Sex, Justice, and the American Way
Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt on How Sex Has Shaped American Politics and the Worldby Andrew R Tonry
LARRY FLYNT donated $50,000 to the defense fund of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange. Writing on larryflynt.com, the iconoclastic publisher of Hustler and First Amendment defender called Assange a "journalist" and a "hero" worthy of a tickertape parade.
"If WikiLeaks had existed in 2003 when George W. Bush was ginning up the war in Iraq," Flynt says, "America might not be in the horrendous situation it is today." But aside from the broader political implications, Assange's struggle hits much closer to Flynt's own heart. It's about free speech.
"Here's what I know about censorship," Flynt writes in his defense of Assange leaking classified American intelligence cables. "The free flow of information is ultimately less harmful than the impeded flow of information. A democracy cannot exist without total access to the facts."
Flynt goes on to whip traditional media for negligence, believing it should've been they who unearthed and exposed the documents and not some "concerned outsider." For his actions, Flynt writes, "Assange has been hit with dubious criminal charges because his condom failed during a sexual encounter."
The supposed character smear should come as no surprise to Flynt, who's seen his own creditability hacked at for decades because of his proximity to sex. These supposedly puritanical naysayers—from the anti-gay crusade, abstinence-only conservatives, the folks still after Mayor Sam Adams' hide, and perhaps even those after Assange himself—seem to suggest that anyone labeled with a so-called perversion is unfit to be trusted.
In a new book, One Nation Under Sex, Flynt follows sex's influence throughout American history—from the founding fathers on down. In preparation for his Friday, May 20, trip to Portland I spoke with Flynt about sex, his book, politics, and free speech in the internet age.
He called early.
"Hi Andrew, it's Larry."
I was asleep. It was 8:30 am. He was supposed to call at 9 am. I needed my recorder, my notes. Where the fuck are they? I'm in a sea of cobwebs with this man on the other line. He remains polite, understanding. Would it be better if he called back at nine, he asked? It would. And so he did.
At first his voice was strong. He was projecting. But eventually it withered some, a reminder of the assassination attempt and ensuing stroke. I had to lean in close.
What was the book's inspiration, I asked. Why now? Was it James Callender, the journalist who broke the story in the early 1800s of Thomas Jefferson's fathering of six children with the slave Sally Hemings?
"Nawwwww," Flynt drawls. "[Callender] was a muckraker. He just got upset with Jefferson because Jefferson wouldn't give him an appointment."
And so begins Flynt's journey between the White House sheets. It stretches from beginning to end. From Ben Franklin the flirt to the insatiable Bill Clinton. There's Warren Harding, the clueless man-whore. James Buchanan, the country's first gay president—and of course, JFK the louche womanizer.
Kennedy, it seems, was a lazy lover. He had a bad back—or at least that's what he liked to say. That way he'd always be on bottom. Already naked in bed he'd beckon his lovers in that cockeyed Irish drawl to "climb aboard." Sometimes Kennedy might only last a minute or two before shuffling his conquests off down the hallways to the doorman, all the while wearing only a towel.
But Jack's transgressions were all about a reckless kind of personality—not politics. While Flynt says Kennedy's brazenness brought undue risk, sex itself really isn't the issue.
"I'm the first one to defend a philandering president," Flynt tells me. "If you can fight two wars and balance the budget at the same time you should be able to sleep with whomever you want."
While One Nation Under Sex does indeed have fun with some of the more playful and salacious stories, Flynt insists he doesn't out politicians—here or in Hustler—just to expose their sex lives. "It's exposing the hypocrisy that's important," Flynt says. "Hypocrisy is the biggest threat to democracy."
Take for example, President Buchanan. In the book, Flynt alleges Buchanan's gay affair with a Southern slave owner made him a "slavery apologist who encouraged secessionists on the eve of the Civil War."
But sex's effects on history weren't always negative. Ben Franklin's "well-earned reputation as a ladies man," Flynt writes, "aided his effort to secure France's military assistance during the Revolutionary War." He also sheds light about how both first ladies and mistresses ended up influencing policy.
But the limitations of suggesting alternate realities, Flynt admits, are a crapshoot—and really, it's not what the book is about. Along with co-writer David Eisenbach, Flynt was more concerned about creating a comprehensive portrait of executive sex's reverberations in American history. Take away the speculations and few tawdry moments and One Nation Under Sex becomes a research paper—and an exhaustive one at that. Chapters average near 150 footnotes apiece. There are over 1,200 in all. Flynt's hope is that if America can come to terms with its sexual history then it will learn to discern personal relations from problematic hypocrisy.
In the course of challenging some ingrained and even sacred beliefs—like questioning Abraham Lincoln's sexuality or Martin Luther King Jr.'s fidelity—Flynt remains steadfast behind his work.
"Over the last 30 years I've exposed dozens of politicians," Flynt tells me. "Never once has the press said I was wrong or have I ever been sued by any of these people." Indeed, the historical record is on Flynt's mind. After all, he who writes history controls it.
"Historians are the most anally retentive group of professionals I've ever met," Flynt says. "They look at Mt. Rushmore and get red in the pants. They like to have their own vision of history and they don't want somebody taking a look at it from a different angle." That vision, Flynt told me, has valued policy above all else and as such, paints an incomplete portrait of history.
"There was a period—after the Civil War until the end of the Cold War—that the press seemed, itself, to be part of the establishment," Flynt says. "They were there to protect the president. So everybody got protected, whether it was Roosevelt or Kennedy. But after the Cold War, the press totally changed. They said, we're not going to do that anymore. Everything is fair game."
Today, Flynt says, the press' approach is generally healthier, at least in comprehensive coverage. "Everything is an open book," he says. "Everything gets exposed."
Such nakedness, Flynt believes, is critical to a functioning democracy. "The founding fathers gave us a great thing," he says. "And if we don't take care of it we'll be in serious trouble."
It's why Flynt wrote the book. It's why he devoted his life to free speech and the First Amendment. And it's why he gave $50,000 to Julian Assange.
While you might still find a plastic-wrapped copy tucked atop the magazine rack at the bodega or corner store, Hustler isn’t the cultural force it once was. The internet’s assault on print has rocked porn harder than it has the flailing newspaper industry. From a peak circulation of over three million copies a month, Hustler now prints less than 500,000 issues (which are still sent, unasked for, to every congressman’s office on Capitol Hill).
As the magazine continues to shrink, Hustler’s online presence grows—just without the politics. Stories published in the magazine are nowhere to be found online—just porn, streaming and on demand.
When we talked, Flynt appeared to see little difference between how the magazine and its content have been handled pre- and post-internet. Flynt uses Twitter, but has fewer than 6,000 followers. He blogs, but only sporadically. New posts on larryflynt.com seem to turn up about once a month—light years in today’s media cycle.
Print, it seems, was Flynt’s fight—one he fought heroically. Now, in the ever-expanding, great digital wash, that battle for free speech will be waged once more. And though the philosophy of transparency remains much the same, the field has shifted dramatically. With his own profitable publishing company, Flynt entered into the fray backed by organizational strength. And while those operating in the nebulous digital cloud—like Assange—may be able to move quickly and bypass traditional gatekeepers, so too may they find their information difficult to monetize and as such, may find themselves reliant on the kindness of networks.
Whatever the odds or changes in strategy, Flynt says the stakes remain too high to blink. “Free speech is essential to all of us,” he tells me. “It’s universal. You can’t give up by saying I don’t have a microphone or printing press or bank account—you still have your voice and you still need to use it.” And so marches Assange, seemingly with the potential to carry a torch for free speech in a way that few since Flynt have. Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.