Dian Hanson is a historian of sex and culture, and the editor of Sexy Books at Taschen. She is a rare example of a woman behind the lens in the pornographic industry. Dian has internalized reader’s desires and published their fantasies in magazines, books, and editorials since 1976. Through photo and written word, she has shaped the landscape of sexuality and its presence in the media. For our “Design & DEsire” series, we sat with her at her office in Los Angeles, to discuss her eternal quest for shimmering images and the “Playboy’s Progress” map, originally published in Playboy magazine in 1954. Interview originally published on playboy.com.
How did you become interested in nudity and sex?
Going back to early childhood, I was just very, very curious about nudity and sex. My father used to walk around the house naked so I got my curiosity from that, and I was bathed with my sister and brother. We were put in the same bathtub so we had a lot of playing and exploration. My father had magazines he kept hidden around the house that my brother and I would search for and find. He would figure it out and hide them somewhere else, so it was a great game for us. It was always this curiosity from the earliest possible age, watching animals fuck. We lived sort of in the suburbs and see dogs doing it, “What’s going on there?” I always had the interest. When the hippie period burst upon us in my early teens, that was just perfect. Here was a revolution that was sex positive and now it was okay to have sex. Women could have sex and not be thought of in the way they thought of them in 1954 in Playboy. So I had the interest, I got into pornography—it was really pornography I was interested in. I wasn’t interested in erotica, I wasn’t interested in nude art books. My father had some of those that I’d look at. I liked pornography and I wanted to work in pornography. That’s what I did when I got the opportunity.
“[My readers’] desires become mine. I take them in.”
When was this?
We started working on the first concept of the magazine in 1976, but in 1977 we really got into it and moved to New York City from Pennsylvania where I’d been living. It was called Puritan magazine. I had a boyfriend who had the contact. He was doing ads in a small town in Pennsylvania. The contact was a guy who had a string of adult book stores. He was a rough, Ukrainian mobster sort. Hustler magazine had just come out, so he admired Larry Flynt. Larry Flynt was the Donald Trump of his day. He was very appealing to middle America and had started with strip clubs. This guy had adult book stores so he thought, “I can make my own magazine,” and wanted someone to make it for him. So we just got it. The boyfriend said “Oh yeah I can do it,” I joined him, we went to New York and we started wasting his money. After a while we really did make a magazine, but oh god, yeah, [laughs], it took one year to get a magazine, then another year to get another magazine. After that, I broke up with the boyfriend, of course, had to leave and went to work at real magazines where we had to make a magazine every month. The first one was Partner magazine, then I went and worked for a publisher where I did 3 magazines a month, Hooker, Exposé and Harvey magazine. From that point on, once I moved from making one magazine to making 3 magazines, it was always 3 magazines. It was the limit of what could be done.
How do you come up with an idea for a story?
When I was doing magazines I communicated a lot with my readers, which was a habit I learned from a mentor, Peter Wolfe, with whom I did Partner magazine. The idea of reader-written magazines was big at that time. It was sort of a hippie concept of pulling the readers into the magazine, making them a part of the magazine so they would really, emotionally invest in the magazine. Photographing real women, going out to their home towns. We did video tape at a very early time when people didn’t have video decks, when tapes were huge like this [gestures]. So since that time, it’s always been looking at the letters coming in from readers, figuring out what the readers specifically want, and getting ideas from the readers’ fantasies. I would just work directly from those fantasies.
Would you use your own fantasies?
I’m very commercial. My sexuality is not going to be the sexuality of the men in these things. My fantasies are going to be different from their fantasies. For me, the goal and the success comes from accurately portraying their desires and getting that feedback that you really got to them, that it’s like you’re inside their head. Then I go “Yeah, I got it right, but I can get it better.” Then you keep going along, improving it, and fine tuning it, which is what made the fetish magazines so much fun because they’re made of more complicated people.
So you were more trying to play to all the different readers’ eyes and all the different type of desires.
But their desires become mine. I take them in. When I start a new project, I immerse myself in it and then I shape shift and become the eye of the person who is going to like that book. When I was doing The Big Butt Book, a simple book, but you have to get the sense of the reader. What is a good butt? What are the different kinds of things that people like? There are different kinds of things that the majority of say, white men like to say the majority of what Latino men like. So you have to incorporate all these things and see through their eyes so that then when I see the right butt. It excites me, because I’ve taken on their persona. If it were ever just coldly calculated like, “Oh yes, there’s number butt number 1A, I’ll have one of those,” it wouldn’t work. This is why most people are not good at doing sexual books, and they’re not good at doing sexual magazines because they’re too excited by the material and begin to impose their own sexual desires on it. Therefore, not having enough scope, or they have to reduce it to something that’s asexual in order to deal with it. I can have it be very, very sexual, have it be arousing and still enjoy it.
And do you have moments where you want to just clear all this sexual energy?
Nope, not ever. I like what I do. It stimulates my brain, it’s not stimulating my genitals, for the most part. It’s not like I’m engorged [laughs] and needing sexual release. But it is mentally stimulating and there’s plenty of bad sexual imagery out there. There’s plenty of boring, tiresome sexual imagery and yeah, I don’t want to dwell on that. What I want to look for is the shining star in the midst of that, so I never get tired of that. I suppose if I had to just look at the bad stuff, I would definitely need to get away from it. If I had to just look at all the very best stuff, that would lose its appeal too because you need to have bad to make the good ones shine. I guess what my life is is just this eternal quest for the shimmering images that are going to be the right ones, the good ones, and the ones that we should put in the book.
When we look at the 1954 “Playboy’s Progress” map, some people think it’s an aggressive piece, very predatory and coercive. What do you think?
It’s of its time and seen today it’s date rape. I had to look up what “spiked olives” are [Playboy pours many martinis with spiked olives to his friend during the “Playboy’s Progress” NfE]. Apparently they soak the olives in Vermouth, and this was a way of making martinis in the past, because everyone wants the driest possible martini. So you don’t put any martini in the drink you spike the olives. But it makes it sound like you’re giving her roofies. At the time it was the way men and women related. Women resisted sex and men did anything they could to have sex. It was considered all fair game. Today, as I say, it’s date rape.
What would it be from a female’s perspective? Would it make sense if we reverse the genders?
No. Historically there are women who have been sexual predators, but they’re not going to be the same kind of people. They’re not going to be a young woman preying on men because a young woman preying on men does not have to. In order to be a predator there has to be prey. You have to have this adversarial relationship and any young woman, even of very ordinary appearance who wants to have sex, is going to be able to have sex. She can’t be the predator because the male will respond too vigorously. So historically predatory women have preyed on children, and there’s been a number of instances of this. More recently, here in the US, we have teachers who have relationships with underage boys. They’re not really children, they’re 15, 16, 17 years old, so they are sexually mature males but still there’s this complete power imbalance. So in this position the woman is still stronger, more powerful, more knowledgeable, and she can then indulge in predatory behavior. You also get this in swingers, where you have married couples where the woman has the safety of the male behind her, so that she can go to a swing party and sort of prey on other men there. Or occasionally, the older woman who preys on young men so that she can know that she’s still attractive. But that, what you see there on that map, no. You’re not going to have the young woman who has set up a very fancy apartment to trap some man and get him drunk and get him to have sex with her. It’s unnecessary.
“The female is guarding herself because she regards herself as prey.”
Is it a societal change?
In the 60’s you didn’t have many incidences of it at all. You never heard any reports of teachers seducing young male students. You could say “this is a change,” a societal change that women will feel freer to look for sex. But what hasn't changed is the male willingness to engage in sex with say, young women. Therefore, the female is guarding herself because she regards herself as prey.
What would be the new map, the map of 2016 for example?
What the map was about was a man who was interested in a woman who was not interested. So a woman who did not want to have sex with a man who did want to have sex. I think if you did it now, you would have two parties who would both be very aware of what the other one wanted. If they found themselves back at the apartment, they would probably both be interested in having sex. So you would lose the seduction. What you would have is them deciding to have drinks, maybe them looking at some thing in the apartment, then mutually going into the bedroom. Playboy today would certainly present it that way. It views itself as a sophisticated magazine and it’s going to present itself as a sophisticated magazine. Playboy would never show one party or the other manipulating the other person into having sex. Basically because it’s illegal! [laughs].
This map is the essence of what Playboy was.
The very early Playboy. Very early: 1954. You’re talking about Playboy that’s a year into its long evolutionary path.
Basically the message was, “if you read Playboy, here’s what you can do.”
And we have to think about what Playboy was and why Playboy came about. In the US, for just about everyone now, because Playboy started so long ago that there’s nobody with a reference for the time before. We had sex magazines and nude magazines in America going back to 1919. Playboy didn’t start it. In Germany and France you had beautiful, sophisticated sexual magazines from the turn of the century. But the magazines that came before Playboy in the United States were for the manly man. They focused on sports, motor racing, outdoor activity, shooting things, and a lot of war stories. They were for a very macho kind of guy. Hugh Hefner, who was not a macho sort of guy, was a guy who didn’t like to go outside. He liked to stay at home in his satin pajamas all day long and imagine another kind of world where a man, who wasn’t physical and more intellectual, could use his talents in order to get women. That’s what he did with Playboy and that’s why Playboy was so wildly successful. It remade the form. It was very, very merchandise oriented. What it was was, “use your brain and use your bank book” to go make yourself a chick magnet. If you go and buy yourself the right furniture, the right records, the right stereo system, learn how to mix a drink, learn how to make hors d’oeuvres, make yourself sophisticated and knowledgeable, then this is another way to get women. You don’t have to be good-looking and you don’t have to be strong.
“We had sex magazines and nude magazines in America going back to 1919. Playboy didn’t start it.”
It was a lesson of a seduction from the woman’s eyes, rather than self-glorification as the macho magazines were before, wasn’t it? It paid attention to the other person.
It did, and as time went on of course, they pulled away from that. But you’re coming from a 1954 perspective, which was the idea back then that “women did not want to have sex.” All the magazines, and if you look at the cartoons, particularly in magazines and at the ads in the back, this is the message that is being given to men, “We understand that women don’t want to have sex, and we’re going to help you find ways to help you manipulate them, trick them into having sex with you.” Playboy started off the same way as the others just because that was what everyone believed. As it went along and times changed, Hefner changed with it and “Maybe women do like to have sex. Maybe if we posit that women like to have sex, that will be better for our readership.” A map like that, by 1960, was probably not going to figure in the magazine. But they were still having their bachelor pad decors and designs. They used to have architectural drawings in there showing the great bathroom or great bedroom you could make, one that would make women like you better. All of that is based on the notion that what women find sexy is fame and money. Wealth and fame are the things that draw a woman to a man, whereas it’s youth and beauty that draw men to women. That was the idea of the bachelor pad. You had a bachelor pad that would show off your wealth and sophistication, one that would inflame the loins of the women you lured up there.
It refers somehow to an archaic behavior where the dominant, alpha homo sapiens were the ones who could get the den and control the whole area. In this case, they would be the most successful.
Yeah, get the big tree, push the other gorillas out.