Sex & Relationships

Art and Porn: An Interview with Editor Dian Hanson

Porn editor Dian Hanson on art and porn, censorship, the mainstreaming of pornography and her experience as a woman working in adult entertainment.
When you get your hands on something called The Big Penis Book, a 384-page hardcover featuring 400 artfully photographed, supersized phalluses, you have certain expectations. You expect that it will be a great book but not one that you will actually read. You expect that there are friends you'll have to forbid from taking it into the bathroom with them. You expect it to be hot.

You do not expect one of its most intriguing features to be the woman who put it together.

Dian Hanson is the editor whose rich, informative prose and unusual background as a porn publisher nearly upstaged The Big Penis Book for me (it was, by the way, better than I expected).

"I always loved pornography," Hanson says in the documentary Crumb, (1994) about cartoonist R. Crumb, who Hanson once dated. "I took my birthday money when I turned 18 and went to the adult bookstore and bought pornography."

At the time the film was shot she was the editor of Leg Show, a men's fetish magazine concentrating on great gams and the men who love them. She has also been at the helm of Juggs, which featured super DDDuper large-breasted women and founded Big Butt magazine, in which she'd planned to showcase girls with small waists and disproportionately large cabooses (cabeese?), but which has since focused on bigger women. I never saw any of these during Hanson's tenure but I did use Big Butt magazine as an all-purpose punch line for years never imagining that I'd be so curious about its originator.

In a phone interview from her LA office, we discussed the relationship between art and porn, new censorship issues rearing up in the porn industry, the health of the actors, and her experience as a woman working in porn. (we don't talk about how I can get a life like hers; that is between me and my fairy godmother).

Hanson was a respiratory therapist when a chance opportunity came to her in 1976 to go to New York City and help launch a porn magazine. The combination of a natural aesthetic, an intense interest in sexuality and the will to please her readers was an excellent combination for an editor of porn.

"I wanted to make (the readers) happy," she says. "I didn't want to change their views on things ... what I really wanted was something that would absolutely and precisely meet their needs. It's a very commercial instinct that I have." Reading their letters was as if "I were looking inside their minds," which is really the greatest intimacy of all.

"We're simple creatures. Everything we're attracted to (we're attracted to) in the same way, bright colors and the flow of shapes," she says, when I ask her about an interview (Folio magazine, 1996) where she compared food photography to porn, both being about appetite, sensuousness and desire. That flowing, fluid sensuality is usually thought of as feminine, but Hanson been working on another book, The Complete Tom of Finland, that has made her see that roundness in men as well.

"His men were considered the ultimate in masculinity ... but they're absolutely feminine in that they're composed of rounded shapes. Their buttocks are round as melons," she says. "We're attracted to round, buoyant things, be it a hamburger or a breast."

In November 2001, Hanson came to Taschen, a company known for their hip, elegant books. The UK Guardian described them with: "Only at the house of Taschen would homoerotica sit side by side with horticulture, Fetish Girls next to French Impressionism."

Hanson worried that at Taschen she "was going to somehow have to change my aesthetic and learn to look at pictures and see something that was arty and different than pornography." Then she realized she was hired because she already had the ability to showcase sexuality in a certain way. "It's the same thing ... you're looking for curves. Everything sexually appealing has curves," she says, including the penis. "It's not a spike. It's not the Washington Monument."

The Big Penis Book seems destined to be another huge winner (Sorry. There is no way around the puns).

"It was even more fun than I thought it was going to be," Hanson says when I ask her if it was the funnest project ever.

"All my career in magazines was working with female imagery, and I always enjoyed it ... but I am heterosexual and so when I started working on (The Big Penis Book) I really discovered what male photographers and editors had known all along and that is there are just going to be some images that grab you, that get you, in a way that is not simply aesthetic," Hanson laughs. "It helped to keep me going when I had to, say ... look at 300,000 images that were all in negative form from one man's archive."

300,000. Negatives. From one source.

No. She never got dicked out.

"It's my nature to be maddeningly thorough," she says. "It would have been easy at the beginning of the third day ... to say "Oh, I've probably got enough." However "there may be that wonderful one, that perfect one, that best one that I'm going to miss."

Her tenacity seems to have paid off. When she brought "the book" (as it's now known in my circle) to the Taschen American sales conference, "the women just fell on it like beasts and actually tore it up from grabbing it back and forth from each other." The straight men, she says, were in the corner saying 'I didn't think you girls liked that sort of thing! Every woman I ever met said she didn't care!' she laughs, "and I'd think 'Relax guys, it's not like they demand it. They're just interested."

Watching women react to "the book" -- some giggle, some smile lasciviously, some don't want to see it, some aesthetically fine-tooth comb each shot -- I think how rarely I hear most women I know talk about having an interest in pornography, much less an avid interest. I asked Hanson if she gets a lot of flack from women about her career -- interestingly it's men who try to guilt her. She would "meet these liberal guys" who would say "Oh, don't you worry about what you're doing to women and children?" Children were not in, nor were they meant to see, her magazines, she'd counter, and as for women, "I'm a woman making this, I work with a lot of female photographers, I work with female make-up artists, I'm working with women who are the models, and in fact what you have here are a whole pack of women working together to exploit male sexual vulnerability," which kind of upends the whole victim thing. Testosterone makes men more vulnerable to visual sexual cues, she says. " ... and a man masturbating at a distance to a woman never hurt her."

All media evolves, though, and a harsher, more hardcore porn has gained a market niche lately. Some raw, violent and extreme content, Hanson notes, has come under legal fire. She clues me in to a case that began in April when adult film producer John Stagliano was charged by a federal grand jury with multiple counts of obscenity. "In addition to his own films, Stagliano's company Evil Angel is one of the largest distributors in the nation of adult titles by other directors. It is those films that form the heart of the indictment," writes Richard Abowitz in the LA Times. After my talk with Dian I find that in my own backyard, Tampa, Paul F. Little, aka Max Hardcore, was convicted last month of "10 counts of selling obscene material on the Internet and 10 counts of shipping it to Tampa through the U.S. mail," writes Kevin Graham in the St. Petersburg Times.

"There's a lot of debate about this ... they are starting to prosecute pornographers again here in LA and it has to do with this very rough sex, things like bukkake ... where men are not just masturbating on a woman's face but spitting on a woman's face." (Bukkake refers to a group of men ejaculating onto a woman's face), Hanson says. She has a "visceral" reaction to such things, though she doesn't believe in censorship and that if a woman is there she's there of her own free will. "I've heard women say 'Oh, I'd rather do bukkake because I think it's safer than doing anal gang bangs.' Well, maybe it's a shame there isn't some alternative ... or at that point maybe it's time to go work at Burger King for awhile."

She's not really kidding. A refusal on the part of the talent to participate in "things that are injurious to their health -- sexual or otherwise," is something she would like to see in female and gay bottom performers -- straight men seldom put their health at risk and the disparity bothers her. "I reiterate that I do not support censorship, but would love to see some simple self-preservation among these young women."

Most men she knows, "are not misogynists," she says and believes these things appeal to a very small segment, so it's not really necessary for sales. "The average man runs into pornography now and again. For those guys very garden-variety stuff is going to do it. It's basically just seeing a woman with her clothes off," that's still stimulating for the average man.

Of course, how we look with our clothes off has been influenced by the porn industry since Mainstream USA is now aping adult film stars like they used to ape film stars, a trend Hanson has called "The Pornification of America."

"Men and women alike are looking at very perfected manicured porn bodies and rating themselves against them," she says. The women doll up in tight Spandex dresses, lip injections, hair extensions and boob jobs and the men are becoming "delicate sissies," she laughs, grooming to androgynous levels, "and wondering if they should shave their armpits because their own body hair disgusts them."

"They're doing way too much with their own pubic hair."

When the Big Book of Breasts came out she did a radio interview with two young men whose first reaction was disgust at all the "hairy beaver."

"You call yourselves young men?" she said. "You're so disgusted by pubic hair you couldn't conceive of having sex with these beautiful women? You should be ashamed of yourselves."

Those who blanch at the upkeep on a crotch you can see your own reflection in, take heart: Hanson says the pendulum is swinging back to natural.

"People just want change, you know? You give them hairy pussies for awhile they're gonna want shaved pussies again."

Such simple, homespun wisdom. And actually, the importance of variety bears out the old saw that the brain is, indeed, the most important sexual organ. If we were satisfied with the same images time and again, would we have bothered inventing the French postcard, the DVD and YouPorn?

And as long as we're curious I'm sure Dian Hanson will be there, using her unique and artful aesthetic to help reflect our own interests and cultural changes back at us.
Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.
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