1960s fetish magazines and ‘deviant’ porn: Gillian Freeman’s The Undergrowth of Literature

Freeman 1
The artwork is curiously ahead of its time: this paperback edition was published in 1969, but the soft line of the air-brushing reminds me irresistibly of early 1970s album covers, and of Alan Aldridge’s glorious artwork in The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1973).

I tripped up over this remarkable 1967 study of fetish magazines in an academic second-hand bookshop, looking for something on magazine history. I didn’t notice till later that the cover presents a rather stylised bondage scene, and so I decided that perhaps I wouldn’t be reading this on the plane. When I did read it, at least two men of my acquaintance offered eagerly to borrow it, but I have to say, The Undergrowth of Literature is not a fun read. It’s book history and sociology combined, using a vast amount of very specialist magazines. It made me glum and depressed.

This may have been Freeman’s objective: to present pornography in 1967 as being pleasurable would have courted prosecution. She very carefully avoids saying that readers took pleasure (or relief, joy, happiness, or a welcome sense of community) in this kind of reading. This is a pioneering work on a darkly shadowed area of the modern magazine market that we don’t often come across in periodicals studies: popular magazines about sex in all its non-standard forms. Freeman’s writing is mostly objective, straightforward and forthright, though very dated in some of the terms it uses, and in the contemporary attitudes that it betrays. Here’s another warning to trumpet loud and clear: if you read this book, do not expect up-to-the-minute awareness or language sensitivity about the politics and rights of transsexuals (now transgender), homosexuality or participants in bondage or flagellation, all lumped in together as ‘deviants’. ‘Deviance’ is used hundreds of times, an inescapable reminder of how in the later 1960s the very idea of a transsexual was something pitiable and unnatural.

In all other respects Gillian Freeman is a humane and empathic narrative voice, and mostly non-judgemental. She knows quite a lot about sex magazines. In 1961 she published The Leather Boys, her fifth novel, about working-class homosexuality, released as a biker film in 1964, starring Rita Tushingham. Her writing of The Undergrowth of Literature is praised by the eminent psychiatrist David Stafford-Clark, who had been an expert witness during the trial over the illegality of publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one assumes on the side of Penguin Books. However, he drops a crashingly patriarchal brick in his Foreword, by criticising her use of humour when discussing these serious subjects. ‘If Gillian Freeman has taken a certain refuge in flippancy, it is only because, as a woman as well as a writer seeking to find love, and finding all too often anything but love in this exposure of pornography, she would have recoiled in disgust had she not been able to retain a certain salutary detachment. The price of that detachment in her case has been a deliberately feminine whimsical humour; and to that of course she is entitled, since it has been left to the composition of this foreword to supply the heavier and more determinedly scholarly material’.

This doesn't suggest cheerful reading
This doesn’t suggest cheerful reading

Well, that’s nonsense. Freeman gives a perfectly sound scholarly basis for her findings in her first chapter, and there is no flippancy (a lack of respect for serious issues, expressed with superficiality, shallowness and glibness) or ‘feminine’ humour (there is no such thing) in this book. There is, however, facetiousness (showing disrespect for pompousness and arrogance) to illuminate ‘normal’ perspectives on the anecdotes and practices that Freeman describes. The way she cocks a snoot is pure Monty Python, and I would like to think that her contemporaries, Messrs Cleese, Palin, Jones, et al could have been urged to read this book by Graham Chapman, who as a gay man and a doctor could well have known about it.

So, onto the sex magazines. Freeman eases us into the world of dodgy periodicals by beginning with mainstream women’s magazines. Her feminist critique of the range of their attitudes to sex, ‘purity’, the boredom of housewifery, and the role of the woman in the home should be required reading for any scholar of women’s magazines of the 1960s, as it is the most intelligently researched study that I’ve read for this period.

We segue from anxious girls wanting advice about straying fiancés to the magazines that sent those men straying in the first place. Penthouse and Playboy are of course still household names: we also learn about King (slightly into fetishism), and Lui  (a French version). Moving onto queer and camp magazines, Freeman takes us through the interests catered for by Amigo (published in Denmark), Physique Pictorial, Trim and Male Classics. With Freeman, it is hard not to snort with delight at these titles, because this is territory already well-explored for laughs by the satirists who released British society from the restricted viewpoints of the 1960s (Python included). This subject is already sodden in facetiousness by association. We can take it seriously, but only by focusing on the human needs and social restrictions that produced these magazines in the first place.

Freeman points out that since homosexuality was at that time illegal in the USA and in the UK, body-building was the accepted cover for magazines celebrating masculine bodies. She praises Mattachine, Tangent and One as being among the best of the magazines for gay men. What I found a little troubling was how she described the junior versions of these, such as ‘Junior, an American pictorial for fifteen to nineteen year olds’, and the young boy models featured in Male Classics and Trim Quarterly, posing naked to show their bodies. To be fair, she does raise the question of paedophilia as being served by these particular magazines, but only as a side issue. There are no flip remarks here, just the steady presentation of the increasingly unpleasant associations of young male bodies exposed to the buyer’s desire. The recent revelation of how the Paedophile Information Exchange attempted to inveigle its way onto the British civil liberties agenda in the 1970s shows quite how differently we protected adolescents and children from sexual predation then.

Freeman presents a similarly uncomfortable pairing of jolly jokes (not hers) about ‘fladge’ and sadism in sex. Her evidence from graffiti and requests for advice from magazine columnists gives a pretty strong sense that flagellation really could well have been (even still be) the maladie anglaise. The chapter begins with spanking, and some very racy fiction from Justice Monthly, followed by a deluge of evidence about the normalisation of hitting for pleasure from the Victorian period onwards, public school traditions very much included. By incorporating fiction into this discussion, since there is apparently a great deal of it for readers to browse amongst, Freeman shows how even Enid Blyton encouraged and rationalised hitting children for their own good, and quite often for their pleasure. Good grief, how times have changed.

More hard-core flagellation stories are kept for the next chapter, in which sadism, brutality and really horrible combinations of sex, rape and violence are found in the pages of Man, Man’s Story, Man’s True Danger and Men Today. There is the same obsession with brutal Nazis in these extremely niche magazines that I remember from the boys’ Commando comic books that my brother and I read in the 1970s, only the Nazis in these 1960s men’s magazines are very obviously female in over-tight uniforms and no personal boundaries. One of the main markets for such a focus on selling brutality and sex together was the sado-masochistic community, which is where the real pornography emerges; absolutely, definitely, NSFW, or anywhere outside total privacy, actually. I scrambled through that section, not wishing to look too closely at its many anecdotal extracts.

I urge any reader who has studied Gender Studies to be gentle with chapter seven, on transvestisism: the theories and terminology have moved on since the 1960s, and Freeman must simply be regarded here as a historical commentator. She clearly feels deeply about the sad stories and repressed unhappy lives that she picks out from the magazines and novels. What’s missing in her account is the joy the fulfilment from cross-dressing that readers of these magazines must have felt. There is also almost no sense of solidarity, whereas both are completely central to the transvestite and transgender communities today. Magazines like Turnabout, Men in Skirts and Skirted Men appear now as powerful, pioneering locuses of support and affirmation of a then underground way of life. The stories that these magazines published are fantasies of sex, submission and fabulous textiles, some seriously astonishing and not a little alarming for the outsider. The magazine The Art of Female Impersonation exemplifies how male-oriented this chapter is: very little is said here about women ‘passing’ as men.

In the chapters on bondage and rubber, the magazine titles continue to impress by their audacity and openness: Bound, Bizarre Life, Betty Page in Bondage, and Rubber News. The evidence of latent and active paedophilia in the stories of men tying up their pubescent daughters is clearly of psychological or legal concern, for incitement if nothing else. The inventiveness in this kind of fiction in pretending that the incest angle was completely normal was almost as disturbing as the young boys in the body-building magazines. Throughout the book, Freeman shows us a range of scenes that will shock, horrify, amuse (so patronising) and revolt us. It’s important that we, in 1967 and thereafter, know that this material exists.

The stories and anecdotes from her really astonishingly extensive survey concerns the eagerness of many wives to submit to spanking and being dressed up in rubber. Men do this too, of course, but, once again, I was reminded forcibly of the Monty Python sketch ‘Mice and Men’ (see the link here), in which ‘eating cheese’ and ‘dressing up as mice a bit’ was a splendidly funny euphemism for any ‘deviation’ you fancied laughing at. How strange and how human that humour is the automatic response to something that has the potential, for some people, to be horrifying.

Lesbianism is allowed its own space, with a fairly perfunctory survey of the themes that the magazines pursue. Arena Three, Buttock Fetishism and Breast Fetishism seem to be the leading titles for the market at this period. The pornography seems to have been as violent as anything aimed at straight male tastes, but with more women. Freeman seems to have had trouble finding as many periodicals aimed at women on women as she found for a male market, and assumes therefore that women simply don’t want to read them. I think this is questionable. The final chapter is a provocative look at the Anglophone obsession with caped and costumed superheroes. Deviation and fetishisation are everywhere, even in The Avengers: both the US and the British versions, with superheroes and Mrs Emma Peel in latex.

And now for a nice cup of tea. I think we need it.

 

 

 

 

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