so prone to brand loyalty. He’d let us come over and look through his collection, and the he would let us “rent” a magazine for a buck a day. As a courtesy, he permitted the renters to tear one page out of the magazine for keepsies. By the end of seventh grade I had a decent stash of torn-out, well-worn pages bound with a giant paperclip. My mom had a habit of casually leaving my collection of pages out on my desk whenever she discovered a new hiding place. I guess I wasn’t the first to think of stashing something between the mattress and the box springs…
My magazine collecting days ended suddenly and painfully around ninth grade. My father had an elderly housecleaner named Florence, a frail, emaciated chain-smoker who used an entire can of Comet during each bi-weekly visit. Florence picked up where my mom left off in policing my habit, leaving magazines found stashed under the bed out in full view. One day I invited a couple of girls from the school bus over to my house to watch the Brady Bunch. The girls walked straight into my bedroom and discovered my stash of Playboy and Penthouse magazines, spread out in full view on my drafting table. Thanks, Florence.
This all seems sort of innocent now, but I can’t help but feel a little cheated that magazines played such a large part in shaping my notions about sexuality. By the time I had an actual girlfriend, I’d already viewed literally thousands of posed, styled and airbrushed images. I’d developed personal tastes and preferences that really had no connection to objective reality. Perhaps it’s true that men respond to visual stimulus in ways that women do not, and perhaps the porn industry simply responds to the demand created by these tendencies. But regardless, the porn industry and, increasingly, the mainstream media encourage this trait in men to the extent that it’s totally unavoidable. No wonder so many women have body image issues.
My fear is that kids are profoundly affected by viewing erotic images. I know the images I viewed shaped my own perceptions and attitudes. It’s one thing when the images are idealized versions of female anatomy; but my feeling is that it’s a fundamentally different issue when it’s so easy for kids to access violent, repugnant, patently misogynistic images on countless websites. It seems so much easier now to access images in general, and it seems that there’s no limit to the level of degradation depicted in those images. I know for a fact that if I were eleven today, I’d be all over the Internet by any means necessary. As a parent I shudder.