A prolific editor in the 1970s hippie porn scene, the mind behind TASCHEN’s iconic “Sexy Books” series explains that sex sells when you embrace its baggage of nostalgia, fetish, humor, fantasy and empowerment—and that the only limit is the line between interesting and boring.
Alessio Ascari: When and how did TASCHEN’s “Sexy Books” series come about, and how did you get involved?
Dian Hanson: Benedikt Taschen started his publishing company in 1980 and has been doing sexy books from about 1991, before we met. He was a man who always wanted to do books about what interested him—and sex interested him quite a bit. He was a fan of my magazine Leg Show, which he started reading in about 1989. As is his way, when he’s interested in something or somebody, he tracks them down. So we met around 1994, and he began asking me to start making his books with him. It wasn’t until 2001, when my publisher died, that I decided to leave my magazine, at which point I knew that TASCHEN was the place to go.
AA: What was your professional path before TASCHEN? What did you learn from it?
DH: I was a hippie, actually, starting in Seattle, Washington, which is where I come from. As was part of the hippie lifestyle, I was very interested in sex as a teen. A lot of people don’t realize that hippies were involved in porn early on, but really, what could be better? Sex was good, sex was positive, sex was love—and if we could make porn and make money off of sex, that was doubly good! So I had this dream of working in pornography, and as per usual, I let things happen organically. I had a boyfriend who had the opportunity to start a porn magazine in 1976, and I joined in, moving with him to New York. What I found was that it was a tight knit community, hard to get into, but once you were in, it was easy to move around because everyone knew each other. So when I eventually left that magazine, which was called Puritan, I could transition into another magazine and another magazine. And that was what I did for twenty-five years. In the beginning, I was working in an assistant role, but very quickly I moved up to being an editor and a creator of titles.
AA: I love how you crossbreed the book and the magazine. You’ve published several titles that revisit the story of sexy periodicals—from the recent Forever Butt to the six-volume anthology of Playboy via History of Pin-up Magazines. In your opinion, how crucial was (and is) the magazine format for the circulation of images and ideas of sexuality? And what are your thoughts on today’s erotic and porn press?
DH: The magazines contributed a great wealth of material. Back when there were a lot of adult magazines being published, there were hundreds if not thousands of photographers making their living selling photos to these magazines. Gay, straight, fetish, high class, low class, in the middle: there were all these people of varying talents and abilities who were producing vast numbers of negatives and slides which we could then be repurposed into magazines.
AA: How do you think the digital landscape has changed things?
DH: You know the old saying about monkeys on typewriters? That if you have a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years they’ll eventually create Shakespeare? It’s like that. The digital landscape has allowed people with borderline talents to again produce some art.
AA: It’s an era dominated by the moving image, which is especially true when it comes to porn.
DH: Video has definitely hammed down still photography. The majority of people who are looking for masturbation inspiration are going to turn to video because it gets the job done quicker and easier and probably with a higher level of arousal. But at the same time, this allows us to see the artistry in the still photography, so that we can then take the high-quality porn and put it into books, where it might be appreciated as a kind of nostalgic art form.
AA: Sex sells. What are the best-selling sexy books so far?
DH: Number 1 is the Big Penis Book; #2 is the Big Book of Breasts. After that, the Big Butt Book, and then the Big Book of Pussy. The Big Penis Book stands alone in all this because it appeals to everyone. It appeals even to straight men, who want to look at it in horror and compare themselves.
AA: So what does that tell you about the audience of sexy books? How do you plan your strategy in terms of gender and sexual orientation?
DH: It definitely tells you—and this is no surprise—that the main consumers of sexual material are men. Gay or straight, men tend to consume along very similar lines. Men are more visually oriented and have higher levels of testosterone. Therefore, they think about sex a little more.
The idea of trying to make a book just for women has been on everyone’s minds forever and ever, but it’s a very difficult thing to do. We’ve stumbled on books that have sold well among women. The Big Book of Breasts, actually, has sold quite well among women, who take comfort in seeing women with fuller figures, softer bodies that are more like their own. We also made a book called Le Petit Mort, which showed women of all ages masturbating, and that one was very popular with women as well. I hadn’t realized that masturbation was something controversial for women, but apparently it was. Many said that was an empowering book.
AA: Sense of humor is, I think, another key element of the series. What about the relationship of sex and humor?
DH: When a person looks at sexual imagery, it can make kind of an unbearable sense of tension. Humor releases that. Why should sex be so serious? Who doesn’t like to laugh?
AA: What do you think is the line between erotic and pornographic?
DH: I hate the word “erotic”—it’s pretentious and I don’t use it. It’s really a line between being interesting and boring.
AA: How to do define pleasure? How do you define fantasy?
DH: I’m a pleasure-loving person. Pleasure is a positive stimulation of the senses. It comes in through your fingertips, through your ears, your mouth, your eyes. Fantasy, on the other hand, is a kind of masturbation of the mind. It’s where we go to play with possibility.
AA: Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? What does it mean to be a feminist in 2015?
DH: I considered myself a feminist in 1970, and in 1971/2, when there was a lot of sex-positive feminism. That was a big part of me buying a vibrator and experimenting with sexual pleasure, and believing that I had a right to birth control, and that I didn’t have to follow my mother’s pattern of getting marred early, having a lot of children and staying home. In that sense, I was definitely a feminist. I stopped in the ’80s, because feminism was by then defined as anti-sex, anti-porn—basically anti-everything I was doing. At core, though, I’m of course a feminist, because I believe in female equality and freedom to pursue challenges and careers and to be free of the fetters of male domination. I think to be a feminist in 2015 means simply that.
AA: What are you currently working on?
DH: I’m completing a book right now called Lesbians for Men. This fantasy of seeing women together has been there for men for probably millennia and nobody ever says what it is. What this is is a whole genre of sexual material created for heterosexual men and that women willingly go along with it because they know how much it excites men. It’ll be another one that upsets people!
Dian Hanson is editor of TASCHEN's “Sexy Books” series. Previously, as a twenty-five-year veteran of men's magazine publishing, she edited titles including Puritan, OUI, Outlaw Biker, Juggs, and Leg Show.
Alessio Ascari is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Kaleidoscope.
All Image © TASCHEN, Psychedelic Sex, Woman in Art magazine, 1972; Shot by Kern, Rchard Kern, US; Big Penis Book, David Pattmore