An Interview with Dian Hanson

Descriptions of letters to the editor at porn magazines:
Very detailed

An Interview with Dian Hanson

Descriptions of letters to the editor at porn magazines:
Very detailed

An Interview with Dian Hanson

Elina Shatkin
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In 1970, a nineteen-year-old Dian Hanson couldn’t wait to spend her birthday money on porn. “I bought The Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The editors of an adult-book company took the dry, long report and illustrated it with every kind of sex act possible. It was banned shortly thereafter,” Hanson says. Like her good friend Vanessa del Rio, she was “born to porn”—not in front of the lens but behind it. For more than three decades she has cultivated a one-of-a-kind career. One of the preeminent American editors of dirty magazines, she ran such anatomically site-specific publications as Juggs, Leg Show, Tight, and Big Butt, where she directed photo shoots, oversaw layouts, and wrote “girl copy” (those panting, first-person accounts of the models’ deepest desires). For Hanson, filth is no mere job; it is a vocation. She studies her chosen field as diligently as a stockbroker follows the Nikkei.

Six feet tall with straight blond hair that falls nearly to her waist, Hanson, sixty-three, is like a laid-back Cali-girl Amazon. She’s quick, funny, frank, and utterly unshockable. A closet anthropologist, she is endlessly fascinated by (and disarmingly perceptive about) human behavior. She also knows how to work a crowd. “I am a really big ham when I have an audience,” she admits.

Since 2001, she has been plying her trade at Taschen, the German publisher of classy art books and even classier erotica. As the company’s “sexy book editor,” perhaps the only person in the world to hold this title, she has edited the Big Book series (The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Book of Pussy, The Big Penis Book, The Big Book of Legs) as well as tomes dedicated to Tom of Finland, Vanessa del Rio, and Swedish erotica. Recent projects have included The Art of Pin-Up and My Buddy, a collection of homoerotic snapshots of World War II soldiers. She’s currently working on a photo book about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Porn has shaped her and she in turn has redefined it.

—Elina Shatkin


THE BELIEVER: You have the best job title of anyone I know: sexy book editor. How did you go from hard-core porn to artsy erotica?

DIAN HANSON: I was editing Leg Show and Juggs, and Benedikt Taschen was my biggest German fan. He contacted me in 1993 or ‘94 and wanted to meet. He would come to New York and take me out to dinner and say, “When are you going to work for me?” I would say, “Never. I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I love pornography.” I didn’t mean to be a tease. I was just being honest. But he took it as a great challenge.

BLVR: Men love a challenge.

DH: Yeah, I never knew that. I was always just a cheap slut. I never knew how to control men in that way. The magazine field had been declining since 1997, and my publisher died in 2000. I love magazines, but I knew that change would come at some point. I had always known that Benedikt was going to be my future.

BLVR: Taschen books are so visual that I don’t know how much attention people pay to the words. But your introductions are very interesting.

DH: When I came in, Benedikt said, “I want you to raise the literacy levels of the books.” With the introductions, I write three thousand words and get them down to one thousand. It’s like reducing a sauce. It was intimidating in the beginning: books have staying power but magazines go in the garbage at the end of the month. I’m over that now.

BLVR: All those years writing “girl copy” for magazines, you probably developed a style without knowing it.

DH: The funny thing is that when I was doing Leg Show, people read my writing religiously. They directed their lives by what I wrote. At Taschen, I never get evidence except once in a while when someone on Amazon will say, “Hey, the writing is interesting, too.” I rarely get a letter. It’s usually in a shaky, palsied hand from somewhere down South and it’s “I like the girl on page 238. You should put in more photographs of her!”

BLVR: I always assumed that the letters in Leg Show and other girlie mags are faked. Are they?

DH: During my time at Leg Show, we got more letters than we could ever publish. When I came on, in 1987, it was a crappy little half-black-and-white magazine being done by gay men. They were choosing pictures to amuse themselves: “Look at the hat on her. It’s hideous! Let’s make her the cover.” There was nothing else catering to men who were interested in legs or feet or female dominance. Readers were bombarding the magazine with letters but nobody was reading them. They gave me this huge box of letters that were long, literate, and very detailed. I said: “Oooh, here’s a valuable resource!” I used to get one hundred letters a week. I have files at home of the best and the weirdest.

BLVR: What were they saying in these letters?

DH: The world is full of guys who are lost and scared. Particularly if you are a guy who wants to put on women’s clothes or suck toes or paint your wife’s toenails. One of my favorite correspondents—I have a lot of letters from him—offered his skin to me so I could have it made into shoes. He wrote me, “I am an ordinary man. Ordinary height. Ordinary looks. Women never look at me. I’m invisible. But women love shoes. If I were a pair of shoes, women would want me. I fantasize about being a pair of shoes.”

BLVR: You were one of five kids growing up in Seattle. Tell me about your family.

DH: My father was an eccentric, flamboyant kid. He was a magician, wore a bowtie. A little gayish.

BLVR: I know people who look at their parents and think, In another era…

DH: My younger brother claimed that my father was inappropriate with him, but my father was a little inappropriate, I think, with everyone. He told me in a letter—one of only two he ever wrote me in his life—that the reason he never showed any affection to us when we were children was because of his horror of incest. Normal people just hug their kids and go, “Good job on your spelling test!” Why concentrate on incest unless you have incestuous fantasies and thoughts?

My dad was weirdly inhibited but very handsome and charismatic, which goes along with being Supreme Grand Master of the Rosicrucians.

BLVR: Not the Rosicrucians from the faux Egyptian temple in San Jose.

DH: Right, these are the real Rosicrucians.

BLVR: The “real” Rosicrucians? Is that like Double Secret Probation in Animal House?

DH: [Laughs] Yeah. We were led to believe that they counted the founders of America among their members and went back to the Illuminati, who went back to the ancient Egyptians. We didn’t know much about them. You had to audition to become a member. Children were not invited in. The idea was that when we reached adulthood, if we were interested (though none of us were), we would petition to be taken in and we would very slowly be fed the secrets. Tithing was involved.

BLVR: Naturally.

DH: After my mother’s death, I was taken into the temple that had been built for her by my father’s second wife (though they weren’t formally married). It was ridiculous in there! There were chairs with cloths draped over them and papier-mâché things. The walls were painted with bad murals of naked people frolicking. My father had their genitals blacked out. All this childhood mystery we’d heard about was ruined by walking into this place.

They believed in reincarnation. They believed in sex magic. They believed you could make magic happen by having sex with the person that you love and only with that person and that you have to be deeply connected and you can’t be having sex with anyone else and you pretty much have to do it in the missionary position and no other way.

BLVR: Were your parents sexually conservative?

DH: My parents were narcissists. My mother didn’t want to have children. Then she had five. Clearly, the diaphragm wasn’t the birth-control method she should have been using. But their religion teaches that you need to have fluid exchange. Only the diaphragm allows for semen to go into the vagina.

BLVR: They were very particular.

DH: They raised us on strict ideas but not strict control. Health food. No vaccinations. We weren’t ever supposed to talk about our family because we were somehow special and it had to stay secret. Part of their teaching says that before the age of puberty, you are an animal and not responsible for any of your actions. After the age of puberty, you are an adult and are responsible for all your actions. When I was fourteen, I was having some medical problems and my dad said, “You probably need to drop out of school. Your mother will teach you the things you need to learn so you can support your future husband and take care of children.” I was like, “OK, I feel better. I’m going to go back to school now!”

BLVR: You ended up dropping out of high school.

DH: When I was sixteen, I met this guy in the park and went home with him. Then I realized it was really late; if I went home I was going to get in trouble. So I just didn’t go home. I stayed there for a week and my parents put an ad in the paper. I went home but continued seeing the guy. I wanted to leave. They convinced me to wait until I turned seventeen. I foolishly got married when I was eighteen to an ill-advised person. He was from Oxford, Mississippi. We went to live down there. I was malleable. I had no life goals. It sucked in every conceivable way. I left my husband and got a boyfriend who started doing a dirty magazine.


BLVR: Tell me about the guy who got you into smut peddling.

DH: He was such a horrible person. I don’t want to talk about him. It was the relationship that gave me some grit because he was such a shit. He was manipulating me and was emotionally abusive. We were sitting in a restaurant in Allentown one day with an author he knew, and he was showing off. He pissed me off and I said: “I am going to hit you!” It was like it was already happening and I was saying it to warn him because my fist was shooting out. I knocked him over. He jumped up, punched me in the stomach, and kicked me in the shins. We were thrown out of the restaurant. I knew I had to leave. It took that bad relationship for me to get a sense of myself. I went off on my own and began working in magazines. I had only worked on the magazine that he and I did together, Puritan. A hard-core sex magazine that was also trying to be classy.

BLVR: Was there any pushback?

DH: Magazines got more and more liberal toward the end of the ’70s. Then there was an outcry and they got more conservative again. There was the rise of second-wave feminism. I was kind of a first-wave feminist. First-wave feminism was sex-positive, the idea that women deserved orgasms. Betty Dodson was out there holding masturbation classes and saying, “Let’s all look at our pussies.” I was shaped by that. Pornography was kind of a revolutionary job.

BLVR: Did second-wave feminism feel alien to you?

DH: It felt totally alien to me because it painted women as victims. It put us right back to the 1950s, just like my home life growing up. The notion that women were being victimized by pornographic imagery—well, I was reading letters from guys, and I was seeing that men were fearful and romantic and loving. It was nothing like these women were saying. I knew a guy who was involved in making the film Snuff. He was a pornographer who called himself Carter Stevens, essentially a nice Jewish schlub from New Jersey. It was a ridiculous film. Everyone took it seriously because they wanted to take it seriously.

BLVR: How much has the internet affected porn magazines?

DH: It’s destroyed it! Torrent sites were the last nail in the coffin. You go out to Chatsworth, where they had those big warehouses. The windows are broken, the drapes are blowing out the window. People are not paying for porn. I think it’s good in some ways. With the market becoming smaller, the people who are in it are more devoted to it. The performers have more power. The place where people are making money now is live-cam. Everybody is interfacing with actual consumers. The fantasy is over.

BLVR: How did The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Penis Book, and the other “big books” originate?

DH: I know a collector who said, “You should do a book on classic big breast models. I’ve got a ton of material.” I had been the editor of Juggs. I knew 50 percent of men prefer large breasts. Even guys who say they don’t like large breasts have a secret “breast response.” As soon as they get a girlfriend with big breasts or their wife gets pregnant, it bursts out. The female genitals, they’re all scary and dark. This is part of the reason men have gotten so fascinated with anal sex. They understand the anus. They’ve got one, too.

Men like breasts. They’re friendly and warm, like puppies. I knew that book would do very well; Benedikt wasn’t so certain. I made the decision to keep it to natural breasts, knowing how many men yearn for this. I knew that if you kept it to natural, soft bodies, women would be interested, too. By the time the book came out, we had to immediately rush into a second printing.

Benedikt called me up and said, “We have to do a series!” There was only one other body part that could match the obsession people have for breasts: the penis. When I told Benedikt, he paused for maybe fifteen seconds and said, “You’re right. Go ahead.” The people in sales said, “Don’t do it. We’ll never be able to get it in stores.” The Big Penis Book has been my best-selling book for Taschen.

BLVR: When it comes to penises, why is bigger better?

DH: There are things that define abundant sexuality to us, and they are protrusion-oriented. It’s just like breasts. The bigger the breasts, seemingly, the more female, and the bigger the penis, seemingly, the more male. Bigger does not perform the purpose any better. But they’re sexual markers.

BLVR: Except that a larger pussy is not generally considered more attractive.

DH: And yet there are men who love big pussies. When I did The Big Book of Pussy, I talked to men who said, “I don’t understand all this stuff about a tight pussy. It doesn’t necessarily feel better.” A very small pussy is like an asshole. It doesn’t necessarily feel the best. It’s all about power. But I already knew that from doing men’s magazines. A big pussy seems like it has been exercised. You feel free to bash around in there.

BLVR: I understand that Kimberly Kane, the cover model for The Big Book of Pussy, asked to be paid in Taschen books.

DH: She did! I love Kimberly Kane. She is one of the smartest women I know. I hired her because she has the most graphic vulva in porn. She has a big clitoris. She has big labia. We had to shorten her labia in Photoshop because the book has a clear plastic cover with underwear printed on it. When we put the underwear over her vulva, it looked like she had testicles in there.

It was a problem with The Big Penis Book, too. The guy on the cover, Chad Hunt: his testicles are huge and looming. We photographed him reclining at a bit of an angle, but his testicles were still hanging too low. I was like, “How can we get his balls to fit into the underwear?” I got a cold can of Coke and rolled it over his testicles and that made him pull up.

BLVR: What about The Big Book of Legs?

DH: I had to do it because I was the editor of Leg Show. I think it’s the most beautiful book, and it was the worst seller. It’s not 1942 anymore. The leg reached its pinnacle in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s.

BLVR: Is there some connection between legs and submission?

DH: Pound for pound, women’s legs are just as strong as men’s legs. There was a study done a long time ago where researchers found that men who were attracted to breasts tended to be athletic, outgoing, gregarious, and social. Men attracted to the lower body, specifically the leg, were introverted, intellectual, passive, shy. Elmer Batters, who was a great leg photographer, thought that men got into legs because their mothers weren’t loving enough. He thought that when a child cried, a loving mother would pick him up and cuddle him to her breast—so he would get into breasts. But the mother who didn’t nurture would leave the child on the ground and all he had was the legs. It’s an interesting theory.

BLVR: Who are your favorite thinkers on sex?

DH: I admire Magnus Hirschfeld. And Dr. John Money was always my very favorite guy, the greatest sexologist of our century. I like Margaret Mead. Back when I was fourteen, I discovered Krafft-Ebing at my little local Washington library. I went back day after day and would stand there in the stacks and read about all this perversion.

BLVR: How do you feel being called the most cerebral pornographer in America?

DH: It’s nice for a high-school dropout.

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