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?
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:
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.“
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