History is never quite as linear as we might like it to be. The received wisdom about the history of adult film entertainment is one where there is a continual move forward in terms of explicitness. So the nudist films begat the nudie-cuties, which then evolved into the roughies and the softcore films of the 1960s, gradually getting raunchier and raunchier until hardcore broke out of the underground and into the mainstream around 1971/2. At which point, the softcore film was effectively seen to be on its last legs. By the time home video became the way that people consumed their erotica, the sheer quantity of hardcore that was easily available in most free countries (Britain notably excepted) had surely wiped out the final remnants of softcore – sure, there might be the occasional raunchy mainstream movie like Nine and a Half Weeks, but unashamed softcore porn was, surely, dead in the water. After all, who would want such tame material when full hardcore was so readily available?
The answer, as it turns out, was ‘quite a few people’. It turns out that not everyone wanted hardcore. Or at least, that wasn’t all they wanted. There remained a steady, alternative market for softcore, though it was of a different type than before. These were not, by and large, narrative feature films (there were some of those, of course – like we said, history is inconvenient to any narrative). Instead, there were various strands of what we might call the T&A (that’s tits ‘n’ ass) video. Usually about an hour long, and so defiantly removed from the hardcore adult world that some of these films didn’t even contain any nudity.
There were three basic strands. The staged ‘contest’ tapes – Stripper of the Year, The Perfect Body Contest, Best Chest in the U.S. – had girls stripping in front of an audience. Sometimes fully naked, but quite often only topless. The ‘combat’ tapes – Gellorama, Boxing Babes, Co-Ed Oil Wrestling – were even tamer, with bikini babes battling it out. Some of these contests see the girls lose their tops; other don’t. The final tapes were glamour scenarios, like soft focus, very tame versions of Britain’s Electric Blue or Playboy TV shows.
There is a certain sense to these tapes beyond market forces. The legality of hardcore porn in the USA during the 1980s was questionable- there was the possibility that hardcore could be prosecuted out of existence and so for some producers, retailers and even punters, softcore might have seemed the safer option.
They all, it would seem, sold like hotcakes. They were especially successful in the UK, where strict censorship meant that these tapes were probably at the cutting edge of what was permissible – unlikely to cause issues with the censors (the BBFC had previously tried to ban a mud wrestling tape on the ridiculous basis of ‘sexual violence’, but that decision had been overturned on appeal) and so an easy bet for distributors – far more attractive a proposition than either shooting their own material or having to edit US hardcore to the point where it would pass through the censors (something that usually involved a film being cut to less than half the original running time).
Many of these tapes were produced and directed by Bert Rhine and Keith Jon – sometimes together, sometimes not. Little is known about their careers, which seem to have been restricted to this sort of sexy tat.The genre did have its own ‘stars’ – glamour models who didn’t do hardcore, scream queens and Hollywood starlets, some of whom managed to build minor followings as magazines like Femme Fatales and Scream Queens Illustrated bigged them up. Most are long forgotten by all but the most dedicated fans.
As a genre, this sort of lightweight sexiness seemed to fizzle out by the end of the 1980s – softcore didn’t die, but it would move in other directions in the next decade. Below are just a few of the tape sleeves – and for those of you who are especially dedicated, the whole of Foxy Food Fight (one of the more absurd and lightweight examples) to watch.