Smut: A Sex-Industry Insider (and Concerned Father) Says Enough is Enough

I interview author Gil Reavill (born October 17, 1953) by phone Thursday morning, 4/21/05.

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Gil: "A marine biologist. Then, as soon as I got my head straightened down, I wanted to be a writer."

Luke: "What kind of crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Gil: "This was the sixties. This was the hippie crowd."

Luke: "What were the expectations you were raised with?"

Gil: "The liberal family. I lived in what was officially, according to the 1970 census, I lived in the whitest metropolitan area in the United States. Wausau, Wisconsin. My parents were good liberals. They even subscribed to Ebony [magazine] because they wanted us kids to have a grasp on how other cultures were.

"We were WASPs. We went to a Unitarian church.

"I majored in English. I went to University of Wisconsin at Madison and then graduated from the University of Colorado (in 1979).

"I worked at daily newspapers in Colorado. I moved to New York in late 1980. In 1981, I answered an ad in the Village Voice that didn't name the publication but I remember the ad saying, 'Controversial village weekly.' That's where I met Mr. Al Goldstein and I started working as his ghostwriter at Screw [weekly]. I did his 'Screw You' column up front and then we started doing a lot of freelance stuff for Playboy, Penthouse. I did a lot of op/ed stuff for him."

Luke: "Did you go into those joints and write reviews of massage parlors?"

Gil: "Sure. This was before the [AIDS] plague. I dove into the commercial sex world. I was fairly innocent and naive (politically and sexually). I experienced everything that New York could throw at somebody in the early eighties, which was quite a bit. It was the Wild West. Yeah, I did it all."

Luke: "How did you meet your wife?"

Gil: "In a poetry workshop."

Luke: "When did you guys get married?"

Gil has to think about it. "In 1987 maybe?"

Luke: "She wasn't disturbed by your writing for Screw?"

Gil: "Ahh, I can't speak for her."

Luke: "Was it an issue in your relationship?"

Gil: "No. It was part of the package. It was a go-go time in New York City. The attitude was the feast in the midst of the plague. It's a medieval term. When the plague hit, they used to barricade themselves and concentrate on hedonistic pursuits."

Luke: "What's your relationship to monogamy?"

Gil: "At the present time?"

Luke: "Answer it any way you want."

Gil: "It's not monogamy I mind. It's celibacy. I burned through my philanderings. I love my wife. It may not be for everybody but I think it is a good thing for a lot of people."

Luke: "When did you become a father?"

Gil: "I was 38. 1990."

Luke: "What did you love and hate about your time writing on commercial sex?"

Gil: "I love the down low, declasse, louche energy of it. The flip side of the squeaky clean American coin. Times Square. There's a subversive energy to it. I think I grew out of that. I still appreciate it but I tend to put it into some sort of perspective after I became a father. I've changed in other ways too and I think the world has changed."

Luke: "How has having a daughter affected your view of the commercial sex industry and how society should relate to it?"

Gil: "The easy answer is that becoming a parent has changed everything. But that's not really true. Even back in the eighties, back when I was working for Al Goldstein, I strongly believed that sexual material should be kept segregated. Goldstein believed that. There was a disclaimer right in front of every Screw magazine sold that this material was of an adult nature, not intended for minors, who may not purchase it or view it or obtain it in any way. I believe that. I believe that this material should be available to consenting adults.

"My book is about sexual material you don't ask for and don't want and don't consent and you get slapped in the face with it. Yeah, I'm offended for my daughter. Yeah, I'm offended for people who don't want this stuff, but I'm also offended for myself because sometimes I am not in the mood. I find it reprehensible. Maybe I'm projecting on to other people... I've seen it all. I just have this gut feeling that a lot of material presented in this culture, and the way it is presented, represents a form of sexual abuse of children. Not physically. But when you are confronting children under ten years old with adult sexuality, that's reprehensible.

"Our culture does it in all sorts of different ways. The porn industry isn't the major problem. It's the mainstream media who are taking their cue from the porn industry and dishing stuff up in venues where people don't have any choice.

"I was downtown recently and I heard a three-year-old singing that 50 Cent song about 'I take you to the candy shop, I'll let you lick the lollypop, Go 'head girl, don't you stop.' Ok, it probably didn't cause any lasting damage, but a lot of people, including me, don't need a lot of psychological studies. It just doesn't seem right to expose young children to adult sexuality."

Luke: "Any particular thing triggered your writing of this book?"

Gil: "No. A couple of things went into this. The Janet Jackson episode. And just sitting down and watching MTV for two weeks straight for two-or-three hours a day. My daughter is to the age where she's watching MTV a lot. I wanted to see what was going on. The golden age of music video is over and a lot of these things are witless. The casual sexism on display is breathtaking. The sexual content is moronic because it is so obsessive."

Luke: "What do you mean by sexism?"

Gil: "It's a world of pimps and hos. There's only one role for men and only one role for women. Even back at Screw magazine in the 1980s, there were a lot of different roles for women and for men. Everybody recognized it was a fluid thing. But not in this reductive media atmosphere where we are presented with the two basic models of humanity."

Luke: "Do you feel any contrition for your work as a writer on commercial sex, which implies that commercial sex is fine?"

Gil: "No. If you took all the magazines I ever worked on, it still wouldn't address the problem -- that sometimes people want these things and sometimes they don't. There should be spaces in our culture kept clear of them. I believe in different standards for private expression and for public expression. I don't think that makes me a hypocrite. I think that makes me civilized."

Luke: "Do you think pornography exacerbates the male tendency to sexually objectify women?"

Gil: "Yes, but I don't think that's its major purpose or effect."

Luke: "Do you honestly believe that pornography can be an island that only consenting adults [can visit] when they choose to?"

Gil: "I think we can do better. I don't think it's a question of government control and law. We need to voluntarily reshape our culture. The example I like to use is the example of the family newspaper. There is no code of ethics imposed by the government on newspapers. But you don't see nudity in American newspapers. You don't see certain words in American newspapers. The code of what is acceptable isn't even written down. It's purely voluntary. It's passed from the newsroom veteran to the newsroom cub.

"That is the model. What if the internet had something like that? What if Hollywood had something like that? What if other realms of media had that sort of idea of what's acceptable and what's not."

Luke: "When I ask pornographers if what they're doing is morally licit, the primary answer I get is that it is legal and therefore ok. For most people, legality equals morality. By effectively legalizing pornography, that makes it ok for millions of people."

Gil: "I don't agree with that at all. There are plenty of things that aren't illegal that aren't cool. I'm with Hannibal Lecter. I think that rudeness is a cardinal sin. The world that we constructed at the beginning of the millenium is rude. It's in your face. And it doesn't have to be. It's people acting out. People insecure in their place in society and they feel like they have to thrust themselves into other people's affairs. I'm offended by that.

"I know a lot of people in the commercial sex biz and they are not the evil monsters, the evil geniuses, that some people portray them as."

Luke: "Are they engaged in an honorable livelihood?"

Gil: "That's between them and their conscience."

Luke: "What's your view?"

Gil: "I certainly felt I was engaged in an honorable enterprise when I was working for Al Goldstein. I thought I was a crusader for the First Amendment and a firebrand for freedom."

Luke: "And you still hold by that today?"

Gil: "I still believe in those values."

Luke: "Do you still believe that you were a crusader for the First Amendment and a firebrand for freedom when you were writing for Screw?"

Gil: "No. I think that was a load of bull. After I got to know Al Goldstein, I realized he didn't care about anyone's freedom except his own. It was a cynical manipulation of the idea of freedom. Freedom doesn't mean total abdication of responsibility."

Luke: "Do you think it is honorable to make your living trafficking in the flesh of 18-year old girls and commercially distributing that product?"

Gil: "I'm going to have to say once again that that is between them and their conscience. I would certainly scruple at that personally."

Luke: "Why wouldn't you then extend that to others?"

Gil: "Because I'm all about a libertarian approach to solving social problems. That there should be a collective consensus of what's appropriate and what's not appropriate. People who deviate from that -- I don't think that government action is the way to correct it."

Luke: "Yeah, but you're not even willing to say that they are morally doing wrong. Trafficking in 18-year old flesh."

Gil: "Yeah, I know. It troubles me deeply. I don't want to assume the role of somebody who says that this is ok and that is not ok.

"I'm saying in my book that we can do a better job, not with these black-and-white judgments but with the grey areas. I can imagine that there exists in the world today an 18-year old girl who has the capability of and judgment of deciding for herself what she wants to do. I believe there might be somebody like that in the world."

Luke: "Is the cumulative on average net effect on an 18-year old girl who does 30 porn films negative?"

Gil: "I think it has been well demonstrated consistently that there were a lot of dysfunctional people who came into porn... If you read [Jenna Jameson's book] How To Make Love Like A Porn Star... By the same token, there were some who didn't fit that profile.

"What is the accumulative effect on an 18-year old girl? Well, 99.9% of the time it's probably horribly injurious. I just can't give you a categorical..."

Luke: "That's an answer -- 99.9% of the time injurious is an answer. That's a blunt answer."

Gil sounds uncomfortable on the other end of the phone.

We take a pause.

Luke: "Did you have to personally struggle with stuff to write this book?"

Gil: "Oh sure. I've been on the other side of this question for a long time. I wrote a proposal, which is how you sell non-fiction books. You write 50-pages and you go to a publisher and say, 'Do you want to hire me to write this book?'

"When I wrote that proposal, I showed it to my wife and she said, 'There's nothing in here that is not you.' She's my best sounding board.

"I still believe in the American ideal of creating the widest arena for expression. I'm still a member of the ACLU. I still believe in their work. I'm just saying we can do better at segregating material intended for adults."

Luke: "Do you support the decriminalization of prostitution?"

Gil: "I'm going to take a pass on that one."

Luke: "I assume that 20-years ago you did support it?"

Gil: "I worked for a rag that was filled with ads for prostitutes. Generally, yes, from a libertarian point of view, government regulation so often backfires. It so often does the exact opposite of what it intended to do."

Luke: "So, rather than taking a pass on the question, why not say you support the decriminalization of prostitution?"

Gil: "These are big ol' thorny questions and not totally germane to what I'm talking about in my book."

Luke: "Decriminalization of drugs?"

Gil: "I think we can do better. The war against drugs has created a whole underculture in the prisons in this country."

Luke: "So therefore you support decriminalizing cocaine, heroin and the like?"

Gil: "I'm going to have to take a pass on that one too.

"What I feel like you're trying to do is pin me down to black and white positions. I've worked on stories about DEA agents, for example. I did a lot of true-crime stuff. I've worked a lot with police and criminals. I've come to realize that there are humans on both sides of the fence. That means fallible humans on both sides of the fence. I would think that would be true for prostitutes too.

"I don't think America as a culture is ready to decriminalize either prostitution or drugs although Nevada's experience... I went out there for Elle and lived in a whorehouse for a week. I talked to all the women. The story I produced for Elle, maybe one aspect of my experience there, these were just human beings. They had a lot of different reasons why they were there. When they are presented in the media context -- oh, a hooker at the Bunny Ranch -- that's just one aspect."

Luke: "Yeah, but it is the one aspect that is going to overwhelm in most minds any other aspect?"

Gil: "I know that to be true."

Luke: "Do you think that reveals some fundamental human truth about sexuality?"

Gil: "I've been guilty of this and I've certainly seen this on the part of other people -- of a need to mythologize sexuality and place it in some transcendent context. In the book, I quote Lenin's mistress who says that sex should be like drinking a glass of water. It should be that ordinary and devoid of all this..."

Luke: "Transcendence."

Gil: "Of all this incredible weight we put on it. The realm of commercial sex isn't the primary guilty party here. Hollywood wants it this way. It loves it. It loves to present sex as some sort of transforming act, but every time I've done the deed, I've woken up the next morning. I still have to deal with myself."

Luke: "Why do you support viewing sex as a transaction like drinking a glass of water rather than something with transcendent meaning?"

Gil: "I just don't think that it works. I'm looking for transcendence just like everyone else, but from all the heavy lifting I've done in this area and people trying to make it something other than it is, I've never seen it really work. I've only seen people deluded."

Luke: "You think it is a delusion to ascribe transcendent meaning to sex?"

Gil: "Right. I think the only transcendence there is in this world is love."

Luke: "So you're fine with decoupling sex from love?"

Gil: "Well, you know... It's great when they coincide."

Luke: "Do you think society has an interest in coupling sex with love?"

Gil: "Society has an interest in decoupling sex from love and twisting sex in a hundred different ways like it was a gumby toy and trying to make something of it that it isn't. I identify it as reverse Puritanism. If you take a Puritan as someone who believes in no sex, reverse Puritanism is all-sex-all-the-time. Puritanism and reverse Puritanism are related and they are both idiocy."

Luke: "So how do you decide what is right and wrong?"

Gil: "In this field there's a question of social consensus. There's a tremendous amount of frustration out there at the tone of our culture.

"I don't believe in imposing an idea of right and wrong. I do believe in a social consensus. Take the question of nudity in America. Nudity in Europe is a much different deal. There are nude beaches all around. There are topless women on page three [of The Sun newspaper in London]. America has a different tradition. You can say that one is right and one is wrong but that's like trying to stop the river from flowing. I'd like to honor our own culture. There's a vast agreement on what's appropriate. Poll results are overpowering that there's a widespread sense of frustration that the tone of the culture doesn't match the expectations of people in the culture. That offends me. It's undemocratic."

Luke: "So if I was to ask you what is the source of morality, you would say social consensus?"

Gil: "I think that's, you know, a good sort of rule of thumb."

Luke: "So if we had a society where the social consensus was to murder Tutsis or Jews, does that mean that such killing is right?"

Gil: "Consensus is informed by some sense of human ideals."

Luke: "Where are those derived from? What's the source?"

Gil: "Philosophy."

Luke: "Which philosophy?"

Gil: "Religion."

Luke: "Which?"

Gil: "Morals. Moral philosophers."

Luke: "Which moral philosophers? They disagree."

Gil: "They do disagree but I don't think you can really trackdown a social philosopher that really has a name that supports genocide."

[Gil writes later: "In the case of the Nazis and Hutus, that wasn’t social consensus, that was a small group highjacking social consensus and pursuing their own unconscionable ends. But there has been a consensus, down through history, about social justice. And most moral philosophers, all major religions, and modern progressive political thought has the same basis: for the weak, and against the strong. And who is the weakest element in society? Children. They are without voice. They have to depend on adults to give them their voice. So that’s what I feel is fundamental here: for the weak, and against the strong."]

Luke: "The Greeks and Greek philosophers were fine with leaving deformed children on hillsides to die."

Gil: "Things change. These are thorny issues we are talking about here. There's a great deal of goodwill in the world and we should harness that more and insist upon creating a world we feel comfortable in. Right now we've created a world where people feel uncomfortable. With a modicum of restraint, good sense, and discernment, we can do better. We're doing poorly now at protecting our children and people who are offended."

Luke: "Do you feel a tension between your libertarian ideals and the reality of parenting?"

Gil: "My own private household is not a libertarian realm. We've got rules."

Luke: "But more than that."

Gil: "I feel a huge tension in any libertarian viewpoint. Take an example of child labor laws. If you ever want to talk to a libertarian and bring him down to an elemental question, ask him about child labor laws. Of course I support child labor laws. Is that a violation of my libertarian ideals? So be it. There are some aspects of this book that are anti-libertarian. But contradiction is part of the human condition."

Luke: "Maybe you are moving away from libertarianism to?"

Gil jokes: "Fascism."

Luke: "No. To something. Maybe you realized libertarianism sounded fine in theory but I'm not sure you want to decriminalize prostitution, decriminalize drugs, eliminate child labor laws."

Gil: "Exactly. I think you're right."

Luke, stealing from Michael Medved: "Which phrase do you more resonate to? 'Express yourself' or 'Do your duty.'"

Gil: "I'm a writer so I'd have to say -- express yourself.

"This has been a hard book for me to write in that I have a lot of friends who were very much against it. They told me I was dancing with the devil. I tend to think of this as telling truth to power. A lot of powerful interests are interested in perpetuating a type of culture that is not acceptable to a lot of people that live in America."

Luke: "Do you have a strong need to not to say you were wrong in the stuff you used to do in the eighties? Or you are just A-ok with everything you did in the eighties?"

Gil: "Yes, I am. Because I was a twenty-something male, I was harnessed to this idea of rebellion, transgression. That's a tremendously effective idea when you are looking for your place in the world and you feel ignored and neglected and nobody's paying any attention to you.

"I was the young prince of my family. Then you go out into the world and that and a buck fifty will get me onto the subway.

"I know that me and the boys who used to work at Screw definitely subscribed to tweaking the bourgeoisie."

Luke: "And now in retrospect?"

Gil: "I think that impulse is fine and suitable for twenty-year-olds. But I don't think that impulse should be enshrined at the center of the culture the way we have done so. Western Civilization is the only culture that has done so. We've made it the coin of the realm. I was twenty-something then. I'm fifty-something now. Do I deny myself and say I was wrong then and I'm right now? I see it as a continuum. I wasn't thinking about these things then. I wasn't a deep social thinker, not that I am one now.

"I was all too easily gulled by someone like Al Goldstein into thinking I was going to the barricades for the First Amendment."

Luke: "There are going to be some middle-class people who went to college and responsible boring jobs, led conventional lives where they held a strict rein on their sexual impulse and other impulses, who are going to pick up your book and say, 'Hey Gil, you were part of the problem that created this problem.'"

Gil: "You could burn in the public square every magazine I've been with and that would still not address the problem.

"I believed back then in keeping sexually-oriented materials away from children. I wrote a New York Times Op/Ed piece for Al Goldstein [July 3, 1984] that articulated that stance. It's reprinted in my book Smut. Those are my words. Al just told me to attack mainstream media for showing horror films."

Luke: "But to adapt John Donne, surely you realize that no porn is an island. It inevitably bleeds into the general culture. It inevitably gets into the hands of children. It inevitably affects the way people treat children and men relate to women."

Gil: "That might be true, but I think we can do better with our barriers and our islands and our moats and our walls. I have no interest in living in a G-rated culture. But I do want a culture where there's choice. In this culture, there is no choice."

Luke: "Have you lost friends over this book?"

Gil: "Yeah. I hope the bridges will be repaired in the future but I've got a lot of people disgusted with me. It's an indication of how polarized this issue is. You can not venture forth with a mitigated approach (consenting adults anything goes, for children and people who aren't interested in it, there should be more attention paid to keeping this material out of their hands and out of their faces). There's an element of rubbing people's face in transgressive material, not only sexual material. If you feel like your buttons are being pushed in this culture, you're right. It's intentional.

"I remember sitting around an office meeting with Al Goldstein and we weren't articulating it in that particular way -- let's push buttons -- but that's precisely what we were into."

Luke: "Do you have disgust for Al Goldstein?"

Gil: "On a personal level, yes. The man is... I can't even articulate what kind of reprehensible person he is.

"I talk about in the book how there are two Al Goldsteins. There's the Al Goldstein for public consumption. Goldstein the symbol. And the Al Goldstein that I knew. The Al Goldstein who hurt everybody he came in contact with including me. I don't think there's a bridge in that man's life that he hasn't burned."

Luke: "Didn't you realize he was a monster when you were working for him?"

Gil: "For some reason, I was spared. He never directed his anger at me until the very end. I was doing a lot of other things. I wasn't only writing for him. I had a career as a playwright in off-off-off-off-Broadway theatres.

"I accepted it for what it was. It was tremendously exciting in the beginning. As a writer, somebody pays you to run off at the mouth. It was incredible."

Luke: "Weren't you a hit man for Goldstein? Weren't you taking after people he wanted to hurt?"

Gil: "Yes. I guess the way I rationalized that was that a lot of times these were corporate CEOs and powerful people such as Carl Icahn. From a twenty-something point of view, that was perfect."

Luke: "But in retrospect, you realize that many of the people you were hurting didn't deserve it?"

Gil: "The choke on his shotgun was very wide. In his later days, he attacked some people, his secretary, for example. It was beyond the pale. He was always beyond the pale. He lived beyond the pale. I thought that was groovy. Not only in retrospect, but during my experience of working with him, I was often charmed and entertained by him, but the dominant reaction I had to him was disgust."

Luke: "Have you ever considered apologizing to any of the innocent people you savaged on his behalf?"

Gil: "Well, I can't really think of any innocent people. Carl Icahn, the corporate raider? I realize there's the twelve-step program where you go back to apologize to everybody."

Luke: "Not everybody. Just innocent people you hurt."

Gil: "Nobody really stands out. I once wrote an editorial against myself. He told me I was screwed up. I ghostwrote an editorial against myself.

"In his public persona, he was right on much of the time because he was attacking self-righteousness. We can all get mileage out of that... I realize today that pointing a finger at somebody and saying you're a hypocrite, like Al often did, is like pointing a finger at somebody and saying, 'You're breathing.' It's not that big of a claim to make.

"In the way he treated people in his personal life, it was a spectacle of awfulness."

Luke: "Were you an enabler?"

Gil: "Maybe. Not in that sense, but maybe in his public persona. I was a hired gun. I was gunslinger. Gunslingers don't really care if they work for the sheepherders or the cattle barons. I was having too much fun in New York in the early eighties to really think too much about who I was working for. I agreed with him targeting people like Carl Icahn."

Luke: "Do you believe that we have a soul that lives on after we die?"

Long pause.

Gil: "I don't know if I am prepared for this level of discussion.

"Let me see. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't."

Luke: "Are you concerned that this book might cost you writing gigs for Penthouse and other sexually-oriented publications?"

Gil: "It already has. Maxim gave me the boot. I was a consulting editor and a contributor (a dozen stories over three years). I didn't write social commentary for them. I wrote true-crime and investigative reporting. I've got a lot of friends there. When I sent them the galleys, they spiked a story I was preparing. It wasn't acrimonious. They weren't cursing me out.

"Again, the only problem I had with something like Maxim was their display policy. The problem isn't somebody reading Maxim in the privacy of their own home. The problem is that when I'm cruising through the airport and I'm confronted with a vast display of Maxim covers... I want to choose. I know there are a lot of other people out there who want to choose. That was the substance of my beef with Maxim and they couldn't accept that. They've been assailed on that account a lot. Maxim magazine has to sell a million copies off the newsstand to meet their circulation goals."

Luke: "Why did you send them galleys of your book?"

Gil: "I have friends there. I don't want them to suffer because I was going to ambush them."

Luke: "Do you think you'll be able to keep writing for Penthouse?"

Gil: "Yes. Peter Bloch, the longtime managing editor, is another friend of mine. He read the book. He was amazingly evenhanded about it. We left it at that.

"They have to find an explanation for why a member of our side would flip over. This has nothing to do with selling my parenting book. That's still in print but on the remainder shelves.

"I've always had strong feelings that this stuff is not appropriate for children and not appropriate for me every minute of the day. But in this polarized environment, if you breathe a word, uh, no thanks to Janet Jackson, I really don't want to see your breast on the half-time show, or Nelly who was on the same show, I really don't want to see that dirty dancing right at this moment, oh, you're in the other camp. That's moronic. People are capable of holding both ideas at the same time. It's the same on the Right. They have this zero tolerance approach to smut. Sorry, it's not going to work."

Luke: "Do you think Times Square is better or worse today than in the early eighties?"

Gil: "Using the utilitarian gauge of the most good for the most people, I think there’s no question that Times Square today is a better place. But I will always cherish the days of Hubert’s Flea Circus."

Luke: "This has been awesome. Thank you."

Gil: "Thank you. I can't believe the depth and personal attention."