By Kendra Holliday | November 2, 2011
Today we continue our conversation with Robert Rosen, author of Beaver Street. This is Part 2 of a three part interview that will run all week, and features the Traci Lords scandal, Annie Sprinkle, Ron Jeremy, and other influential role models. If these juicy tidbits pique your interest and you want to read more, those of you in St. Louis can check Beaver Street out at Shameless Grounds Human Sexuality library! (Robert Rosen photo credit: Marcia Resnick)
The Traci Lords scandal got blown out of proportion due to society’s phobia of even thinking about sex when there’s a child within a one mile radius. In your opinion, when does a human cease being a child and enter adulthood? What is the cut-off age?
There’s no simple answer to that question. People mature physically and emotionally at different ages. Some people (though probably not that many) are emotionally capable of dealing with a sexual relationship at 13 or 14, and I’m sure that at this very moment, there are thousands of 13- and 14-year-olds having sex all over the place. Other people reach middle age and they still can’t handle a sexual relationship. Some people die a virgin by choice. Some people go into convents and monasteries because they can’t deal with sex. And so much of it has to do with the type of culture they’re living in. I discuss this at length in Beaver Street, the way the age of consent, depending upon the country, can be anywhere from 14 to 18.
The problem is that America is such a sexually schizophrenic and hypocritical country. Everything is sexualized. Pornographic imagery has penetrated every segment of the media. Twelve-year-olds are sending each other nude pictures of themselves on their iPhones. Should we put them all in reform school? It’s as if America were raising an entire generation of Traci Lordses. Yet when Traci Lords came along in 1984, with her fraudulent passport and driver’s license, and systematically sought work in the porn industry, the government treated the people who hired her as criminals, and said that Traci Lords was a child and a victim and wasn’t responsible for her actions. Traci Lords was a juvenile delinquent, and if she’d murdered one of the photographers she posed for, the same prosecutors who were calling her a victim would have been demanding she be tried as an adult, convicted as an adult, and executed as an adult. In America, the only “serious” crime a child can commit and not have prosecutors demand she (or he) be treated as an adult is posing nude while underage. And I should add that for a full year after the FBI knew Lords was underage, they allowed her to continue working in porn so they could “gather evidence” on the pornographers. So, the way the government sees it, it’s okay for a child to work in porn as long as she’s being used as a pawn in a sting operation.
Reading your book, I couldn’t help but think of John Waters. What do you think of “the Pope of Filth”?
I think John Waters is brilliant. Hairspray is a great film. I like the crazy two-fabric suits he wears. I like what he said about Deep Throat—that it changed the way the “raincoat crowd” masturbated in porn theaters: “You’re a lot less likely to jerk off if Angela Lansbury’s sitting next to you.” I like what he said about Traci Lords—that he only hired her because he wanted to rehabilitate a porn star. Can you imagine if he made Beaver Street into a movie? He’s the PERFECT director. And I should add that my cousin Jody Rosen is married to the actor Zach Knower, whose mother, Rosemary Knower, was in three John Waters films: Hairspray (Mrs. Shipley), Serial Mom (Court Groupie A), and Cecil B. Demented (Cecil’s mother). So John Waters is practically family.
Nowadays I assume you live a more mainstream life – does working in offices where you were required to read and write porn and not allowed to read the newspaper seem like a weird dream?
I wouldn’t say my life is more mainstream now. The other day my wife, Mary Lyn, and I were joking that we were the last bohemians in Manhattan, which of course isn’t true, but sometimes it seems that way. We’re both writers and editors, and Mary Lyn is a musician, too. Neither one of us has a full-time job with benefits. So despite being lucky enough to live downtown, sometimes we’re a little too close to the edge for comfort. But so is just about everyone else we know, even those who have full-time jobs.
Ironically, things seemed more mainstream when I was working in porn! I mean, I was working for a corporation. I had a steady paycheck and benefits. I had to be someplace at a certain time every morning. At High Society I had to wear a tie. I can’t say that working for Swank or High Society seems like a dream. It was very real when it was going on. And especially the last five years, when I was working in New Jersey, and the business was collapsing—that was a terrible time. Getting fired from Swank was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’d just signed a book deal for Nowhere Man. I was finally going to be able to concentrate full-time on my writing. After I left Swank, I got up every morning and felt ecstatic that I didn’t have to go into an office and create porn under deadline pressure. It took five years for the ecstasy to wear off. If anything seems like a weird dream, it’s the first five years after I left.
OMG it’s so cool you knew Annie Sprinkle in her horniest heyday. Just sayin’.
It was a trip working with Annie back in the day, as I describe in the book, and I think it’s great that she was able to transform herself from a porn star with a reputation for being willing to do anything, no matter how deranged, to a respected avant-garde performance artist, photographer, and author. She is the only woman who has been able to accomplish something comparable to what I’ve done. She went from making the sleaziest, most outrageous porn movies to getting mainstream book deals.
And Ron Jeremy – wtf. You describe him well in your book – a paunchy, 31 yr old schlump, nicknamed the Hedgehog for the bristly hair that covers his rolls of body fat. How the hell did that happen?
Ronnie Hyatt, public-school teacher from Queens, became Ron Jeremy Superstar for a number of reasons. Obviously, having a 12-inch dick that he could bring to erection on cue was one key to his success. But he’s not a bad actor for a porn star. He’s also ambitious; he’s determined; he won’t take no for an answer; he’s fairly intelligent; and he’s reliable—he shows up when he says he’s going to show up. As Woody Allen says, 80% of success is showing up.
Who are your role models?
I don’t know if “role model” is the right term. It’s more like influences, and when it comes to who influenced me as a writer, let me start with my Holy Trinity: Hunter Thompson, Henry Miller, and Philip Roth.
Hunter Thompson did for journalism what the Beatles did for rock ’n’ roll. I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was 21, and I saw my future. I thought, “I can do this.” I wanted someone to pay me to go places, take drugs, and write stories about it. I read Fear and Loathing so many times, I have portions memorized. I went through a phase in graduate school where everything I wrote came out sounding like Hunter Thompson. I was possessed by Hunter Thompson, and one of my teachers, Francine du Plessix Gray (who wrote a book about the Marquis de Sade) literally performed an in-class exorcism—everybody in the class was chanting, trying to purge Thompson’s spirit from my system. I don’t know if it worked, but it certainly made me realize I had to find my own voice.
Henry Miller showed me how to write about sex. I read Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Sexus more than once at an impressionable age, and I went through a very definite Henry Miller phase. I recently reread Tropic of Cancer for the first time in about 30 years, and I thought, “This guy sounds like me. How’d that happen? Oh, right.” Miller and I both have the streets-of-Brooklyn thing going on. I quote Miller at the beginning of Beaver Street, and I’ve said that Beaver Street is like a Tropic of Capricorn for the Digital Age.
As for Philip Roth, whom I also quote at the beginning of Beaver Street, no book has ever blown my mind the way that Portnoy’s Complaint did when I read it at 16. My aunt had gotten the book through a book-of-the-month club. We were visiting her one day, and she’s telling my parents about this disgusting book that she wants to get out of the house. I’m listening to the conversation, and I think she’s saying “Port Noise Complaint,” which sounds like a boring book about people complaining about foghorns and noisy seagulls. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Anyway, she gives the book to my parents, and a couple of days later I’m sitting at my desk, doing homework. I look up at the bookshelf, and the title catches my eye. Oh, Portnoy’s Complaint. So I start reading it, and by the time I got to the chapter called “Whacking Off,” I understood why everybody in the world was talking about it.
I should also mention Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch 22, which I think is the best comic novel of the 20th century; George Orwell, who showed me that politics can be interesting; Joan Didion, who’s a master of first-person journalism; and of course John Lennon, for his attitude alone. “The Five Dollar Blowjob” was partially inspired by the idea that Lennon took out his dick and put it on an album cover. And, as I recall, people got pretty upset about that at the time.
If you read Beaver Street or Nowhere Man, you can see how I’ve synthesized all these influences.