• History
  • Television

The Deuce and the Real History of Why the Porn Industry Flourished in the ’70s

5 minute read

When HBO’s The Deuce premieres on Sunday, the show — starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal as aspiring pornography titans — will take viewers back to what the channel bills as “the rough-and-tumble world at the pioneering moments of what would become the billion-dollar American sex industry.” Though the story itself is fictional, its 1970s setting fits with the real history of the American porn business. And, despite the underground nature of the industry itself, that shift was something that citizens and the mainstream media couldn’t help but notice.

In a 1976 cover story that attempted the explain what was going on, TIME picked apart the many factors that were contributing to the phenomenon. By the magazine’s count, what was once a “marginal underground cottage industry” had become “an open, aggressive $2 billion-a-year” business.

So what was going on in the 1970s that facilitated the rise of porn?

Read more: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Porn Industry in 1970

Obscenity standards had been relaxing for decades by that point, with a variety of court rulings offering conflicting decisions on the definition. Eventually, the question was left up to juries on a local level, but by that point many places had lost the motivation to attempt to prevent the progress of porn.

“Most important was the general revolution in sexual attitudes that had altered many of the traditional American views of sex,” the story noted. “Another factor was the growing tendency of police and prosecutors to argue that campaigns against ‘victimless crime’ represented a misuse of limited resources that should be devoted to coping with the ever rising rates of murder, rape, robbery and mugging.”

The forces that had once pushed to punish pornographers had lost their power and, as Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau put it simply, “Prosecutions are lengthy, expensive and often pointless.”

As a result, many Americans had come to believe that there was no stopping pornography — which meant that the only question left to consider was whether (and how, if yes) the trend was harming the nation. The feature was careful, however, to note that porn was not invented in the ’70s:

Many are convinced that there is a correlation between the advance of pornography and the decline of a society. But the historical evidence for making such a connection is thin.

Thus, for example, compared with what went on in ancient Greece, says Chairman Glen Bowersock of Harvard’s classics department, “the U.S. hasn’t seen anything.” Classical pornography was largely created, he says, “by the most intelligent, erudite and cultured people in the society” and was a source of pleasure and lively delight. Unlike American porn, it was not “cheaply and badly done, solely to make a buck.” And, argues Bowersock, contrary to popular legend, pornography did no harm whatever to the culture of ancient Greece. The most that can be said of ancient Rome, according to Jeffrey Henderson, Yale assistant professor of classics, is that pornography was clearly associated with the empire’s decline, but as a consequence and not a cause.

Yet it is difficult to escape the suspicion, especially in societies with more or less Judeo-Christian moral standards, that pornography, so often not really erotic but merely dehumanizing, can be a symptom of social disorder. Sex has often been used as a political weapon for rebellion (and is therefore suspect in totalitarian societies). Open sexuality can be seen as a sign of freedom, yet it can also run riot to the point where it becomes both destructive and compulsive and thus ultimately unfree.

What is unique about the modern West and particularly the U.S. is that porn cuts against the grain of so many traditional beliefs, and the explosion is taking place in a highly literate society with the technological means and marketing talent to disseminate it. It is that collision of culture and commerce that creates concern.

That raises the second critical question beyond porn’s possible harm to users: the right to privacy of nonusers. To what extent can residents protect a community by zoning porn shops into one district or forbidding sex ads, leafleting and store-window displays? The First Amendment may safeguard the rights of pornographers and their audience, but surely the majority of Americans who find porn objectionable have rights as well. Must they and their children be under constant assault by the hucksters of porn?

But such concerns weren’t stopping the porn entrepreneurs of real history, and TIME profiled a number of them.

“In 1967, Jim Mitchell, then 24, first tried his hand at making black-and-white porn films, using a borrowed 8-mm. camera and young men and women willing to copulate on screen for a few dollars a day,” one of the mini-bios explained. “In due course he and his younger brother Artie made it big with Behind the Green Door (cost: $45,000; their gross: about $1 million), starring the ex-Ivory Soapbox Girl Marilyn Chambers. Now incorporated as the Mitchell Brothers Film Group, they are potentates of porn, operators of ten theaters in California and producers of the most expensive porn film ever, the $500,000 Sodom and Gomorrah.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com