The notorious anti-porn propaganda film of the 1960s and the moralising criminal behind it.
If you’ve been watching Conversations with a Killer – The Ted Bundy Tapes, then you will have seen snippets of old bondage films, magazines covers and nude images with blanked out faces, as the series strolls worryingly close to justifying pathological liar Bundy‘s claims that “porn made me do it” – claims famously made to Christian anti-porn campaigners in the hope that they might plead for clemency and save his from the electric chair.
The clips were from the notorious 1965 ‘documentary’ Perversion for Profit, one of the most outrageous slices of hysterical moral panic ever produced. Made for showing at church halls, public meetings and other non-theatrical venues where it would often be accompanied by lectures from anti-smut campaigners, the film has become the stuff of legend over the years, a go-to example of moral attitudes from the era directly preceding the sexual revolution, and an accidental feast of mid_sixties adult magazine covers. In the absence of an actual documentary charting the birth of the girlie magazine, this film is an unexpected visual goldmine. As a slice of history, it remains invaluable.
The film was produced by infamous moralist and convicted fraudster Charles Keating and his Citizens for Decent Literature campaign group. Keating was a thorn in the side of the permissive society for years – he was the sole dissenter on the 1970 President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography when it concluded that pornography was essentially harmless. In 1969, he attempted to stop Russ Meyer‘s Vixen from playing in Cincinnati and elsewhere, eventually costing Meyer $250,000 to defend against Keating’s actions – famously, Keating accused Meyer of having done more to undermine morals in the US than any other man, to which Meyer responded “I was glad to do it”.
In other cases, Keating blocked a closed-circuit showing of Oh! Calcutta, closed porn theatres, campaigned against magazines like Oui and Playboy, and led the way in library purges of ‘offensive’ books. He also played a part – somewhat exaggerated in the film The People Vs Larry Flynt – in the 1976 obscenity prosecution against Hustler publisher Flynt. He was, until the anti-porn feminist movement of the 1980s, America’s most famous and successful campaigner against permissiveness and pornography. In 1984, he bought the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, and this would finally lead to his downfall – in 1991, he was convicted of seventeen charges of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy, due to the sale of worthless junk bonds. He was sentenced to ten years in federal prison. More convictions followed over the next few years. True to his beliefs, Keating suggested that the investigation into his crimes had been carried out by homosexuals who were out to get him. More accurately, it seems that Keating was simply one of the biggest crooks America had seen.
Perversion for Profit was hosted by George Putnam, a well-known news anchor from Los Angeles who worked for KTLA and others. Putnam would remain a fixture of LA local news until the late 1970s, when he was unceremoniously replaced. He would go on to host a talk radio show, and during his career won three Emmys and awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Clearly, suggestions that he was a mere stooge playing a reporter are wide of the mark. How much of this Putnam actually believed is a mystery – he never seems to have been asked about the film during his life. But although he identified as a Democrat, his radio show had a decidedly conservative bent, with guests like John Wayne and Charlton Heston – so it seems likely that he was sympathetic to the film’s central message.
Of course, pornography as we know it today barely existed in 1965, and certainly wasn’t available on newsstands to the masses. But Keating knew that the loosening of censorship – something that was led by juries rather than governments, it should be noted – was probably going to go much further, and he wanted to put a stop to things right away. And so Perversion for Profit paints a picture of absolute moral decay, even as it fills the screen with images of the very material that it claims is so dangerous. This weird moral double standard is typical of the moraliser, who all too often seems to take a lip-smacking pleasure in his prurience.
Viewers today might look at the collection of photos of bare breasted women, topless muscle men and mild kink (all with faces blanked out, even though they have been openly published – all the better to imply that there is something forbidden, sinful and illegal about this material) and wonder what all the fuss was about – but Putnam is on hand to point out that the spread of this material is fuelling (rather than satisfying, as you might think) a desire for such imagery, and creating a whole generation of perverts – like most moral campaigns, the film hides behind concern for children to demand restrictions on what adults can see.
The film has an unrelenting right-wing stance – the spread of fitness magazines is seen as a recruiting group for homosexuals – “these misfits”, Putnam spits – who will use them to lure in the unsuspecting teenager who was taking them at face value. “These homosexuals, who have a slogan that betrays the evil of the breed – ‘today’s conquest’, they say, ‘is tomorrow’s competition’.” But it’s not just homosexuals who are a threat – Putnam informs us that the merchants of pornography – “the teachers of unnatural sex acts” – are at best sapping our vital energies (“our precious bodily fluids”, as Dr Strangelove said a year earlier) and weakening our resolve against the Communist threat; at worst, they might well be Communists.
There is so much hyperbolic hysteria in this film, and so much that makes you wonder about the workings of the minds behind it – an innocent shot of a woman lying down is “indicative or intercourse or other sex acts”, a naked woman being over is appealing to “the sodomist”, and a woman lying in a farmyard setting with animals in the background has “overtones of bestiality.” Maybe to you, George…
Towards the end of the film, Putnam reads from the novel Sex Jungle, in an attempt to show how these filthy books are little more than propaganda for moral latitude and delinquency. Sadly,the text quoted from Sex Jungle – written by noted science fiction author Robert Silverberg under the name Don Eliott – is great,a gritty, nihilistic slice of crime writing that brings to mind Jim Thompson. I can imagine many people running out of the screening and heading straight to the book store to seek a copy out.
Perversion for Profit is a sadly hilarious film, the output of a mind that thought sex was a threat to decent America but carrying out massive fraud was fine. Ironically though, as kitsch and silly as it might seem to most sensible people, there will be those who watch this and nod along with Putnam. Look at the campaigns against lad’s mags and Page 3 in the UK over recent years – take out the claims about Communists and homosexuals, and Perversion for Profit oddly mirrors the idea spread by those campaigns – that mere images of semi-naked women will somehow corrupt and lead to sex crimes. Similarly, while we scoff at the idea of a topless woman being described as ‘pornography’, isn’t that exactly the attitude taken by most social media providers and websites these days? Depressing as it might seem, there’s the possibility that Keating might yet have the last laugh.
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