Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!

The Fall and Fatal Triumph of Sleaze

“You shall not conceal the sleazy, fraudulent hours you have slipped into the piece… or fear that any honest thread will not testify in the web.”

– Emerson

American history is a quarter loop of fraud, imitation, sleaze, and sneer. It drives relentlessly on, casting no shadow, egging our capital gains along highways with the white whip and virulent speed so particular to this haunted country.

For example, the American Gold Rush was sleaze at its absolute zenith, the injection of fools’ gold and an overabundance of the bona fide article into the coffers of the world’s rich and terrible. No wonder Chaplin chose this demented episode to show the violence of parody and the eruption of made little masters into the arena of old European gods. Sleaze and cheapness recorded the Wild West in sideshows and ratty pamphlets. The legends of the American dead roads are vibrant with half-foggy images where words occasionally ooze out of the sold sweat and sleaze. Sleaze is fraudulent thunder and its ideal speech is the American cant, a vigorous compound chatter of malaprop and guffaw. Sleaze follows the mainstream of American kulchur, both informing it and taking its piss until it eventually devours the whole landscape. Most of all, sleaze is an eel meandering effortlessly through the waters, driving the price ever downward, hitting quick and vanishing, like Mao’s perfect guerilla. Accompanied by dark laughter and the occasional bobbing corpse, Sleaze loves the Image best of all. America was once a rolling combine of powerful, sleazy images.

Sin-a–Rama, lovingly edited by B. Astrid Daley and Adam Parfrey and published by the great Feral House, collects the bright softcore porn paperbacks of the Sixties, a light-world of absurd passions and silly momentum. These books were the perfect expression of our star-spangled-to-death fascination with Protestant frigidity and Late Roman swank. The tension between these two pathologies holds the artifact together until the cheap glue gives and the whole gizmo finally collapses to reveal a ridiculous vision of creatures ever on the make. The covers of cheap sex epics are our Mughal miniatures. Their hold has become strangely eternal, at least for a while.

The smut boom of the 1960s filled newsstands and book stores with works like Ringside sinaramaTarts, Pit Stop Nympho, ESP Orgy, Satan Was A Lesbian, and Ape Rape, to name just a few of the most enticing titles. Print runs were mammoth. For example: 20 titles in one month at a print run of 75,OOO each = 7.2 to 9 million copies per annum (Milwood-Tower Press); 12 titles with a run of 25,000 = 3.1 million per annum (Bee-Line Press). 590 copies of Sex Life of a Cop were confiscated by the FBI from Saber Books.

Many of these stone-age classics were churned out by science-fictioners tossed on the dole after the death of the Golden Age pulps; among them, Robert Silverberg (who supplies an amusing and unrepentant memoir here), Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Harlan Ellison. And the skinbooks paid very well, even by today’s standards. Silverberg bought a large house, a car, supported his family, and earned a pretty $1500 a week in his prime. He churned out some 150 novels; others hammered out twice as many. Bestselling crime writers like Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake started in the skin trade. Others, like poor Ed Wood of Plan 9 From Outer Space, eked out a living and followed their fiercely independent obsessions to solitary ends.

Inside man and Sin-a-Rama co-editor Earl Kemp provides much valuable testimony with his rollicking tales, birdseyes of the terrain, and moving obits of the talent involved in middle-period smut. The softcore scene was ever on the move and dodged the FBI in Chicago, LA, and as far as Guadalajara; some did prison time. J. Edgar Hoover, the epitome of sleaze and hypocrisy, hated the mannerist low-rent pretender as much as he hated Dr. King and communism. Kemp also hints at Mob-Fed collusion in control of the puerile market, a French Tickler Connection worthy of further investigation. Jay Gertzman, Lynn Monroe, Stephen Gertz and Astrid Daley clue you in on the wider milieu and the money with admirable economy: brief as a peep show, learned and naughty. John Gilmore and Lydia Lunch add fugitive, enticing contributions.

Works like Dr. Dildo’s Delightful Machine were aimed at an ever-randier white middle class. They radiated debased decorum, with plenty of room for light raunch and suburban sprawl rather than the upward cramp of the megalopolis. The idea was to tempt in order to make tame, to find price equilibrium in the wages of sin. Understudy Stud and its clones traded in the rubber innuendo, an easy flow of yankee crabapple metaphor done to mush, and OPEC Orientalism. Their covers parodied the elastic Tide or Chesterfield Kings ad: a girl a pretzel in ecstasy, a hypnotism wheel erupting from points of contact, and the damp visage of a pervert or leering houngan suspended over the action. Gene Bilbrew is the premiere stylist here. His filth revels in every gargantuan crevice and the old Hindu hook of the physically-impossible tryst. All of this is drawn with a smart cartoony disregard for graphic anatomy and shows the oily gleam of a genuine downward spiral. Bilbrew, about the only black artist in the biz, ended sadly, with his needle in the back of a lewd emporium. But most of the other artists, such as Robert Bonfils, managed to carry on fine after the fad disintegrated. The reproductions of these covers, which rightly make up most of Sin-a-Rama, are superb: many are of them full-page, splayed in all glory.

Prudish John Birchers or Billy Sunday revivalists railed against the louche book racks, but by the late 1960s this opposition became a shoeless relic. The mid-level executive embraced swinging and the hip jive-ass openly read Playboy for Mailer and how-to radical chic. In such a climate, how could a sincere wax-bean of a cleric or an honest devotee of Knave survive? The scene became more hardcore to compensate, but this only showed its desperation. Images and words were whittled down to the stark and humorless in all markets: the conceptual over the cheap bourgeois; the closed-circuit spyglass over the exotic vaudeville panorama. Mainstream cinema and advertising had long been dominated by the frame-bursting, porous close-up. Fleshpot culture could only reflect an impotent shadow of the official story.

Sin-a-Rama gives us a small walk-on part by Charles Keating, the Great Sleaze behind the apocalyptic Savings & Loan swindle of the 1980s. At the time he was a vocal opponent of dirty books: “It is not a question of depicting sin as virtue… the magazines advocate a pagan, libertine life”. 20 odd years later, he was building Ponzi schemes and pimping jailbait for worthies who may have grown up on copies of Lust for Kicks. In the stark new world of Total Sleaze, there can be no room for the colorful amateur. We and our mafias have moved on to faster, more liquid pleasures.

The final victory of Sleaze might give you pause to remember, thanks to Feral House, the borderland life of our old smut before it was consumed by a most jealous host. Written anonymously or by nom de grossier, like the everyman plays and spell books of the High Middle Ages, these are perhaps the only classics our cold wars will ever produce. Last irony in the final triumph of sleaze and its little-known fall.

More articles by:

Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

October 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall
Ipek S. Burnett
The Assault on The New Colossus: Trump’s Threat to Close the U.S.-Mexican Border
Mary Troy Johnston
The War on Terror is the Reign of Terror
Maximilian Werner
The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly
David Macaray
Teamsters, Hells Angels, and Self-Determination
Jeffrey Sommers
“No People, Big Problem”: Democracy and Its Discontents In Latvia
Dean Baker
Looking for the Next Crisis: the Not Very Scary World of CLOs
Binoy Kampmark
Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem Problem
Chris Wright
The Necessity of “Lesser-Evil” Voting
Muhammad Othman
Daunting Challenge for Activists: The Cook Customer “Connection”
Don Fitz
A Debate for Auditor: What the Papers Wouldn’t Say
October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Suyapa Portillo Villeda
An Illegitimate, US-Backed Regime is Fueling the Honduran Refugee Crisis
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage